An enduring thread runs through this research and my creative response. Some years ago, my mother told me of a tradition which moved her deeply. When Greek emigres were leaving on ships bound for America, they would hold a ball of string and leave the end with their families on the dock. As the ship moved away, the string would unspool, maintaining the connection between them for as long as possible.
In Ireland, we have a long history of loss through emigration. Two of my mother’s three children have left Ireland to live overseas. Her telling of the story was framed by a familiar sense of mournfulness and longing.
This story followed me into my research and I began to tie lengths of string to posts and fence stakes along the coastline, overlooking the Channel, in memory of the people who have been lost in their crossings and the connections they leave behind.
The story my mother retold came from Middlesex, a Jeffrey Eugenides novel, p 64.:
It was the custom in those days for passengers leaving for America to bring balls of yarn on deck. Relatives on the pier held the loose ends. As the Giulia blew its horn and moved away from the dock, a few hundred strings of yarn stretched across the water. People shouted farewells, waved furiously, held up babies for last looks they wouldn’t remember. Propellors churned; handkerchiefs fluttered, and, up on deck, the balls of yarn began to spin. Red, yellow, blue, green, they untangled toward the pier, slowly at first, one revolution every ten seconds, then faster and faster as the boat picked up speed. Passengers held the yarn as long as possible, maintaining the connection to faces disappearing onshore. But finally, one by one, the balls ran out. The strings of yarn flew free, rising on the breeze.
Eugenides, J, (2002), Middlesex, Bloomsbury PublishingPlc.