She was born a decade after the Civil War. Her Irish parents emigrated in the 1850s. Because they chose Canada, they were not caught up in that terrible mess in the States, with one exception. Their farm sat at the end of the Underground Railway.
Her father was a farmer and shopkeeper. At least, those are the official terms noted on an 1881 census. Impresario might better describe him. He traded horses, explored controversial farming techniques, and established a railway that linked everyone to a summertime vacation mecca once accessed only by the privileged few. A “man about town” he and his wife raised seven children. Regrettably, I know little of any of them and virtually nothing of her mother. What I did learn from childhood chats with her was that the farm she called home was also home to beleaguered souls on the run. At the Barry farm, by no means a “plantation”, they found safe shelter. Ned came as a boy and stayed. He is buried on the edge of the family plot with a small headstone marked Ned Barry. He is one of the family and no one ever questioned that.
That “home” was long gone when I knew her, my grandmother. At least, I think it was. I can recall visiting gravesites and my dad’s maternal family digs, but cannot recall visiting the homestead of my mother’s folks. I’ve some tintypes of known and unknown faces, but mementoes are few. Even stories shared around the supper table were laden with chopped phrases and sideways glances. I understood their subterfuge and it frustrated me. I was not powerful enough to press for more information, to insist on details purposely left out. I accept it now, to a point.
As promised, I went to a group meetup today with the woman who was raped. Sitting in a circle, each of us took turns speaking. She was brief, succinct, and eloquent. When it was my turn, I froze. I didn’t know where to begin. I could relate to fragments in every story so far, but was the hurt in my belly from violence perpetrated on me, or did it have to do with some infantile abandonment issue? I swallowed hard and said, “I’m here to support…” My voice cracked. “Sorry…”
A hand touched my shoulder. “It’s okay. This can be a tough room but it’s a safe one, nonetheless. You don’t need to say anything.” The words gave me a chance to collect myself and as I did, I gained a scintilla of insight. Exposing our darkest selves can sometimes be too painful for words, so I sat in silence and listened.
You might be surprised at what I heard in that room. There was plenty of hate, certainly, and fear. There were also allegations, judgements, and blame. None of that is surprising. But within the chopped phrases and sideways glances I heard a sincere desire to let go of the past, heal wounds, and find a way to reclaim stolen innocence. That’s what started me thinking about Ned. Innocence.
I’ve no idea if he longed for another place, a different home, other people, or even a different life entirely. It would surprise me if he didn’t have one or all of those longings from time to time. My grandmother would tell me he loved to laugh and sing and dance. She never forgot his laughter, its sound ringing happily in her ears long after his death. Ned was strict with the children, though. On more than one occasion Nanny’s mother, or father, intervened in order to prevent a beating. My grandmother would grow quiet after telling me about those times. Before she died I asked her about her response and she explained that violence was what he knew. In time, Ned no longer needed to raise a stick, his hand, or his voice, she said. “It must have been a blessing to let go of that anger. His body bore scars of bigotry and ignorance, but his heart had softened. No one ever knew what he went through. It was horrific, no doubt, but I guess he found a way to forgive.” What I think is that Ned believed he could escape Hell. It was that belief that helped him reclaim his innocence – an innocence that let him laugh and sing and dance.
My friend took my hand. It seems to have become a “thing” between us. I looked down at her manicured fingers, the skin appearing porcelain white against the blood red nails. My hand looked weathered in comparison. Still, these hands share a common history. They washed their babies and too many dishes to count, wiped away copious tears, and pushed back the unwanted bodies of men bent on their own satisfaction.
“Don’t cry.” She whispered while squeezing my hand. “What you said in there was pretty powerful.” I had found my tongue near the end of the session. “Recalling feelings of innocence to bring relief – maybe speed up recovery – is kind of brilliant. I did it briefly in there and it was sweet and lovely and I felt okay, if only for a second. I want to recreate those exquisite feelings, like, right now.” Her words made me smile.
“Yes. Maybe innocent is our natural state. There’s plenty of teachings to suggest it. How to connect to that purity after being so sullied by life is tough, but not impossible. It might be the only thing that will save us.”
“Ah, not capital L love, then? Have you changed your tune?”
I smiled again. “No. Still singing the same song. Love and innocence are entwined, inseparable, I think.”
“I think you’re right.” And we hugged goodbye.
My wish is that you find a beacon, a role model, a “Ned”. Healing takes as long as it takes. Find your safe haven, seek out indomitable beings who believe, no matter the heinous acts of others, innocence can be reclaimed. Swim in their energy. Breathe in their courage. Rest under their watchful eye. They will support you until you can make your way again. Believe.