Veronica Hogle: The Woman Who Loved the Sea
This story by Veronica Hogle is the winner of the 2016 Judge’s Prize in Just Buffalo Literary Center’s eighth annual members contest.
When the shrill ring of the phone pierced the quietness of the night, I woke up right away. It was still dark out. I looked at the clock and it said it was ten minutes after three. The answering machine clicked on, and while I listened, I stayed stuck to the sheets.
“This is Mary. The hospital just called. Your mother’s condition has deteriorated. I’m going to the hospital now. It’s a little after eight in the morning here in Ireland. I’ll phone again when I come home,” my sister-in-law, who lived in Donegal, said. My heart started to beat like a tom tom. I was wide awake now. I got up and listened to the message over and over.
Mammy was 90 years old, frail, and ninety percent deaf. With the help of Nan, a beloved caregiver, she was still able to live at home. She told us many times that when the day came for her departure from this world, she wanted to die in her own bed. Now, l pictured her alone and afraid in a strange place, not able to hear or understand what nurses and doctors said to her. Mammy will hate that. She’ll be frantic, I thought and a wild cry shook my whole body. Two hours later the phone rang again. I picked it up and Mary said my mother’s condition had stabilized, but her kidneys were not working well.
Relief washed over me. Mammy will rally, I thought to myself.
At fifteen minutes after noon, Buffalo time, the phone rang again.
“The news isn’t good.” Silence.
“She went off in her sleep ten minutes ago,” said Mary.
I looked at the clock. It was 5:15 p.m. Irish time on Friday, May 5, 2006.
Oh, what will I do without her weekly letters and our regular chin-wags on the phone? the poems she wrote on the backs of envelopes? the newspaper clippings she sent with “Save” written in the margins? Her St. Patrick’s Day cards with harps and shamrocks? the family news? and the Christmas parcels that arrived in October tied up with yards and yards of twine?
I’d been preparing for this day for ages. Now that it was here, I wasn’t ready for it at all.
It was hours before I found my voice to say “My mother has died.” I finally called my son and sobbed a message on his cell phone. A friend helped me to get a plane from Buffalo to JFK Airport and catch the night flight to Dublin. My daughter, Lisa, came with me.
On Saturday night, we were on our way across the Atlantic Ocean to Dublin. Sleep wouldn’t come. As the night went on, I cried off and on and thought about my mother. Most of her life, she lived in Bagenalstown, County Carlow, 70-miles south of Dublin, a small flourmill and railway town on the Barrow River, at the heel of the Blackstairs Mountains.
Mammy was the last member of the Walshe family who had lived in Bagenalstown for 130 years. She was the only one left to keep the family’s lights on, and she did not spare the electricity.
My mother’s name was Eileen Josephine, the third of seven children born to William and Mary Kate Earls. Her mother gave birth to her in the Curragh Army Camp in Kildare, near Dublin, on March 27, 1916. Two weeks later Irish rebels took over the General Post Office and other major buildings in Dublin. World War I was in its second year. Her father, originally from Galway, was a career soldier with the British Army. The day his daughter was born he was in Calcutta with his regiment, the Eleventh Hussars.
Mammy was petite with nut brown curly hair, emerald green eyes, and flawless skin. She dressed in an elegant, practical way. At the drop of a hat, she wrote satirical poems and sent them to elected officials, world leaders, and newspaper editors letting them know her opinions on matters happening in the world. Many wrote back to her. Her poetry was published in books, journals, television radio newspapers.
When she was 20 years old, she moved to Waterford, a big seaport town in the south of Ireland where she had a job in a hotel beside the main post office. That’s where she met Richard Breen, a postal worker whose wife died giving birth to a son who survived. The widower came in to the hotel every day, looking handsome with his Robert Mitchum-type of sultry blue eyes, made bluer by his navy and blue postal uniform. He swept her off her feet, and in no time they were married. Soon, she had three children under three. But my father still went to the hotel every day where he drank more and more, while Mammy stayed home. Alcohol made him violent—so violent that one Friday night during a severe beating, she saw her own blood splatter on my baby brother’s downy blond hair.
“Like a cat, I knew there and then I’d to move my kittens to safety,” Mammy told me when I asked her why we had no daddy of our own. When he passed out, she packed my brothers Antoin, Traloch, and me into the pram and wheeled us away in the middle of the night to a friend’s house. The friend said she’d keep six-month-old Traloch until Mammy got settled. She gave her the fare to get the train back to her family in Bagenalstown. I was two years old, and Antoin was one year older than me.
