Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Step Back in Time

My mother was one of the funniest and most genuine people I have ever known and she raised me on a steady diet of family stories about her childhood. She grew up in a large Irish Catholic family surrounded by eleven brothers and sisters. A family that large would tax any bank account but she and her brothers were brought up during the Great Depression when times were especially difficult. Yet love still lined the walls of their home.

I still remember laughing at the crazy tales of sibling rivalry between Mom and her sister Margaret. Irish twins they were yet they were so different in many ways. Margaret was the one with the magic mirror and the ‘come hither’ strut. Mom was more shy and unassuming, never believing that she was a natural beauty, but their bond was unshakeable.

I don't remember my mother ever striking me as a child so I would wince when she shared how my grandmother would line up all twelve of the children and dole out her strict brand of discipline at the end of a strap they called a “cat and nine tails.” That strap went through many incarnations as the children did their best (or worse) to hide it from their mother’s reach. As a child I giggled with delight each time my mother told me how our very own family trickster, Uncle Eddie, stuffed it into the cast iron tea kettle only to be discovered, to my grandmother’s horror, when she poured a cup of tea for the visiting parish priest. Through the years I would plead, “Tell me again”.

It has been said many times over that the grandmother I never knew was strong-willed and resourceful; so capable she was able to convince her neighbor to switch houses, no banks involved. The stuff of Depression Era legend to be sure! These stories sometimes sounded like Tall Tales but were always corroborated by my aunts and uncles if I dared question their authenticity.

I never recorded those stories and didn’t fully understand their value until I found storytelling. Sadly, my mother passed away eleven years ago and the time has come and gone when I could ask her to “Tell me again.” So this past weekend I decided not to let another opportunity pass me by. I spent the day with her brother, my godfather Laurie. If I owe my storytelling skills to anyone besides my mother it would be him, a true Irishman, quick to laugh, sing a song, tell a story or lend a hand; the man who has graciously, and sometimes with trepidation, taken on the mantel of family patriarch over the years.

So this Sunday I set up the tripod and camera and we settled in. Although I came prepared with a clipboard full of questions, they were not needed. He quickly fell into an easy rhythm; I found myself whisked away to the Emerald Isles, watching my grandfather grow up as a street urchin with his two brothers, Shanty Irish they were. Then, in what seemed like an instant he was old enough to walk onto a ship, make his way down to steerage class and emerge on Ellis Island. Little did he know that a woman named Mary, Lace Curtain Irish was she, from Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, would make that same journey years later and one day become his wife.

Throughout the afternoon we made our way over the ocean, to the docks of New York, down to Massachusetts where grandfather easily found work in his trade as a mason. Although his sponsor was in Chicago he learned there were opportunities in the city of New Bedford where numerous red brick textile mills were being built, mills that still dot the landscape today. Later in life he stopped “slinging mud on the walls” to take up a more decorative and artistic type of masonry, that is unfortunately a lost art. Some of his most beautiful work can still be found throughout the city, particularly the golden Grecian dancers that grace the walls in the exquisitely restored Zeiterion Theatre. They bring me comfort and a grand sense of pride each time I attend a performance there.

My Shanty Irish grandfather grabbed his piece of the American Dream and soon built a very successful business, which was decimated during the great crash; he never fully recovered. There were other stories shared that day, some funny, some poignant and we have not finished this journey yet. We will meet again for there are many more years and lives to explore but I am forever grateful for the warmth of family and stories on a cold New England day.