Watch Out For Those First Two Years
(and the rest are even worse)
A lot of people have told me I should write a book about my life.
They’ve been saying this since long before I even realized I had the stuff of books happening to me and the literary bent to convey these happenings in somewhat entertaining format. Many have said this to me. Indeed, even I have said this (to myself) far from the madding, somewhat maddening crowd. However, all these people so confident I can write a book, who believe I’m honor-bound and obligated to dedicate myself to its creation and completion, aren’t me.
I have started to write many books in my quickly-accumulating years, the first when I was about 17. I have so many things to impart, life truths to reveal, deep thoughts to muse, weights to extricate from my chest (if they’ve commenced to root), and rather darkly humorous takes on my existence and its exigencies with which to regale the reader.
I laugh therefore I am. The problem is not that I haven’t enough to write about. The dilemma is that there is just so much, about so many things, suited to so many styles and commentaries and formats, that I ofttimes finally decide on one, dash off two or three pages, then remember all the other things that may be just as important and…it is in this, and this alone, that I cannot be decisive.
In my general life, I have managed to survive a less than idyllic six decades, somewhat unscathed, with little else than faith in God, whatever form He, She or It will ultimately reveal Him/Her/Itself. Or all three. That would be no surprise whatsoever. In fact, I doubt anything that could happen in the world would cause me to react with even the most infinitesimal element of surprise.
Two additional things have sustained me in this world of hurt, one being music (to which I can listen and play and, even, write), the other being my true salvation: the ability to laugh at life’s crap, life’s disappointments and betrayals, and the penchant – something that likely saved me in many ways – for making myself the butt of jokes. I learned to disarm those intent on nasty remarks about my superfluity of adipose tissue - yes I was fat, and the attackers were adults as well as children – by making the joke myself, at my own expense. It was worth it both to save face and to deny them the satisfaction.
As hurtful as these people could be (and there were very few who didn’t take the opportunity), and as self-conscious and chronically shy as they made me, it just wasn’t my fault. I had been ‘chubby’ forever (“Oh, I love chubby children,” was something I did so love to hear from mostly ugly women with bad breath) as I recalled it, and I was put on every diet known at the time, and drugged with whatever 7-year-old kids were prescribed to lose weight in 1961 (Benzedrine? Amphetamines?). I suffered through the teasing about, and the consumption of, the dreaded homemade school lunches of Hollywood Bread and Sockeye Salmon spread, and carrot and celery sticks and skim bloody milk that, in those days, looked purple and smelled like vomit. On a good day, I got lemon curd in my sandwich, sans salmon. All this whilst the dullards and popular lot and bullies downed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chocolate cake or apple pie and chocolate milk. As it turned out 30 odd years later, including 25 spent with anorexia and a strange form of bulimia that yet plagues me, I had a microadenoma in my pituitary gland..
And I exercised a lot. I was the best double-dutcher outside of Deutschland or, more precisely, the Netherlands, and I skipped to and from school, not in a tra-la-la sense, but with a skipping rope which – about 35 years later - stood me in good stead as I was a boxing class aficionado and could skip rings ‘round the youngsters in the 1-1/2 hour skipping classes to which we were subjected twice weekly. And I was no skipping spring chicken, being at least 48 at the time. I have always taken great pride in being strong like bull, and bullheaded like …I guess, bull, again. Sadly, my childhood skipping career, just starting to flourish in my seventh year, branded me evermore as the weird, fat kid. And my poor mother, no doubt scandalized by the vision of her ample six-year old daughter’s bouncing up and down to the rhythm of the rope swing, was forced to “Erin Go Bragh” me. I thought that aspect of it was funny – the pun, what with our being from Ireland and all – though it wasn’t she who said it. I just fancied it, but I didn’t fancy the brassiere that I had to start wearing in Grade 2. No starter bras in those days, my pretties.
Now, just imagine the effect this new ‘development’ had on me and my shadow, as I became evermore the curiosity that I wish would have killed the Cat-holics at my school. It did make for ever more fun in class, out of class, after class…for them. The sanctum sanctorum of my bedroom, with my dog of the time, was all I had, and my only escape.
It has only been in the last years, with the preponderance of anti-bullying programs and the spotlight on childhood suicides and paedophelia; with zero-tolerance the norm and expectation that I have come to realize I was not only bullied many times a day, every day of my life until I inexplicably lost weight at age 11; but that I was quite overtly sexually-abused in ways by those “friends” and classmates who wanted to see “them”, who forced me into corners and, yes, cars. When, in the change room of a public swimming pool, my best friend (two years older and hairless in those areas where the sun ain’t supposed to shine) shrieked and screeched and laughed and pointed at what had become of me, I was by then so numbed to the negative attention and the inquisitions and taunts that I just ignored her, went home, cried, and moved, as always in dread, on to the next day’s inevitable horror. Insult to injury? Of course, I still hadn’t a clue as to what was happening to my body. No one had thought to tell me, what with my being ONLY SEVEN!
But then, as noted, came the inexplicable weight loss and I – ever the winning contestant – acquired not popularity, not blackheads, not pimples, but big pus-laden and always bleeding cystic acne all over the old kisser. Oh, and the back, and the shoulders and the chest. I still have each and every scar but, in pre-scar days, I suffered every ignominy, from being shunned lest I had leprosy, scorned lest it was caused by dirty habits (“The dirty, dirty Irish, they never wash their feet”), ignored because it was just too loathsome some days to look at and, my favorite, “Oh my God, you have skin cancer!” That happened in 1971, and my caring and compassionate classmates, believing it to be contagious, gave me wide berth the final two years of high school.
Happily though, the berth wasn’t as wide as it would have been a few years earlier because, by then, anorexia had kicked in.
I’m nothing if not transparent, I think, though many have believed me stuck-up because of my shyness.
I digressed just there, in a Joycean ‘stream of consciousness’ way, but that’s a flattery I will not accord myself (maybe as I’m avowedly no fan of James the Joyce lad himself). It’s not that I am averse to Joyce, or his written work. I am averse to the ridiculous, forced, contrived ‘meaning’ schools and teachers and grad students and professors and Cole’s Notes and Dummies’ Guides to Joyce insist on assigning his work, his sentences, his words, his syllables. When I wrote my book report on “The Dubliners” in Grade 11, I was adamant that it was all to be read and understood at bloody face value. It meant what it said. At first, James J was writing a wee tale about a lot of stuff happening to people in Dublin, then the critics got hold, then it was meaningful, and poignant and rich and powerful and no longer straightforward and then, our James, knowing he could get away with bloody murder in the literary sense, wrote a truckload of crap about “a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo” and other loads of codswallop because he was Irish and well in on the joke.
Needless to say, I failed my Grade 11 book report on The Dubliners and refused to rewrite it along party lines because party lines knew feck all, never gave it a thought and just accepted the ruddy allusions and supposed metaphor and perceived allegory as gospel. “Toe the line, my sweet girls in uniform” or you’ll fail fully and finally. What they neglected to say, impart or understand, was that said failing would be, quite honestly, the result of having the nerve and intelligence to formulate one’s own opinion and dare present it when the regurgitated classroom learning was expected. And it was also a right load of tripe.
For someone who is verbally all but mute, I talked a lot to me, myself and me (because “I” would be subjective and we need the objective here). Except for my always and ever, once and future kingdom of animals.
Shall I pity them, or believe they enjoyed, and enjoy, it…my interminable stream of drivel and song, and the odd silly walks and, of course, the endless nicknames and variations on theme. They of yore seemed, and the current crew appear to be, quite happy. I think they know I’m not at all wise and humor me by loving me, and doing so deeply and consistently and to the point the thought of them makes me cry.
I’ve always cried a lot...the lot of the sensitive. I have heard that consistently over decades, forever it seems: “You’re too sensitive.” “Sure she cries at the drop of a hat.” “Ach, don’t you know the poor wee cratur has bad nerves?” “Sure what have you to be sad about?” “Catch your bloody self on,” followed in my second week in Canada by, “Please remove your child from Kiddie Kollege. She does nothing but cry for her ‘Daddy’, and she just bit one of the teachers.” This was the tale of Wee Marie upon arrival on Canada’s wide and welcoming (but not to Wee Marie) shores.
Wee Marie’s memories of her earliest days and times in Ireland started out bad, became interspersed with a wee bit of security, then got much worse. Sure what does a child of that tender age really remember? Quite a bit, though not chronologically. Others may have more on the ball in the memory department these days, but I remember moments – good and bad – and scents, and anxiety and hurt, all before leaving my once and always home at the ripe old age of two for “Candada”.
With this a happyish story ends, a saddish one begins.
A saddish story begins…as do I
I was born in Ireland. This makes me Irish. I was born in Northern Ireland. Politically (don’t get me started), this makes me British. We moved to Canada when I was young, and my parents took out Canadian citizenship. I did not but, because I was only 12 and not an age anywhere near majority, I – a minor child - became a Canadian citizen along with them, on their ticket, more or less.
I can have, and have, Canadian citizenship. I am a Canadian citizen after all, through no effort of my own. Because I was born politically in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a part (never mind how I feel) of the United Kingdom, Great Britain and that lot, they claim me as one of their own, so I can have a British passport (I don’t) and citizenship. And, because I was born nationally on the island of Ireland, albeit in the six counties gerrymandered out of a whole, 32-county sovereign Ireland, I may also have an Irish passport (and so I do). I guess that makes me a citizen, too.
I am a person of many -ships, lucky enough to have not one, but three, countries relent to having me as one of their population.
Already I have digressed before commencing my second in a series of chapters belonging to this self-indulgent rememberings I’m writing.
When I began, I began in The Royal Maternity Hospital, 274 Grosvenor Rd, Belfast BT12 6BA. The official address on the Internet includes “United Kingdom” and the telephone number, but I’m annoyed about one and neither of us cares about the other.
Life as I knew it, before I knew it, was a secluded one spent, I’m guessing, in fetal position…though I wonder about ”feet-al position” as my feet, turned inward, still fit perfectly one inside the other. Perhaps this is the norm, but I rarely expect that in my case. I’ve never been told what I was like in utero, not even the effect my taking up residence had upon my mother who may, or may not, have suffered desperately through her pregnancy. We’ll never know now, what with my advanced age, and I expect she would have told me about it, as she wasted no time telling me about the agony of, and what she suffered during, my birth, often…and with near euphoria.
I am absolutely convinced that, during my time inside, I heard a lot of music as my mother played piano wonderfully, and my godmother played piano wonderfully. Since they played piano together as close to constantly as possible, given they lived at near opposite ends of the city, there may even have been two pianos to whose strains and chords and melodies I was exposed. This explains a lot because I rarely stop singing, and that had to have started sometime and somewhere. In utero would have been as good a place as any.
And my father had a great singing voice, a wee bit affected around the curlicues of Joseph Locke-iness, but great nonetheless. His stock-in-trade was Rebel Songs and, while this is wholly irrelevant at this point, you may want to remember it a few paragraphs or pages along, when I will direct your attention back to this fact. (Bookmarking is optional.)
Prior to my birth, my parents lived in Riverdale Park, West in Belfast, and my mother’s parents lived just a wee bit down the road, having moved there from Portstewart in Co. Derry up on the North Atlantic coast to be near their only child and soon-to-be only grandchild (though that would not become apparent for many a longish year). Also living near my Nana and Dada, was my mother’s cousin and family. Such a loving and complete family circle established and ready to welcome Wee Marie into the eager arms and fulsome bosom of Belfast.
