I suppose with every child, at some point in growing up, there is a seed planted to cultivate a deep sense of belonging, or not.
So, as I remember, this is how my life was from day to day in those early years. This boy, now a man, has a very distant memory of them arguing. The loud booming voice of da, always threatening, was particularly strained this day. Mam, as so often, pleaded for him to stop. "Stop with the drinking, the worrying away how life had become." Surely, she would say, "the potatoes will come back again, and we have enough sheep in the pen to carry us over 'til spring." Da would yell, "you're nothing but a 'wagon' Irish slang for an, especially annoying woman. So, as I remember, this is how my life was from day to day in those early years.
Springs did come, and springs did go, but da never found respite from the drinking. The harsh weather, with no letup in sight for days on end, with rains that washed away the fertile soil, fed his thirst to bury his sorrow in his many pints.
The land, as I heard from many a folk, was of excellent quality where we lived. Generally, Da kept things under a sound system of cultivation. But one had to have "the luck" to farm successfully, and I would come to discover that Da had none. Many Irish farms had between five and thirty acres -- usually, just enough tillable land to keep a family farm productive. Da farmed land passed down from his da, who had accumulated over time thirty-five acres. Five of those acres were lost to the amount of space the low stone walls that were built over time to mark off the borders to the fields and to clear those same fields for planting, and then there were the bogs.
In Ireland, in the year 1830, farmers saw the introduction of the first land act. The government then thought this would give tenants a small position of security to their properties. The Wyndhams' Act in 1903, which offered inducements to landholders to sell to the tenant farmer their properties, resulted in the government making available loans to tenants to make payments for ninety-nine years, enabling them to afford to purchase their property. The quality and size of the land, most often, became the driving elements for the family's wealth.
So, it was that James O'Roshe clung to the land with the cost being the land became the only thing he could show his love for outwardly. Over the years, I would realize that the land ended up being possibly all he ever would love in his mind and the depths of his soul.
In the most impoverished areas of Ireland, making productive land from rock or bog was very often back-breaking work. During the best of times, the harvest would provide for a farm family a life just above a poverty level of existence. In many cases, the ownership of our land, instead of setting our family free from debt, established the attitude of our Da, who became embittered and forlorn with each coming spring. His physically violent mood swings and lack of outward affection set into motion the strife that I began to realize was going to set the changes, at that time, unknown to me to come about in not too far into my future.
The history is rich in a rural farming setting In Ireland. DARAGH, or GLENROE, a parish, in the barony of COSTLEA, county of LIMERICK, and the province of MUNSTER, 4 miles (S. E.) from Kilfinane. In the parish resided around 800 inhabitants, and commerce was chiefly made up of farms raising sheep and growing potatoes for crops.
This place, generally called Daragh-Glenroe, signifying "the oaks of the red valley," was situated on the road from Limerick to Mitchelstown. The region derived its name from an ancient and extensive forest of oaks, in the dell of Glenroe, extending from the hills of Glenasheen to the river at Towerlegan.
Towards its north-west boundary were some old oaks, the remains of the ancient forest. Near the south-western corner, the road to Ballingarry crossed a small river, near the confluence of two streams, forming a boundary between the dioceses of Cork and Emly, which was between this parish and the adjacent parishes of Ballylander and Ballingarry.
Mam (mai othair), as called by one and all, in quiet passing's, would often utter the words" Ta mo chroi istigh ionat," which meant "my heart is within you." Mam, a mere child herself, when betrothed to da, was robust of will and was the hard-working disciplinarian in the home.
Her family, the Balls were from Antrim and at the ripe young age of sixteen arranged for their oldest daughter Iva, whose prospects of a future were in immigrating or going into the nunnery; or as was the case, getting betrothed. So, it was that mam, along with six sheep and her trunk of "hand me downs" with dowry complete, jumped onto a jaunty cart and moved into rural life to become wife to Da who was thirty years old. Sheep and potatoes were to become mam's treasure chest, which, as for children, we had hoped not to be the case. Mam, my siblings and I would learn very young in life, had a mean streak and more pathetically, a very broken moral compass when she would take to drink.
Just like ewes who can only feed two lambs at a time, mam soon began building her flock, with Mauve and me born mere minutes apart. But with the onset of our first cold, wet winter, Mauve was taken into the arms of Angels, age the too young age of eleven months. This was my first knowledge of what separation meant, setting the feeling deep in my marrow like something has been amiss in my life ever after. Mam, like most ewes, who will produce one or two lambs per year, gave birth; Milly Belle, LaRae Leanne, Stephen James, Ira John, Teressa Mae, John Michael, and Michael James.
It was the girls that Mam put to work for the duties of the household. Washing, sweeping, cooking, sewing rounded out their daily chores.
All the while, mam made it her divine mission, as she upheld the most critical role in Irish society, bringing us children up in the Catholic faith. So, it was of no surprise that all of us were held in awe of the Madonna and, at very young ages, were well versed in the practice of reciting the Rosary (a prayer to the Virgin).
