Monday, November 30, 2015

'That's my girl!'

Finally got around to deciphering a letter my maternal grandfather sent my mother for her 21st birthday in 1958. The cheque for 21 dollars he sent would have been worth roughly £7 ten shillings. A pint of plain cost 1 shilling 6d back then, she could have bought almost a hundred pints, (the sums working that out nearly killed me, and yes, I know it's easy...). Except she didn't drink back then, women rarely frequentd pubs, many of them were men only, and women earned on average 48% less than their male couterparts.

Grandad was a typesetter with the Irish Independent, he went to Detroit in the 50s to gain experience on a new litho machine operating in The Freeman's Journal. He lived there for a number of years and, times being what they were, didn't get home often. UncleTommy was 15 at  the time of the letter and he and my mother clashed constantly. I'm quite sure it was her fault - she had a ferociously quick temper, like her own mother. Tommy was more like Grandad; a funny, gentle, peace keeping man.

Mam and Dad (Seamus) married in October the following year. Thankfully Grandad came home for the wedding. The letter kickstarted a novel I've been working on - on and off, for a number of years, it's based on the time Grandad was in Detroit, 'cept I'm giving him an affair with a younger American female journalist! G'wan the Grandad!.

All of the Kennedys of Glandore Road are dead now, and all barring Grandma died young. Mammy only got another 33 years, not the 79 Grandad wished for her. Tommy was the last to go, he died a few years ago. I discussed the novel with him before he died and, while none of us have the faintest idea what Grandad's life was like in Detroit, Tommy approved of my granting Grandad a tempestuous love affair. If I ever finish it it will e dedicated to The Kennedys of Glandore Road.

 See text of letter and original below. Any errors mine.


My darling Elizabeth,

     I am sending this a wee bit early just so that if there is something special you wish to buy for your ‘21st’ you will have it in good time.

     The  cheque for twenty one dollars is to represent a dollar for each year. You have made me so proud to be able to say ‘that’s my girl!’. And proud of you, I really am - and always shall be, because I know you will never do anything to make me feel otherwise about you.

     It seems such a short time since you were just a wee baby. The years are flying and my earnest wish is that yourself and Seamus will have as happy a life as your Mam and I have had, and that you may be blessed with as lovely a family as God has given to us. My one regret is that I am not with you in person to wish you a Happy Birthday.

     Now, I know I should not, particularly in this letter, strike what may seem a discordant note, I am going to ask you to do one little thing for me.

      I know that Tommy and yourself do have little differences of opinion, and upset each other from time to time. Don’t forget, that in doing so you can upset your Mammy even more so than yourselves. Now I am laying blame nowhere, it’s just one of those things, and I know that Tommy and you will get together for my sake and be real good pals. I know the difference in your ages makes that difficult but you will both do it. 

     You know honey, when you are separated from your family – it is then, and only then, that you really appreciate each and every member of the family.  I know you both love each other deeply, all you have to do is to show it.

So now ‘left arm’ – for that’s as useful to me as my ‘right arm’, loads of love and I hope you have a wonderful birthday- at least another 79 to follow. 

Dad xxxxx

 PS I should also say thanks to Mam for giving you to me.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Psychoanalysing meself - it's all our Judy's fault........

I've been feeling well lately, contented. I'm working on something I'm enjoying and feeling hopeful for it.

I know these November days are short, can be grey and depressing. Cold days and nights, or worse - that constant drizzly rain, can confine one indoors. But as I sit by my fire, house quiet for once, knowing where all my loved ones are - I cannot help but feel content. I'm trying not to brood on a past I cannot change nor worry about a future I have no control over. Then I started to think.............

I have long wondered why Spring is my worst time of the year. From late March I often feel a huge sadness building in me. Why, when the natural world is gearing up to its brief magnificent season do I feel at my lowest? All of the worst bouts of long lasting depression I suffered occurred between late April and July.

But I love gardening, love sitting in the sun like a big fat lazy cat. So why, when I should be anticipating great pleasure, do I often feel incredibly tense, anxious and low?

I was born in May 1961, first surviving child to my parents. Their first child, my stillborn brother, was delivered at eight months gestation in April 1960, a huge shock for the young couple who had eagerly awaited his birth. Mam had been taking the anti-morning sickness medication that was later shown to have caused Thalidomide. The baby was ten days dead before he was delivered, sadly he was also malformed. My mother never saw her baby's body. Dad did, but he never talked about it.

So when I came along thirteen months later their anxiety levels must have been very high. They poured every bit of love they had into me, and I blossomed. Mam quickly became pregnant again and my first beloved sister, Judy, was born in April 1962. 

At that time women were ‘confined’ in hospital for up to five days after the birth of a child. I was eleven months old, my father had to work so I was sent over to my beautiful Aunt Norah, Mam’s sister, to be cared for. There is a picture of me standing in a playpen at the gate of Norah’s house. Apparently it was the only thing that quietened me. I would stay there for hours looking up the road, waiting for my world to come back to me. 

AND SHE CAME!!!!!!! 

When I read Owl Babies by Martin Waddell to children I tell them ‘Mammys ALWAYS come back’. Of course, in reality, sometimes they can’t. Serious illness or death can pull a mother from a child. Mam didn’t die until I was twenty nine, but the wrench was as bad as if I were five. And she died on March 20th. Which would explain my feelings of grief around that time since then. But what about before 1991? I reckon that when I sense the days warming and lengthening, and see things growing, it reminds me of my anxious vigil at the gate in April 1962. And I must have been miffed that someone smaller and cuter than me usurped my position as ‘baby’ in the house.