Many may be old enough to remember that things in the City of Belfast, in fact in all of Northern Ireland, have not always been the most calm and easygoing. Where were we in this world famous – wholly literally - area? Suffice to say Riverdale Park is in Andersonstown, near the Falls Road, which is not the Shankill Road. Our side kicked with a different foot than theirs and believed in the infallibility of the Pope. There…got it? It’s irrelevant at this juncture, but will be reintroduced – quite benignly – shortly after the other piece of information I alerted you to recall (bookmarking being optional) to sweep you along with me across the Atlantic Ocean when the time is right. It behooves me here to assure you I shall not delve into the history and politics (horrific as they are) leading to “The Troubles” since I spent two years on my Master’s thesis, in the dark recesses of time, doing just that. Actually, it behooves you even more, in that it spares you a lot of generally unnecessary historical perspective. Sure it’s old hat now, anyway, like me. And also my hat had I one as old as me.
Until this point in my story, I’m not in the story. I’m inside the story and hovering above it but, blissfully absent (or so I’m sure my mother thought in retrospect of the post-partum days after my actual birth and mise en scène).
I have no idea how my mother fared during her (one would assume) nine-month pregnancy, as I gestated gloomily in situ. I don’t know if I was born late or early or right on time. I can attest that, given my predilections and various mental issues, I’ve gone through periods of chronic tardiness, periods of ridiculously early arrivals and, then, desperate attempts to arrive just on time. The latter involves arriving at the meeting place early enough to drive to the nearest café, avail myself of its toilet, then return to said meeting place exactly on time, always to be met by no one…yet. Very shortly thereafter, wouldn’t a urinary fix be in order and, that finalized, I return to discover everyone who could possibly be there waiting for me there waiting for me. And, again, I am effectively late.
Surely one or all of these approaches attended the nine months prior to my arrival on terra firma. I don’t think I hit terra firma right upon arrival as I’ve heard no reports of slippery-handed doctors or nurses who missed me and my entrance entirely. My mother never spoke of morning sickness or being in any such way as would preclude general blossoming and growing and glowing during the months prior to January 13, 1954. The story I was told oh so Many times over the years – always with a perverse glee, suffering tone and great pleasure at the magnitude of her plight – likely commenced at some point during January 12, 1954. (I have no authority to presume or stipulate this date but, if you read the entire synopsis – I will try to keep it brief – you will be unable to imagine how any fewer than two consecutive dates would be enough to encompass the gore and suffering as it unfolded, not just once, not just twice, but three times, baby!)
I have always enjoyed the tale of my birth, though the reality of it seemed to have rendered my mother catatonic for a few days in its aftermath. However, she was a dab hand at the storytelling, i.e. she told great yarns, and made it come alive in all its gristle and marrow, crowning and agony so brilliantly, that it was a great gas of a hilarious tale once told. Friends and relatives have informed me that my mother’s describing with such delight the hell I put her through, and what she was thinking at the time, was most insensitive, and they’ve ensured I understand how deeply they are shocked that I was not told instead, in dewy terms, about the wondrous moment when first she beheld, and held, me. The magic, the love, the completion. Well, they can think what they bloody well like because I love it with its gore and drama and intensity and, as always, that unexpected (yet totally anticipated) ‘It could only happen to Marie’ aspect which makes the whole thing, not ghastly, but hysterically funny. Granted, I don’t remember much of it; in fact, I doubt I remember any of it, but my wee mammy drew what I’m certain was such a realistic and accurate picture, in words and gestures, that I’d have to be as thick as thieves’ boulders not to imagine my part in the whole proceeding as vividly as if I had been a fly on the wall, rather than an uncooperative lump in a cavity.
As I, and many horrified others, have been told it, the words ‘double’ and ‘breech’ feature largely in the consequences surrounding the miracle of my birth. That I was born at all is, more than likely, a miracle as it sounds a pretty ghastly and unseemly tale, one from which lesser mothers and children would not have saved themselves. I can imagine, somewhat gleefully, the head surgeon or whoever delivered me yelling, “Everyone for himself; women and children fir… never mind.” The way my mother told it, I understood my presentation as a dewy ingénue-to-be to be feet first and arse over tea kettle. By this I mean, my first coming was just my heels and backs of my legs. Then, this having been put to rights (or lefts or wherever was necessary), my second coming was head first, but face down. THIS was how it always looked in my head when my mother described it.
I have, since the advent of the Internet and no longer trudging to libraries to look for things with no clue under what they’d be catalogued, searched “double breech birth” many a time. Every a time, there is a somewhat different set of articles and images, but an awful lot more of people on chat pages weighing in with the non-existence of such a thing as double breech birth. “Never heard of it, hon,” I just read about 10 minutes ago, so I could be clear on what I will continue now to type. Well, hon, I don’t know what I was or what was involved, but I was born three times, and I’m sticking with that. First was a non-starter, second was a bit of a surprise – and not in a good way – and many forceps later, I assembled myself into some succinct and intact structure so as to be extricated with great force (and forceps) from the den of enmity wherein I had dwelt those past nine months (I can but surmise).
Every salient and gruesome detail of what my mother suffered through all of this poking and sending for interns and residents and doctors and misters (in the UK, at least, if you’re a cut above a Doctor, you are not referred to as Dr., but as Mr.) is most familiar to me, albeit second hand. As for hands and other body parts, the only relatively clear explanation I can find on Google for a double breech is one wherein the baby’s bottom is wedged into the mother’s pelvis, with legs and feet folded in against his/her body. This does not correlate at all with my mother’s version and certainly doesn’t account for my third coming, but she was – if I’m to believe her – conscious throughout the exceedingly long ordeal as the delivery team needed her that way, perhaps just to have one more witness to this strange and bewildering birth of what, as it happened, turned out to be a strange and bewildering newborn.
Actually, that description, “strange and bewildering” pales rather in comparison to what I, apparently, resembled after birth. In fact, if I’m to believe the tale in its entirety, my afterbirth was quite possibly more attractive than was I myself.
At this point the trail grows cold because the next we hear of me and my mother was on a fateful afternoon, quite awhile later, a week or so, perhaps. That part I can’t recall, but I do know it was long enough for some healing of distorted mangled face to occur. Some, but apparently not all.
During those days after my inglorious arrival, while my mother and child reunion was quite an emotion away, my father, I believe, was with me constantly in whatever capacities fathers could be with newborns when mothers were, for one reason or another, not the parent with child (or without as was then the case). He never mentioned anything about my birth, was never around when my mother embarked on her tale and, inasmuch as I can tell, just took whatever it was in stride. Besides, in those days, such things were “women’s preserve” and, possibly after a “Saints preserve us” when first he cast his eyes upon me, he apparently more than held up the end men in the ‘50s and ever before were expected to hold.
I’ve arrived and, to prove it, I’m here
That was a saying both my parents, particularly my mother, used, so it’s a safe bet it just might be a Northern Irelandism. Both were Northern Irelanders, my parents, like me, and all from different counties. My mother from the north coast county of Derry, my father from the more mid-Ulster county of Tyrone and me, having just made my notable entrance at The Royal Maternity Hospital, from Co. Antrim (where you’ll find Belfast, among many other cities and towns, like Ballymena, noted universally for having begat Liam Neeson). Not begat, per se, but all the begetting and begatting could have only begotten in Co. Antrim, so it’s pertinent to this tale.
Leaving Liam Neeson aside for the foreseeable future, and returning to me, I am now officially a part of the tale…the tale of two pities, perhaps, each pity representing one breech portion of my birth. I have arrived and, as one would expect, I have been placed somewhere in the hospital, most likely in with the run-of-the-mill newborns though, to hear my mother tell it, they wouldn’t have given me house room with the other wee babbies.
I’m missing a portion of this tale because I don’t know how long it was between the being born part of my birth and the meeting my mother again part of my birth. I don’t know my mother’s condition upon delivery, though I’m sure it wasn’t Cash On (or she may have sent the parcel back), but I know that she didn’t see her darling newborn daughter for more than a day or so. That’s how it came across in the telling, but I should have spent less time laughing at this sad tale of me and picturing it in my head, and more on absorbing the details if, indeed, any were supplied.
It is only in recounting this oft-heard tale that I realize how much of it I’m missing…minor details, yes, but important nonetheless. At this juncture between delivery and receipt of one child, the passage of time is, I believe, quite important.
Despite the lack of what I have established as crucial details, I will continue.
After I left the delivery room for parts which are, as yet, unestablished, but within the hospital, I’ll wager my mother was cataclysmically worn out by the natal proceedings, and reversing, and proceedings, etc., until completion. I suspect she was well and truly in the land of the Wee Folk (sure she was only 4’11”), at a depth of induced sleep that nothing but Apocalypse could have interrupted. I don’t imagine induction was even required (nor do I know if it was for the afore-discussed birth). The poor cratur must have been blootered, with nary a working part besides the vitals until she got sufficient rest to return, mentally, to The Royal Maternity Hospital ward, to which she’d been assigned.
It may have been days, it may have been more; in my head it seems like it was a week, given the back story of my father watching over me in whatever spot was relegated to me. You might wonder, as have I, in what condition could this tiny baby (6 pound, something) possibly be, having weathered such to-ing and fro-ing and in-ing and out-ing and pulling and pushing and turning and shoving and beating and throwing…I’ve gone too far, but I would expect it went to the shoving limit. Add to this the forceps that were, I’ve been repeatedly assured, brought to bear on my bare bits trying to prise and coax me out of my hitherto pleasant hermitage and into the cold light of a January morning in Belfast. I’m sure it was really damp. I hate the damp. So does my chest.
I fully expect, knowing myself as I do, that I wasn’t any type of breech at all, not quadruple or minus six or anything. More than likely, I hated what I saw and all the noise and light and PEOPLE (I hated people already) and just wanted to retreat to my damp den until they all went home. This is how I have continued to function until this very day, 67 years later, though my den isn’t damp. However, I am 67 and things can happen. With my usual steely determination, I likely contorted myself into any possible shape that precluded my extraction. In my head, still, I can imagine the increasing stress and strain and agitation and, eventually, fury on the part of this dedicated team of delivery personnel. At this point, I’m sure my mother – were she conscious – would have wanted nothing more to do with me from then until we met the choir invisible…still not having made each other’s acquaintance.
We’ll take leave of my father and wondering what he did and where he was during the as yet indeterminate time between my leaving, and returning to, my matriarch. In fact, I doubt I ever heard anything about it other than he had seen me before my mother did, and thought it best to breathe nary a word nor whisper about what she had in store. My mother, like me, had a tendency to worry and be anxious and, with enough worrying and anxiety, to become rather panic-stricken and, while a hospital would be the best place to be were one to become thus medically-compromised, it speaks volumes about my father’s discretion, love for my mother and, I would think, sheer terrified dread of being present at the inevitable Mother and Child Reunion.
As it happened, in the unfortunate and worst way these things typically happen, my father was spared actual physical attendance at the moment of shock, but I imagine had to tend to a lot of emotional after-shock. That special moment, that would remain with her forever – meeting her first child – was my mother’s and mine alone.