To a large extent, mam had little choice in this responsibility. In return, mam received from the Church a level of respect, even authority, which she could not otherwise have expected, given her role of the household. Mam was also the designated disciplinarian and used the wooden spoon as much for cooking. But more so, even for a method of enforcement of the rules when broken.
In the 1950s, home births were typical in the area. The assistance of the local midwife, who oversaw either someone coming into the world or someone going out, became a familiar person in our early years. The giving of a silver coin appeared upon each birth. I came to learn that myths can be compelling and set the stage for hope, but the reality was far more a telling truth.
As a young lad, life was relatively simple in a rural farm setting. Everybody seemed to have the same, and it was familiar that grass always grew in the middle of the roads. I believe what happened on our farm and in our house, reflected what happened in the neighboring farms. Everyone had chores to do on the farm. We played simple games, and we got primary education at National school. From this start in life, one either stayed at home on the farm, joined the religious life, or got the boat to England or, as was the case for me, America.
As children, we ate whatever food adults had but in smaller quantities. Potatoes, bread, and porridge were daily staples and a standard feature on Fridays, and during Lent, we had fish. Eggs, when we had them, were for selling, so they were a rare treat, but the cracked ones were set aside to be fried with large slices of bacon for the odd dinner. Some favorite foods that mam would prepare were 'Cally' -- new potatoes smothered in butter and scallions or 'Goody' -- bread that was buttered and mashed in a mug of a hot tea or a mug of milk with sugar. Jelly and custard was a favorite dessert, but these were only on extraordinary occasions when the Priest would come by and Christmas. Tea chests from the local shops were used as playpens to keep youngsters from harm. The tea chest would later be a "hospital bed" for a delicate lamb or used to house the day-old chicks beside the fire when they arrived.
Working the land came before holidays and play. There was no time off for a farm or us boys, as da always had work to do. And if not on our property, he would farm us to the neighbors to cut and stack peat. It was always inevitable that we boys had to help with turf-cutting, saving hay, spreading slits, and picking potatoes together with ritualistic jobs around the home and farm. There were no relief programs in those days, and da made it abundantly clear that one would either work or would not eat.
Transportation also was a problem in the rural area where we grew. There were but a handful of cars in the whole parish we ever saw. On rare occasions, Da would let me ride our Irish Draught horse, "Joey." Joey was a small Draught horse, but gentle, intelligent, and had a willing nature. He was an excellent companion, and when I did get the occasion to ride him, we sailed over hill and dell. Not one of my siblings ever went to the seaside; some of my siblings never even saw the sea until they were able to get there under their own volition.
We learned very young that one could almost survive without money. Most foods were produced on the farm. The sale of eggs and the shearing of sheep wool was what allowed mam to go to the shops for the few groceries that were needed. As a frugal shopper, she even had a little change leftover from time to time. There were times of the year; I learned very early in life when extra money was needed for rent and rates, buying some seed potatoes and a few bags of fertilizer, and this was usually provided for by selling the lambs. Selling the harvest to the export agents in the area was da's job. Selling a few rabbits at Christmas was mam's job, and this too gave her some extra money for a few luxuries at that time of year.
An odd letter came from America from time to time as mam's da sent over funds, but such things were usually kept quiet and not talked about -- even though all of us children knew. Da would go into a funk for weeks about what he called taking relief. Overall, however, our rural Parish was resourceful, as was our household. We all learned to 'make do' and to support any family that came upon hard times.
We found time to play. Often, all of us children paddled or swam in the lough, and it was there at the lough, at the age of 4, where I began living with a harrowing experience of my Da tossing me into the deep water and walking away. To this day, I don't think he cared whether I would have sunk or swum, but swam I did, and I have been a swimmer ever after.
On a day to day living of life, we always found ways to amuse ourselves. We were most inventive too. Nothing went to waste that could be used to create games and being entertained. Empty cans and jars with a few pieces of wood made a "shop," which gave days of enjoyment. Corks and bottle tops were the currency used in our imaginative "shops." We boys found quick use of twigs and branches to create catapults, whistles, spinning sticks, and swords. A piece of rope could readily make a simple swing, and a hillside could become a slide. The cast-off wheel or used tire was used to create whatever the mind could invent.
From the very early days when chores were done, we were less supervised and spent much of the day playing outside, often not returning home until teatime or to move the sheep to a new field. Berry picking and apple picking was another late summer activity for making jam and preserves. It was from picking berries that I soon came to the most unfortunate discovery that I was incredibly allergic to strawberries. To my dismay, I quickly would break out in massive hives and found it extremely difficult to breathe; if I even ate as much as a handful of strawberries. This misfortune has stayed with me all my life.