Judy once said she didn’t always feel loved at home. Perhaps Mam and Dad overcompensated with me – afraid I’d be jealous of the new arrival. Apparently I did once balance a large 1d coin on her lips and stood, waiting to see what would happen when she opened her mouth! I don’t remember being jealous of her. Envious yet – she was (is) incredibly beautiful, with a stillness and serenity about her I longed to emulate. I wrote this for her some Christmases ago. It’s not great poetry. But it’s heartfelt.

Childhood Memories#2
Winter 1965
                          You were the most beautiful creature -
Flawless skin,
huge trusting eyes
watching from
the bolster on the double bed
Its creaky iron frame
bathed in the light of
the glowing Sacred Heart
that pinked
candy striped brushed cotton sheets,
a maroon eiderdown
topped by a Gardá great coat;
its buttons left an imprint on your face
insignia of peace on chubby cheek.
You whispered -
‘Let’s play the drawing-on-the back game,
Me first.’
I loosened your pyjama top
and sketched a scene,
plump childish fingers intent on detail
hoping you wouldn’t guess it right
and I could crow
‘Now me’, I whispered.
But you were sleeping.
I spooned in behind you
And lying still inhaled
Pears soap and Cusson’s talc.
Now, if I close my eyes and deeply breathe
I can almost feel that moment
That safety in our kingdom -
our hot water bottle warmed
double bed

Evelyn Walsh, Christmas 09

So our Juders, it’s all your fault I am a moanin’ Minnie. But I am very glad you are my sister – let’s blame the parents!!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

One Good Teacher

The infamous ‘they’ say all you need in life is one good teacher. Someone to ignite a passion in you for something that will succour you through dark days and make good days even better. I’ve been lucky, I had several excellent teachers. My mother, of course, was a marvellous mentor and in my formal education a few stand out - Mrs Curran in Mother Of Divine Grace Primary School in Finglas, Mrs Rigney and  Miss Ryan in the Dominican College in Eccles St.  Top of the class for me though was my beloved Miss Kirby (later Coffey) in sixth class.

It cannot have been easy being a teacher in ‘60s/’70s Ireland. Schools were run with an iron fist by religious orders, class sizes could reach fifty in crowded urban areas, corporal punishment was commonplace and the curriculum dripped with De Valera’s image of Ireland. It bore little resemblance to life lived in suburban North Dublin. The State Censor made sure our little minds weren’t polluted with any foreign filth. Schools had many teachers who were, quite simply, in the wrong job. Economic necessity and lack of opportunity trapped them in classrooms with children about whom they cared less and less with the passing of each bitter year. It is hard to inspire when you don’t give a damn yourself. Control was the key in getting through the day.

Some people are born to teach though. Miss Kirby was one of those wonderful people. She came into my life when I was eleven, on the cusp of that leap from what once was to what may someday be. She saw my potential, offered me more challenging material, brought me books from her own collection to point me in the right direction. She was from (I think) Co. Kerry and her tastes were more rural than mine, but I enjoyed the books she brought me, I particularly enjoyed the way she spoke to me – as if I was already grown-up. I blossomed under her tutelage.

In October 1973 she set us English homework. We were to write to her as if she were a visitor from another country, and tell her something about St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We had been working on a project about it and I had become fascinated with Jonathan Swift, St Patrick’s most famous Dean. I sat down with my copy and pencil. I loved, still love, the sound of a pencil scratching across the blank page, and I wrote and wrote.  I described a time travelling adventure I had with friends, Andrea and Ken Kelly; how we had travelled back in time and been befriended by Jonathan Swift (who asked us to call him Jonath). We lived with him for a while, met his lady friends Stella and Vanessa, toured about early eighteenth century Dublin with him and he discussed his writings with us. Ten copy pages later cramp in my hand forced me to time travel us back to 1973 and The Ha’Penny Bridge. I was amazed that almost two hours had passed since I began and was enormously proud of myself. I hoped I’d get a gold star for it.

I had to wait a few days for the copies to be returned to us. Miss Kirby placed it on my desk and patted the cover. I can still feel the butterflies I got as I opened the copy. At the end of the essay were THREE gold stars, and in red pen underlined twice Miss Kirby had written ‘Come to me, CHILD!! For your just reward!!! Find out who painted Stella’s portrait.’  I glowed.

Miss Kirby made the most enormous fuss of me. I was sent to each fifth and sixth class to read out my essay. I died inside at this, but did it. Miss Kirby asked one of the mothers, who worked in an office, if she could type up my essay. Ken Kelly, who was a talented artist, sketched St Patrick’s on cardboard and we cut it out and stuck it onto the typed pages as ‘illustrations’. Ms Kirby sent the essay to the Dean of St Patrick’s, and told him about our project. He visited the class to look at  our work and to shake my hand. He was a lovely man and we were all surprised. We thought Protestants were completely different to us, but the Dean looked just like everybody’s Grandad! He was a kindly gentleman and enthused greatly over our work.

I went off the boil intellectually in secondary school and I didn’t return to creative writing until I hit my forties. But I have never forgotten Miss Kirby, her interest in me and the love she gave me for the written word. One Good Teacher.