To set the scene: There were other new mothers in various other new mothers’ beds in the ward, peripheral to the tale; how many I don’t know, but enough that this nightmarish scene unfolded.
The first time ever I saw your face
I picture it as being just after tea time which, in Ireland, the UK, etc. in those days would have been around 5:00 p.m., and my mother had just finished her second cup of tea. I doubt she was feeling particularly peckish at the time, but certain she wasn’t feeling well at all and, moreover, must have been wondering where this child of hers had gone. Perhaps she was concerned the child was ill in some Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit (or whatever such was called then) or, even worse, hadn’t made it through delivery at all, and no one had yet told her. I can only imagine the apprehension and sinking feeling she must have had but, knowing my mother, I can see her managing to convey grace and a pleasant façade, while clinging to a belief that all was actually well.
At this time, or whenever it actually happened, just as the Matron, carrying a newborn, had entered the ward, another mother in another bed requested her assistance. The Matron, realizing a baby would be no help in a situation requiring the freedom of both her arms, stopped, turned back toward my mother, and proffered her the sweet-smelling, swaddled bundle, saying, and I quote, “Would you hold the baby, please?” And my mother, ever gracious and accommodating (though, by this time, perhaps a bit on edge) agreed, and accepted the bundle which, she discovered, upon peering under the blanket did, indeed, contain one baby.
Her first reaction was one of sheer horror, her second of pity for the poor woman who was going to be handed this atrocity and told it was her baby. She imagined the shock and the tears and the coming to terms with the reality of what this baby’s – and her family’s – lives would be like, having a child with special needs. I don’t believe that was the term – special needs – in those days, but as I was only an infant, I wasn’t up on the prevailing medical lingo, if you will.
As she was praying (yes, she was praying) for the child and the mother and what they had ahead of them, didn’t yer woman the Matron return to her bedside? My mother, more than happy to unload, and with great celerity, the bundle in its entirety to Matron, had all but extricated herself from the nightmare, only to be stopped short with, “Don’t you want to hold your baby, Mrs. McGrath?”
To be a fly on that wall as the penny dropped, and life as she knew it changed all around her. Now whom to pity? I know, though I wasn’t given to such emotions at the time, I would have pitied my mother. To this day I feel heart sorry for the enormity of the shock when, looking at this wee innocent face, she saw the results of the difficult birth: the forceps, the various attempts at delivery, the rearranging of whatever parts of me needed rearranging, etc. But, mostly, from what I was told, it was the damage done by the forceps that left her in tears, aghast and gasping at the results of the nine-month wait and all the hopes and expectations for a beautiful child, and the agony of delivery and, then, the not knowing what was going on for whatever length of time my sleuthing will reveal it was (see above).
In those days, the word that sprang to new mothers’ minds at times like these was one which has been removed from proper and politically correct parlance. To my knowledge, we no longer use it except to describe, as Wikipedia has, “the general physical type of some or all of the populations of East Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Eastern Russia, the Arctic, the Americas, parts of the Pacific Islands and parts of South Asia”, and I believe it’s gone through a few iterations of nomenclature through the years. But in the Belfast of 1954, “Down Syndrome” was not the terminology used.
I mean no disrespect to those children born with Down Syndrome, or their families. That is not the story here. With advanced medical knowledge and technology, expectant parents now are more likely to be aware of special needs or characteristics their baby-to-be might have. When I was pregnant for the first time, at 40, I was very aware that, given my age, my child had a higher likelihood than most of being born with Down Syndrome, and that mattered not a whit. It would have required some reorganization of plans and how the future would unfold, but I knew it was a possibility.
Wee Nan, my mother, on the other hand, was taken totally unaware, and I can hear her sobbing even now, after she’s been dead and gone nine years. It would have been traumatic for any new mother, but for someone like my mother – whose life had been almost a bit charmed; she’d been to boarding schools and was a wee bit pampered, the life of the party, and now the dutiful wife and mother – this would have been a life-shattering discovery. I suspect in her heart of hearts, and as a strong Roman Catholic, with a deep faith in God, she knew whatever (and whomever) was sent her way was meant to be, and I know she loved me then and there. There would just be a wee minute or so lag before her head caught up with her heart.
Now here’s a fact from medical speculation of yore you may want to verify but, when Wee Nan composed herself sufficiently to ask one of the nurses, “Is she ‘Mongoloid’ (that being the 1954 term)”, the nurse immediately grabbed one of my hands and checked between the ring and baby finger, for a sort of webbing, I imagine. Upon inspection, I was pronounced just another baby. Had I been Down Syndrome, I similarly would have been ‘just another baby’, and there you have it. But now my mother had it (me), and had to figure out, essentially, ‘what’s with this kid?’
As I repeat regularly, lest you’ve forgotten, I don’t actually know what happened next, but I would imagine it was the summoning of my father, who I will call “Kevin”, as that was his name. I could call him Big Kevin since we have Wee Nan and Wee Marie, and I always thought of him as a very big man but, as it turned out, he was not all that tall and, while this has nothing to do with his appearance in the tale at this juncture, it does explain why I will only call him Kevin, with no adjectival sizing.
“What in the name of under God?”
Again, I’ve chosen to dive back in with another Northern Ireland expression. Only in Belfast have I, personally, heard this particular phrasing used to indicate shock at something, so it may very well be confined to that area, but I know I heard it hundreds of times during the many years I have spent on this earth with my parents and relations, some gone, some still here.
And I’m sure this is but one of the many queries my mother posed to my father (Wee Nan posed to Kevin) upon seeing him for the first time after seeing me for the first time. Better phrased, I suspect she used this terminology, among others, to my father when the two of them were reunited after my birth.
I didn’t know my father in those days, nor how he would have dealt with such a sensitive situation and near hysterical spouse, having already been the sole parent-in-charge of one unusual baby for what must have been days. Lord knows what he thought of this whole business, he a strikingly handsome man (ask all the swooning females that embarrassed me as a child and teenager and, even still, as an adult) with nothing but ‘lookers’ in the McGrath gene pool. Did he know if I were mentally sound; did he know if the physical scars would heal? Did he have a clue how my mother might react and how he would need to be her support through what lay ahead? He never said; he never talked about anything personal…ever. All I know is that I came out of my earliest years with nothing but adoration for my father. He was my world; even my mother had to admit it. I had no time for anyone but him, but that’s part of a tale a wee bit down the road. The Riverdale Park, West road.
I do know how my father would have reacted to such a situation in later years so, perhaps, I can interpolate and infer from that. He would have told my mother that there was nothing to worry about, they were both tough enough to deal with whatever lay ahead and, maybe he rejoiced when he got the good news and could tell Wee Nan that Wee Marie was just fine and had only to do a wee bit of healing before she was a right wee cuddy. Sure she’d be a quare smasher, so she would. (We use ‘wee’ a lot in Northern Ireland.)
As it played out, both Wee Nan and Wee Marie were tough wee cuddies. My mother could likely not have survived had she not been in great physical shape from all the years she played that insane and highly dangerous came of camogie, the Irish girls’ every-bit-as-fierce-as-boys’ hurling game. It is a perilous cross between field hockey and unhelmeted, close-quarter Scottish hammer-throwing and caber-tossing, only with balls as hard as concrete and flailing hurley bats that could take out an eye as easily as crush a patella. Oh the tales she would tell about eyeballs out of sockets and blood-strewn camogie fields…and she was Captain of the various teams on which she played. Wee Tiny 4’11” Nan beetlin’ in and out among the mad hurley bats directed toward her and the ball she had claimed for her own. I can’t, for the life of me, equate this firebrand with the woman who was my very refined, dignified, highly-trained in the domestic and social arts and a teacher to boot, mother. But the stories have been told to me, not just by her, but by all her cousins and friends from those days. So that is what allowed my mother to survive the rigors and onerous demands of her blessed event at The Royal Maternity Hospital.
Wee Marie, for her part, must not be overlooked in the “tough guy” category. Doctors and Misters and, no doubt, Matrons and Sisters assured my parents that if I had not been possessed with a most unusually strong heart (I like to think “the heart of a lion” though I would never take a lion’s heart nor even look crossly at one), I would be an ex- newborn or, more to the fact, an unborn.
There were no photos to record any of these events but, then, I don’t know that a lot of photography went on in the days before the ease of video cameras and digital and cellphones and, to my mind, that’s as it should be. These are private moments to be inhaled at source at the time, not through a lens capturing new love and life affirmation and a bond so strong in years to come, but so nubile and fragile at its inception. I will admit there were photos taken at my giving birth to my (also) only child, but more than I would have liked. I’ve found, over the years, that the ready-to-roll aspect of photo- taking detracts immeasurably from the actual enjoyment of any moment. Instead of the pleasure at origin, it is pleasure once removed, not enjoyed and savored for itself, but with a mind toward sharing it with Everyman, and Everyman has his own life to be savoring and inhaling, and not photographing in its entirety. I believe it cheapens these life events and robs of us their true enjoyment.
My, aren’t we the Grim Gertie? And a hypocritical Grim Gertie at that. I spent many years, surrounded by a horse, many dogs and many, many cows (pets as far as I was concerned), photographing practically every moment and event of their lives because I didn’t ever want to forget the magic, the joy, the peace and the fulfillment they brought to my life. I did enjoy them at the time since I allocated practically every moment of my time outside of school and work to them, and only photographed to try and keep track of mothers and calves and those calves’ becoming mothers and their calves, and so on. And, to this day, 40-plus years later, I still have photo albums by the ton, carefully organized by bovine family and, except for the fact that, eventually, they all had to be sold at auction as cows with calves at side (buying them a little time), I still pore over those albums, and am transported back to those times, with the low sounds of cud chewing and shifting grunts, and grass bending, bowing and blowing as they made their way; always together through the fields and pastures and bush and creek, their breath smelling for all the world like parsnips, and their coats smelling like some wild herb with a bit of cool breeze mixed in. And the mothers’ low calls to their wee ones, and the wee ones mooing and ‘maa’ing and frolicking, tails aloft and legs akimbo, to catch up with Mamas. And I can still look back at those days, teary-eyed, of course, in those albums full of those photos I’ve just suggested are a bit too much. Maybe there is a compromise number but I doubt anyone is brave enough to establish one and, even if he or she did, and survived, no one would pay it a scintilla of attention. Such is human nature.
And human nature is also such that it can be most resilient.
That would make us human-natured, I imagine, my mother and I, as we both managed to collect our collective selves, leave The Royal Maternity Hospital in due course and return to my parents’ home in Riverdale Park, me not so much returning as reappearing in corporal form. There are no photos of those days that I have found, nor seen, and we did spend hours upon hours, my mother and I, over the years, looking through thousands of old family photos that span generations. The earliest photos of me I’ve seen are as a bald blob in what appears to be a white nightie. I could be a stage prop as there’s nothing recognizable as human in the old black and white photo. My father and mother are, indeed, in the scene, but I’m just a featureless head draped in swaths of what looks to be white linen or cotton.