In Ireland, attendance at full-time education was compulsory for all children between six and sixteen years of age or until students have completed three years of post-primary education. Children in Ireland were not obliged to attend school until the age of six; however, in our Parish, most children began school in the September following their fourth birthday.
And this precise time, at four years and six months, unknown to me at the time, I found my ability to escape. The primary school was church-run. Our parish school was managed by the Catholic parish priest, Father O'Shea, whom I will be forever in debt for seeing in me something that was he thought was unique. School for me was exhilarating, freeing, and often became my sanctuary. It was in school I learned to read, write and speak English, while at home Irish Gaelic was the only allowed tongue. I was a sponge when it came to math, science, and I particularly loved reading about the world and how it came to be.
My only set back was I was born predominately left-handed. This was a significant downside, being left-handed or "citeog," as we said in Ireland. It is known that the left hand is mentioned in the Bible only 25 times, all negatively. The word sinister comes from the Latin word "sinestra," which originally meant "left" but took on meanings of "evil" or "unlucky,," and you were usually regarded as the bastard offspring of Satan. Latin was also the language of Irish priests who happened to find themselves in charge of the Irish school system; they took it upon themselves to beat the left-handed shite out of anyone that happened to be born with this curse. I found many a time with my left hand tied behind my back. Being forced to write over and over the two times tables with your right hand, if that didn't make you right-handed, I was treated like it was my fault Jesus died on the cross. Life for a lefty in Ireland schools was tough going in these early years.
On the other hand, the 'Catholic ethos' was a much more dreadful impact on the education of my sisters. To a girl, they suffered discrimination, bullying, and open snobbery from teachers, especially priests and nuns. As a result, the primary was a beginning and ending for my sisters, even if they managed to get some secondary education. Everybody walked to school with family and walked home again together in small groups, and gathering chestnuts was looked forward to each year around the priest's house and in the Turlough. A turlough, or turlach, is a type of disappearing lake found mostly in blue limestone areas of Ireland.
Being barefoot in the summer was common. In the winter, wellingtons and leather nail boots were worn. There were short trousers with braces for us boys and pinafores for the girls. Clothes were worn for more extended periods than just a day at a time, as washing was not done frequently. Hand-me-downs and patches were quite standard fare with garments being let in and let out; we all had our everyday clothes, and then there were our Sunday best. Mam knew a local tailor, and he made suits for us boys, often from an old topcoat that might be acquired from some neighbor. Saturday night in our house was bath night so that we children could be presented as God worthy of going to church on Sunday. The boys took their turn washing in a kettle-filled tub that would be placed in front of the fire. Short hair was traditional for us boys. The haircut was given at home by da, who was handy with the shearing tools giving every one of the males a trim once every month.
The health of us children was always a worry for mam. In the 1950s, there were epidemics of Polio and Tuberculosis, which were especially feared. Everyone knew someone who suffered from one of these diseases in the Parish. I was five years old, as we were playing outside when one spring day, I heard the shriek of mam and ran to a window. Standing on a large barrel, I could barely peer into the room, seeing mam holding Stephen James, who had been especially sick limp in her arms. Mam saw me and said, "go into town to McGregor's Pub and fetch your da." Stephen James was my second lesson in the feeling of separation.
Grandma, who we called mamo, my da's mam, was a shaman; a woman we feared almost as much as we feared the "a lucht siaill" - 'the walking people' who were an itinerant ethnic group that we thought took children in the night. Mamo possessed and practiced the role of a medicine woman who was a blend of healer/ wisdom keeper/counselor. We became accustomed to her herbs, balms, concoctions for such things as colds, fevers and chilblains and she encouraged that if one of us got the measles and mumps, then all in the house would surely get them; this was quite easily done, as most often we slept with our siblings, the boys slept three to a bed.
Commonly found in the home in the place where medicinal items were kept, one would read the labels of Castor Oil, Syrup of Squills, Cod Liver Oil, Epsom salts, Vaseline Petroleum Jelly, Milk of Magnesia, Gripe Water, Aspro's, Andrews Liver Salt and Syrup of Figs. A bottle of Dettol would also be there for cuts and scrapes. Bandages, if required, would come from an old white shirt, an old sheet, or recycled from a flour bag. The flour bags were also kept making bedsheets. Biestings, the first milk that came from a sheep, was famous for building up the children's immune systems.
The period is the 1950s. Childhood was enjoyed by countless children in all of Ireland, just as it was lived day-to-day. You might say this was a frugal or austere upbringing in some ways. But then, it was the same for everyone that I knew at the time.
end Chapter 1
I started an autobiography class in October. This is the beginning of what I hope will be a good read for those who choose to read this and a small voice in my head encourages me to leave this behind for my progeny.
