sadness

MY GRANDMOTHER DIED ON SUNDAY. She was almost 97 years old. I have some memories of her. She was my mother’s mother, and I remember once at a family party introducing her to my father’s father (who was married to my father’s mother) and saying, “Why don’t you two get together!” I was probably five years old. My grandfather and grandmother rather awkwardly dismissed this idea. My grandmother’s husband had died long before I was born. I also remember staying with her as a child a few times. She would wake up so early, at 5 am, to a radio alarm clock, and make coffee. She would read the paper. She asked me if I wanted my pancakes early in the morning or later. I remember she had loose skin, the skin of an older lady, and asking how it got so loose, and she explained how it would happen to me too when I got older. Then Mr. Snuffleupagus the gray cat would come in for food. “Snuffy.” Snuffy had been fighting with some other cats, or had eaten a bird. I can’t remember that part, only that Snuffy seemed like a very tough, self-reliant cat. I also remember Grandma’s hands deep in that stuff they call “hard sauce” at holidays. This was some mixture of sugar, butter, cream, and whiskey. An Irish family staple. Nothing like being a six year old and loading up on some minced meat pie and a few spoons of hard sauce. I was probably a little tipsy before I even understood the meaning of the word. I remember all of that religious artwork around the house. There was an angel doll in a glass case, and some very ancient looking paintings on the wall. I remember that when John Paul II at last died, and Benedict was selected, Benedict’s portrait promptly arrived on the wall in the kitchen, and then when he abdicated, Pope Francis’s portrait was just as swiftly there in Benedict’s old spot. Grandma actually knew a lot about religious history and various Catholic societies, the Josephites, Jesuits, Franciscans. I remember showing her an image of the Black Madonna that I had taken in an Italian church, and her explaining to me the significance of the artwork, and also after watching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves her discussing the Crusades with me. I also remember a few stories about her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s. In case you were wondering, it wasn’t some happy wonderland of glowing memories. Actually, it seemed a rather drab and somber period to be a child. “The Great Depression.” I remember her telling me about how she used to go ice skating in Queens, and how another little girl was abducted by some kind of pervert who frequented the rink. New York in the 1930s could be a downtrodden, gloomy place. She had four brothers and two older half brothers and her mother was annoyed with her when she was a teenager, because she liked to wear trousers (she called them “slacks”) and not dresses. She was actually very tight-lipped about the past though and about herself. She did like to talk about her grandfather, Dr. Michael T. Carroll, a physician in Manhattan in the 19th century, and her great grandmother, Catherine Murray, who ran a cotton brokerage on Water Street and did business as “CE Murray” to disguise her gender in a male-run world. Grandma traveled a lot later on and went to Italy and to Ireland. I remember she brought me back a piece of peat from a bog in Ireland. It was the greatest gift anyone had ever given me. Imagine that, a tiny piece of Ireland in a little plastic bag. I still have it somewhere. Years later, when I was in Dublin, I was researching the family history at the archives and looking for a roll of microfiche from a parish in Laois where her great grandmother’s family, the Colliers, were from. It so happened that that roll disappeared from the library on the very day that I had arrived. They searched everywhere, and it seemed that someone had pocketed it that same morning when they had ordered it from the archive. So many times when I started researching that line of my family, microfiche would disappear, computers would shut down, notes would be lost. It was very strange and I came to accept that our Irish ancestors just didn’t want to be found. I told Grandma about that story the same day. I called her from a phone in the hotel corridor in Dublin and we had a laugh. “You’ll never guess where I am.” She told me how she had a similar experience at the library, and how she had done more or less the same thing and never told me. She had been working with a librarian to find books about her mother’s family, the Carrolls, and only found herself deeper and deeper in information she couldn’t make sense of. Grandma had a funny sense of humor, and as I got older, it seemed like that was one place where we could overlap and enjoy each other’s company. She was an extremely devout Catholic and sometimes wore a Celtic cross on her neck. For the rest of my days, whenever I see the round Celtic cross, gold and ornamented like in the Book of Kells, I will think of her.

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