I suspect these photos were of my Baptism at St. Agnes Church, also in Andersonstown, within walking distance from home. It would appear that, by the regulated time of my christening later the month of my birth, I was sufficiently recovered and presentable to be wheeled and presented to the good Padre for the first of my Roman Catholic Sacraments. Don’t go hog wild about how perfect I now may have appeared to the naked eye, as I still have a rather lop-sided head, with a bump no one but me knows is there. I suspect a phrenologist would pick up on it fairly quickly, but I do try to hide it with hair that has never really wanted to grow as thickly on that protuberance as on the rest of my head.
And my eyes are oddly positioned, something apparently only I really notice. However, one is on quite a bit of a slant down to the other and always looks like it may be partially closed. This is nicely accentuated by the fact that the wee-er, lower-looking eye is about ¾ brown and the rest grayish, whereas the more regulation issue, higher eye, has always been a greenish blue in hue. ”Oh You-Hue! Did you know you have two different-coloured eyes?” And, yes, people do ask that question, in just that way, but I have never been smart-arsed or mean enough to say, as I so want, “WHAT??? NO!!! It’s not possible. When did this happen?” Instead I smile and, cleverly, reply, “Yes, I do.” Not really anywhere else to go with that. I get the David Bowie comparisons (may he rest in peace). I know his discoloration resulted from an eye injury. I don’t know what caused mine, nor when it changed color as I’m fairly sure both my eyes were the color that all fair-skinned babies’ eyes seem to be at birth…that rather startling blue.
I imagine, though, I was so very startling in so many other ways, no one bothered to check my eyes. They could have been yellow slits like a cat’s for all anyone knew at that point.
At the Baptism from which I digressed just now, I was christened ‘Marie Elizabeth’; ‘Elizabeth’ as it was my mother’s mother’s name and ‘Marie’ because my mother wanted a ‘Mary’. However, there were already two ‘Mary’s around my age in the connection, living in Belfast and that seemed a tad much, even in honor of the Blessed Virgin (Mary). In addition, Belfast ones pronounce ‘Mary’ much more like ‘Meery’ (as in a Meerkat, long ‘e’ way). My mother didn’t like that so, inventive and innovative as ever, she chose “Marie” which is, of course, derived from Mary. Simple.
NO. Not simple. This name was chosen before any thoughts of emigrating to Canada had entered any minds, as far as I know (I’d nod querulously toward my father at this point were he still alive, as he may already have been giving the idea some judicious mulling, but that would have been it). In Ireland, ‘Marie’ is not typically pronounced the French way ‘Muh-ree’ (accent on second syllable). Rather it is a very fat ‘a’ ‘Maaa-ree’ (accent on the first syllable). Move to Canada with that name, being chronically shy, with parents who insist you correct any who call you ‘Muh’ree’ and see how you do. If friends (I had some) called and asked for ‘Muh’ree’, my mother would say no one of that name lived there; my father would just hang up the phone.
Flash forward to Grade 6, when The Beatles were my everything and George Harrison’s girlfriend was Patti Boyd and Eureka! I had it…the fab gearest and marviest cool way ever to solve the name game I perpetually lost: ‘Marri’. People were sufficiently intrigued about this spelling to ask me its correct pronunciation, and I would tell them exactly how to pronounce it: ‘Maaa’ree’. Then, because for some reason, Canadians can’t get that really flat ‘a’, it would come back at me as ‘Maw’ree’. Still quite wrong, but good enough to satisfy my parents.
And so, Wee Marie became ‘Marri’ for many a year until she wanted her proper name on her MA diploma and reverted to Marie. She now doesn’t care what people call her, though tends to make rude faces to herself when she hears ‘Muh-ree’.
As is common with all double breech babies, I just double-digressed. From indicating I knew it was walking distance from our house in Riverdale Park to the parish church, St. Agnes, I wandered into the pronunciation of my name instead of an explanation of why I know it was but a walk’s worth of distance between Home and Church. Something, and yet nothing, like the separation of Church and Estate.
Having stoked the fires of excitement about this walking distance, allow me to explain. My mother’s parents, as previously established, also lived in Riverdale Park and, presumably, walked to St. Agnes Church (no doubt everyday as they were most observant Catholics and, in fact, lay members of the Dominican Order; as such they were buried in the Dominican habits…and I’m off again). When, a few years later, they came to live with us in Canada, her father, my Dada, had had a series of strokes and behaved for all the world like someone in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. He would confuse the fact that I attended a St. Agnes School, just a walk away, with St. Agnes Church, and would head off to church, sadly, often wearing nothing but his pajama top. Just over 40 years after that, the same curse befell my mother…the strokes, the dementia but this time the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was added, in that it was now a ‘thing’. Having seen the two of them go through almost the identical hell, it does leave me wondering how much is stroke, how much dementia, how much can we – even medical science – really be sure?
I’ve got ahead of myself again. One might think there were two of me. There might as well have been as I never stopped talking to that other person. Talking to myself? Perhaps. But my chats were always directed at another person, be that me or some mini internal me or, my latest theory, a twin me that was absorbed during gestation and plotted along with me to play a very funny double-trouble joke upon our birth date…the much-discussed double-breech birth.
But for now, I’ll leave the story of Wee Marie Elizabeth (properly pronounced for the Belfastian ear), lying in her wee cot in Riverdale Park West, with her Mammy and Daddy no longer fearing for her mental health (not in the IQ sense anyway) or worried she may have permanent disfiguration. She has her Andy Pandy, and Growler the Bear, and Big Fat Ted in her wee room with her; and one might think she is blissfully unaware that a world where people can be less than nice and events can be less than happy lies just outside her four walls.
But I think Wee Marie Elizabeth always knew the truth.
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but…
If there is one thing I am, it’s truthful. I don’t know that I can claim this as any great virtue because I suspect the reason ‘I cannot tell a lie’ is that the few times I remember not being truthful, or being disobedient in any way, I had the daylights walloped out of me. The instrument employed for punishing the infraction was, sometimes, just to hand, but the tools kept in case they were needed for my particular torture included the ever popular wooden spoon, the less popular (especially for the victims) grandfather’s razor-sharpening strap and, I may be imagining this, but I do think I received the top end of said strap once, deservedly, for ignoring my Nana’s and Dada’s instructions and sticking out my tongue at them. I remember doing this once and once only and, for that, I believe I got the end of the razor strap with the steel bit for hanging on walls or doors. I just remember a lot of pain and NEVER EVER doing that again.
I had a few slaps across the face for being ‘cheeky’. ‘Cheeky’ covered a vast array of behaviors, from talking back to my mother (my father never was involved in the doling out of punishment) to making insolent faces. I was even reprimanded most sternly for, and advised most emphatically (and terrifyingly) against, future use of such sloppy expressions as ‘Yep’ for ‘Yes’ or ‘OK’ for ‘Yes’ or ‘Huh?’ or ‘What?’ for ‘Pardon?’. And, in the early years in Canada, with my grandparents living with us, I had many an opportunity to be a less than ideally-behaved and –tongued child, which resulted in what seems an inordinate amount of reprimanding. In all honestly, my treatment at the hands of my forebears (and there were four) would likely not have fazed a somewhat less anxious and eager-to-please, desperate-for-approval child. Whereas it took but my mother’s glare and disapproval to send me, dissolving in tears to the opposite end of the house, this approach had not one iota of effect on my own daughter when my mother directed them at her. In fact, it just made her behave worse, and sent my mother into a state of histrionics that always ended in my being blamed for my child’s cheekiness and sent me, dissolving in tears, to the porch for a few moments alone, wailing in sheer bad-tempered frustration at the unfairness of it all - and me now the mother - sandwiched between two generations of females who could turn me into jelly.
Back to my being truthful, for whatever reasons. I am also painfully and painstakingly honest and, for all the sad and bad things that happened or that I did in my life, I am nothing but yawningly cavern-like in my openness to share them with anyone if, for some reason, I think it appropriate or useful to the conversation. I doubt there is anything about me that, if you didn’t already know, I would have trouble telling you, no matter how personal. As refreshing as this might be in opposition to those who reveal nothing about anything, ever, it can be a bit much. I’m sure people have oft puzzled why I describe situations and events where I was, obviously, a right eejit. Even a right git. Perhaps it’s part of that need to put myself down before anyone else can. Whatever it is, I really should tone it down a few notches.
You may remember, earlier in this tale, I wrote, “Wee Marie Elizabeth always knew the truth.” And, ever the cynic and pessimist, as I was dubbed by my mother among others, I think this is why I’ve always known the truth about the world, at least inasmuch as a baby or big lump now of 67 (and everything in between) can. I prefer to think I’m more of a realist, given what has happened to me and the world around me (thanks to many of the people in it) during my lifetime. To me, and for me, it has never been a welcoming place. It has always been a foreboding and threatening land, rigged to trip me up and help me fail and flail and want to leave it to return whence I came pre-natale (west and a bit left of Itale, I believe).
And that’s why I am so grateful there is a humor gene on both sides of my family. Different types of humor and laughter, mind you, and none of it as self-deprecating as my own, but it’s there. And I know I discovered it at a very early age, as I had a doll, a rock hard, plastic doll, whose ‘hair’ was molded plastic and essentially non-existent, but for a few lines across her skull. By the time we moved to Canada, when I was two and a bit, I had already named her ‘Goldilocks’. I have been assured in the past that I chose this name myself. Now, I may just have been enamored of the story of Goldilocks and her three bears (not unlike my forebears, because there were bears for me to love, so just selected that name for familiarity’s sake. Or, had I already given voice to my strange bent, and not just the ones on my dented skull? I like to think the latter.
Apparently, I hated everyone; apparently, I hated everyone from the moment of my arrival (no wonder given the state I was in, hardly prepared for receiving guests or being viewed by the assembled throng). I believe I tolerated my mother, but she despaired of ever being able to feed me in that wholly ‘natural’ way which one less prudish than I would call ‘breastfeeding’. Those sorts of things (calling anything bodily by its scientific and accepted name) were antithetical in my household, always. In desperation, she turned to what was being marketed and touted to the ‘British’ motherload as a luxury for children two and under. It had been introduced during rationing in WWII, and I am one of that ‘Boomer’ bunch so, apparently, I was on the hard stuff barely out of my wee womb, with no succor in the form of actual infant/baby formula.
This National Dried Milk usually featured as a corollary in the oft-told tale of my birth as she, my poor mother, blamed National Dried Milk for all my weight problems (the ones that plagued me until age 11, then came back with a vengeance until I was rescued, at 14, by anorexia and his best friend, bulimia). And, not only did she blame National Dried Milk in the tale of my pudge, but herself for giving up on the natural feeding approach, or whatever she called that in our most priggish household.
Such a crank was I that all those relatives I have revealed lived so close to us in Belfast, my mother’s cousin and husband, their four children, even my own grandparents, couldn’t get anywhere near me without my hurtling immediately into full and incredibly exasperating wails of displeasure and/or terror (I can’t remember what, but I do remember being very unhappy with my lot, even at that early age). No rest for my wicked parents, especially my mother, as I couldn’t be left with a babysitter, or dropped off at any relations’ homes so the new, beleaguered and, I’m sure, bloody fed-up parents could get even a semblance of time alone to recoup and revive. I can’t imagine my being as bad as I was with everyone else, with my mother, but the only tales that I heard, and the only memories I have from that first and early second year, were of my father…playing with me, teasing me (that could get old) and, most important and beloved, coming in to sing to me when I was safely and decidedly out of my mother’s hands for what one would hope would be a good, uninterrupted night’s sleep all ‘round.
