When I was in high school, I received a writing assignment to interview an immigrant about experiences in their homeland, the decision to immigrate, and impressions of their new country. Of course, my Grandmother seemed like a great choice. Mom’s Mom had come from Ireland to this country at 14. Her father had placed her on a boat, knowing he would never see her again. The Black and Tans had shot their innocent (and pregnant) neighbor as she retrieved her mail. There was too much violence to stay in Ireland. So Grandma set sail from Liverpool on the boat which sailed immediately after the Titanic. It was a rough journey, but she arrived in Ellis Island intact, and even with a few new friends.
When Mom and I went to interview Grandma about her experiences, we were both excited. Mom suggested we bring the tape recorder to record the recollections for future generations. We wheeled Grandma into the dining room, and she was all smiles…. until I began asking questions.
I explained my assignment, and Grandma understood and nodded. “Okay,” her voice was raspy and a bit weak in her advanced years. She never had smoked, that was just nature’s course. “Grandma,” I began, “What was life-like back in Ireland?” I leaned forward, smiling in anticipation.
Suddenly, Grandma’s face clouded over. “I never knew my Mother. She died when I was a baby…” Grandma began crying. It was true, Grandma was the youngest of nine children, a large Irish Catholic family, and her mother had died just after giving birth to her. I reached out for her hand and held it. Mom and I tried to offer soothing words. We change the subject for a while. After a good ten to fifteen minutes, all seemed well. We tried again.
“Grandma, at my school we’re doing a report. Was it very different in America than when you were in Ireland?”
Again, Grandma teared up. “My mother… died when I was a baby. I never knew her. I never knew my mother.” She began to cry. Clearly, this was a bad idea.
We set aside the project. Any mention of Ireland at that point only brought sorrowful memories. I’d heard dozens of lighthearted Irish tales growing up, tales of leprechauns and siblings, hiding under the beds, how her brothers called her Birdy because of her skinny legs. But now, the only memories which were intact were ones of longing and grief.
After that incident, Mom often looked at journals. “Grandmother Remembers,” “To Our Children’s Children,” “Mom Remembers” were a few of many she purchased.
“I don’t want these memories to slip away,” Mom would say. She planned on filling them out once she retired. By the time Mom retired, she didn’t find the time. Partly, maybe, it was because she was already mentioning she was forgetting things. Moreover, I monopolized Mom’s time. Mom was a people person, and I was more than happy to be the “people” in her life. She loved coming over and spending the whole day – 8am until 8 to 10 pm. With E at work, Mom and I busied ourselves in domesticity, parenthood, and grandparenthood, lockstep. Mom would be tired out when she got back home, and those memory books never did get filled in. We were too busy creating new memories.
Now is my chance to try to pay it forward.
Mom, I love you. I hope I do you justice.