DARAGH, or GLENROE, a parish - Topographical Dictionary of .... https://libraryireland.com/topog/D/Daragh-Costlea-Limerick.php
|Author Notes||This is the second installment of my autobiography. I thank everyone who has been kind enough to provide honest and critical feedback and suggestions. I look forward to your next thoughts, thank you!|
Initially, I didn't have a clue that we were, based on American cultural morays, looked upon as misfits, taking from the system. This knowledge came swiftly into my awareness, shortly after the beginning of school in the fall. Throughout the summer, we all had numerous meetings with the state caseworker. She had us children poked and prodded and made sure that we got every immunization known to modern medicine as if we all carried a deadly contagious disease known on the planet. She also took us to a school, where it seemed, we were tested by every method known to science to determine whether we might be fit to stay in America, or so I thought.
Somehow, after all the testing, the test results told those administering the tests that the system said that I would begin school in the fourth grade. I was seven and a half; I soon learned my classmates were ten going on eleven years old. The first days of school were profoundly challenging. I just wanted to melt away and disappear every time I uttered a word with my Irish brogue being so unusual. The classroom would burst out in laughter and fingers were pointed at me when asked a question by the teacher, Mrs. Benner, I was so ashamed and felt out of place.
There were more children in this large school than were in the parish I was from in Glenn-Coe, Ireland. I was small in stature compared to all the rest of the class, and there were girls in the same classroom - with us boys something, I thought was a mortal sin.
It was also in these beginning days that I discovered I was going to spend three more years moving from the fourth, fifth, and finally sixth grade. We surely didn't have the same type of system at home. I thought that three years was going to be for the rest of my life.
My very first American teacher was Mrs. Benner. She was a fantastic instructor. Mrs.B had little tolerance for buffoonery in her classroom. Her instruction was thorough, and she showed great interest and patience in aiding me in learning "American slang." I soon learned this was a "must-do" so I could circumnavigate in the world of school children. As in Ireland, I found a great escape into the world of math, science, history, and having a library inside the school, filled with more books than I could ever hope to read, seemed quite a luxury.
The one time, each day that I dreaded most, the first months was recess. This was when the best and the worst came out from mostly the boys. The rough and tough ones strutted around, heckling, and testing the ground that I stood on. These times, I soon realized, were when I would have to adapt from and adapt to the way they spoke and would undoubtedly need to learn the games they played, and as quickly as possible defend my space.
It was on one freezing day in November, while walking to school, that the bully, Johnnie Cartwright, and a couple of other "tough guys" stopped us. Like usual, they started heckling and calling us names. But Johnnie went too far this time and pushed me. I found myself on the ground. Getting up, I let loose with thundering blows to his head, quickly bloodying his nose. This seemed to cause Johnnie to stop, and the other boys grabbed him and then started running off back to Johnny's home. At lunchtime, I was called to the principal's office, where I found myself staring into the faces of Johnnie, his mom, and his dad. Upon seeing me and the size that I was compared to Johnnie, his dad looked over at him and said, "boy, you need to apologize to this little guy." I was shocked and in disbelief, but from that day forward, the bullying stopped.
I learned where it mattered to be different was in the classroom, doing the work, answering the questions correctly, and testing with as much perfection as I could muster. It was a small circle of students that I began to find I had a common ground. Students that I felt I belonged with and felt a sense of "fitting in." Tommy and Terry Reedy, a set of twins, were right there with me in getting good grades. It was often a real contest of wills to see who posted the highest scores on the assignments. Outside of class, however, I wasn't a part of their social class; they tended to hang with the wealthier kids. It took me no time at all to realize that it was going to take a whole lot more than good grades to "fit in."
Come Spring, I started to enjoy the weekends. It required that I walk a very long way from our house to get to where Grandpa lived. He enjoyed working in a shed out back of the house and made chairs and side tables. Grandpa was good at shaping the wood and using the tools. He had hand planes, saws, hand drills, a lathe, that he would peddle the treadle on to spin to shape the wood. It was not the case for me. My left-handedness made using his tools awkward, and everything he did, I seemed to do ass-backward.
Grandpa was patient with my lack of skill and would find little projects to pass the time with him. Grandpa had a rabbit hutch along the garage wall, and he would let me play with the rabbits. However, with the full understanding that I was going to, when the time was right, kill and skin some of them. When he told me this, I, of course, stated, "I understand," but a reality of the act was more difficult. However, long before I had my first biology class, I became quite adept at skinning and eviscerating many a rabbit. It made dissecting frogs in later years much more comfortable and by then more interesting. I began my interest in the possibilities of a medical career at this time.
It wasn't too much later into Spring that I found that Grandpa loved to fish. That became the beginning of many a fishing trip and many more fish stories, as, over the years, we would come home to tell Beulah who had caught biggest and most fish, usually it was his being the trophy catch every time.
On weekends beginning in the Spring, grandpa would walk across the street to the fire station number 15. The station at the time was located at 3009 E. Olympic street. This station served the small railroad community of Hillyard. The building first served as Hillyard City Hall and the city jail for the township. The township of Hillyard was annexed into the City of Spokane in 1924, and at that time, the building was reconstructed to house the fire station.
