I recently braved the cold of "Siberia on the Mississippi" aka Minneapolis-St. Paul for a long overdue visit to family. Despite the shocking 22 below, as in -22 degrees below zero (not including wind chill), we had cold toes but warm hearts and a great time. One sad note was going through some of my grandmother's things. She passed away a few years ago but I hadn't been home in over seven years and my mom had found some of her writings and photos. It's hard. We were very close and I miss her terribly. Somehow, going home and being near my family, even seeing my mother tear-up and feeling sad -- I felt inexplicably better. Just holding her photos, reading her writing (the stories about her life) even though I felt sad -- remarkably, I felt almost relieved. It washed away years of missing my grandmother because it was like we were all together again and that pang you feel when you miss someone was mitigated.
We discovered this amazing photo of her from 1920, she was about ten years old. She had beautiful thick dark hair, done in long ringlets, and sparkling blue eyes. Her journal contained some interesting entries, the fact that when she grew up, in the early 1900s, it was common for buildings to catch on fire. Then there was this photo and newspaper article she wrote in the 1930s after she and two girlfriends took a road trip to New York City.
My grandmother was Irish, her mother's maiden name was Riley and her mother's married name was Brosnan. She was named Pat after her grandfather Patrick Riley. Patrick's father, Dennis (and Bridget) came over to New York City during the Irish potato famine (like so many of us with Irish heritage) and worked on the docks before moving first to Ohio and then Minnesota.
My grandmother was born around 1912. She was raised in a quaint southern Minnesota railroad town -- a land with big open prairies where the sky kisses the horizon. Even though farming is in my ancestral tree there was nothing about my grandmother that was "farm." Instead, she grew up "in town." Later, she married a pharmacist who ran the town drugstore. In my young mind she was like an old school movie star, like Rosalind Russell or a brunette and Irish blue-eyed Kate Hepburn. My grandmother's era was very 1940s-50s. She had Bridge Club and played golf on Ladies' Day at the golf course. She had an apartment "in town" and a cabin "on the lake." In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, this lake was a beaut: crystal clear waters, uncrowded and unspoiled, with a boat-in restaurant. My idyllic (at times) childhood was often due to her, I took solace from my parent's divorce in her kitchen, smelling of coffee and sugar doughnuts baked fresh at the local bakery on Main Street. Summers were spent shopping in town, boating on "the lake," reading books (I come from a family of avid readers), and chasing fireflies. It was her stories, though, that stayed with me. She was a good storyteller. She loved to take an antique out of her hutch and tell me stories about our family, the places she'd been, the people she knew. She was a very warm, kind person and very popular with her friends.
She also gave me good advice. She came of age before and during the Great Depression and despite being from a modest background, she (and most of my family tree) were all educated women who spoke multiple languages and played the piano. She was a teacher and before she was married was independent and making her own money, this was important to her. She stressed independence before marriage as being very important. She worked while married as a part-time teacher. After her husband (my grandfather) passed during the early 1960s, she went back to school to earn an advanced teaching degree when she was in her 50s. Well and then there was the whole religion angle. She was not overtly religious but she was. She was proud of her Irish heritage. When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, written around the time she was born, was one of her favorite songs. In the craziness that is my family, there was a rift sometime after Patrick and before her that lead her to being raised Methodist. She told me the story about the Catholic ancestors of the family never getting over it. I always felt out of place (who's ever heard of an Irish Methodist?) Although I was, and am, a spiritual person, religion was not something my parents were "into." They were "into" 1970s stuff: group therapy, Rand and Branden, EST and Esalen Massage. My father was a scientist, an aerospace engineer and a candidate for a PhD program as he built the first space satellites, my mother was a "star" real estate agent with gold hoop earrings, a brand new Cutlass Supreme red convertible Oldsmobile, and a perm. We were not typical Minnesotans either, we had a border collie -- not a black lab (the Minnesota State Dog); we didn't hunt -- ever; we only occasionally fished. My parents were (and are) good people just wholly different than my grandmother's generation.
