Growing up in 1960s Brooklyn was great--we had the city at our disposal and decades before “helicopter parents” began to hover, we kids had the freedom to wander. Of course, lest you think we roamed the streets like a gang of thugs, let me assure you that somehow “they,” the all-powerful grown-ups, knew where we were at all times. We certainly had freedom but unlike today’s youngsters we also had clear-cut and indisputable chores. Somehow, though, being raised by three fierce female Irish immigrants I seemed to paradoxically have both more of both.
Mary, my actual mother, was the youngest of nine children raised on a farm in County Antrim. She had come to the States in the mid ‘50s to join her two oldest sisters, Sarah and Catherine who had emigrated through Ellis Island decades earlier. Both had happily settled into their new lives as Americans with husbands, homes and children and in fact, they both “went to business,” not common for women back then.
It seems that after growing up on a working farm, simply keeping house and corralling kids was just not enough for either of them. By the time my mother decided to join them in New York, Catherine and Sarah were firmly entrenched in the American way.
The story of the sisters going to Idlewild Airport to pick up their almost unknown baby sister is family legend. Apparently, in preparation for her momentous trip across the sea young Mary had home permed her flaming red hair to a frizzle and dressed to impress in her finest boots and assorted unmatched borrowed finery. The now-sophisticated city sisters clucked and muttered but took their new arrival under their wings and soon enough transformed the eager Mary into the newest New Yorker.
Mary loved her new life here but sadly lost her young husband shortly before I was born. Aunts Catherine and Sarah again closed their wings, this time around the two of us, and since my cousins were grown I quickly became the family pet -- and pet project.
My mother remarried and I finally got my own little sister, but even though we lived in different boroughs my aunts were still an absolute part of every day, as was the spectre of childhood on an Irish farm. This was the ‘60s, don’t forget, and since self-esteem hadn’t been invented yet all us kids were ruled by benevolent dictators and put to work at the whim of the sovereign.
Still somehow my family seemed, well, different. I lived one block short of the school bus route and it was indeed quite a walk. Like many people in Brooklyn, my mother didn’t drive and that daily walk to and from school often felt like a trek through the Sahara...or Antarctica.
If I had the audacity to complain, I’d hear, “Oh Jaysus, Cathy, I had a five-mile journey to school uphill both ways with a hot potato in my pocket for lunch. Stop whinging!” I couldn’t whinge about the seemingly endless hike with the shopping cart to get groceries either, as I was firmly told that her daily task of chasing, beheading and de-feathering dinner was way more difficult than picking up a package of pre-plucked chicken. No arguing with that!
Complaining about any perceived school injustices perpetrated upon my small self were also met and trumped by Irish schooldays memories. It seems the teachers in Ballymena often sent wayward students outside to cut their own tree branch, to be imminently used as a weapon against them...Yikes! As a parochial school student, however, I also was well aware that if I upset the nun at school for any reason, I was due for a nice clout at home too. No sympathy on that front either.
As I grew older, the advice became sometimes downright strange. I clearly remember my mother suddenly and gravely warning me about the dangers of walking in back of a cow (it might have been a horse?) as it would surely kick me in the head. Aunt Catherine once cautioned me about never buying a hen on a rainy day and I am well aware that turkeys hate to get wet, all bewildering information for a kid growing up in the city. Hmmm, then again, you never do know what you might run into on the subway.
In fact, both aunts and my mother were an endless flow of warnings, usually dire. For example, I will never buy anyone a pair of shoes, as they will surely walk out of my life. “Least said really is soonest mended” and I’ve learned never to carry the “lazy man’s load” as half of it really does drop.
It’s during the teen years that having three mothers really does become a trial. By that time, the aunts and my mother were all widowed and the focus seemed to be firmly lasered right on me. My platform shoes, a vital part of the de rigueur uniform of the 70s, caused an immediate summons for the family as well as for the entire Holy Family, as in “Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, you’re not going out of the house in those! I’m calling Catherine right now.” Before I had a chance to wobble out the door -- they really were crazy shoes -- the phone would be thrust in my ear for Aunt Catherine’s stern warning that no man would buy the cow if he could get the milk for free. Huh?!
Aunt Sarah, the most fashionable member of the trio and the only one with a driver’s license, encouraged me to “stay out of the (profanity deleted) bargain basement like your mother and aunt,” and occasionally even had actual style advice I was able to use. Every party, date, and school activity, no matter how mundane, was fodder for discussion and debate between the three with final edicts handed down after deliberations.
When all the women got together, the discussion turned to “home” and the chatter about family and friends was so personal and current that I felt I knew all my far-flung aunts, uncles and friends--this eons before email or even the rarely-used overseas phone call. As the tea flowed, arguments over ancient issues, such as who disappeared during chicken plucking, or who never helped mam with the dinner) often ensued with the decibel level audible down the block.
“Oh, I hear your aunts are visiting,” was often the first thing my friends would say after we turned the corner after school, and wisely we would casually stroll past the clamorous house full of fractious Irishwomen en route to calmer pastures. Always, of course, keeping a sharp eye out for those kicking cows...or horses?
In later years, I once asked my mother and aunts if they ever regretted their decision to cross the pond and this was met with a chorus of “Och, Christ, no, not for a minute.” Somehow each of them knew at a very young age that their future waited for them across the ocean.
They might have left the comfort of five sisters and two brothers, but they carried them all here in their hearts and they became real aunts and uncles for us, making our small family feel big. By sheer force of will they made new lives for themselves and their children a world away from the familiar and the safe--brave women, for sure. They’re all gone now, my three brave women. All of us American cousins have inherited degrees of their courage and, yes, chutzpah. Even their grandchildren now repeat some of those dire warnings meant to keep us safe and it’ll soon be time to sing the favorite “horsie, horsie” lullaby of our youth to yet another generation.
The boundless love they had for us will always keep us warm but it’s the humor of Mary, Catherine and Sarah that is probably their biggest behest. We all can find a shred of humor, the glimmer of a smile and the hint of the ridiculous during even the darkest days. This gift gives us the strength to always “look the divil in his eye” and, of course, to “get up and get on with it.” But, (profanity deleted), not before we have a cuppa tea!