And the songs to which I was treated, in his definitely lovely, though untrained voice, were virtually all the same fare and fodder. How fair my fodder. They were all Irish rebel songs, about wars and Irishmen murdered and thrown from their land and soldiers, and rebel heroes being hanged and shot…so you can imagine how this colored my life and politics with respect to my homeland. About three-quarters of the songs were of this nature, with a few more just standard ‘Come-All-Ye’ funny songs (to which I still know every verse), interspersed with two, only two, that weren’t Irish, one to do with picking apples and one to do with sailing on the Rio Grande. I loved that song, and would sing along when I was old enough to do so, and I would be in raptures with my Daddy spending so much time with me. Even as a wane (‘wee one’), I knew he was very special. He was highly intelligent and well-educated, and people deferred to him. He was also (and I will employ today’s vernacular, though it humiliates me, because it truly conveys the image) ‘drop dead gorgeous’, oft-compared to the likes of then-the-rage-actors, Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn, but with the qualifying ‘only much better looking’. So I knew I was one lucky wee girl, now called “Wee Marie Aga”, as that’s the only way I could pronounce my name, getting to spend so much time with Kevin, the lad for whom the lassies swooned.
• “There was Johnny McGee from the banks of the Lee…” (first line to The Irish Rover)
• “In Mountjoy Jail, one Monday morning, high upon a gallows tree…” (first line to Kevin Barry)
• “Good men and true, in this house who dwell, to a stranger bouchal I pray you tell…” (first line to The Croppy Boy)
• “Oh Mrs. McGrath, the Sergeant said, “Would you like to make a soldier out of your son Ted?...”(first line to …you guessed it, Mrs. McGrath; just by the way, Ted gets “his two fine legs from the knees behind” blown to smithereens at Gallipoli or somewhere).
Those were the stuff of my musical nascence, my lullabies. And I knew, and still know them all, plus have added a hefty repertoire of my own Irish rebel and other songs to them over the years. But this was the stuff of my infancy, the evening moments for which I learned when my Daddy would sing me these songs and the words meant nothing; it was the tone, the feeling of safety, the specialness of it that were so compelling, and why I loved my Daddy perhaps more than I did my mother, at the time.
There song about the Rio Grande (which sounded, even to my very young ears) very exotic and enticing holds a special place in my memory glands. Since I don’t know the real lyrics, the ones I heard sounded perfectly logical, “And away, Wee Marie, away, away down Rio. So fare thee well, my pretty young maid, for I’m bound for the Rio Grande.”
OK, what in the hell does that mean? Even now it begs at least some explication. Not being quite the suspicious cynic then as I was to become, I didn’t see the grand plan, the scheme de la scheme. From leaving for the Rio Grande, the repertoire expanded to include this chant-cum-mantra, “Daddy’s away to Canada.” OK, ‘Daddy’s away’ I would understand and it probably shot shards of fear through my heart that he was even thinking of leaving my room for the night. But the ‘to Canada’? It would be quite the academically-proficient one-year-old in Belfast (N) Ireland who would have known what ‘Canada’ was, much less with the preposition ‘to’ prefixing it.
(This is where all will begin to become clear had you been paying attention to my earlier commentary and asides about the political situation in Northern Ireland and why I was planning a grand explanation later in the tale, suggesting bookmarking as optional.)
My father was nothing if not ambitious. Very ambitious. I’ve even been told tales by women he knew before my mother that support this. He’d ask them what they wanted to do with their lives (no doubt whilst dancing amiably to a whatever kind of dance they were doing in those days) and, who knows what replies he got, but he would then be very direct in informing them that he, Kevin, had great ambition, by which he meant (I well know), he planned to achieve substantial business and financial success.
While this ambition is all very well and good, it behooves one to live in a place or country that offers everyone the possibility of that level of success if one is willing to work for it. Sadly, we did not reside in such a location, city, province or, country subject, as we were, to laws and legislation that disadvantaged and dispossessed our sort, the ones in Northern Ireland who were treated as second-class citizens, the ones who rightly owned the land, but were removed for the Highland planters after the English effectively cleared them from their native land and stuck them in the northeastern province of Ulster, in Ireland. This, needless to say, required the scattering and/or obliteration of the native Irish. Centuries, and hundreds of libraries full of books on the topic later, we native sort, who just so happened to be Catholic, because that’s what we were when we were bounced, still didn’t have the advantages financially (or in far too many ways to list) to make a true go of it in business. Those who replaced us, by the way, the Scottish Highlanders the English planted on our land, just so happened to be Presbyterian. And that, that paltry incidental fact in the grand scheme of British Imperialism and its inherent evil is the only bit of religion that has any bearing in the tale of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. When I would hear people talk about ‘Catholics and Protestants fighting over religion’, I would damn near rip the gub off whomever said it. Well, I would have had I not been catatonically shy.
And my father wanted to make a very big go of it. He was a Quantity Surveyor, trained in Dublin, all thanks to his service in the British Army near the end of WWII. His age precluded his being in for the long haul, though all he wanted to be was a fighter pilot. Instead he was part of the British Occupation of Hong Kong, and spent most of his five years there or in Singapore. My mother, then his lady love (and a student at Teacher’s College in Belfast) was the recipient of finest silks in hosiery and lounge wear, intricately woven jackets and – oh yes - she was also the recipient of many a foul glare and envious remark. What could the swashbuckling Kevin possibly see in Wee Nan, she who was the troublemaking, yes, shit-disturbing, always laughing and carrying on, ‘not the size of two good turf’ hallion? Well, he saw something he came to love dearly. Sure he’d fallen for her years before at the Gaeltacht (Irish language summer immersion program) when they were only 15.
How my father, with his fierce pride in being Irish, true native Irish, and his heady ‘Up the Republic’anism, well-instilled into me, could have marched off to fight in the army of his, by sheer deduction and/or extension, sworn enemy, seems a hypocrisy I’ve never completely understood. His Majesty George VI was certainly not our Majesty George VI as far as I’m concerned, though I was of no concern then at all, quite negligible in my non-existence. And my father never discussed this nor tried to explain, so it was only through my own startling insight one day (as this was always somewhere in the back of my brain, mulling about in right bad form) that showed me my conceit in how I regarded it. It was the only way a Catholic in Northern Ireland at that time could get a decent education, one that would afford him or her well-paying job and other advantages unavailable to those without that avenue to pursue. So, he had become a Quantity Surveyor, a much-vaunted profession in the general contracting trade, on Her Majesty’s pound, shilling and pence. The fact it took me so long to realize this – because it did bother me in the extreme – is one about which I am ashamed. I’m usually far too good a detective (the cynic in me never trusts things at face value) to have missed such an obvious rationale and rather cunning plan.
So, after all was said and shipped off and back and done, my father did not become a fighter pilot but did, instead, become a Quantity Surveyor.
And this is where the story takes a 3000-mile turn westward.
Status quo ante Belfast departure
I know I was told the name of the general contractor for whom my father worked. It was a singular company in Belfast, maybe in the entirety of Northern Ireland, for all I know, because it was a Catholic-owned enterprise. From my understanding, though I may have assumed (and we all know about the ‘u’ and the ‘me’ and that chestnut of an admonition) – let’s say I inferred and/or surmised - it was the only one in Belfast, at least. A company or business owned by a Catholic in those days, in that place, was somewhat aberrant. I could go back and look up the history of civil rights and could get into the ‘One Man, One Vote’ imbroglio, fight and ensuing legislation improving the RC lot, but that’s beyond the scope of this undertaking of mine, which is really just to posit and ponder aloud about what I remember. In fact, I’d be cheating were I to come across all historically accurate and politically correct (and not in the PC sense; I hate that).
It’s not that I don’t know the history. I did my Master’s degree in History, studied Irish history and politics, among my subject matters (those subjects mattered most) and, indeed, my Master’s thesis brought together the history, politics, the literary movement (‘The Celtic Twilight’ as it became known and enshrined) and the national, social and creative consciousness that, as per my thesis, was a major contributing factor in the Easter Rising of 1916. The rebellion led, eventually, to the Constitution of The Irish Free State in 1922, which separated Ireland into The Republic of 26 counties and the infamous Northern Ireland, which most people know as “Ulster”. Before I start employing BOLD CAPS for everything on this topic, let me take a deep breath and explain in the most simple terms, because the rest of the world doesn’t bloody understand this. I doubt they’d much care even if they did but, still, it warrants proper explanation, and I’m no slouch on the topic of it all, at least in general terms. Among the lesser ranks – sergeant, lieutenant, though major would be oxymoronic in this instance – I still know quite a bit about it, and what I don’t currently is likely because I’ve forgotten it.
Ireland comprises, historically, four provinces: Ulster, Munster, Connaught and Leinster. Since I really have no interest at the moment in drawing your attention to any of these but Ulster, let’s agree that we’ve held a vote and have consensus to pursue the topic of the province of Ulster.
Let’s view it as a mathematical conundrum. There are 32 counties in Ireland. I have no idea how many counties are in each of the four provinces, but there are nine counties in “historical” Ulster. Therefore, since the part of Ireland – Northern Ireland – is interchangeably called Ulster, it makes nothing but complete sense that there are nine counties in ‘political’ Ulster. Even I, with my .003 percentile score in the SACU tests (Scholastic Achievement for Canadian Universities or some such drivel) I had to write in Grade 13, know that a nine-countied Ulster is, in fact, an Ulster with nine counties in any and all situations.
Not so fast with that rapid mathematical acumen and common sense. What exists since the 1920s as the ‘political’ Ulster, aka Northern Ireland - that part yet part of Great Britain aka the United Kingdom - comprises not nine counties – sure, not at all – but six.
Just the six? Yes.
Why and how so? Well, because if one counted up all the people in all the nine counties of ‘historical’ Ulster, one would have far too many native Irish of the Roman Catholic-persuasion who would not be amenable to being lorded over by Mother England and Great Granny Britain. Most of these people, if not all, would have dearly loved to be part of a United Ireland and, absent that, at least part of the Republic (aka The Free State). And this would defeat the whole purpose of ensuring the Loyalist brethren were still hand in fist with the Rules Britannia.
So, what do you think they did about this inequality and rather impossible situation? They invited Gerry to Meander in and Gerrymandered the three predominantly Catholic counties out of that part of Ireland which would remain united with the UK (six counties), leaving the other three as part of the Republic. And, so, lest you be concerned for the fate of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects and Empire, all those who wanted to stay loyal could stay loyal and have hegemony over those who didn’t want to be loyal and, so, what is now called ‘Ulster’ by them what don’t know, is a load of tripe and codswallop and a total disgrace.
Because I’m sure you’re quite intrigued by who and what was affected in Gerry’s meander, let me continue. Whereas the historical province of Ulster contains the counties Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tyrone, what now passes for political Ulster excludes Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. Those three RC-heavy counties were effectively told to ‘go hoke’ which I think is sufficiently self-explanatory not to require translation. I’ll leave it at that, lest my brutal and incendiary honesty at the situation (and I don’t even live there, so you can imagine the rancor felt by those non-ascendant citizens who must live within such a contrived state for all these years and well into the foreseeable future).
