In 1959, when she was 13, Carole O'Malley Gaunt's father asked her to stay at home and let the priest in, while he drove away to do errands with her seven brothers in the family car. He neglected to inform her that the priest was coming to administer Last Rites to her dying mother. This was, after all, a comfortable middle class Irish American home in the buttoned down era of the 1950s, when no one openly discussed thorny subjects like a mother's cancer or a father's burgeoning alcoholism.
For O'Malley Gaunt, what followed is a tale that is familiar to an unfortunate few the transformation that happens to a child who is forced by circumstances to spend her own youth parenting her brothers and even her own irresponsible father.
O'Malley Gaunt is a skilled writer as her new memoir Hungry Hill shows, and she tells her tale without a hint of self-pity. Instead she simply recounts events as they unfolded, and from that relatively safe distance we observe her life as it's completely upended by bereavement.
What's surprising and also surprisingly common is that at no stage is she ever given a choice. Few adults thought to even ask her if she was up to what fate and her father were suddenly asking of her.
Instead it is simply assumed that she will shoulder the burden thrust upon her: becoming the replacement caregiver to a large, boisterous, yet thoroughly non-communicative Irish American family. A trap had been set for her, and no one imagined she would do anything but fall into it.
"My mother's death was the event that changed our lives forever," says O'Malley Gaunt in an interview with the Irish Voice. "So I decided to start the book with that."
"My oldest brother was 15 and my youngest brother was two. As a teenager how I coped was to make it seem as if her death was a non-event. I did not want people to feel sorry for me. I did not want to look different - which, of course, I actually was."
What happened next was a textbook example of what so many damaged families do when confronted with a seemingly insurmountable loss - they embrace complete denial, they close the door on themselves, and for all their silence they somehow agree to pretend that the thing that is actually killing them did not occur.
Says O'Malley Gaunt, "After my mother died we went on trying to pretend that we were fine, that it hadn't made a difference. But I think we were just numb."
"The true realization of our loss didn't come until later, because when you're in denial you don't realize that you're missing something until later, when certain events occur in your life that reveal to you the scale of your loss."
For O'Malley Gaunt, who by her early thirties was already conscious of patterns of behavior that were similar to her late father's including her own growing dependence on alcohol to feel better the scale of her loss was revealed to her by things as simple as parenting her own children.
"Certain things came up as I parented my daughters. Something as simple as helping them choose a prom dress, say. I would recognize to myself that I didn't have that experience with my own parents. It's not that I articulated it to my children, they didn't need the guilt trip, but things kicked in for me and I began to understand what I had lost."
At home back in the late 1950s and early '60s the widely held social taboos surrounding disease and death were still too strong to break. All too often, in fact, it was as if society demanded that it the person who had to break instead.
Says O'Malley Gaunt, "We had a lot invested in making it appear that we were okay. My father had a good middle management job at Aetna. His friends, his employers, even his secretary were invested in making sure he performed.
"But privately he had fallen apart and he had started drinking. We all had a romantic myth of him in our family, then and now, about his way with words the nature of his love for my mother, but the fact was that we needed a father and he wasn't being one for us. He drank and then after a period of lying on the living room sofa he began dating.
"I think he planned to marry to find someone to take care of us. I don't know that he was very particular about who that person would be."
As non-communicative about his new love interest as he was about his late wife's illness, O'Malley Gaunt's father chose to have the family doctor inform her that she would soon have a new stepmother. "The doctor just informed me one day matter of factly, adult to adult, although at this point I was still just 15."
Asked why she wasn't more openly resentful of her circumstances, of all the sacrifices that were being asked of her, O'Malley Gaunt laughs.
"That would have been a healthier attitude. But I was determined to please my father, to keep him happy, whatever it took. He wasn't a stoic Irishman, he was a maudlin one. He could cry easily, particularly after a drink. He was able to experience his sadness but without experiencing any healing from it."
Depending more and more on alcohol, which he called his "Irish medicine," O'Malley Gaunt's father was slowly being consumed by his own grief, and his inability to cope with it. Every day he drank more and his hangovers became more debilitating.
And far from helping him cope, his new wife actually enabled his destructive behavior. "He married my stepmother so that we would have someone to take care of us. He wasn't enamored of her, but she was of him," O'Malley Gaunt says.
Sensing her own position within her adopted family as a replacement for a sainted mother, O'Malley Gaunt's new stepmother was quick to vent her frustrations on her inherited kids. "She subjected me to constant verbal abuse, constant belittling, she was never satisfied with anything we did. An innocent remark would set her off - she had so many triggers - she had us walking on eggshells the whole time."
After her father's death two years later from alcoholism, aged just 48, O'Malley Gaunt and her seven brothers began the years long journey toward the stability and health that was denied them by their mother's illness and their father's excesses. It is a lifelong journey, fraught with perils.
Orphaned early on, the children of a alcoholic - and battling with their own demons - they slowly made their way by making wiser choices than their parents. O'Malley Gaunt married, successfully overcame her budding dependence on alcohol, and now lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, becoming a well known author and playwright into the bargain.
To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, wrote Oscar Wilde, but to lose both seems like carelessness. It's an old joke, and part of why it makes us laugh is that it treats such a perilous subject so lightheartedly.
The truth is there's very little about the death of parents that is other than tragic. And to lose both of them when still a child oneself seems inexpressibly harsh.
O'Malley Gaunt's Hungry Hill is the sort of tale that makes us shiver and count our blessings; the harsh reality of her experiences is so unsettling that our instinct is to look the other way. But at 13, she didn't have that option. We are fortunate that she had the fortitude to survive and the honesty to record her experiences in this remarkable new book.
(Hungry Hill is published by the University of Massachusetts Press.)
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