I have the confusing distinction of having two bylines, old and new. In my first marriage, I kept my name (Betsy Percoski). When my mother passed, I wanted to honor her and to mark the connection after she left for the world of spirits. I added Fitzgerald to my name, as a middle name. The three names became my legal moniker, but I began using simply Betsy Fitzgerald for my writing.
I loved my grandmother. Bridget Reilly Fitzgerald. People always remarked how much I looked like her; that is becoming more true with the years. As a child, I coveted overnight visits with her. She would serve hermit cookies with afternoon tea. The biggest treat was when she read the tea leaves left in the bottom of the cup. “See,” she would say, “that’s a man on a horse.” I’d stare at the tiny brown stick-lines and tried to see what she saw. I wanted to be able to read the leaves when I grew up. What could be better than the magic of reading the future?
I never let go of the feeling that I belonged to the country where tea leaves were read, stories told and retold. Why not make it official? At the time one could apply for citizenship if you were second generation Irish. All I needed:
- Birth, marriage and death certificate for your grandparent
- Birth, marriage and death certificate for your parent of descent
- Your own birth certificate.
By good fortune, I had the birth and death certificate for my grandmother. I knew that she had married in New Haven, Connecticut, though she lived in Manhattan at the time. I applied for a copy of her marriage certificate and my mother’s documents. As I accumulated the paperwork, I felt like I was taking a walk through my own history.
On my grandmother’s birth certificate from Ireland, her mother signed it with an X. I had never thought about the fact that she would not have gone to school. From the marriage license, I learned that my grandfather had lived in the midwest. Didn’t know that. I only knew him as someone who had lived in Manhattan.
I assembled the documents and filled out the application. The website warned that it could take 6 months to a year for a response. I sent it off with no great expectation. About 7 months later, on my way to work, I stopped at the Post Office to pick up a registered letter. I assumed it was official bad news, like maybe the IRS wanting to audit me.
Back in my car, I looked more closely at the Sender section. Irish Embassy. I drove the rest of the way to my office without touching the envelope. Once inside, I stopped by a friend’s desk.
“What if…” I meant what if Ireland didn’t want me? Odd as that seemed, it was a possibility. After all, here in the U.S. we don’t want people all the time. I fingered the envelope, picturing tea leaves clinging to the bottom. A woman walking …
She waited while I pulled the tab and slid out the papers.
And so it is that my grandmother left Ireland at age 16 to find a new life; and I have returned.
postscript … my name underwent still one more change when I married for a second time, now Betsy Fitzgerald-Campbell but still and always Betsy Fitzgerald, writer.