The community was made up of small businesses and townsfolk who worked at the Hillyard railroad facility. The railroad hub was the manufacturing center for Great Northern and produced large numbers of the most massive and most powerful built steam locomotives in the world. The construction of these enormous stream engines required working with heavy equipment and machinery and did not go without risk. Fires of varying sizes were frequent, and professionally trained fire personnel were the means of preventing disaster. Because the yards transported goods across the Pacific Northwest, any catastrophe would have a rippling effect on the region.
The firemen had a beautiful grassy lot with shady trees and lilac bushes that exploding in the Spring with deep purple and white flowers. When they came into bloom, I knew that it wouldn't be long before the firemen would set up a croquet game on the side lawn, and they would play for hours upon end. Many an early evening, I was allowed to go over and be with the firemen.
During the summer, Grandpa would let me go with him to the "YARDS" (what he called his area of responsibility) with a lunch bucket underarm, to work a swing shift with him. I know that to him, my eyes must have appeared as big as the moon as we walked around and along the rails. Seeing all the locomotives in the switchyard banging and clanging as the switchman sent signals with lanterns up to engineers to move a long string of cars up and then back to add and disconnect specific cars onto different rails. With each railcar to be connected to different trains to complete the railcars assigned destination. It was a fantastic sight to witness; men and machines in the pitch black of the night working in such concert and with what seemed such ease.
On many an occasion, it was during these special times that he began to do his talks. All the time, while I listened quite intently at his words of "never and always," I started to learn of the depth of his character, the lessons of life that he would instill in me, need for me to learn to act upon. His moral compass included: To have a good work ethic and to be a friend when a neighbor needed a hand. He often repeated never borrow, never steal, always Thank GOD for every meal. On more than a dozen occasions, he would say thank you, be quick to say I am sorry when I wronged someone, never complain about hard-work, always be on time, never treat a woman harshly, always wash behind both ears and always wear clean undergarments.
The not so pleasant times were when I had to be home. Caretaking became a form of survival in the house. Mam was never well. Or so she always said. At the time, I was just doing whatever I could to be in charge of my brother and two sisters as we walked softly around the house. Whenever we could be out of doors, we were; this was where life seemed freer. The air was fresher, space far more open and brighter.
Mam took so many pills. It was nearly impossible for me to remember what and when she needed to take medicine and for what purpose. Medicinal care was so grossly different in America. We didn't have the home remedies provided by our Mamo in Ireland. When we took ill, we were all carted off by a bus to welfare clinic, waited in line to show our card to let them know we were allowed in, then took a number and waited our turn to be called into the closed doors of the clinic. There were all types of people in the waiting room with coughs, sniffles, blisters, burns, some on crutches, some with stumps, many sitting shivering, or with sweats. Rarely, did Mam or anyone of us children see the same Doctor at the clinic and Mam seemed to get pills handed to her for just coming in to see someone for any range of her discomforts.
My single and most important function was to try and make sure that we ate. We rarely could go to a grocery store, to do so required cash and we simply did not have any. Perhaps my most significant time of embarrassment as a child came once a month. Mam would get a card in the mail, and we went off to the commodity exchange store. We had an old rusted, wobbly-wheeled red wagon, acquired as a gift from grandpa who had pulled off a garbage pile. Once a month, we would get our allotment and wheel the food home going through the small town and often running into kids from the neighborhood.
I learned reading some of the pamphlets given to Mam, that the government had a surplus food program. To get the Government surplus, a family had to be in the lowest of income classes.
People, such as we were, did not want to acknowledge that we received and used government surplus foods. We rightly feared that our friends and especially their children would know our household was on welfare assistance. One thing that I knew real quick was that neighborhood folk did know. Especially all the kids that made it painfully known to anyone we would come into contact with we were poor.
The bulk packages were an assortment of "get by" foodstuffs. Even to this day, it is difficult for me to say anything good about powdered milk. We used powdered milk for our mashed potatoes, gravies, and sauces. We would regularly mix two-thirds powdered milk with one-third whole milk and allowed it to sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Resulting in a mixture in a taste somewhat like regular milk. However, toward the end of every month, there was no whole milk to extend it, and then it was tough to get it down the hatch. I thought that the powdered milk was terrible. However, the powdered eggs were a close second. I could not acquire anything toward an acceptable taste of anything that asked for eggs in the recipe. Canned meats also had an awful appearance, and the gelatinous fats that came out of the cans were the foulest smelling. A treat, from time to time, on the other hand, was that Spam; we all found it was quite tasty, especially when it was sliced and then fried. Peanut butter was quite familiar to us; however, it was rather stiff. It would be much later in my life that I learned that there was a creamy version of peanut butter.
