2 A Mixed Legacy
2 A MIXED LEGACY
There is a cold bitter side to my nature to constantly threatens to destroy each relationship which is precious to me in my search for love and communion.
“You need to discover the devil within if you are to be free of him,” the psychiatrist advised me and it struck a chord.
The cold atmosphere which followed my grandmother into a room and its influence on my mother’s character dictates our starting point. My granny’s lack of trust in people’s goodness was stamped on her character by a cold unfeeling spinster who took her mother’s role.
Auld Liz, as my parents referred to her, was born in 1890. The cold, intolerant Dublin she grew up in is well documented in the works of Joyce and O’Casey. Her own mother death in childbirth, left Auld Liz’s father alone with a young family. One would have expected him to mourn for a respectable period, but he lived in a time without social security and his job at the gasworks was all that kept hunger from the door.
Mary Reilly a spinster in her mid-forties from the tenement across the road saw her last chance at marriage. Men had never paid her much attention. She was plain and awkward and known for her sharp tongue. Liz’s father was aware of her many flaws, but saw no alternative.
Auld Liz grew up without a real mother’s love. Fathers were no substitute for a mother. They understood their role differently. Wife and children were expected to give them absolute respect and obedience and they kept the wolf from the door. The absence of labour laws and the daily struggle left little time for anything else. Their comfort was in a few pints on Friday evenings and the very few private moments they got to share with their wives.
Sharing a tenement room with four children and a sharp tongued woman left Liz’s father little peace. He would have settled for a quiet corner and a basin to soak his tired feet in, but her constant nagging did his head in. The children were left at her mercy. Later, he would be left to suffer her tongue alone, as each child left home as soon as possible..
HWhile I understood the reasons for my grandmother’s lack of warmth, visiting her still remained a torture. She expected little from people, always suspicious of unsolicited generosity or kindness. She
seldom if ever smiled and her anger simmered constantly beneath the surface waiting for the slightest pretext to erupt.
Her beauty as a young girl had blinded my grandfather to her true nature.. Happy to leave home, she settled for this tall handsome boy who was determined to make up for the love she had missed out on as a child.
“Liz, you’ve made me the happiest man alive,” he told her as they left the church on her nineteenth birthday.
At seven, nothing would convince me that this cantankerous old woman, who smelled of old clothes and carbolic soap, could possibly have stolen anybody’s heart. Still, the faded brown pictures on the high mantelpiece of her corporation flat were not to be denied. They preserved the joyous moments when a very attractive young couple had posed against an artificial background in a photographer’s studio. My long deceased grandfather appeared to have had no idea of what he had taken on. The damage done to her was not to be repaired.
Men were men. They had their desires and you bowed to them, when you couldn’t do otherwise. The union resulted in the birth of six healthy children. Three fine sons, with their father’s tall stature and their mother’s fair looks, and three attractive daughters, Your Granny was the middle daughter. Apart from your Granny, they all took the mail boat to England, as soon as they were old enough.
Your Granny, visited Auld Liz out of a sense of duty, but one could never sensed any real warmth between them. A selfless, humble neighbour did her shopping and listened patiently to her many complaints. Was she a saint or had she found something in Auld Liz that was hidden from everybody else? Anyway, Granny was relieved to be spared the work and never spent more than the minimum of time with her. My father, always keen to give Auld Liz the benefit of the doubt, was the greatest obstacle to our freedom from her bad moods. He was the one to suggest bringing her along on our weekend outings.
“Come on, she’s a lonely old woman,” he persuaded, shaming Granny into agreement.
Sharing the back seat of our Morris Minor with her was an ordeal. Old people’s wrinkled skin, their horrible old clothes and their smell repulsed me. I knew I was safe from any displays of affection, but her physical closeness in itself was unbearable for me.
“Why doesn’t she like me?” I once asked your Granny.
“That’s just the way she is,” was all she answered.
