Why Did You Leave Me Behind?
Three generations of women from my family met for the first time more than 70 years ago, in a labourer’s cottage packed with barefoot children.
In that County Limerick village stood my great-grandmother, home from America with shingled hair and a trunk full of style; my grandmother, dowdy compared to her, worn down from constant childbearing and penny-pinching; and my mother, a little girl in her Sunday ribbons fascinated by the glamorous Yank – hardly able to believe they could be related. It’s through my mother’s eyes I see the meeting.
Rural Ireland must have been a shock to my great-grandmother after thirty odd years in Chicago. It was 1937, when people marvelled at a car and affluence was a wireless. Women sewed their own dresses and knitted their men’s socks. Anyone who didn’t emigrate stayed close to where they were born. Dublin was as remote as Dallas.
My great-grandmother must have thought the clock had stood still when she landed home that one and only time. I doubt if it even felt like home any more to this sophisticated woman, with her vivid red nails – fingers and toes – and socially ambitious name change from Bridget to Beatrice. Her multicoloured umbrellas were the talk of the village, especially the polka dotted one. Her accent was downtown Chicago. Like a tourist, she marvelled at the heart-stopping beauty of their country lanes, and clapped her hands over the thatched cottages. The family was mystified by that.
What did my great-grandmother make of her solemn-faced daughter, who was a stranger to her, and that brood of children? Ten of them already, and one more to come.
She took photographs. We have some of them still. She gave dolls to the girls and toy soldiers to the boys. She forced clothes on her daughter, who stroked the frocks and put them away. They were too smart to wear. In time, she passed them on, unworn, to village girls longing for finery to go dancing in.
My great-grandmother persuaded her daughter to let her cut the long, dark hair she wore pinned up. It made her look like an old biddy, said the thoroughly modern woman 22 years her senior.
She cropped Granny’s hair to the chin, like a movie star – the same way she wore it herself. My grandmother was horrified by the result, nervous of her husband’s reaction. She wore a scarf to delay the moment of discovery. “Oh Josie your lovely hair,” mourned my grandfather. And no more was said. Grandad was a silent man, who’d retreat with his pipe to the garden at any household upset. No doubt he did the same then.
My grandmother looks crestfallen in snapshots from this time, like a child caught misbehaving. Or perhaps that was the day the visitor’s initialled handkerchiefs were pinched as they dried on a bush outside. Maybe that’s causing the mortification I’m sure I glimpse in Granny’s eyes.
My mother remembers the visit as if it happened yesterday. The trunks arriving first, covered in steamship stickers and an Illinois address she can still recite. And finally, finally, the sunny afternoon when the visitor’s train was due at Limerick Junction.
At the last minute, Granny refused to meet it. “I can’t go, Jack,” she told my grandfather. He nodded, not giving her an argument in front of the children, and led my mother and her sister by the hand to the station, where the entire village seemed to have formed a welcoming committee.
It was many years before my mother understood why Granny flinched. She had no memories of this Americanised woman who gave birth to her – and who left her behind as a baby in the early 1900s. Left her with her own mother, while she sailed off to make her way in the world. Granny shrank from meeting her again in such public circumstances. She waited at home, out of sight.
I can only guess at their reunion: I don’t know whether they kissed or shook hands or simply looked at one another. Amid all the excitement, my mother can’t recall that first encounter. She was too young to grasp the significance.
Yet often I find myself dwelling on what those two women must have thought, studying one another during unguarded moments.
One went to Chicago and tasted prosperity – poverty was all she could expect if she stayed in Ireland as a single mother. She trained as a nurse, married twice and had two more daughters – an American family.
But she made a sacrifice to do it. That sacrifice was her firstborn.
It was meant to be a temporary arrangement – a pill sweetened by leaving the child in her mother’s care. But my great-grandmother never returned to reclaim her baby. She was too busy living the American dream.
Perhaps it would have been easier to forget. That didn’t happen. The visit to Ireland was long planned, and was judged a success. She must have had charm, this Beatrice-born-Bridget, as well as drive because she managed to befriend her 30something child during their few weeks together.
In time, my great-grandmother left her Irish daughter an inheritance – money to raise those handsome, dark-eyed children, including my mother, I see tumbling round the photographs she took.
But she put her own life, her own desires, above her baby’s, flouting an unwritten compact between mother and newborn.
They wrote to one another till the day the older woman died but they never met again. Those letters meant the world to Granny. Knowing her, though, I doubt if she ever posed the question that surely haunted her all her life, the child’s voice mingling with the woman’s.
When you sailed away, why did you leave me behind?