Growing up, there was a sense that while my house was "stable" it felt disposable. Due to my mom being in real estate and the divorce we moved a lot. New homes in new developments don't have trees. They have houses under construction inhabited by salamanders. Our homes often felt sparsely decorated, as if they did not have time or couldn't be bothered. It was the 1970s-80s. My mom worked all.the.time. My father worked hard too. We were latchkey kids. My grandmother's cozy apartment was decorated with classic antiques, 1940s lamps and side tables, round French Louis XV tufted chairs, covered in blue silk. It was filled with an uncle's original oil paintings and knick-knacks for every holiday. It wasn't until years later I learned that my grandmother had not had a lot of money growing up, they weren't poor but they weren't super well-off either. Her writings revealed funny anecdotes about an accident prone little brother: he set something on fire and her mother was mad, he fell out of a hammock and broke his arm, he fell through the top floor of a barn and cut his leg, he fell off a tire swing over a river and nearly drowned, and last but not least -- he danced on top of tables singing funny songs for a coin or two. (This reminded me of Charles Dickens, who'd done the same at the legendary "The Grapes" in London). Each entry was followed by how angry her mother was with each event but he'd been happy to earn the money.
Two moments, or stories, stayed with me through the years. One was like something out of a Capra film: my grandmother had earned her first paycheck and rushed to the bank to deposit it. They were closed but they made an exception and opened their wrought iron gate just for her, just to take her deposit. She never saw that check again. The Great Depression had arrived and the bank took her money. This lead to her lifelong dislike of bankers, and distrust of doctors, which I never forgot.
The second story was really a moment. My younger sister and I were staying "in town" in the back bedroom during the roughest part of my parents' divorce. We were all tucked in the guest bedroom having read from her library of books, ready to fall asleep. The guest bedroom that had a giant lilac tree blooming outside its window. My baby sister started asking me about God. My father was an agnostic/atheist scientist type who said I was born "tabula rasa" and it was up to me to figure it out. Sometimes -- too much freedom is overwhelming. I never lost the feeling that I must hand-craft my identity. How I envy those who grew up knowing who they are and well, belonging. I mean, some people are Eagles fans and some love the Yankees and while the Vikings and Twins are a near religion in my house now growing up was anything that was normal identity to other people was so esoteric to us. I was a kid whose parents divorced (then later got back together but never remarried. Yeah, complicated) who later went to a theatre arts school and then studied literature, philosophy, and writing in college. Anyway, my sister started asking me questions and I towed the family line, "we don't believe in God," I said.
My grandmother was standing at her hall closet -- the one stuffed with quilts, old photo albums, and all her Christmas and St. Patrick's Day knick knacks, like hand embroidered angels and little four leaf clover trinkets -- and she grew very serious. My grandmother never ever, not once in my entire life, ever had a sharp word or tone for me but this time, there was a reprimand in her voice, almost a scold. "You believe in God," she said. She was so certain and so strong. I felt lost. It was dark and I wanted to cry. I wanted to tell her "no we don't," but I didn't argue. There was great comfort in her certainty, in her strength, in her acceptance yet correction of what I said as if I'd just gotten it wrong, made an innocent mistake. It was non-judgmental yet judgmental in that tough Irish way. It was a fact, the way she said it. "You believe," she whispered and I thought... maybe I do. Maybe I do.
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, sure 'tis like a morn in spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter, you can hear the angels sing.
When Irish hearts are happy, all the world seems bright and gay,
And When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, sure, they steal your heart away.
What are your memories of your grandmother or grandfather or how is your Irish heritage important to you?
When I'm not writing my novel, I'm writing at my website The California Mom, where I write about being a mom in Hollywood and share photos, insights, healthy recipes, beachy décor, great restaurants, and California travels. You can follow me on Twitter @adeerLA.
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