In the narrow kitchen, standing over the steaming sink, her hands red to the elbow, my mother was unconcerned. "Pegeen Chehab," she said, "has big feet." And girls that age, she said, were always tripping over themselves, looking for boys.
She handed me a wet saucer. I was not yet allowed to dry the dinner plates. The kitchen was warm and close, the one window was steamed, and the pleasant scent in the air was of soap and of the spring sunshine that had dried my mother's apron.
For my mother, who loved romanceespecially an American romance, which involved, for her, a miraculous commingling of lives across comically disparate portions of the globethe marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Chehab was a continual source of wonder and delight. She told the story again: The place where Mr. Chehab was born was called Mount Lebanon, in a country called Syria. A desert, she said. With a desperately hot sun and palm trees and dates and pineapples and sand andshe shrugged a little, her voice suddenly uncertaina mount, apparently.
She handed me a small drinking glass and said, "Be sure you don't put your hand inside, just the cloth."
His own parents, she said, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and carried him away from that sunny place. They crossed over the Mediterranean Sea. They scaled Spain.
She squinted at the damp tiles above the sink as if a map were drawn there.
They climbed through France, reached Paris, which is called the City of Light, crossed the White Cliffs of Doverthere is a songgot to Liverpool, no doubt, to Dublin, found Cork, as she herself had done when she was seventeen, wearing three skirts and four blouses and carrying only a purse so her stepfather, a terrible man, would not know she was leaving home.
At the harbor, Mr. and Mrs. Chehab found a ship that brought them to Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, they put the baby into a cradle, in the cool corner of a basement bakery on Joralemon Street.
And all the while, my mother saida trill of profound amusement rising into her voicein County Clare, Mrs. Chehabwho was a McMahon thenwas taking her own first breaths. And shivering, no doubt, in the eternal dampness of that bleak country's bitter air.
My mother looked at me from over her shoulder, her hands still in the sink.
There's a burned taste to the air at home, she saidnot for the first time. A taste of wet ashes and doused fire. It can make you believe, she said, that you live in the permanent aftermath of some nearby sorrow. Somewhere in the vicinity, you're always thinking, someone's house has recently burned to the ground.
In that damp and dirty country, my mother said, Mrs. Chehab grew to be a tall girl, a girl who would have no trouble getting up the steep gangplank that led from the dock at Queenstowna climb my mother herself had struggled with, she said, because of the rain that fell on the day she sailed, because she was alone, with no man's arm to hold on to and none offered across the whole trip, not until my father gave her his on the steps at the Grand Army Plaza.
But Mrs. Chehab would have had no trouble keeping those long feet steady against the slick and pitching floor of the ship that carried her here. Where she stopped at the Syrian bakery one day and saw a small, dark-eyed man behind the counter.
I watched my mother move her hands through the water once more, searching for stray silverware, smiling her sly smile at the delightful oddity of it all. Then she pulled the stopper from the sink, and I closed my eyes and put my fingers in my ears to block out the terrible sound.
When I removed them and opened my eyes, my mother was swabbing the counter. "And after all that," she said, "and after all that, along comes homely Pegeen, with her mother's blotched skin and her father's big nose and those great long feet, God help her."
Excerpted from Someone by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2013 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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