The dry cleaners smelled of perchloroethylene. That stink, sweet smell reminded her where she was and made her homesick; not because of its familiarity, but because of its strangeness.
The accents were Mexican, Chinese, Korean, and American. She was the only Irish one. An exotic bird in a cage of varied nationalities; looked down upon, less than, and doing the jobs that the locals refused to do. The work of lesser mortals, the Morlocks, doing the work that the Eloi preferred not to.
Homesickness is an ailment that strikes the physical, mental, and spiritual being. The idle chit chat she once was capable of performing effortlessly became a tantamount effort at communication. She thanked God for the itemized slips. Never looking the customers in the eye, “5 shirts boxed with starch,” and she circled each criteria on the docket. “2 suits, same day.” All she ever had to ask was their name, and sometimes she had to ask them to spell it. It was then that they detected her accent. “Are you Irish?” “Yes.” “Oh! My grandparents were from Ireland!” “Oh really? What part?” “I don’t know.” Occasionally they would know and tried to remember the town, mispronounced the place name, or they began to recount their trip to Ireland.
The Mexican taught her how to drive. She called him Mario Andretti for fun. She learned to say hello, goodbye, and count to ten in Spanish. The Korean said she looked too thin, and made an extra lunch every day to fatten her up. She learned to say hello, goodbye, and count to ten in Korean. The Chinese man looked down on her; she was, after all, a woman. The Americans praised her work efforts, told her to slow down, and warned that cancer was an evil that ran through families, promised to pray for her, or asked her for a loan to feed a gambling habit.
The Mexican and Korean learned to say hello, goodbye and count to ten in Irish.
A family formed. All immigrants. Everyone was from somewhere else. The Mexican was an accountant, but made more money working as a presser. The Korean wanted independence, which work provided. And she was in university. The customers seemed shocked to hear it. But then again, in this town, the occupants had the luxury of choosing where to work. Where she came from, that option was non-existent.
How could you miss a place that couldn’t give you work? Is home in the blood? Do you still call it home when you’ve been gone twenty years? Will the homesickness go away eventually? She wondered if she would ever fit in.
Marriage, motherhood, twenty years of Thanksgivings, July Fourths, Memorial Days, and Labor Days. All it takes is two days in Ireland to bring back the homesickness. It will pass, she tells herself, but she knows it’s getting worse as she gets older. She wonders if other immigrants die with this feeling of not belonging. At what point will she be more American than she is Irish. And she secretly hopes that this will never be the case.
An immigrant, she tells herself, is an ethnicity abroad. There are more immigrants than there are nationals. The world has been pulsating with shifting tribes for thousands of years. She reminds herself that to be Irish means to be part of a culture that was conquered by the Celts, Vikings, Normans, Spanish, and the English.
A piebald heritage, not one hundred percent of anything. This gives her solace. She is not the first, and won’t be the last, to feel homesick for a land that she belonged to for eighteen years. Homesickness is transferred into pride. Home is in the blood.