But let’s forget the actual facts, and return to how the situation in Northern Ireland affected my father and his grand plans and aspirations for success. The upshot of a gerrymandered state, favoring the ascendant loyalist population was that it was very unlikely, well nigh impossible, that a Catholic “national/native” would succeed in business even with really trying. Success itself would be measured differently, as no Catholic could achieve anything close to that possible for one of the Protestant Loyalist brethren. If my father, who kicked with the former foot, wanted to garner anything close to the prosperity he hoped to achieve for himself and family, it wouldn’t happen in Northern Ireland. Though he had a good job as in his Quantity Surveyor capacity with the one general contractor who employed our sort, it was highly unlikely he could ever start his own general contracting firm, as there wasn’t really sufficient opportunity or work for two directly competing firms.
And this, it would seem, was when the wanderlust to wander to, and lust for, more amenable locations, lands of opportunity and beacons of potential fortunes - that “great ambition” previously referenced - reared what my mother and I always agreed was its ugly head.
But where to set sights, and whither we sail?
I don’t know how early on in this planning and weighing of options my mother was included, but she did have plenty of time to ponder and absorb that her ‘mon’ would never be satisfied at some wee job in a wee house on a wee street in a wee country like Ireland. His sights were much further set. And, it’s not hard to understand this leaning toward largesse and grandiosity as he had grown up in a very poor family, sharing beds and meals and, often, not getting much, if anything, to eat. That’s where the dreams began…simply to get away from there and make a better life. Or so I think. He never talked about it.
And my mother surely knew all about the aspirations, talents and vice-grip focus of this man she’d married. So the topic may have long been the elephant in the living room (or, more likely, the drawing room) When the rather large pachyderm was finally identified for discussion, I imagine it was shortly after my birth, as I’m certain my father would have wanted to provide the best life could offer his Wee Nan and the family he would have. I would also imagine he was expecting a fairly large family in true Irish Catholic fashion.
Even though my mother was an only child, both her parents came from large families. My father was second in a family of seven children (they being the ones who had survived TB and meningitis and infant death); both his parents were from large families. The smallest family amongst the lot managed to produce four children. No mean feat. Eight feet, in fact.
To this day (and all the ones prior), I don’t know why I have no siblings. I do know my Nana had quite a few miscarriages, and then had one girl, Brigid, my mother’s sister, my aunt ,who only survived a number of weeks. But that didn’t explain me and my singular oneness. This topic, and all adjoining or veering anywhere near it were verboten. I tell you a blitzkrieg the likes of which even Der Fürher could not have imagined would have rained down upon me or anyone even hinting at such off-topics. This territory was No Man’s Land (appropriately).
The closest we ever came to a discussion of my dearth of brothers and sisters was during an exchange as the pair of us – Wee Nan and Wee Marie – walked home from town one Saturday afternoon. I would bet my one good leg that I was eight.
• Me: “Will I ever have any brothers or sisters?” (I strongly doubt I would have broached anything as “cheeky” as “WHY DON’T I HAVE any brothers and sisters?”
• My Mother: “Would you like a brother or sister? (I remember it was the singular nouns.)
• Me: “Yes.”
Then I thought. Then I pondered and cogitated, and thought some more about how this idea of another child, let alone several, may impact me. My father was always working, so little time for me, my mother had her parents to care for, so little time for me. Invariably, we would have a relative or friend from Ireland living with us, whilst making his or her way as an immigrant toward Canadian citizenship, so even less time for me; and, furthermore, my parents – my father, especially, always seemed to pay more attention to other kids and their achievements than to me and mine. I rightly or wrongly believed this was because he’d wanted a boy, and got stuck with a fat girl, but that raises a whole new specter of my history of anxiety and feelings of worthlessness and all the usual stuff that makes its appearance in tales that teeter on the brink of Electra complexities.
But, to return to the scintillating sibling conversation; having given the matter due consideration, I discovered I had a new answer to whether or not I wanted a sibling of any kind or number.
• Me: ”No.”
Because, you know as well as I do, if there had been some other kid come along after me, I’d have loathed him or her, and have been eaten alive with jealousy because not only would he or she be getting half (likely more) of the attention I’d been getting, he or she would likely be perfect. I had enough trouble with my imperfections and attempts to get attention. I didn’t need some cub or cuddy with a name Canadians could pronounce upsetting my apple cart (which, of course, was totally full of no apples). So, I was comfortable with my assertion that I DID NOT WANT a sibling, then lived in fear one was about to appear at any moment (given I hadn’t a clue how siblings were sibled).
In retrospect, I’ve decided an older sibling might have been OK, maybe even good because I would be digging in to his/her parental attention allotment, and that would have pleased the jealous and, on some level, evil bits of my nature. But, unless one was stored in the woodwork or was not, as yet, unpacked from a steamer trunk that came across the Atlantic with our bits and pieces, the only thing for it would have been going back in time and, from my perspective now, I really don’t want to add any more time to either my life or this tale.
Back in Belfast, where none of this had happened yet, I believe the talk must have turned to which country would we be our best bet emigration-wise. I only know this tale from my mother, and it makes sense in that, as, politically, we were part of the British Commonwealth, a Commonwealth country seemed the most likely bet (although how did all those Irish in the US get there?). I had long heard, and have no reason to doubt, my father had three job offers, made to him by three companies from three countries with rapidly-growing economies. These companies were located in Australia; Canada; and, South Africa.
Hmm…hmm…hmm…what to do, Wee Nan, what to do? Considering my mother had no desire whatsoever to leave her homeland, her family, her parents, her life, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her now to have to make a logical and thoughtful choice among three sad and heart-wrenching paths. That she loved my father enough even to contemplate such a move, much less make it, is beyond my ability to comprehend. Not that he was unlovable, just that she had to put him and his wishes and dreams before her own. I could never have done that. But, God love her, she did.
How she decided, you wonder, which of these three nations would be ours to call home. (Correction: ‘home’, even to me who left so young, will always be Ireland). Instead we’ll call them adopted countries. Well, Australia was way too far, and getting home for visits would be so much trouble that I’m sure she saw them as never happening, so Oz was out. South Africa, similarly, out and, in this I discovered something in my mother I wouldn’t have thought existed, for no reason other than the topic never really came up. She wanted no part of Apartheid, for those were pre-Mandela days. The idea of another race being treated as subservient and subjugated, was anathema to her, as well it should be. It flies in the face of all ‘Christian religion’ (or any true religion), and she would have no truck with that. I wonder, too, did she equate the lot of the Black Africans with that of the Native Irish who, similarly, were kept subjugated and subservient for centuries, powerless and penniless and dispossessed by a foreign Imperial power? I like to think so. A girl can dream.
So, Canada, through no fault or virtue of your own, other than being closer than Australia and devoid of Apartheid, I currently call you home. Well, my home is still Ireland in spirit but, for all other more tangible purposes, you became home to the wee family of McGraths.
Oh, and no surprise, that didn’t go at all according to plan.
Daddy’s Away to Canada…
When last Wee Marie figured in any prominence in this tale, it was around the time of her Christening. If one were to believe previous description, the mangled visage she first presented must have healed very well and quickly to be let loose upon a public so soon after splashdown. She was also enjoying her Daddy’s songs every night, as he sang her to sleep with tales of young men getting hanged and shot and shipped off to Van Diemen’s Land for being grand Irish rebels. And if her Daddy was ‘Up the Rebels’ing during ‘Up the Rebels’ sing songs, that was enough, and another diehard Republican/United Irelander was being primed for launch.
I mentioned earlier two non-Irish songs that infiltrated their respective ways into the nightly repertoire. One became a tad sing-songy, with a bit of a rhythmic beat: “Daddy’s away to Canada.” I emphasize the ‘to’ as it went up a little there. Feel free to try it, but it becomes practically hypnotic when said often enough, especially by a two-year-old, mimicking her adored pater as she followed along, “Daddy’s away a Can-da-da”. Yes, there was a tad of mispronunciation but I don’t think that, at two, it could be considered any reason to have my developmental progress re-evaluated.
I repeated it day and night, in a wee sing-song way…just those words, and they were very important because they were ‘our special song’. Had I a clue what it meant? Would you, at that age, knowing nothing about countries or jobs or Daddies going anywhere but into the back garden to work after coming home from being somewhere all day, or in the wee room used as a study while he was finishing his Quantity Surveyor examinations?
Because you’ve been given rather clear insight into the story-to-date and are no neophyte in deduction, you have by now surmised that one day, much to my (and Wee Marie’s) surprise, Daddy did, indeed, go to Canada.
While I remember only small fragments of the day, they were so intense that I can still feel the sting of the tears, the wetness of my wee blue overcoat and the heat of my face, as I walked and walked the neighborhood streets looking for my daddy, pathetically, and plaintively calling – in what must have been a very tiny voice – “Where’s my Daddy? I want my Daddy” I imagine the ‘Daddy’s were more like ‘Da-a-aha-dy’s to allow for the choking back of sobs. The front of that coat was totally soaked and I remember still the feeling of the tears rolling down my chin under my collar and tickling my neck as if to taunt me further.
At one point in my futile odyssey, I chanced upon some boys and girls a bit older than me, playing in a yard or what I remember almost as a hill of dirt. I must have asked them or cried at them or something about “my Daddy”. I very clearly remember that, for my trouble, I was pelted painfully with stones and rocks ant told to “Get away, wee fatty”. There’s a certain charm to children, isn’t there? In their defense, they must learn it somewhere, and I’ll blame their ould ‘ma’s and ‘da’s because I would no more have thought of doing something like that to anyone, much less a youngster in distress than I would of walking over to one of them with a club and bludgeoning him or her to death, despite the appeal to me of such grisly revenge scenarios. I’ll add a “Not really” here, just in case.
I may still be wandering the neighborhood, wholly-dehydrated and wearing a blue overcoat that would now reach to my shoulders if I could get it buttoned around my neck, (plus I’m sure the weather in Northern Ireland would have turned it to mush decades ago) if someone hadn’t found me. Who that someone was, I don’t really remember though, in a vague recess of the memory of me-marie, I suspect it was a policeman, a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It would, however, have been unusual for such personnel to be wandering about our neck of the woods. The RUC and the R-no-C weren’t great friends, then, ever and beyond. Let’s just say some good Samaritan, not averse to red-faced children with slobbery noses and soaked coats, took pity on me and found me my way back home. BUT, that may just be a convenient and handy summation. I seem to remember being asked where I lived and, having been walking for hours upon hours, I was totally lost so I can only surmise that someone got me home, and my mother rejoiced or was, at least, most relieved. She’d only been left in sole charge of me for less than a day at that point, and had already misplaced me. Bad form.
In what is only a wild guess, I’ll continue the story the only way I can; by claiming to have become comatose and catatonic after my adventure in the high streets, as I remember nothing else until we left for Canada. Nothing. Not one single thing. There are some photos, some particularly cute ones of me (oh, yes, I did turn out to be quite cute, pretty even), eating a piece of bread and butter with sugar on it, pointing to my eye and saying, for some unknown (but apparently charming) reason, “I’m Wee Marie Aga”, as that’s all I could manage of ‘McGrath’ at the time.