My grandmother’s sister, Aunt Christina, who was married to Jim Fitzpatrick, also lived in Bagenalstown. While visiting her in a sanitarium in Kilkenny, Mammy met Mary, a patient in the next bed. She was the wife of Michael, (Dottie) Walsh, a tailor, who had his own business. A friendship developed between the families. Dottie needed someone to live-in and take care of Mary who had many health problems. He asked Mammy if she could help him. He said she could keep one child with her. To keep us out of orphanages, the Fitzpatricks took me in and gave me a home. Mammy began taking care of Mary, who was in lots of pain. Sometimes at night, Dottie and Mammy would carry Mary in their arms to give her some relief from the pain.
When Mary died in 1945, Dottie offered Mammy the chance to learn the tailoring business. The family in Bagenalstown urged her to leave the town and go to England and start her life over. Because she was a married woman living apart from her husband, and living with another man, a dark cloud of disapproval hung over her.
“But how could I go to England an’ leave the children?” she’d ask them. She stayed living with Dottie. But there were times I did worry that Mammy would go away, and not come back. Sometimes, Mammy said her nerves were at her and she would disappear into her room for weeks and get lost reading book after book, and she wouldn’t talk to anyone. Other times, she’d tell me what was bothering her.
“I think it’s strange that no one asks me about my situation. The silence makes me feel lonely. I feel like an outsider in my own town,” she’d say.
I’d tell her that she was the best-looking mother in all of Carlow. She would give me a small smile and a little light would come back in her eyes.
She told me she knew where she stood when she was never invited to join the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, go with them to the Dublin horse show, the spring flower show. She would have loved to go up to Dublin and see a play at the Abbey Theatre. She said she had never been to the horse races, where all the women wear wide hats made of lace and feathers
“Even though people said nothing, I knew they were talking about me and judging me. I think that’s why I went deaf—I closed my ears on what they were saying about me. I felt invisible,” Mammy told me more than once. To let people know that she was a real live person, she often wore a red coat with a matching red lipstick.
“Ah, sure I got used to being alone by myself,” she said and looked into the distance. Mammy said her best friends were the books and the classics in the library. She often quoted from the Bible, The Koran, and The Torah.
We settled down. My baby brother Traloch stayed with the family Mammy left him with. Sometimes, we went by train to visit him, and it was easy to see that he was happy, well loved and cared for. I was happy living with the Fitzpatricks, and Antoin was content being with Mammy and Dottie. Antoin was studious and he was always reading The Beno or The Dandy comic books, or his head would be stuck in a book. Dottie was usually pounding creases into pants with a heavy iron that hissed and steamed, and brought the smell of a sheep’s wool coat, after a heavy rain, into the room. He was of average build, with gray eyes. His receding straight brown hair was brushed back showing a face that seemed to always laugh. He was known for his quick wit, telling yarns, and singing
When I visited Mammy and Antoin after school, it was usual to see Mammy and Dottie making the afternoon tea in the brown ceramic teapot, then pouring it into china cups with hunting dogs painted on the sides. While they talked .and looked at each other with soft eyes, the two of them would sit close to each other, shrouded in a thick grey-blue cloud of Player’s cigarette smoke.
“Say that poem for me again,” Dottie would say to her, and she would. He often sat lotus style on his tailor’s bench, his sewing needle darting in and out of a pair of dark trousers, like a minnow glinting in and out of the waving reeds in the Barrow River. He had a Bing Crosby kind of a voice and the song he sang most often was Beautiful dreamer… out on the sea… mermaids are chanting the wild lorelei…
On Mondays, Mammy gave me sixpence to learn Irish step dancing from Mrs. Rea. Every week, Mammy asked me to show her what I learned. I’d put on my hornpipe shoes with steel tips under the toes and they made lovely loud clattering sounds on the flag floor as I danced in the kitchen.
Antoin attended a boy’s school taught by the De LaSalle Christian Brothers. I was taught by an enclosed order of nuns. The nuns and the brothers reminded us often that missionaries were urgently needed \around the world. They said we’d become educated and travel to exotic places like Africa and India. Traveling had a great appeal for Antoin. He signed a paper stating he wanted to become a missionary. Because he was from a broken home, Mammy had to get a special dispensation letter from the bishop so Antoin could be accepted into the religious order. At age 15, he went into a training school to become a teaching brother. He could only talk for one hour a day, and wasn’t allowed to read the paper, or listen to the wireless. When we visited him, we just sat in silence. We had nothing to talk about.
Mammy’s sister, Aunt Greta, lived in Dublin and had ten children. To give Aunt Greta a break, Mammy often took one of her children and kept him for months at a time.