Besides these foods I have mentioned, rice, flour, butter, and yellow cornmeal were other surplus items. The real treat I looked forward to every month was the cheese. The surplus cheese, by itself, was not that great. The sharp-tasting cheese cuts were a block of wedge-shaped variety that was hard to cut. Nevertheless, it quickly melted and was excellent with many menus and genuinely outstanding for making macaroni and cheese and even more exceptional for a grilled cheese sandwich. However, as much as these were the basics of basic foodstuffs when one is hungry, anything can taste like a steak when there was nothing else in the house to eat and especially in the months when we ran out of food near the end of the month.
While I was ashamed to be getting food from a Government Surplus Food Program, this child-man, going to fetch the foodstuffs, every month, had little doubt that it was quite beneficial and quite literally keeping our family well feed and adequately nourished, back in the day.
While getting used to our new life that first year, the one constant that I was able to hold fast to was reading. It was a safe passage for my siblings and me into the discovery of new places, new ideas, new experiences. Before the start of our new school year, we moved into a two-bedroom house that was on a dusty dirt road not more than two street blocks from where our grandpa and his wife Bertha had bought another house. I came to learn that grandpa purchased this house and expected Mam to pay him a monthly rent. This significant gift by our grandfather made it a permanent place that I will live in until I left home, ten years in the future.
The neighborhood was a real mix of working-class people. Many of the families went to the same parish, ST. PATRICKS, and it became a familiar place that we children would find refuge away from the strife and struggles of being around Mam. She was forever ill, complained about how difficult her life was, and all the bad things that GOD had done to her life. Mam never finished the second level in her education. She could barely read and write and had little if any prospects of finding work that would provide enough income for us to live a comfortable and healthy life.
At her age of twenty-five, Mam would have been called attractive, she had luxurious auburn hair and robust chest and was about 5'4". When she drank, I heard women folk say, "she was flirtatious." At age seven, I could not grasp what they meant at the time. However, they all made it a personal mission, it seemed, to get her hooked up with a guy. Soon, she did start dating. Not knowing where this was going to go, I judged that the only thing that she knew she was good at was flirting and drinking and started going to the neighborhood pub.
For a while, she did not bring any men to the house. Nevertheless, she was out from the early evening until the early morning. It was not uncommon for her to wake us as she came into the house-- stumbling through the four rooms to her back bedroom.
Millie and LeeAnn slept in bunks across from me and Ira John in the only other bedroom. We had a clothesline that I put up to provide us with the only privacy we could create. We had one bathroom and one vanity, and I learned to get an early start and late finish to each day so that I could wash and clean myself without interruption. I finally caught on that with her nightly outings and early mornings returns that she suddenly had a few dollars. She would send me to the store to buy things we seldom enjoyed in our regular diets; stuff like ice cream, soda, and potato chips. I asked her where the money came from, and she replied, "I was given a little sugar."
I didn't know at the time that she was taking money to sleep with guys.
|Author Notes||This is my third insertion of a chapter in Celtic Roots. In this chapter, I am covering the first year and half in our new lives in America and the harsh reality that were poor and I was didn't want to have any of the hand-outs, but the fact was the basics were what got us by.|
After a couple of years of learning to live in America, I found things at times daunting and at other times, astonishing in many ways.
Located just a couple of blocks from our home, on Haven Street, was a public swimming pool. Arlington Elementary school was out for the summer the first week in June, and we went back to school after Labor Day. The swimming pool opened the first Saturday in June at 1:00 PM for open swimming, but what was incredibly special, was the swimming pool provided swimming lessons for several age groups.
Having turned ten-years-old in March and already a surprisingly good swimmer, summer was going to be set. However, I wanted to get in more pool time than just the open swim time. The American Red Cross conducted a Junior Lifeguard training program that was a summer-long program that required 30 hours in the pool in two -hour training sessions. The rub for me was the age requirement. To get into the program, one had to be eleven years old. I was already spending time together at school with students two and three years older than me, so age restrictions really did not make much sense to me. So, I gathered the required paperwork that required parental approval by signing the documents. These signed papers had to be given to the American Red Cross instructors. I took the document home, sat at the kitchen table, filled-in all the required information, then told my mom that I wanted to take junior lifeguard training. I showed her where to sign the document, which she did. What I had not pointed-out to her (she could hardly read any English) was that I had fudged on my birth year, one-year.
At which point, I rushed back to the pool and gave the documents to the instructor, who looked over the paper, looked at me a bit closer, I felt, then the others, and said, “Okay, be at the pool next Monday at 9:00 AM.” I felt like I was floating on clouds! I was so excited about this extra pool time and didn’t give the age discrepancy another thought.
