Friday, February 17, 2017

Great-Grandma Julie

Great-Grandma Julie and my mother

Grandma Julie crossed the seas
to escape the potato famine in County Cork.
Her husband worked laying track
for the first railroad to cross the country.
My Grandma, Flo, told me he loved the drink,
and recalled the night he hugged
the jug of moonshine to his chest
and danced around the kitchen.
And the night he chased her and her mother
out of the house with a gun
and they hid in the barn till the shots stopped firing
and he fell asleep, so they could creep back in.

Life was hard, back then,
water hauled by hand,
clothes washed by hand,
bread kneaded by hand,
vegetables canned by hand,
children raised with a sometimes harsh hand.
Back then this was an unforgiving land.

My mom called she and her grandmother
"the two Julies",
since her middle name was Julia, in her honour.
Grandma Julie lived with them during the Depression,
sharing a room with the three leggy girls.
When her pension came in,
she shared treats and smokes,
four butts lined up on the freezing window sill
so Flo wouldn't discover their guilty pleasures.

One night Flo sent Pa upstairs
with a rolled up Saturday Evening Post
to "quiet those wild girls down.
They're disturbing Ma."
He came back down grinning.
"They're having a pillow fight,
and Ma is right in the thick of it,"
grizzled crone, standing up on the bed
with a pillow, grinning from ear to ear.

Life was still hard.
Wash done by hand in the bathtub,
living hand to mouth,
Pa exchanging bookeeping for coal,
for a chicken, for whatever anyone could pay,
three adults and five hungry kids to feed.

Flo remembered, with regret, in her final years,
"I'd be running around like a scalded chicken,
and Ma would call out, 'Come and do my hair.
Oh, I know: no time, no time, no time.'
And now it is my kids who have no time."

My sister has, in one of her boxes,
Grandma Julie's dress.
A small woman,
silent, fierce and indomitable,
she had lived through much:
hard physical labour,
a drunkard husband,
the drowning death of a two year old son,
a daughter on horseback struck
by a train in a blizzard,
her catching the next train
to find out the horse had died
but the daughter lived.

Resigned that life was hard,
she moved among her children
in her final years, with her
battered small black suitcase,
shoulders bent under the weight
of all she had survived,
harking back to Home in County Cork,
a woman fond of ghosts and fairies,
whose Irish blood, and indomitable spirit,
courses through  our veins.

for  Artistic Interpretations with Margaret at Real Toads: Immigrant Portraits. We are all descended from immigrants. I think that makes us a hardy lot.


  1. There's a lot of family history, you are lucky to have such memoirs

    Thanks for dropping by to read mine

    much love...

  2. Life is harsh. Heart touching.

  3. It takes strong women to build a new future... a lesson to be taught by her.

  4. Nice poem, Sherry. After you've finished you have a jewel of family history telling things not compiled before.
    My great great grandmother died on the boat before they made it to New Orleans, coming from Germany.

  5. Fascinating! Thank you for taking the time to draw this picture. I enjoyed it

  6. Hardworking hands craft lives. Your family produces strong women. It's wonderful to see them through you.

  7. Hi Sherry,

    In one amazing poem, full of the stuff of life, you have managed to communicate to us the essence of experiences that these strong and vibrant women endured.

    I have recently returned to my home on Crete after a long absence in Toronto. Looking forward to participating, again, when I get organized!

    Happy weekend,

  8. This is such a beautifully heartfelt write, Sherry!!

  9. Hi sherry :)

    Check your email and I will read all your poems soon :D

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Hi sherry :)

    Check your email and I will read all your poems soon :D

  12. i can see the era through her her..."silent, fierce and indomitable, / she had lived through much:"...

  13. Those last three lines are pure magic! After reading the poem I could feel that blood. I'd love to hear this in your voice. Consider making a sound cloud tape? It would be a gift for everyone--your family too!

  14. I loved the way you traced the strength of your familial line. You've captured images from their worlds so well.

  15. ADORE this so much. You capture her personality and her will. I bet she came over here around 1845.. so did my German ancestor Landolin - because of the potato blight! We have that in common.

  16. Fascinating, Sherry. I was totally swept up in this compelling portrait of an archetypal early 20th century Canadian immigrant woman ... so tenderly drawn with eyes-wide-open to all that it took to carry on with a bit of humor and grace in the harshest of circumstances. My kind of lady!


I so appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.
Thank you so much. I will be over to see you soon!