And there must have been quite a lot transpiring about me. My father had left for Canada on April 13, on the Empress of France, which I know as I’m looking now at his passport and travel documents. The plan was that he would go ahead on to the grand land of Canada and start to ply his trade with a general construction company in Kitchener, Ontario, start earning and saving the requisite nest egg and, then, send for my mother and me after an appropriate passage of time (six months to a year, would be my conjecture on what seemed likely for those days and, it’s possible, my mother told me that was the plan). We were left in Riverdale Park, West where my mother began packing up bits of our belongings, though in no rush, mind you – we’d scads of time – getting on with life as a temporarily single parent, with my grandparents helping from up the road, to get all accomplished, packed and tidied. I suspect the best means of helping would have been to babysit their only granddaughter, who would fly into fits of fiery temper and terror at the mere thought of such a plan. I don’t know how they put up with me.
But they didn’t have long to put up with any of us. My father left April 13, got to Canada, in however long a time boats got to Canada from Ireland in those days, started working, found a place to live and, just one month later, dispatched this rather terse missive to my mother, in telegram format (remember those days?): ”Come at once.” I’m looking at it right now. The ink had barely dried on his Quantity Surveyor diploma, which arrived after he left. There had been no chance to do much of anything packing-wise (I was a great help) and, up we gets and has to move us to Canada in a matter of days. That my mother didn’t even question this directive, this command, this (likely more than anything else) plea, just astounds me. I’d have taken one look and said, in my different ways, none particularly PC, “I don’t think so”, then dispatched something back to that effect.
But she was so in love, my mother, with her handsome husband. She doted on him and she knew he would always take care of her (and, as it happened, her parents and many of her relatives). And he must have been just lost away from everything he knew, including his wee family. I have a sneaking suspicion, not to downplay my mother’s import, that he missed his Wee Marie and couldn’t wait to show me the new magic land of fortune and treasure that Canada, he thought, would seem to me.
Luckily, oblivious to what goes on the rest of the year in this hinterland, my mother and I arrived in Canada in lovely May weather, warm and sunny, ever so much nicer than the grey, rainy Belfast skies we left behind. We made the trip, the pair of us, on a prop plane, with next to nothing, two overnight bags, and Goldilocks (introduced previously), bald head and all. My sole memory of that very long flight was vomiting, and being less than my usual shy self by allowing a fellow passenger to hold Goldilocks and enjoying the fact he thought the name as funny as I did.
We had taken flight as true minimalists in the baggage department. I imagine my father said he’d get us whatever we’d need until the steamer trunks with all our belongings, some furniture and the odd bit and piece made it across the Atlantic Ocean and caught up with us part way, given the Ocean ends quite a distance from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
I don’t know my mother’s reaction upon first arriving in Canada. No doubt she was flabbergasted by how flat it was and how high the sky seemed. Everything was so BIG and spacious. And the accents. Equally flat, none of the lilt and cadence of the Irish accent, north or south. I imagine she was not very happy, other than for what the lovely weather brought to bear on an otherwise plain (sic) landing. I don’t actually remember seeing my Daddy (Kevin, remember?) for the first time in a whole month, but we have photos of our arrival on the tarmac and that’s as good as any actual memory, though some photos with people featured may have lent a more personal touch to the reunion, but that’s far too emotional for the Kerr-McGrath family to contemplate, much less enact.
My father had got us an apartment in a – for those times – fairly large building in Waterloo. I remember nothing, except my first crush. I believe these people were our next door neighbors and they had only just emigrated to Canada from Bombay, via London, so there was that sing-song accent that just seemed familiar, despite its emanating from a different country entirely. I loved everyone in that family, a massive departure for me but, mostly, I loved ‘Park’. His real name I mustn’t reveal as I haven’t asked permission, but his family all called him ‘Porky’ as he had been a tad on the large size as a wee lad. He was no longer porky, though still Porky and 12 days older than me. I’ve always, apparently, been a sucker for the dark haired, dark-eyed gentlemen. Park, of course, had no interest in me whatsoever, but I was acting so out of character, actually speaking to him, I didn’t really notice this lack of even the most miniscule of fascination with my wide wiles. He may have been Porky by name, but I was porky by gain.
We have a series of photos of all of us taken on the front porch of that building, way back in 1957, I believe. I still pass that building at least once a week and, on that same porch, I can still see us all there, huddled, the immigrant mass, praying (at least the adults) that this had not been a huge, life-altering mistake, this move to Canada. Both fathers had good jobs; both mothers were teachers, so there were jobs to be had.
Whereas in Ireland, at the time, once a woman was married, she was no longer allowed to teach (I expect it was similar in London), here, in Canada, you could teach if you were married or, even, a mother. What a wild and crazy land!
And so we started our lives in Canada, no car, walking everywhere because there was no bus at that time, as I recall, though later a Crosstown bus was instituted. However, the inconvenience of grocery shopping and the like, minus car or transit, made for togetherness, and we settled into what I believed was a very happy life, to be followed by a move to another address, a basement apartment in a triplex in Kitchener, Ontario where I have what I believe to be happy memories of Saturday evening Bugs Bunny cartoons, enjoyed, every week, to the odors of my mother’s curry dinner. That was heaven. If only to go back and open my senses to those moments. We had very little; in fact, I slept in a cot beside my parents’ bed as there was only one bedroom. It seemed things were working out fairly well.
I developed a penchant for 1) deliberately getting myself locked in the toilet (attention-seeking) and 2) going to the toilet during the night and falling in, getting my nethermost parts stuck where I landed. This was particularly embarrassing as I only seemed to practice my toiletry ritual when my parents had company, and there would be a huge kerfuffle about extricating me and apologies from whomever had left the seat up.
As utterly glorious and appealing as this life of ours may appear to the onlooker, there was the problem of Wee Marie’s care while Wee Nan taught and Kevin Quantity Surveyed for a local general contractor. Wee Marie was prone to biting other children, though she still doesn’t know why…other than she hated other children as they’d always taken such pleasure in calling her names. In Ireland it was bad enough, but now aspersions were cast on my very identity, the thing of which I was most proud…being Irish. Biting was too good for them in retrospect. I do remember my mother, around this time, retrieving me from a biting incident where I’d masticated some rotten, annoying child or other, and repaying me in kind by biting me hard enough to leave teethmarks, though no blood. I honestly think this was so incredibly embarrassing that I never did it again. Don’t get me wrong, if I think biting will serve a good purpose, even now, prepare to have all my very large and substantial teeth infiltrate whatever part of you is exposed.
My teeth bring me to the topic of my Granny, my father’s mother. In the days of our living in the basement apartment, prior to my other grandparents’ arrival in Canada, Wee Granny used to come for lengthy visits. Say no ill of the dead, yes, but of one who was fairly wicked to me, I have no problem relating her treatment of me. I could go on to relate her scurrilous treatment of others but this exposé is about me, so I get all the Granny grief.
Granny and my teeth is, in fact, a story that travelled onward in time by leaps and bounds until I was probably about 20. Granny’s claim to subversive fame was that she always waited until she had an audience (ostensibly on her side) to unleash her vitriol. I have big teeth, not the kind that jut or stick out, just big teeth and a (if I do say so myself) a rather nice smile. Nothing would do Granny but to get herself an audience (of those who looked similarly askance at me, in this case, my cousin and her boyfriend) to unleash this poignant and probing series of questions, loudly and with fiendish glee, to a full complement of Granny fans, “Is them your own teeth? Those can’t be yer own teeth; they’re far too big; they’re not your own. Is them your own teeth? Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha.” Perhaps not verbatim but not one bit too far from the truth. She had been living with us for months at this point, as she came over every winter, and could have commented innumerable times about the hilarious largesse of my dental bits, but she chose that day, and that audience. She was a pip, my Granny and ‘pip’ is the nicest I can proffer.
I’ve wandered off course from my tale of Granny and me when I was four and three. She lived with us then, too, off and on. In later years (she always seemed to come for the winters), she’d want to see my aunt who lived in town, or another of my uncles, but we were the only ones who would take her in, so she’d live with us, fake appreciation, then bugger off to them to laugh at us behind our collective backs. Mostly at me, I believe, because of my fatness and shyness and general awkwardness, but I’m sure she worked in a sizable negative component on my parents, individually and as a couple. For me, the most impactful hurt she caused, in those days (there was plenty more in years to come), was her constant referral to me as ‘Wee Fatty’. I have read about typical grandmotherly behavior over the years. Addressing your son’s only child as ‘Wee Fatty’ fails to appear on any of the typical behavior charts.
Needless to say, I was no fan of the Gran, not then, nor ever again. Don’t speak ill of the deceased, yes, but speaking ill of the hurtful, the unkind, causes me not one bit of worry. I’ll allow her her lack of education and a very difficult life raising a ‘trevally of wanes’ with next to no money but, still, she was downright awful to me. And, elephantlike, I have never forgotten, even now long after she’s dead and gone. That woman caused me immeasurable and irrevocable harm, and forgiveness is something to which I’ll only pay lip service. I’m actually rather looking forward to seeing her in the afterlife (whatever it is) as I still want to tell her exactly how rotten she was to me, not just then, but always. I hope she apologizes.
We Irish have very long memories for slights and hurts. Well, I do, and I’m Irish, so that seems a good slogan.
From Doughal to Shuck, to the end of life as we knew it
In a tale like this, that meanders from event to thought, to recollection to feeling, to gut truth, there is not a lot of what you might call chronology, so it becomes a tad concerning as to how one can extricate oneself from a story that took so much flitting about to get me to age two.
I believe I have managed to sleuth out that route, if only because life itself has always been so totally unbelievable and given to the worst possible (thankfully laughable) scenarios that I think there is a way that will bring us full circle. For now.
It occurs to me, also, that I may be way off in this assessment, but you’ll have to be the judge, because I gave up long ago.
Just two years after we moved to Canada, my mother and I got to go back to our best place on earth, with all our best people on earth (including those I’d bitten and, also, those to whom I couldn’t speak because I was, appropriately, unspeakably shy). But, still, it was home. I managed to chat with the grandparents I’d excoriated a few years earlier and quite enjoyed having my daily tea in a lovely wee tent my Nana fashioned for me on her clothesline. You should have seen me with a knife and fork at the age of four. There were sparks flying out of them, so intent was I on my grub.
Most sadly, however, my mother learned that her father had suffered several major strokes since we’d left for Canada. I can’t imagine the guilt and torment she felt about this, as I know she would have blamed herself and our leaving for his condition. She was his pet, and he doted on her. I would think he worried constantly about his Wee Nan far away on foreign shores with nout about her familiar, other than my father and me. Like my mother, I believe those strokes were brought about by our leaving. And this discovery on my mother’s part is what led to her parents’ coming to live with us in Canada.
To my mother’s credit and loyalty to my father, her bringing her parents here, to Canada, instead of insisting we return to them, bears testament to love and standing by her man. I couldn’t have done it, not given how I felt about my parents, and I suspect my mother felt the same. To say I admire a mother who did that for her husband and parents is a gross understatement. Ditto my admiration for a father who wanted the best for his family, and took in his in-laws under those circumstances is an understatement. It is humbling, yet inexplicable that I do not possess that same level of commitment and supportive tendency. Perhaps I just saw too much of my parents’ being used and thrown aside, scathed and belittled, for all that they did for so many people. Most of their attempts to help ended badly; I never knew why, but did know that I felt a constant need to protect and avenge them when they’d been wronged. Perhaps that explains the aversion to others I cultivated in early childhood. I had seen just too much maltreatment and lack of gratitude.