It was before Christmas. I went to visit Mammy as usual after school. Her face was very serious. I saw no smile at all. She said she had something to tell me. A feeling of dread came over me. Mammy is going to tell me she’s leaving, I said to myself.
“I’m going up to Dublin to stay with my brother Louie for a while….I don’t want you to tell anyone. It will be our secret… I’m going to… I’m going to have a baby in April,” she said.
I was so shocked I didn’t ask her anything. She said she’d write to me often. She did write every week. It was very hard on me not to be able to talk to anyone about the new baby. Even the Fitzpatricks didn’t ask about her, and I thought that was strange. I felt that they knew.
In April 1954, Mammy had a baby boy. She had him baptized in Dublin and named him Gerard. When she brought him home, she told people that he was one of Aunt Greta’s children. Dottie’s tailoring business fell off. One by one his customers stopped coming to him. To keep money coming in, he carried his metal lunch box, and got the train every day to a job as a trouser-maker in Carlow, a bigger town ten miles away.
Around the same time, lines men were putting in telephone poles around our part of the country and they needed places to stay. The hotel had closed, so Dottie and Mammy took in lodgers. The house became a boarding house and a restaurant. The lodgers often played the piano, squeeze box and the harmonica. When a fiddler drew his bow and made his fiddle sound like a wild talking thing, I’d put on my hornpipe shoes and dance in the circle made just for me.
When Antoin was nineteen years old, he got a bad pain in his side and had to be taken to hospital. A doctor told him he had to have his appendix taken out. A young good-looking nurse came to prepare him, which included shaving his pubic hair. That’s when he changed his mind about being a missionary. When he went back to the training college, he packed up his things and left for England right away. He joined the Royal Air Force. He finished his education to be a teacher and became a drama teacher. He married Mary, a teacher from Donegal. They returned to Ireland and lived in Donegal and had a daughter and a son.
Before Antoin’s return to Ireland, I worked as a hairdresser in Dublin. Then I lived in France for a year, and I got a chance to come to America. I got married, had three children and made my permanent home in Buffalo, New York.
Traylock worked for the telephone company in Ireland. He married Anne and had five children.
Gerard inherited his father’s musical talents. At an early age, he took piano lessons until the piano teacher could teach him no more. At age eighteen, he was awarded a scholarship to college, and after seven years he was graduated as a medical doctor from the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.
Time was good to Mammy. She made friends with people who came to live in the town. She was proud of her four children. She loved to get on the train and go visit Traylock and his family. Over the years, they became very close.
She loved to visit old churches with cemeteries, and study epitaphs on the ancient tombstones. She’d leave the old churches ablaze from lighting rows of penny candles for all branches of the family. She was happiest of all when she was beside the sea.
“I’d love to have been a sailor,” she’d say as she sang, “If I were a blackbird, I’d whistle an’ sing, and folla the ship that my true love sails in….. an’ in the top Rigg’n, I’d there build my nest, and bury my head in his lily white chest.”
Bagenalstown had a busy railway station on the Waterford to Dublin line. She often went alone by train to Tramore, a popular seaside place outside Waterford, where she sat in a little teahouse overlooking the ocean. That’s where she wrote her poems, while the waves lashed the pier, and seagulls screamed and wheeled overhead.
“Oh, I love the smell of the sea,” she’d say. Her favorite photo of herself was one in a sailor’s dress.
Carlow is an area of Ireland where major battles of the 1798 Rebellion took place, and Mammy knew the burial places of all the rebels. She tended their graves as if her own sons were buried there. She supported the families of the Irish political hunger strikers who died in the 1980s. Through Amnesty International, she also adopted and supported a family in Zimbabwe.
As the plane cut through the dark night, restless babies interrupted my thoughts. I cried along with them. I watched the navy sky become blood red, and the dawn break. The captain’s voice came over the loud speakers and wished us a good morning. He gave the weather forecast, and said we’d land in Dublin at 5:30 on Sunday morning.
Antoin, was already at the B&B when we arrived.
“Will you go and be in the funeral home and greet people after mass?” he asked me.
“I will,” I told him. I didn’t tell him at that moment that I’d sooner have to go before a firing squad. My breathing cut in and out as I braced myself for the dread of seeing Mammy lying dead in a coffin.
