People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
The minute she losses one child there is another one on the way. We don't know how she does it. She's married four years, five children and another on the way. That shows you what can happen when you marry someone from the North for they have no control over themselves up there a bunch of Protestands that they are. He goes out for work every day but we know he spends all his time in the saloons and gets a few dollars for sweeping floors and lifting barrels and spends the money right back on the drink. It's terrible, Aunt Margaret, and we all think Angela and the children would be better off in her native land. We don't have the money to buy the tickets ourselves for times is hard but you might be able to see your way. Hopping this finds you in fine form as it leaves us thank God and His Blessed Mother.
A man with a pink patch on his eye tells us we're on the right street, Charlie Heggarty lives at number fourteen, God blast him. The man tells Dad, I can see you're a man that did his bit. Dad says, Och, I did my bit, and the man says, I did me bit, too, and what did it get me but one eye less and a pension that wouldn't feed a canary.
But Ireland is free, says Dad, and that's a grand thing.
Grandma whispers to Aunt Aggie, Who'll put the child in the coffin? and Aunt Aggie whispers, I won't. That's the job for the mother.
Uncle Pat hears them. I'll put the child in the coffin, he says. He limps to the bed and places his arms around Mam's shoulders. She looks up at him and her face is drenched. He says, I'll put the child in the coffin, Angela.
Easter is better than Christmas because Dad takes us to the Redemptorist church where all the priests wear white and sing. They're happy because Our Lord is in heaven. I ask Dad if the baby in the crib is dead and he says, No, He was thirty-three when He died and there He is, hanging on the cross. I don't understand how He grew up so fast that He's hanging there with a hat made of thorns and blood everywhere, dripping from His head, His hands, His feet, and a big hole near His belly.
Dad stands for a minute, swaying, and puts the penny back in his pocket. He turns toward Mam and she says, You're not sleeping in this bed tonight. He makes his way downstairs with the candle, sleeps on a chair, misses work in the morning, loses the job at the cement factory, and we're back on the dole again.
The priest tells Mrs. Molloy not to worry. God moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform and surely He has a special purpose for Mikey, fits and all. She says, Isn't it remarkable he can swally all kinds of sweets and buns but if he has to swally the body of Our Lord he goes into a fit? Isn't that remarkable? She worries Mikey might have the fit and die and go to hell if he has any class of a sin on his soul though everyone knows he's an angel out of heaven. Mikey tells her God is not going to afflict you with the fit and then boot you into hell on top of it. What kind of a God would do a thing like that?
Dad holds my hand going through the streets and people look at us because of the way we're saying Latin back and forth. He knocks at the sacristy door and tells Stephen Carey, This is my son, Frank, who knows the Latin and is ready to be an altar boy.
Stephen Carey looks at him, then me. He says, We don't have room for him, and closes the door.
Dad is still holding my hand and squeezes till it hurts and I want to cry out.
He says nothing on the way home. He takes off his cap, sits by the fire and lights a Woodbine. Mam is smoking, too. Well, she says, is he going to be an altar boy?
There's no room for him.
I'm hungry but I'm afraid to go home till I find my father.
He's not in Naughton's fish and chip shop but there's a drunken man asleep at a table in the corner and his fish and chips are on the floor in their Limerick Leader wrapping and if I don't get them the cat will so I shove them under my jersey and I'm out the door and up the street to sit on the steps at the railway station eat my fish and chips watch the drunken soldiers pass by with the girls that giggle thank the drunken man in my mind for drowning the fish and chips in vinegar and smothering them in salt and then remember that if I die tonight I'm in a state of sin for stealing and I could go straight to hell stuffed with fish and chips but it's Saturday and if the priests are still in the confession boxes I can clear my soul after my feed.
I know when Dad does the bad thing. I know when he drinks the dole money and Mam is desperate and has to beg at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and ask for credit at Kathleen O'Connell's shop but I don't want to back away from him and run to Mam. How can I do that when I'm up with him early every morning with the whole world asleep? He lights the fire and makes the tea and sings to himself or reads the paper to me in a whisper that won't wake up the rest of the family. Mikey Molloy stole Cuchulain, the Angel on the Seventh Step is gone someplace else, but my father in the morning is still mine. He gets the Irish Press early and tells me about the world, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco. He says this war is none of our business because the English are up to their tricks again. He tells me about the great Roosevelt in Washington and the great De Valera in Dublin. In the morning we have the world to ourselves and he never tells me I should die for Ireland.
And what's your name?
That's not a Limerick name. Where did you get a name like that?
My husband, sir. He's from the North.
He's from the North and he leaves you here to get the relief from the Irish Free State. Is this what we fought for, is it?
I don't know, sir.
Why don't you go up to Belfast and see what the Orangemen will do for you, ah?
I don't know, sir.