On Saturday, my grandfather, who had purchased paint for the outside of our house, decided that I was going to do all the window casing with the new trim color. It was a very lovely sunny day, and helping my grandfather do anything around the house just felt like the right thing I should be doing. Grabbing a bucket of the turquoise toned paint, a couple of paintbrushes and some trimming tape, I went to the side of the house. Getting everything in place, I set-up the ladder against the first set of windows and began taping-off the glass around the window frame. Once I got all the taping done, I was ready to get going on the painting. The ground under the window was flush with low growing shrubbery and I found it challenging to get the ladder to sit flat without a wobble. Not giving this much thought, I went ahead, got the bucket of paint on the ladder's shelf, climbed up and began painting the trim. To get to the top of the windowpane, I needed to get up onto the top step. Just as I bent down to dip the paintbrush into the bucket of paint, the ladder suddenly wobbled and tilted at such an angle that I lost my balance.
A tightening in my chest was a strong indication that what was about to happen wasn’t going to end well. I thoughtfully grabbed the paint bucket, thinking at the time, I would salvage the paint going down. Along the side of the house was a 2 foot-wide paved walkway. As I plummeted to the ground, with the bucket in my hands, I hit the walkway with both hands buried in the bucket, and both of my mid forearms bent in a way that looked almost cartoonish. The reality was, I broke both arms in the fall. The paint was splattered across my chest, my arms, and my face. I have no idea if I passed out immediately or at the moment that I attempted to extract my hands from the bucket. Whatever of those moments were first, I did pass out! Sometime relatively soon, my sister, Millie, found me on the ground in a visible mess. She screamed and my grandfather and my mom came rushing to the side of the house. After one look at my arms, my grandfather grabbed some wooden shingles from the shed, had my mom tear a sheet into strips of cloth, and he went ahead and splinted my arms, paint and all. Then trying to get off the ground, I passed out once again. When I came to, I was in the front seat of the car, with a large pillow in my lap, my mom in the back seat, and grandfather rushing across town to Sacred Heart hospital.
Upon arrival at the emergency entrance, my grandfather went in and got the medical staff to come out and get me into a wheelchair. As I moved from the car seat to the wheelchair, I started laughing uncontrollably and broke out in a drenching sweat that became soaked top to bottom. The emergency room staff removed the homemade splints and saw at once that I had bi-lateral compound fractures. The ER doctor looked at the arms and told the nurse, “to get me to the radiology department stat.” When I returned, he instructed the staff to try and get the drying paint off my hands and arms. About 45 minutes later, I met Dr. Wallace, who was an orthopedic surgeon. He told us that I was one remarkably lucky lad. The fractures would not require surgery. However, I was going to have to be put to sleep to reset and align the bones properly and to build a body cast that would incase both arms at a vertical level and surround my whole upper chest to provide stability.
When I woke up a few hours later, I felt like a freight train had rolled over my entire body. As my head cleared, I found myself in a bed with the head fully upright and I realized that I felt totally trapped in a cage. Dr. Wallace dropped into the hospital ward in the early evening and proceeded to explain the resetting of the bones and then made the striking statement, ”Jimmie, your summer is going to be long and challenging. You will be in this cast setup for 3 months.” I instantly thought "this is God’s punishment for lying about my age. My summer vacation is doomed, my junior lifeguard training is not going to happen!" Then, as I looked left and right at my arms girded in plaster, I suddenly realized I was not going to be able to feed myself and I felt heartbroken.
The first six weeks following the fall were the very worst! My hands were cast in such a manner that I could not wriggle my fingers. The simplest of things, brushing my teeth, combing my hair, wiping the perspiration from my brow, cleaning my behind, feeding, and drinking was not possible by myself. I was dependent, needing help 24/7. I learned a thing or two about myself that summer. One I did not like, in fact, hated, having to be waited on for everything and second, my sister Millie was a godsend to help me get through the troubled days.
After six weeks, going into town to see Dr. Wallace was a long-awaited event. The radiologist took x-rays. When Dr. Wallace came in, he said, “we have some good news and some not so good news. The bones in both arms are healing, they are straight, and I can see good new bone growth, but I was hoping we could reduce the need for the body cast. However, I don’t feel we can take the risk of your arms not being completely immobile and slings will not work. I can give you some more mobility with your hands by cutting away the cast from the fingers but not the wrist.”
So, we went into the casting room, where he grabbed a saw and began to slowly remove the cast to expose my digits on my hands for the first time in six weeks. The feeling was indescribable! I sat in the car all way back across town just moving my fingers. This was such a simple change, as I was still unable to do self-care. However, what having my fingers available did do was allow me to hold a book in my fingers and I spent every waking moment with a book, and I read and read and read.
On occasions, when I just felt like I had to have some kind of summer fun time in, my little seven-year-old sister Millie and I would walk to the local park, Harmon Field. It was about ten city blocks from the house, and we had to walk past the swimming pool, which was a double whammy to my psyche. Not being able to swim, compounded by my lie was burdensome!
The park had swing sets, and I could balance myself in the saddle seat of a swing and enjoy the moment being out of doors and feeling somewhat normal.