As I grew older, it occurred to me that she didn’t have a good word for anyone even her absent children:
“Not even a postcard for months from that lot in England,” she complained.
“They never spare a thought for their poor mother who sacrificed so much for them.”
However, she was different when your Granddad Seamus was around. He was the only one able to make her smile, albeit on very rare occasions, one of which remains firmly in my memory. I see him dancing with her in The Silver Tassie one Sunday afternoon. Shaun, the seven year old I once was, notes the look of surprise on your Granny’s face as she sips her Babycham, while Auld Liz is escorted around the dance floor by your Granddad.
Shaun sits admiring Granddad’s remarkable achievement:
“Look Ma,” he says turning back to Granny in excitement, “Nana looks like she really enjoyin herself. I never saw her smile before.”
“Your Da has a way with difficult women,” your Granny smiles. “Wouldn’t it be great if she were always like this?” Shaun asks. “Don’t be too optimistic,” your Granny answers,
“I’ve long given up hope of that.”
Your Granny had been disappointed so often by that time that nothing would have changed her mind about Auld Liz. For Shaun, Auld Liz’s only saving grace was the orange, ten shilling note, which appeared twice a year at Christmas and on his birthday.
“Thank you Nana,” he said, leaving a kiss on her wrinkled cheek at Granny’s prompting.
“Children these days have no value on money,” she complained turning back to Granny.
“Spoiled silly that’s what they are.”
She had the knack of taking the good out of any occasion. Your Granny still hadn’t forgiven her for your Aunty Marie’s communion many years earlier. Auld Liz, caught in a black humour had refused to look up from her newspaper to admire Aunty Marie’s dress.
“Here’s yer half crown,” she said roughly pressing the money into the child’s hand.
“I suppose that’s what you’ve come for.”
Granny cried the whole way home and threatened your Granddad that she would never visit her again.
Auld Liz hid the hurt she felt at being abandoned by her own children, but it still got the best of her. Granny once caught her sobbing her heart out.
“What’s wrong?” she asked showing genuine concern. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” she lied, “just a speck of dirt in me eye.”
With that she blocked her eyes from view with her newspaper and pretended to be absorbed in what she was reading.
They found her one Monday afternoon sitting in her armchair, facing the coal fire which had burnt itself out. She sat rigidly upright in her armchair, just as she had done in life. The newspaper lay folded on her lap and the light was still on from the evening before. The clock’s ticking was all that broke the deathly silence. Shaun stayed outside in the big room, staring at the picture of the handsome young man who stood proudly beside his beautiful
“It was a pity she went on her own,” your Granddad said with regret in his voice.
“Nobody should have to die alone. We should have been with her.”
Your Granny didn’t answer. She turned and went back into the big room and sat on the couch beside me.
“I suppose we had better ring England,” she said after a few minutes.
“ I’ll let them know she has passed away.”
I can’t remember many tears at her funeral. The meal in the hotel and English pound notes from uncles and aunts I had never met before left more of an impression.
Auld Liz sits before me stubbornly refusing to take her eyes from the newspaper. She comes when a dark mood takes control of me and makes me feel bitter about real and imagined wrongs. I feel her wounded heart still beating inside me and I do my best to banish her.
You know that your Granny was forty six when I was born, having almost reared her other five children and that explains the gulf which existed between me and my siblings and my difficult relationship with her. I missed out on many of the things my siblings had experienced. The thing I envied most was their time with my dad’s mother: Granny Mosely, who had passed away shortly before I was born.
“I couldn’t wait for the weekend to come,” your Aunty Marie once told me.
“We preferred to stay with Granny Mosely than to come home. Though she lived in a tenement room with her two unmarried daughters, it was still one of the most loving places I can remember. I was sure that Dad would never get over her death. He believed that Granny Mosely had sent you into the world to give him a reason to go on. That is why he loved you from the very beginning”
It’s true that your Granddad never mentioned her in all the stories he told me. As a child, I could have believed he had forgotten her, but putting everything together as an adult, his pain at her passing is obvious.