You don't know. Of course you don't know. There's great ignorance in the world.
The three of us burst out laughing and Alphie grins with his dirty face and says Goo goo again till we're helpless and Aunt Aggie roars out of the room pulling her dress down and gives me a thump on the head that sends me against the wall baby and all. She hits Malachy too and she tries to hit Michael but he runs to the other side of her round table and she can't get at him. Come over here, she says, and I'll wipe that grin off your puss, but Michael keeps running around the table and she's too fat to catch him.
The next Saturday there's no telegram nor the Saturday after nor any Saturday forever. Mam begs again at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and smiles at the Dispensary when Mr. Coffey and Mr. Kane have their bit of a joke about Dad having a tart in Piccadilly. Michael wants to know what a tart is and she tells him it's something you have with tea.
It isn't corned beef at all. It's a great lump of quivering gray fat and the only sign of corned beef is a little nipple of red meat on top. We stare at that bit of meat and wonder who will get it. Mam says, That's for Alphie. He's a baby, he's growing fast, he needs it. She puts it on a saucer in front of him. He pushes it away with his finger, then pulls it back. He lifts it to his mouth, looks around the kitchen, sees Lucky the dog and throws it to him.
He's not coming, Mam. He doesn't care about us. He's just drunk over there in England.
Don't talk about your father like that.
The Irish army is looking for boys who are musical and would like to train in the Army School of Music. They accept my brother, Malachy, and he goes off to Dublin to be a soldier and play the trumpet.
Now I have only two brothers at home and Mam says her family is disappearing before her very eyes.
I can't stop interfering with myself. I pray to the Virgin Mary and tell her I'm sorry I put her Son back on the cross and I'll never do it again but I can't help myself and swear I'll go to confession and after that, surely after that, I'll never never do it again. I don't want to go to hell with devils chasing me for eternity jabbing me with hot pitchforks.
I can hear Mam crying when she blows into the globe of the paraffin oil lamp and everything goes dark. After what happened she'll surely want to get into her own bed and I'm ready to go to the small one against the wall. Instead, there's the sound of her climbing the chair, the table, the chair, crying up into the loft and telling Laman Griffin, He's only a boy, tormented with his eyes, and when Laman says, He's a little shit and I want him out of the house, she cries and begs till there's whispering and grunting and moaning and nothing.
In awhile they're snoring in the loft and my brothers are asleep around me.
I can't tell her about Mam and Laman Griffin and the excitement in the loft. I tell her I was thinking of staying here a while because of the great distance from Laman Griffin's house to the post office and as soon as I get on my feet we'll surely find a decent place and we'll all move on, my mother and brothers and all.
Well, she says, that's more than your father would do.
What are you supposed to do?
You're told never never go to the post office to cash one of those money orders for anyone or you'll lose your job forever. But what are you supposed to do when an old man that was in the Boer War hundreds of years ago says his legs are gone and he'd be forever grateful if you'd […] cash the money order and keep two shillings for yourself grand boy that you are.
We take our ease on the sofa a while till she says, Don't you have more telegrams to deliver? and when we sit up she gives a little cry, Oh, I'm bleeding.
What's up with you?
I think it's because it's the first time.
I tell her, Wait a minute. I bring the bottle from the kitchen and splash the iodine on her injury. She leaps from the sofa, dances around the parlor like a wild one and runs into the kitchen to douse herself with water.
After she dries herself she says, Lord, you're very innocent. You're not supposed to be pouring iodine on girls like that.
Frost is already whitening the fresh earth on the grave and I think of Theresa cold in the coffin, the red hair, the green eyes. I can't understand the feelings going through me but I know that with all the people who died in my family and all the people who died in the lanes around me and all the people who left I never had a pain like this in my heart and I hope I never will again.
She whispers to Miss Barry and they look at me and shake their heads.
A disgrace he is to Ireland and his poor mother. I hope she never finds out. But what would you expect of one born in America and his father from the North. We put up with all that and still took him back.
She keeps talking past me again to the boys on the bench.
But I want to know about Theresa Carmody in hell, Father.
No, my child. She is surely in heaven. She suffered like the martyrs in olden times and God knows that's penance enough. You can be sure the sisters in the hospital didn't let her die without a priest.
Are you sure, Father?
I am, my child.
Frieda tells the priest I had a bit of a dizziness after going to the bathroom, that's what happens when you travel and you're drinking a strange beer like Rheingold, which she believes they don't have in Ireland. I can see the priest doesn't believe her and I can't stop the way the heat is coming and going in my face. He already wrote down my mother's name and address and now I'm afraid he'll write and say your fine son spent his first night in America in a bedroom in Poughkeepsie romping with a woman whose husband was away shooting deer for a bit of relaxation after doing his bit for America in the war and isn't this a fine way to treat the men who fought for their country.