I walked in the door of the funeral parlor and took deep breaths as I went towards the open coffin that seemed huge in the stark room. I held a long breath and lowered my eyes and looked at the small marble-like doll in the big oak coffin. It was lined with white lace. Mammy was dressed in white and her silver hair was dragged back, not showing her usual crown of silver curls. I didn’t remember her eyebrows being so bushy. All the white made her look cold. She was the color of a wax candle. I knelt at her feet, thinking how tiny and severe she looked. Not at all the soft, beautiful face I knew. I was shocked that I hardly recognized my own mother, even though I saw her ten weeks before, looking lovely in red, with a cloud of soft silver curls around her face. I made my way up to the head of her coffin and studied every line of her tiny face and her classic nose. I looked at her clasped empty hands and wondered why she wasn’t holding something like a rosary or a flower. I put the palm of my hand on her forehead, which was cold as marble, and cupped her icy hands that looked like they were made of wax. When I touched Mammy, a feeling of relief washed over me. The dread of seeing her dead flowed out of me. She was the first dead person I ever touched. I felt calm and was able to breathe again.
I brought some photographs of Mammy when she was different ages, and put them on the altar near her coffin. The pictures softened the harshness of her and the sterile room. I also put out copies of two of her poems. People started to arrive. Mary Doyle, who had come to the town in recent years, and Mammy became good friends. Mary was the first to arrive. She went directly to my mother, caressed her face, her hair, her hands, and wept
“There was never… and will never… be anyone like her,” the postman said and tears drenched his weather-beaten face.
People embraced me. We cried and laughed at the same time. The funeral parlor was open all day and evening Sunday and Monday. People came and went. My mother’s house, at 3 Main Street, is just around the corner from the funeral parlor. I went back and forth between the house and the wake. While I was at the house, Amanda Stevenson Rothwell came to the wake and left a message with my niece to tell me, “The friend who has no picture of the Sacred Heart over the mantle piece was here.” Amanda was my only Protestant friend growing up. When I was in Bagenalstown visiting last February, we got together for dinner. I told her that as a child, I thought she was deprived because her family had no statues or religious objects. The Fitzpatricks had so many we could easily have given some to Amanda.
Two priests came at different times to get more information about Mammy and how she came to be in town. One noted the coincidence of her coming into the house to take care of the wife of a tailor. In the same house, Mammy herself had been taken care of by Nell O’Riordan, also the wife of a tailor.
On Monday, my brother Tralock and his family arrived. At 7:15 p.m. the funeral home was crowded. A priest performed a ceremony for the dead. It was time for people to leave and wait outside. Only the family remained. More prayers were said. Then, the room fell silent. Antoin walked up to the head of the coffin. He stood there and looked at Mammy for what seemed like a long time. Tralock followed and did the same. I was standing behind them. I gazed at my mother and I caressed her face for the last time. Lisa wept and lovingly touched her as well. Only sobs and coughs broke the silence. We sat down again,
Then, it was time to close her coffin. The funeral director asked me if I wanted to leave, or stay while the lid was put on. I said I wanted to stay. The oak lid with the brass name plate that said Eileen Breen, 1916 — 2006 was smoothly eased over her feet, her torso, her face and her head. Four men from the funeral parlor inserted eight large brass screws into the lid. My breathing cut out knowing I’d never see Mammy’s face again.
She was wheeled out and eased into the hearse with a glass interior and a glass railing around the roof. Her flowers were arranged on her coffin and on the roof. Family and friends linked arms and we walked behind her. The hearse moved slowly and stopped for a minute of silence outside the house where Mammy had lived and worked for sixty-four years. It was an agonizing sixty seconds. My heart was being ripped out.
The only sounds came from the solo bell ringing from St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church and the sound of leather-soled shoes walking in place. I looked over at the house that had been a lively boarding house and a restaurant. Now, there was no light in the window, the curtains did not move. The house stood sad and silent. Only her death notice, attached to a black bow, was tacked to the front door.
The hearse began to move again and when we arrived at the church, a priest wearing white vestments was waiting at the door to receive her remains. He said mass and talked about my mother’s life and how her home was a haven for old people needing care. He told of the three old gentlemen who lived in the house for years and were looked after by Dottie and Mammy until they died. The men’s choir sang. Mammy was left in front of the altar overnight surrounded by the flowers, photographs and tall thick candles. Then we went to a community center where women from the town had prepared fancy sandwiches and tea.
On Tuesday we went to St. Andrew’s for Mammy’s Requiem Mass at 11 a.m. It was celebrated by another priest. In his homily, he said Mammy was a poet, philanthropist, proud mother of four, and preserver of Carlow’s history. The full choir sang “The Old House,” and some of her favorite hymns. Antoin eulogized her.
