How Can I Not Show This?

I am named for a certain person and this is her wedding gown, which she wore for four short hours in 1903 when she married the lad she had met in college and a fine-looking lad he was as you can see up close by clicking on his photo below. Who knew he would one day become a judge and the Chairman of the Boston School Committee and take on that scalawag mayor of Boston, James Michael Curley? He was but a lad then, the first in his family to get past 8th grade and she the third child of the weaving supervisor at the mill. They were born in the 1870s to people with fresh memories of the Crossing. 


Anyway, yesterday I took out this dress again and noted again how she had sweated into its bodice, this girl who died so young that her children for all their trying could not bring back her face much less the sound of her voice, being only one, two, four and six at the time.

 

My mother was the two-year-old. Reports are that the one-year-old cried inconsolably for weeks calling “Mama, Mama!”

75 years later, when the then-six-year-old lay dying as an old man in a hospital bed, I brought in to him his mother’s silver mirror-and-brush set and he said he could then ‘see’ her again; see her for the first time in his mind as she sat at her dressing table brushing her long, long hair.

I can’t see her because I never knew her; but the first time I saw the bodice of her wedding dress I pulled my T-shirt right off and tried it on. Then I knew about her tiny waist and small breasts. And when I pulled the long silk skirt from the yellowing tissue paper, I kicked off my jeans then and there and tried it on too. That’s how I found out how tall she was.

She was my height exactly and she haunts me, ah how she haunts me. Her death set off a sadness in my family that has ramified down through the decades. I feel so lucky that her young husband did not die but lived to be an old man and grandfather to many, modeling a kind of willed optimism that made of me the merry child I was, when things could so easily have gone in another direction.

A fatherless child, I lived in his house and under his care.  He called me ‘Blackberry Top’ for the tight dark curls emerging on my baby head.

We owe for so much in this life; how can we ever repay it, except through reverence and thanks?  

Some things fade: these flowers are starting to fade, and the dress comes apart in my hands. This silver creamer, meanwhile, seems to endure, as does this image of that Maloney daughter called Caroline Theresa who lived on the little rise of land just across from the mill. 

I’m Irish

My friend Dot just sent me a list about how you know you’re from an Irish family. Herewith a few items from that list that sure enough resonate with me.

You can’t make a long story short. True enough in my family where for 90 minutes every night my sister Nan and I had to sit at the dining room table presided over by the much older version of the guy in this picture, here seen as a young man returning to  Ireland to look up his parents’ kinfolk. Also,

Many of your childhood meals were boiled. Make that ‘most’. Poor David with his rich Italian heritage! I met him at 19 and brought him home for dinner and he could NOT believe what passed for routine meals with us: Squash, boiled. Peas, boiled. Even the beef  was boiled unless it was a Sunday when we roasted it grey. I also identify with the statement that…

There isn’t a big difference for you between crying and laughing. I point to my whole 30-year writing career and especially that oddly toned second book of mine Vacationing in my Driveway in which even the most sudden wrenching deaths are served up with an odd garnish or rue and mirth. Then we have…

You spent a good portion of your childhood kneeling in prayer. Don’t get me started on Mortal sin and the Catholic Church. I will only say that in Lent after the 90 minutes listening to our grandfather hold forth at the table we had to kneel next to our dining room chairs and endure the drone of the Rosary as delivered over the radio by the nasal-voiced Richard Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston.

The last way I will quote that lets you know you’re from an Irish family is that ‘at least two family members don’t speak to each other’ but I have to say I can’t identify with that. The more time goes by the more connected I feel to everyone in my family including even the most distant thrice removed cousins who I know better and better now thanks to this frisky little Internet. Plus it all goes so fast; how sad would you be if you didn’t believe that the dead are all still around? Look at these two young women: one is my girl Carrie born in 1976; one is my mother’s mother born in 1878 and just look at the similarity!  Here too for history our family pioneers: in the top left the father of the young man at the top. He was Dennis Sullivan born in 1830 who got off the boat in Boston and had this picture taken with his four brothers just before they got their legs under them and went off into the vast American landscape.