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.