“She used to light so many candles in churches, she was a threat to global warming,” he said and people laughed. Her generosity was noted and one of her poems was read. Her sons carried her coffin out of the church and put it into the hearse. We walked behind the hearse as it crawled past the Old Barracks, her mother’s former house, in Kilree Street, and around the town. Shops closed, cars, lorries, and tractors pulled out of the streets and roads until we had all passed by. The old postman also followed and was in tears again as the funeral procession ended at the river, where Mammy began her daily five-mile walks.
A convoy of cars followed the hearse with the glass interior. We made our way through heavy traffic to Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin for her cremation. From time to time, I lost sight of the hearse, but it would reappear, and the brass handles on her coffin glinted in the bright sunlight. Her sons and grandsons carried her into the chapel of Glasnevin cemetery. A priest conducted a commital service and said more prayers. A choir from Zimbabwe had recorded “The Lord Is My Shepherd.” Antoin had it played.
Then there was a strange noise and, her coffin rolled forward. Heavy maroon-colored, velvet draperies closed together embracing her coffin. That was my last glimpse of Mammy.
As she wished, we then back to Mammy’s house in Bagenalstown to pack up the books/and pictures she left us.
“Look!” said Lisa, “A trunk full of letters from you! One dated four days after your wedding in September 1966! Let’s bring them home!”
“I’ve boxes of her letters back in Buffalo, too!” I said. We laughed over old photos of me in ball gowns. I had a yearning to sleep in the house one last time. But the shower didn’t work, the refrigerator was broken. The song, “The Old House,” stayed in my head. I went through each room for the last time. I hugged Mammy to myself and I knew I’d never be in the old house again.
“We learned a lot more about your mother from the eulogies. But we were both struck by no mention of a husband or the children’s father,” the woman of the house said to me.
“You don’t know how much it means to me that you say this. You have begun to break the silence of my mother’s life.” There were more tears as I filled in Mammy’s story.
The funeral director kept some floral arrangements for me to put on the family graves in Bagenalstown. He drove us up to the cemetery where our family plots have been clustered together for over 130 years. Nearby is Dottie, buried with his wife, Mary. I placed a wreath on their grave. When I visited the cemetery with Mammy in 1984, she put a red rose on their tombstone.
“I buried him there, because that’s where he belongs,” she said. “He loved her before he loved me,” she went on.
“Will you be buried here?” I asked.
“No. There’s no place for me here. I’ve found my perfect place near the sea.”
Lisa and I took the train to Dublin. While waiting at the Station, my eyes brimmed over, realizing I will have no reason to return here. Mammy was the magnet that drew me back ten times.
We went to visit Gerard, who lived in Dublin. He had undergone major surgeries as a result of a car accident and could not attend Mammy’s funeral. He married and had two daughters.
“Could you bring me back a thimbleful of my mother’s ashes for me to sprinkle on my father’s grave?” he asked me. I said yes, I would.
Antoin and his wife Mary, brought the ashes back in the hand-carved mahogany urn that Mammy had custom made for herself. It has a picture of birds with wide outstretched wings flying towards the sea. In the five years she had the urn, she joyfully used it as a vase for fragrant wildflowers. While showing it to people, she would say, “When it’s time for me to leave this old world behind, I’ll rest where every day, the bountiful ocean goes out and comes back in.”
On Friday, we traveled by car across Ireland to Inver, Donegal.
It was crisp and sunny at noon on Saturday, May 13th. A moderate wind tossed the sweet scents of lilac around in the air. We were all standing at her grave with an opening just big enough for her urn. There was a laurel wreath tied with the green, white and gold colors of the Irish flag from a beloved granddaughter. A priest began the burial ceremony. The easing of her urn into the grave was not as brutal as the lowering of a coffin. As the priest sprinkled dust over her and said, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I was relieved not to hear the harsh sound of hard clay landing on her wood urn. Instead, there was just the droning of the priest saying the twenty-third psalm. Thrushes, robins and blackbirds flew from tree to tree and chirped intermittently. Mammy’s memorial booklet, which she designed and had printed, showed a photo of her in the poppy fields near our house. After her eight-day funeral, I felt able to let go of her. I’ll keep the old letters we found in her trunk. They will remind me of the old house and keep my little town in Ireland in the catacombs of my heart.
Mammy is buried in a small wind-swept cemetery at the top of Inver Bay, in Donegal. She is surrounded by the Blue Stack Mountains, home to silver-winged falcons that soar, twist and turn against the gray-blue sky, and glide towards the sea, the place where Mammy most loved to be..…and out on the sea… mermaids are chanting the wild. Lorelei.