Summer, 1958 – Me Ma and Me return to Ireland for a summer stay
It was a typical Belfast summer, with rain, then no rain, then rain, but always grey and overcast…like winter there, only warmer. My mother’s cousin bought me a lovely parasol. I didn’t know French, hence was unaware that said parasol would not function as an umbrella in the battering of rain we got the afternoon he so kindly gifted me. This was something about which I became hysterically upset, having so ruined my parasol. I was horrified and sick to my stomach that my carelessness had caused this to happen to something someone was kind enough to give me. I was terrified he’d be hurt and insulted that I had taken such bad care of his gift, yet how could I have known? That is the essence of my being…constantly worried about offending others, constantly trying to be part of the ‘in the know’ bunch, terrified to do or say the wrong thing.
Actually, do please allow me to qualify that. That used to be the essence of my being. Sometime, in the past 15 years or so, I stopped worrying to the same extent. I still have no desire to hurt people (except those who harm animals and children), but I’m much more aware of, and comfortable with, honest mistakes. They are the stuff of life.
And speaking of honest mistakes…
I love dogs. This is not the mistake. I love dogs to the point I will ignore all else but the dog. I so want dogs to love me and, in virtually every encounter I’ve had with dogs (and they are legion), dogs have loved me and chosen me over others – canine and human – to be their Alpha. Oy-vey-Mega.
So, it comes as no great surprise that, when we were in Ireland, my mother and I, for the summer of 1958, and visited my Uncle Barney’s and Auntie Bee’s farm in Randalstown, County Antrim, that I would fall madly in love with their black and white Border Collie, Rory. I was also quite in love with all the cows, pigs and chickens, but Rory was more at liberty to traverse the barnyard and investigate nooks and crannies and find things that were, of course, treasures. And so, it should also come as no great surprise, really, that one day, whilst flouncing about with Rory in the barn and general area, I chanced to see what I thought was a big square black sidewalk. Beside the barn. It occurred to me that that was a very odd place for a big square black sidewalk, but Rory showed some interest in it so I decided to take a walk on the wild side and stepped into the potential Rabbit Hole. And I went down, down, down, in a ring of mire, of liquid pig mire.
To this day, I can smell it, I can taste it, I can feel it in my ears and eyes. It was liquid pig manure, and I nearly drowned in it. Rory, for his part, had buggered off, in all innocence, refusing to take any bit of blame for this Canadian eejit who didn’t know a pig doughal (pron. duckle) from a sidewalk.
Eventually, no doubt in tears of rage, I hauled myself out of it (it wasn’t shallow) and dragged myself onto dry and firma terra. I was furious, but alive. I was stinking, but breathing. I was swallowing pig manure, but living to see another day. And another day was a good thing. What was less than good was seeing my mother and her cousin, my Auntie Bee, coming back from a walk and getting a glimpse of me in my finery…in my swinery. Try to imagine my fury and sheer horror. Try to imagine my reaction when the first thing they did was burst into wild laughter at me, in my misfortune. In retrospect, I suspect I presented a rather humorous spectacle, what with all my clothes dripping porcine shite and its yet oozing out my ears and eyes and mouth. And a face on me like thunder. I think it was the face that set them off. And the more they laughed, the more enraged I became.
But we couldn’t laugh and rage forever. The clothes were irretrievable. My mother cut them from me. I was plunged into a standard farm issue bath and scrubbed, I’m sure with lye, to within an inch of my life. Then, insult to injury, didn’t I have a sprained arm, which Barney treated with not some mysterious unquent or potion specific and secret to farm folk, but a load of eel skins. That’s correct. Eel skins. Randalstown is near Lough Neagh which, in its turn, is famous for eel fishing. Imagine the average child having eel skins wrapped about her or his arm. Likely less than pleased. Now imagine a child, with a love of animals, who refused to eat or use them at all post-mortem having a slew of eel folk strewn across her arm, then having it braced. Said child shrieked and yelled and cried and screamed and cursed for the hammers of hell to descend on all involved. The doughal has lived large in my memory and did in that of everyone else involved, as a great tale. Sadly, all but I are gone on ahead.
And, my takeaway from this, for all its elements and things going bassackwards , was how…how, in God’s name, could a mother look at her child in such a perilous and deeply unhappy and potentially injurious situation, and do nothing but laugh? That bothered me a lot…until 48 years later. And a little bit of Irish anomaly called “the shuck”.
Forty-eight years is (also are) a lot to skip, but I’ll make this a thematic, rather than a chronological, ending. Some things just flow together like the liquids from shuck to doughal and back again.
In the interest of saving you, the reader (are you there?) a substantial amount of time, I’ll just say that those 48 years hold a lot of stories yet untold, stories I do hope to tell, someday, because they’re wild funny and totally insane. However, I am jumping ahead to possibly the saddest time in my own life. And, thank God, I had that sense of humor and the ridiculous, or by the God, to whom I swear, I never would have made it out the other side.
2004 – My mother, Wee Nan, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She has also had several most debilitating strokes. Just like her own father 42 years earlier (42, the answer to life, the universe and everything; thank you, Douglas Adams).
2005 – My father, Kevin (no adjectival size attribution) is diagnosed with a severe lung cancer, and massive tumor that – by months – missed the possibility of being surgically extricated and A-OK. I would mention the doctor whom I blame here, but I don’t want to be sued. My father’s recurrent laryngeal nerve is severed. He can speak only in a forced whisper. His doctors say, in my presence, he only has a few months. He hears this but chooses to believe he just has a bad chest and is going to Ireland, as usual, for St. Patrick’s Day. In December the doctor tells him that he cannot go, he certainly cannot drive and, if he insists, he (the doctor) will notify whoever needs to be notified to stop him.
So, I agree to go with him and he agrees he won’t drive.
Wee Nan, now in the paranoid delusional phase of her disease, takes to her bed and refuses to say anything but “plans have been made”, we are all conspiring against her, and she will not be left behind.
(Aside: Both parents have been told by doctors they are not to go anywhere.0
So, sometime in early January, my mother, my father, their wheelchairs and my 12-year-old daughter, Áine (An-ya) leave for Ireland because my father has been told (though he ignores it) he cannot be in Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day.
Chances are he’ll been chatting to the good saint himself by that date. We are going for a month and will be back mid-February which should be time enough.
Talk about a sad mission. A mother who really hadn’t a clue what was happening, though she refused to be left behind because she thought we were plotting against her, a father who refused to acknowledge his terminal cancer (just a bad chest) and a poor pre-teen who, singlehandedly, made this very important and soulful trip possible just by her coming along. I could never have managed the pair of them myself, just physically getting them from place to place, fighting to get them to eat, dealing with both of them catching a bug, and doing all the outdoor work around the house my father had built on the west of Ireland coast 15 years earlier.
So motley crew that we were, we made plans for a trip. My father refused to go through Heathrow ever again. So I, ever resourceful, planned one that went through Newark, totally ignorant of the fact that, the very moment of our flight, all hell would break loose and people would be freaking out into their Blackberries about terrorism and our flying about for many extra hours, eventually landing at a military base, and missing not only our connecting flight but three thereafter. When we finally made it to Newark, they could do nothing but put us up in a hotel. And I still don’t know why we were in a military base.
Now, lovely as this is, recall I had two sick and dying people in wheelchairs, a 12-year-old and me. A bus, and subway trip later, followed by a 3 a.m. hotel registration and, then, a 6 a.m. wake up, and trek back to the airport was hell. Already. It was hell. They were just so sick and the only way I could keep going was reminding myself they chose to do this. Of course, that was then tempered by the fact neither was in his or her own mind. Still, I had to do this for them.
We make it to Ireland
That we did but that, as it happens, is not the focal point of this recitation, though there is much to impart. This last wee bit is an exercise in what goes ‘round, comes ‘round.
My mother was delusionally paranoid the entire time, my father could barely talk, much less walk. Neither would eat. Every day, I took my father in his car into town. He would set up shop, in a Westport café, drink his tea and read the newspaper, whilst doling out 50 euros by the boatload to me and Áine. He still insisted he just had a bad chest…no acknowledgement of terminal lung cancer. That’s not how I wanted to deal with it; I wanted to talk about it. But that’s what he wanted, and I respected it. Plus, we got wads of money out of it, so … bonus. But, all the while we would be in town with my father, piling up 50s and drinking tea and coffee, my mother would be back at the house, totally lost, with no clue as to where she was or when anyone was coming to save her.
And so it continued for a month. A most exhausting, and very sad, month.
Have I mentioned my father’s friend-cum-distant relative, the one who took care of his Irish car whilst he would be back home in Canada? I’d really rather not, but it’s part of the remaining tale, so tell it I must. When the load of us headed back to Dublin Airport, to return to Canada in a most defeated and heartwrenchingly sad manner (realizing, as I did, my father had come to grips with how very ill he was), this fellow was the cause of our next in a series of liquid-related catastrophes.
Driving to Dublin in the car he kept for my father, it was soon apparent he’d done bugger-all upkeep on the tires and – sure wouldn’t you know it – one gave way, about half-way to the airport. At this point, I was ready to implode, Áine needed to go to the toilet, and yerman needed to fix the bloody tire he’d neglected all those months and years.
So, Áine, where to unleash the waters? Well, though there was a house nearby, there was also a very handy stand of trees just across the road. In helpful motherly fashion, I dispatched her across the road, and the bushes. I spent the time rearranging luggage in the boot as it had been all shoved in together. When the tire was nearly fixed, I realized my youngster had not yet made a reappearance. I headed to the treeline to see what was keeping her, only to be met with the sight of one 12-year-old, soaked from head to toe in brown, nasty-smelling water. In her attempt to find the perfect spot for urination, she’d managed to fall into a shuck, something – I might add – that has claimed the lives of not only sheep and cows and untold wee animals, but also the odd human and Áine, being an odd human, was only too lucky to escape.
And, given my rage and fury and hurt feeling when my mother laughed at me festooned in pig glaze, what did I, a more sensitive, experienced mother, one who had been ridiculed for something similar do, at first sighting of my child? I laughed. And I laughed a lot. And long. And hard. At that time, honestly, I didn’t realize how dangerous shucks could be, so all I saw was a déjà vu of me 48 years earlier. Why I laughed, I do not know, but I will take the guilt of that laugh to my grave, knowing now what I do about how dangerous a shuck can be.
The story continues, but I don’t. Or won’t. I’ve accomplished that which I set out to do. If I think of more, there will be an epilogue.
I was born in Ireland, a land of political inequality and national frustration, I had a bunch of crappy things happen to me that have affected my entire life, I had parents whose relationship affected me quite decidedly and there were lots of people living in my midst who managed to make me evermore chronically shy and depressed. I fell in a load of pig manure and, just to round it out, my daughter fell into a life-threatening shuck. At my misfortune my mother laughed. I thought that horrible. At my daughter’s misfortune, I laughed. Well, what does that make me?
That about sums it up. For this tale. There are thousands more. This one was meant just as an outline of the rest.
Oh…where to begin? Dare I?
Old vegan, animal-rescuing, ex-corporate communicator with lifelong crippling shyness that made expressing myself verbally near impossible.So I took my weirdness to paper, then to typewriter and, now, to computer screen. I write all wrong.