There are people in your life that are pivotal to how you perceive the world, even if you don’t know their full story, even if it was a fragment of your existence.
Desmond O’Grady was one of those people for me. I met him when I was about six years old. I had no idea how old he was beyond “adult” and didn’t learn until last year when he died that he was an internationally known poet. I knew he had some measure of fame from how my family visited him in Boston when he was doing a reading, but I saw my Desmond with little understanding of the bigger picture.
So while his bios and tributes talk about what schools he taught at, the places he’d been and who he met, I’m going to talk about the adult who didn’t care about age, who wasn’t perfect, had some bizarre quirks, and created strong communities of fascinating people.
I met Desmond as I said when I was six years old, the daughter of the consul in Tabriz, Iran. The only reason I remember which country is because I can see him talking to me in the corridor leading to the bedroom I shared with my sisters that was straight out of the children’s series about Madeleine. Three little beds in a row in a long, skinny room with windows between each one.
My parents were much like Desmond in collecting around them a community of ex-patriots from all over the place with strange and wonderful thoughts. I used to hide under the dining room table, beneath a tablecloth that almost brushed the floor, and listen to them well past my bedtime. It’s also why I know about card games that I have absolutely no idea how to play.
I also do not know how Desmond came to be among that group. None of the recordings of his life I found even mention Iran. What I do know is Desmond was the first adult to see me as a person in my own right, with my own ideas, and the ability to explore concepts. It wasn’t that his mistook me for an adult (something that happened frequently once I’d gained height). It was more that he didn’t hold my few years on this planet against me as so many do.
As an aside, this most likely provided the foundation for how I raised my own kids, and therefore why I had existential conversations with my oldest when he was as young as two. If we don’t ask the big questions, or answer those questions with evasions or outright lies, we have no real understanding of how or what a child can discuss. Research shows the terrible twos are as much about the inability to communicate as anything else, but the assumption remains such young people (and yes, they are people) have nothing of interest to say.
Not Desmond, though. He made no assumptions. I have no memory of how we first started talking, but he’d slip away from the parties and chat with me often. We were friends when no one would have believed such.
I ran into this problem when he told me he was leaving one night. He said to tell my parents to bring us all to visit him on an island in Greece. And then he was gone.
All the adults wondered and worried, but no one believed me when I told them where he was until he sent a postcard (I believe). They thought he was just kidding, teasing the little girl who thought she was his friend, but outliers call to each other regardless of age.
And the Desmond I knew was certainly an outlier.
We did, indeed, follow him to Greece, spending a good many summers on a small island three kilometers from town (by foot) where there was no electricity, lighting came in the form of chimney lamps, our water was drawn from the well, and our laundry washed on a stone and hung out to dry on a line.
He kept three chickens, and though they had a roost, the kids played in it more often than the chickens roosted there. One loved to deposit an egg every morning on Desmond’s desk chair. I don’t know how he discovered the first one, but I suspect a comedic routine.
I remember sitting on the plastered-over walls of the porch late at night just talking. Hours didn’t matter (except for one hour at the height of the day when my mother declared we would be inside, preferably napping) and it was a rare day or night when something wasn’t happening.
Desmond seemed ageless then. Rail-thin and always with a beer in his hand, he was a caricature of an Irish poet as much as he was a real one, but he didn’t stay confined to that stereotype. He would talk about pretty much everything, sometimes too loud, and sometimes with more adult themes than my young ears would have expected (there’s a couple of wild costume stories I could tell), but ultimately, when he was talking to someone, he engaged fully.
I don’t remember any specific conversation. It’s more the environment he created that stays with me. I can see him in my mind’s eye as he was back then. A little wild, very expressive, and just fascinating.
Would I have discovered people were fascinating without Desmond? Well, I was already hiding under the table, so I’d guess yes. Would I have had some rural living experience without him? Probably not, though we did go camping. Would I have turned into a normal adult and turned my back on the thoughts I had as a child as so many do? Possibly.
Desmond validated me as a person when most would have, and did, dismiss me. It’s a little thing. It’s a huge thing. It’s a complicated thing.
My Desmond was both larger than life and very much down to Earth. He had his failings, odd fears like of spilled blood, and weird connections with chickens. Someone looking from the outside in during those times might have seen him as a stereotype. They certainly wouldn’t have seen him as a successful man, based on U.S. standards at least, but I have only to read the tributes spread throughout the Web to know he didn’t just touch my life but so many others while he walked the Earth. He stands as an example of just what you can miss out on if you take a narrow view.
I’ll tell you this is the second full draft of this post, and I’ve been trying to say something since I learned he died last year. It’s hard to write about him and to know I’ll never get the chance to talk to him as an adult. My life became swept up in the normal, and though my parents did see him again, I was just starting out, didn’t have travel money, and wouldn’t have known where to start. It didn’t matter though, because I knew when we crossed paths again, it would be as though no time had passed at all. It was that kind of friendship. There are many reasons to miss Desmond, big reasons, world reasons. I miss the man who befriended an outlier, who listened to her stories as much as he shared stories of his own, who looked beyond the surface and engaged.
There’s a snippet of his poetry at the end of this article that offers a glimpse of his work, but also of the Desmond I knew: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/aug/27/desmond-o-grady-world-poetry-billy-mills
Today’s post was inspired by the topic “In Memoriam” — May’s topic in Forward Motion’s Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour. Read the thoughts of nearly twenty different authors at various stages in their careers on this same topic. The next posts in the series are by Lisa Janice Cohen and Bonnie R. Schultzman.
Check out the Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour to learn more. You can find links to all of the posts on the tour on the group site. Read and enjoy!