Grief, Pilgrimage, and Saint Patrick’s Day

17 March 2020

Grief: For the world transformed by the coronavirus pandemic, grief for the world we didn’t think we’d lose so suddenly, and perhaps irretrievably.  I grieve for the loss of my freedom to travel, to visit friends and family, to live as I please.  I grieve for the people of the world who are much more impacted than I have been so far:  for those who are ill, those who have lost their incomes, and their loved ones.  For Those who cannot, as our president admonishes us, “enjoy your living room.”

Yet, as I walked the ditch banks this afternoon, I thought of my life as a pilgrim, and how the pilgrim learns to accept whatever happens – learns that there are things that can be controlled and those that cannot.  The hardy group of American Pilgrims on the Camino who gathered last weekend on the shores of spectacular Lake Tahoe, adapted to ever-changing circumstances as news of the pandemic and subsequent regulations assailed us.  Travel to Europe was suspended, the Spanish Camino de Santiago closed and all pilgrims ordered to return to their homes, while a series of ever-bigger snowstorms caused many, including me, to depart from Lake Tahoe before the end of the Gathering, when a break in the snowfall presented an opportunity to cross the mountain passes.

So, here I sit, home now for twenty-four hours, thinking of all this as I listen to a recording of the great John McCormack singing Irish songs I’ve known and loved since my youth.  They are melancholy, as the lovers are parted by distance and death.  I’ve put on my shamrock necklace, even though I am not Irish, despite a hint of Celtic in my DNA.  But I have children who are one quarter Irish, and my first husband Ed had an Irish twinkle in his eye and a lilt in his voice that perhaps came from his mother, Ellen Mildred Courtney.

My intention for this Saint Patrick’s Day was to celebrate with my daughter Psyche, her husband Saad, and my two adorable grandchildren, ages almost three and almost four months.  But, alas, San Franciscans are “sheltering in place,” and to visit seemed foolhardy, if not impossible.  I long to be with them, because despite my lack of Irish heritage, the days surrounding Saint Patrick’s Day are important ones that are associated with momentous turning points in my life.

In 1973, in Tucson, Arizona, I celebrated completing my comprehensive exams for a master’s degree in English literature by throwing a party for which my mother made Cornish pasties and I baked a cake which I decorated with a picture of Saint Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland.  A reference librarian searched at length for details or an image of this legend, which we never found.  I begged her to stop looking; and was embarrassed to tell her it was only to decorate a cake – not for some serious research project.  Only after I became a reference librarian myself did I understand how librarians love the thrill and challenge of such searches and don’t want to to quit even when their patrons say, “Enough.”

Just four years later, on March 16, 1997, I first laid eyes on Ed Philips during my very first meeting of a Unitarian singles group in State College, Pennsylvania.  We had a brief conversation, but there was something about him that caused me to write in my diary that very evening, “If God wants me to marry Ed Philips, so be it.”  We were married on May 29 that same year, which was both of our birthdays, eighteen year apart.

In my kitchen hangs a beautifully framed group of photos.  An inscriptions reads:  Paquimé, near Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico, visited by Linnea Hendrickson, Helen Williamson, Jeanne Howard, and Ross Burkhardt, March 17, 1999.

The day before we departed on this trip, we found a puddle of oil under my car in Jeanne’s driveway.  Helen and I stayed an extra night in Las Cruces, so the car could be repaired.  We had had a celebratory traditional Saint Patrick’s Day dinner with Jeanne and Ross and assorted family the previous day, topped off with Irish coffee.  Now, as Helen and I drove alone across the remote, windswept roads of northern Chihuahua, we sang lustily along with John McCormack, a poignant memory, now that Jeanne (friend, adventurer, and trip and party organizer like me) is gone, and Helen (the first person I called upon Ed’s death) speaks to me no more.

Almost three years after Ed’s passing in June 2007, it was time to fulfill the vow I’d made while he was dying, to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  I was planning to walk in September, starting somewhere in Spain, depending how far I thought I could walk in three or four weeks.  But in February 2010, I began reading Conrad Rudolph’s Pilgrimage to the End of the World, which filled me with a burning desire to walk from Le-Puy-en-Velay, in France, a distance more than twice as far as I’d intended to walk.

At a Christmas Eve party in 2009 – another event organized by Jeanne – I had met Kent, the “typewriter man.”  In February, he had driven all the way from Las Cruces to Albuquerque, and I’d guided him to the junk stores and antique shops to look for typewriters. We had continued to correspond via email.  Then in March, I decided it was time I hosted, as I often had with Ed, a Saint Patrick’s Day dinner, with corned beef, cabbage, Irish songs I had printed so everyone could sing, and even a Saint Patrick’s Day trivia quiz.  As I assembled my guest list the ratio of men and women was unbalanced.  Why not invite Kent?  He could always say no.  I sweetened the invitation by suggesting he spend the night and we go hiking the following day.  I was still pondering whether I could possibly fit in a walk starting in France in April and May, before I had to be home for events in June and July.

Kent came, and that evening everyone had to leave the dinner party early, leaving the two of us alone by eight p.m.  What to do with an evening stretching before us?  We visited, then went to bed in our separate rooms, to be ready to arise early to hike.  We took two cars, leaving one at the Embudo trailhead and another at Three-Gun-Spring.  It was a fairly strenuous hike up over the pass that connected the two trails.  I was testing myself, my new boots, pack, and hiking poles.  Could I really take off to walk in France?  That hike decided it – three weeks later I was walking alone in France, and writing to Kent (on computers with French keyboards that had z’s where the a’s should be).

That afternoon after our walk, we sat in my backyard eating leftover plum cobbler before he headed back to Las Cruces.  He looked around the large yard and said, “I really l like your place.”  It was so comfortable and companionable having him there, my heart gave a little leap, and I felt, “I think he belongs here.”

It would be another year before he came to stay, but that Saint Patrick’s Day was a turning point, and the beginning of a new beginning.

So now, after our ditch walk, and be-decked with shamrock necklaces, we are about to sit down, not to corned beef and cabbage and cobbler, alas, and without the company of friends, but to bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches, still happy to have each other in this broken world.

Author: Linnea Hendrickson

I am a retired librarian who walked my first camino to Santiago de Compostela in 2010, all alone from Le Puy-en-Velay to Finisterre. I've since returned to Spain, France, Portugal, or Italy at least every other year and continued to walk the many ways to Santiago.

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