Of course, the local bullies were all around the park throughout the summer and the heckling and sneering were quite abundant. So much so that my little sister must have had enough. One day, as we were just arriving at the park, the regulars were in full force and the heckling started. The next thing Millie charged over to the crowd of mostly boys and began pummeling the boy that had the loudest mouth and beat on him until he, with a shocked look, backed away and told the group of guys to just let us be. I was so impressed with her, from that day forward I nicknamed her Guardian Angel.
As summer was winding down, school chatter started circling around the neighborhood, and I was anxiously hoping the casts were coming off. The school was to begin on September 8th, and we had an office visit with Dr. Wallace on Friday, September 4th. The standard order for new x-rays took place and then the long wait to be escorted into the examination. When we were called back, the nurse had a pretty great smile and said, “Dr. will be right in, but we are moving you over to the casting room.”
I knew at once that some part of this terrible cast was going to be no more! Dr. Wallace came in, smiled, grabbed the saw, and started cutting away the cast. He began across the back and then came around to the front and cut open the cast. He then started to cut away the right and left arms top and bottom. As he was cutting away on the arms, his nurse began cutting away the padding front and back and, oh my gosh! The smell will never leave my memory cells. Twelve weeks of accumulated sweat and decaying skin and general body odors permeated the air. It was pretty awful. However, the sheer joy of having this burden removed was far overweighing the dreadful smell. I literally felt like a thousand-pound elephant was finally off my chest. My upper body and my arms were sheet white. My arms looked like spaghetti noodles. They had lost so much muscle tone.
I heard Dr. Wallace talking about exercises and limitations and on and on. What I was focused on at the moment was getting my independence back with school starting in four days.
And the beginning of a new chapter…..
|Author Notes||Begining our third summer in America, I had an incident that forever changed me.|
It was April 1966, and I sat attentively in my social studies class. Mrs. Judd was lecturing on government agencies and social welfare programs. Muscles tighten as I slumped down further in my seat when the discussion starts swinging toward types of welfare programs available. Unexpectedly, Mrs. Judd says, "Three out of every four children who grow-up in the welfare system, stay in the system. Families like yours, Jimmie, become a financial burden to the working-class society."
Immediately, the room was awash with snickers and jeers until Mrs. Judd calls the children back to order. I had no recall what the rest of the lecture was even about. My mind was firing in every direction ~ anger, fear, sadness, and full-blown embarrassment.
The damage was done!
For ten grinding years, I had managed to navigate in the system achieving excellent grades always swimming against the current, two years younger than everyone else in my classes. In a matter of three minutes, this statement rocks my world as nothing had ever done up to this point. I remember feeling so ashamed, already burdened about the clothes I could afford to buy, the caution I needed to employ in trying to be social with the "in" kids, constantly hunker-down and staying in my lane, and now this out of the blue calling out, and by a teacher no less.
Mrs. Judd says, "Jimmie, stay with me after class." As the last student leaves the room, she walks up to my desk, peers down at me, and asks, "Did what I said embarrass you?" I wanted to say, "Hell, Yes! What do you think I would feel? Why? Why did you point me out to the whole class?" I instead sat there, then folded my arms, and remained silent. She then said, "I wanted you to feel embarrassed, hoping that you will stay embarrassed and do better than the statistics. It is up to you and you alone to break the cycle of poverty. You are very smart with above-average grades, Jimmie. Figure it out and stay out of the system. Now, go on to your next class."
Nothing I had ever heard before or after this comes close to be being such a personally motivating experience. This was so pivotal it became a personal challenge to "SHOW HER," as I moved on.
Unfortunately, years-long battles ensue. I was afraid that my self-crafted Shangri La would somehow implode and that I would be thrown head over heels into poverty. For years, this experience propelled me to put my childhood and teenage years into a sealed container. Whenever any conversations would start about my childhood, where I grew up, went to school, anything about my parents, I remained silent and did not engage in the conversation.
If I did participate in a discussion, I developed a terrible habit of manifesting a blended tale of what a perfect union would have been like as a kid. A life with loving parents complete with Thanksgiving dinners ~ all the trimmings and Christmas trees and mistletoe all a fiction story being told.
Over the years and with lots of therapy, painful conversations have been shared between my inner wounded child and me.
Words like "Jimmie, I love you! I see your silky reddish hair and freckly ruddy complexion, that broad smile that was like a personal invitation just to say hi. I love how you approached life as a little guy. Running, finding ways to be outside with nature, like when you would walk in the new growth of alfalfa and pick some leaves, strip the blade down to the stem, then chew on it - like you saw your grandpa do so many times.
I love the awe that built up more and more excitement within as you heard a choir sing in harmony. How alive you felt, how "at one" with all that surrounded you. Everyone in your world expected so much from you. Instinctively or simply because you thought there were no options, you set ambitious goals. You were determined; not just to get good grades but to ace, everything, make the team. It did not help that you started school early and were two years younger than most. You deserved, but seldom, if ever, had Mum or Da tell you that they loved you.
|Author Notes||Getting to high school was tough, being in high school was often more so.|
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