Roma Downey’s home in California is a long way from the row of houses on Beechwood Avenue in Londonderry where she spent her childhood.
However, in the course of compiling memories for her new book, Box of Butterflies, ’ the Northern Ireland born actress and producer said she has made that journey back home, in her mind, a hundred times over, starting with the poignant anecdote which inspired the book’s title.
“When I was only ten, my mother, Maureen, passed away unexpectedly and I felt as though my heart had broken into a thousand pieces, ” she recalls, in conversation from her home in Malibu.
“The first time I went to visit my mother’s grave with my father, we brought pansies. She always liked pansies and said they reminded her of little butterflies. As we stood in the City Cemetery that day and I held my father’s hand, a little butterfly flew right in front of us. My father said: Would you look at that wee butterfly there? It could be your mother’s spirit.’ I missed her so much but the idea that a beautiful butterfly could represent my beloved mother gave me great comfort and reassurance. “And, since that moment at my mother’s graveside so many years ago, the butterfly continued to give me comfort throughout my life.”
The ‘Touched by an Angel’ star said losing her mother at such a young age was “a defining moment” in her life.
“That wound is still tender. Sometimes tears come so quickly to my eyes and I have this deep longing to be held by her again, ” she adds.
Butterflies, says the former Thornhill College pupil, have been a running theme in her life since that first experience at her mother’s graveside.
“Butterflies have shown up everywhere, at so many different moments in my life. Whether they were in a pattern, or on a truck, or on a billboard, they were always there and I’ve always felt that presence of God in my life. Then, a few years ago, on Valentine’s Day, my husband Mark gave me a little box. Of course, I started shaking it to try to guess what was in it. He told me to take it outside to open it so I carried it into the garden, took off the lid and these butterflies just flew out. I was so happy to have this little box of butterflies and think about all the blessings and life experiences that I had and that’s where the book’s title comes from.
“They didn’t always look like blessings, of course, but I think what makes the butterfly so special is that it has to go through this struggle of being a caterpillar and there would be no beautiful butterfly if it didn’t go through that process first. So much of that can be applied to our own lives. I felt that the butterfly’s victory was a symbol that I could use in this book to weave stories from my own life together with these great inspirational quotes.”
Roma says she hopes the book will prove inspirational for anyone who picks it up.
“I just thought, wouldn’t it be great to have all those things in one place like a go to’ book for encouragement. So, I’ve written my own story and there are some poems and quotes and some song lyrics in there. My father, Paddy Downey, used to recite the Lake Isle of Innisfree’ so that’s in there and The Town I Loved so Well’ is also there.
“There are so many stories that people back home in Derry will identify with, too. When I was growing up in Beechwood Avenue, like many people, we had a room that was called the good room.’ It was a room that none of us were allowed into. Thinking back now, I laugh when I think of all of us packed into the kitchen and this good room was kept for visitors! There was a cabinet in the room filled with delicate bone china. My mother loved that china dearly, so much so that she kept it under lock and key. We hardly ever used the china; it was kept for special occasions.
“One day, an army truck drove down our street and, as the house began to shake, we heard a loud crash coming from the good room. My mother cried out and ran down the hall and she gasped when she saw what had happened and, then, a few years later she died and with her young life over all too soon, I often wonder what special occasion she was saving that china for. Maybe her silver wedding anniversary? My wedding day or my daughter’s christening? All celebrations that she wouldn’t live to see. We all have things that we want to lock up in the good room, talents that we’re too shy to share, time with our loved ones that we delay, but the truth is that none of us know how long we have.”
Roma also devotes some of her memoir to her father, Paddy, who she admired hugely.
She recalls how her father was a strong advocate for social justice in the Derry of the 1970s.
“He was very concerned with justice and fairness and was truly a great man, ” she noted.
“He took the time to teach men in our community to read and write, but he did it in such a discreet way - a little room in our house which had been turned into an office, so that the men could come in and still have their dignity. He always realised the importance of education and he was a great source of encouragement. When I was leaving Derry for college in England, he took me outside and showed me the moon and he said: Wherever you are in the world, I’ll leave a message on the moon and you leave one for me - there isn’t a moon cycle that goes by to this day that I don’t hear my dad saying that he loves me. That’s just another one of those symbols that’s stayed with me.”
The foreword to Box of Butterflies’ was written by Roma’s Touched by an Angel’ co-star, Della Reese, who passed away last year. The former Thornhill College girl spoke about the close relationship she had for many years with the late Ms. Reese.
“She was like a mother to me, ” recalls Roma. “And she lost a daughter, so she would often say that I was like a daughter to her.
“Della used to tell me, God is just amazing’; he brought me into your life and he brought you into my life. She was my mother and we became so close and it’s so special to me that she wrote the foreword. I miss her so much. She was a truly special person and a big part of my life.”
With the book now on sale, Roma admits she’s nervous about putting parts of her life out there.
“I’m very encouraged by the reaction so far, ” she said. “I’ve been an actor and a producer for many years and I’m no stranger to launching new content. I’ve opened films and TV shows but this has been so different. I’m not telling a’ story this time, I’m telling my’ story and it’s so intimate and personal. I feel very vulnerable putting myself out there. It’s one thing if somebody doesn’t like your film, but it’s different if they don’t like your story.
“I’ve had a lot of highs and lows along the way. I lost my mother, I lost my father, our little house in Beechwood sold when I was still in college so I didn’t have anywhere to call home. But, rather than be buried under that grief, you have to think, Do I choose to be the victor or the victim of circumstances. I would be the kind of person that if I’m knocked down, I get back up again and keep going and that’s the way I’ve lived my life.”
Roma is hoping to return to her home city in June for a book launch.
“I still have a great fondness for Derry and I still see the girls I went to school with and we continue to laugh about the old times. I suppose you can take the girl out of Derry, but you can’t take Derry out of the girl! I hope people there will find something they can identify with in the book and will enjoy reflecting on life as they read it.”
Roma lives in California with her husband Mark and their children, Reilly, James and Cameron.
Box of Butterflies is currently available in all good bookshops and online.