Your Granddad always focused in his stories on the two years he had spent in Canada as a young man. It was easier to concentrate on the good years when he had still believed his fate to be in his own hands.
It cheered him up to relive the youthful enthusiasm that had once felt. He generally compared himself unfavourably with your Granny’s many brothers and sisters in England who had done well for themselves. Those who knew him saw the wonderful father, the loving husband and the brother who never forgot his unmarried sisters. From an early age, I understood that any success I would have in life would be his success as well. I would always willingly share all my successes with him. He was sparing with words, but the look of pride in his eyes was worth any effort for me.
“Shaunee, I’m proud of the man you have become. You have earned the right to hold your head up high,” he whispered on my graduation day, as I stood with the parchment in my hand.
Your Granny could have been jealous of the place his mother
occupied in his heart, but to her credit she had only praise for Granny Mosely. She felt the warmth that had been lacking in her own home. Granny Mosely saw the best in everyone, shared the little she had without keeping account and took a genuine interest in the lives around her. Westland Row Church was filled to capacity the morning they laid her to rest.
Your Granddad grew up without a father. He had died before his second birthday, leaving Granny Mosely, with four young children. There was no social welfare and she had to find work or starve. A severe limp stopped her from finding a normal job. Nonetheless, necessity drove her on and she survived selling fish from a barrow on Pearse Street.
At home they shared one room on the ground floor of a tenement house near to Holles Street Hospital. The eldest child and only son grew up with two real sisters and a cousin. Granny Mosely looked after her sister’s toddler, while she was in hospital, and grew so fond of her that she refused to give her back. Sadly, the sister’s agreement left the child with a wound which never healed. Even aging spinster I called my aunt carried the pain through life and took it with her to the grave.
I feel a deep responsibility to pass on the love which was so typical for this side of the family. Any favourable comparison with my father is worth its weight in gold to me.
Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is.
Your Granddad Seamus was the apple of Granny Mosely’s eye. He was the man of the house and he was determined not to let them down. He was impatient to relieve his mother of the huge burden she carried. Seamus was born in 1910 in a Dublin proud to be within the British Empire. The fury of Dubliners with the 1916 rebels was erased from our history books at school. Several of his family had died in British army uniforms fighting in the Great War. The sight of blinded and incapacitated soldiers returning from war remained in his memory.
“They died for king and country and the promise of Home Rule,” he said with anger in his eyes, “and their own countrymen turned their backs on them. The priests weren’t slow to tell them it was their duty to go and fight, but they conveniently forgot that when the tricolour flew and DeValera took power.”
Granddad was politically out of step with the Ireland I grew up in. I often begged him to lower his voice, feeling the disapproving glances, as we walked down Grafton Street on a Saturday morning. Dublin in the mid-sixties hadn’t yet experienced the horrors of the troubles in the North and was set on celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising with as much anti-British rhetoric as possible.
Granddad had shouldered a lot of the responsibility at home. He was at the fish market early each morning. It wasn’t easy for a skinny youth to steer a heavy cart with the wind and the rain blowing against him. It was often a choice between his breakfast or the leather if the weather kept him late for school.
Despite the severe discipline he had fond memories of school. Like everyone else he was caned at times:
“The poor teacher had his work cut out with me. I was never the best scholar and if I got a belt or two it was only because I deserved it.”
He never burdened himself with grudges. Life was difficult enough without dragging the past along with you.
When he left school at twelve the New Irish Free State had come into existence and the confidence of the business community was low. Republicans settled old scores with Protestant neighbours and manor houses burned throughout the country forcing many to sell up and leave.
Jobs were few and far between and a twelve year old from a tenement could expect little. He spent the next few years hanging around the streets, getting an odd day’s work on the docks. Blinded by the desire to help his mother, he enlisted with a friend in the new Free State Army. Great Granny Mosely was inconsolable, when she found out.
“Any fool can see he’s under age,” she protested to her neighbours.
My dad’s Uncle George was sent off to see what he could do. The sergeant was unwilling to listen. The sight of two new recruits leaving was going to have a bad effect on morale. However, a solution was found and their last days in the army were spent on punishment duty and neither of the boys had the courage to enquire about payment for their service.
A few more years had passed before his Great Aunt Poly offered him the chance of a lifetime. She had immigrated to Montreal as a young girl and had never returned. Her first job had been as a scullery maid. She had been clever enough to keep her opinions to herself and avoid gossip and that had impressed her employers. A life in service had never allowed her a social life and she had remained single. Eventually, she was appointed housekeeper to one of the wealthiest families in Montreal.
Poly was a severe type of person, hardened by a life in domestic service. Nonetheless, she sent the money for the one-way ticket, telling Seamus she would expect every penny back, when he started earning.
“I have a few contacts,” she wrote, “but I can’t make any promises. Get yourself something decent to wear so that you can hold your head up high when you get here.”
Great Granny Mosely gave him her last penny and borrowed more from the Jewman.
“Take care son,” she told him as he stood in his new suit with a proper suitcase at his feet.
He put his arms around her and hugged her, feeling the tears welling up in his eyes.
It was hard for me to imagine my father as an innocent young man in his early twenties, but his skill at story-telling brought it alive. His honesty allowed me to discover the man behind the father role and appreciate the struggle he had waged.
Canada offered the prospect of starting again. Nobody would guess from his accent that he had come from a rat-infested tenement. Nobody would look down on him. He arrived to find that Aunt Poly had found him work at a garage. He cleaned and greased cars in twelve hour shifts for very little money. He went to school two evenings a week and trained to become a mechanic. He made friends with an English family at his lodgings and was a regular guest for Sunday dinner. He walked along the wide streets and admired the skyline. He missed his mother, but was happy with his new life. However, Canada was not meant for Seamus. The whole world was going through a recession even worse than the one we are experiencing now. Nobody knew what was waiting around the corner. Many people took their cars off the road in winter and this brought Granddad’s dream of becoming a mechanic to an abrupt end.
His Aunt Poly was his last hope, but she wouldn’t support him through the winter. He had enough for his passage home and a few presents for the family, but no savings to tide him over until he found work. He returned with a heavy heart. The few months had at least given him the confidence he had lacked before.
I remember always feeling angry with that distant, uncaring God when my dad came to the end of his story and I saw the look of failure on his face.
Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the spirit, which has been put within him, will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven.
As you know, there have been times in my life too when everything looked black. Plans fail and we are left in a black hole. I want to shelter you from the storms of life as best I can, but I know that no one escapes. Hard times are part and parcel of life as well. However, there is a great deal more inside us than we realise.
Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy.
My dad couldn’t see into the future. A far more important job waited for him back in Dublin. He would be a great inspiration to many including me. The love in his eyes put a huge responsibility on all his children. Looking at his great achievement as a loving father has taught me that success has little to do with material wealth. The greatest compliment anyone can pay me is to recognize the positive influence he has had on my life.
Seamus had a head of grey-hair before I got to hear his love story. Granny listened in the background, feeling both embarrassed and complimented, but always ready to fill in minor details. Forty years had passed, but their love story was taken out and polished every so often like a family jewel. Granddad’s love story only fully came to life for me many years later when many of the same elements were echoed in my own first meeting with a beautiful, young Magda.
Intending to return to Montreal as soon as possible, he enrolled for dance lessons in a side-street off Grafton Street. This would be one of the skills he would need to turn the heads of the Canadian girls on his return. Great Aunt Poly had made enquiries at the garage where he had worked and they were willing to offer him employment again that spring.
He walked through Grafton Street, dressed in his best, feeling optimistic about his future. The day had started out bright and sunny, as many April days do in Dublin. He had risked wearing his double
breasted, American, pinstripe suit.
“Be careful Sheamee,” his mother had joked, “or one of those Dublin girls will think you’re a returned Yank.”
“Don’t worry ma,” he’d answered, “even the best girl in Dublin couldn’t keep me from my destiny.”
She was proud of her handsome son, but sad that Ireland had nothing to offer him. Thousands were leaving every year and he would just be one more.
The late-morning sun had long disappeared by the time his dance lesson finished. He was making his way up Grafton Street when the first drops fell. He would have continued on his way were it not for a sudden downpour as he past Woolworths. He pushed his way into the corner beside the entrance and found himself sheltering beside a pretty young girl,
Mariead noticed the young man at her side straight away. He looked well in his pinstripe and the hat tilted to one side, made him look like an American though something told her that he was a Dub like herself. They got into conversation easily as people do in Dublin. Seamus lost no time in telling her he was a keen dancer and that he had just been working on his steps.
“You should show off your fancy foot work at the Metropole this evening,” she suggested.
“They always have the best show-bands.”
“I just might do that,” he answered.
A few seconds of silence followed as Seamus tried to read Mariead’s face.
“Is there a chance you might be there yourself?” he asked hopefully.
“I could be,” she answered with a smile.
This was the line he was hoping for and by the time the shower had eased a little, they were walking together, under her umbrella, in the direction of Stephen’s Green, having agreed to look out for each other later that evening. Little did I know, as I listened to my father’s story, that a chance meeting in the rain and the offer to share an umbrella would also change my life. I would be a few years older than Seamus had been, but that beautiful Polish girl was worth the wait.
Granny wasn’t slow with an answer when Granddad joked that she had run after him:
“Don’t flatter yourself Sheamee. I was never short of admirers. You just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Then she would sweeten the cheeky rebuff:
“I suppose I could have done worse.”
The smile on his face betrayed the youthful Seamus still locked inside the old man. Love can take you by surprise. The deepest moments in life too are often those which we weren’t expecting.
Mariead had been coming from work that day. She worked for the family of a tailor. The three children she cared for had been well brought up and she could have the latest styles at cost price. The job allowed her a greater degree of independence from a very dominant mother. Now, this chance meeting had brought this young man with real warmth in his expression into her life. The real family atmosphere she had witnessed in the tailor’s home had allowed her to believe in a bright optimistic future for herself.
Mariead imagined having a family like the one she cared for. All the children played instruments and were avid readers. There was always something going on and they were never short of something to laugh about. The radio and their large collection of records added to the homely atmosphere. The parents, having returned home tired and worn out, still took the time to listen to the pieces of music their children had been practicing. Their praise was always honest and their criticisms constructive. As Granny knelt before the high altar in Rathmines, she thanked God for sending her Seamus and promised to be the sort of wife and mother that her heart told her she should be.
She never forgot the tailor’s family and kept up contact with them throughout her life. We owned a piano before we had a fridge or a washing machine and we were all sent to the tailor’s daughter for music lessons. We did not turn into musicians, but we indulged Granny’s dream, for a while at least.
My middle-aged parents had been bent by life, but not broken. They were looking forward to a more prosperous and peaceful period when an unplanned pregnancy surprised them. Their reaction to the prospect of having yet another child is something I only know from your Aunty Siobhan. She trusted me with her memories when I had reached middle-age myself and could appreciate their situation.
“Granny sat on her own in the living room crying her heart out,” Aunty Siobhan told me.
“She was ashamed as hell in front of the boys and it pained her to feel their eyes on her when she couldn’t hide herself away any longer. She didn’t leave the house for almost the full nine months because of what the neighbours would say.”
Aunty Siobhan finished her story, with a self-conscious laugh. I forced a smile to reassure her that I appreciated her sharing it with me. Though I wasn’t sure she had done me any great favour.