River Shannon – Never forgotten

River Shannon - Never forgotten

When I was eight years old, my Irish great-grandmother came to live with us. That lady totally turned our lives upside down. Many an hour several times a week was spent by either my sister or me brushing out her beautiful white tresses with an antique silver-backed brush. That hair had never met a pair of scissors and reached the back of “Petie’s” knees. It was closely contained in a bun on the back of Petie’s head when not let down for washing or brushing. Petie stood a good six-feet high, taller than anyone in the house except for my father, with whom she was equal in that respect. Mom, being only five-feet tall, matched Petie in temperament, though, if not in height, and when they disagreed their clashes were monumental. A Catholic Bible was one of Petie’s most closely held treasures, and she read from it every day. She never attended church, though. At a tender age, while living along the shores of the Shannon River with her family, she fell in love with a young man who wasn’t of the Catholic faith. When they married, she was excommunicated from the Catholic church and her name was expunged from church records and the family Bible. She and her new husband fled to America to make a new life together. Soon after her third child was born that child and her husband both died, leaving her to raise two daughters. Petie scraped together enough money to study nursing and became a registered nurse. The little family somehow managed to get along. In time, one of her daughters, Bessie, married a man from Seattle, Washington, and they moved to Flushing in New York City, taking Petie to live with them. The other daughter, my grandmother, married a man from Salem County, New Jersey. That daughter, my grandmother, died when my own mother was only twelve years old. After “Aunt Bessie” died from a fall down the stairs of a subway station, Petie came to live with us. Petie had very strong convictions about almost every subject and wasn’t bashful about letting them be known. She knew how to assert herself! As she aged, her regally upright body became a bit stooped, but she went out for long walks every day, never mind that her eyesight was also failing badly. Wearing ankle-length, dark-colored dresses with lace collars and cuffs, shod in high leather shoes with square heels, she would fearlessly go for long strolls, with a wooden cane leading the way. She required one thing which I came to hate. It was a most unpleasant chore always given one of us kids. One of us was made to fetch her false teeth from a glass of water on her bedside table. Seems as though she’d always forget them when she came downstairs for breakfast. We’d take them out of the glass gingerly, trying hard not to really touch them, but afraid of dropping and breaking them. She’d put them in her mouth while seated at the table and proceed to chow down with gusto, ignoring any grimaces on our part. Petie had one great joy left in life at that time- she loved to eat! Our family doctor, who had an office only three blocks from our home, watched over Petie’s health as well as over the rest of us. He advised Mom during one of Petie’s visits that Petie should have a bit of chocolate and a little wine each day to help keep up her energy. Accordingly, Mom would buy a box of twelve Hershey bars and two bottles of red wine each week. The candy and wine were kept in the refrigerator, and we four kids were ordered to keep hands-off. Things went along well for a time, and we kept our hands off, even though the forbidden items surely looked tempting. It’s probably about the only time we strictly followed parental instructions! The trouble, when it came, followed a volatile argument between Petie and Mom. Mom didn’t wish for Petie to go walking out around the neighborhood any more because she kept getting lost and had to be brought home by a member of the local constabulary. I secretly thought Petie liked the attention. She’d stop at any house that took her fancy, knock on the door and ask to sit down for a cup of tea. Many of the surprised inhabitants of our little town would oblige, and then have to call the police when Petie claimed that she didn’t know where she really belonged. She did, though, soon know each policeman by name, and they all got to know her quite well. When Mom asked her to confine her walks to our yard, Petie’s Irish temper really flared. She climbed the stairs and refused to come down for lunch or dinner. We all knew something was in the wind when she didn’t come for lunch. When she didn’t come downstairs for dinner, red warning flags were flying. I mean, that old lady really liked to eat! Late that night, after everyone else was asleep, Petie quietly descended the stairs, opened the refrigerator, pulled out that week’s newly purchased box of Hershey bars, two bottles of wine and half a roast chicken. She devoured the entire lot – the ENTIRE LOT! By 8 AM her aged stomach was in total revolt, but she was in more physical distress than would have normally accompanied such an intake. She couldn’t vomit and she couldn’t manage to dispose of the toxic mix in any other way. Four kids all stood around in total amazement, looking at a candy box full of nothing but paper wrappers and foil, at totally gnawed chicken bones piled on a greasy platter, and at two empty wine bottles lying on their sides on the table. Mom soon had to take that groaning old lady to the hospital in Salem, six miles away, where Petie’s stomach was pumped. Thoroughly chastened, white and straight as a stick of chalk, she came back to the house and climbed sulkily to her bedroom. A few weeks after that she decided that she wanted to return to New York. After consulting with Aunt Bessie’s bereaved husband, it was decided that Petie needed to be placed in a “managed care” facility in New York. She was adamant about wishing to live with him, but he was in poor health and unable to care for her. I was sorry to see her leave. Gone were the four o’clock daily teas with biscuits, gone were her colorful verbal expressions. Gone, too, were the daily tales she had related to us about the area along the Shannon River in Ireland where she had grown up. Those were never stories about leprechauns or pots of gold and such, but about the beauty of the gentle hills, the flowing waters of the Shannon, and the sheen of cobble-stone streets in Irish mist. Her stories were never about the family which had crossed off her name from their book of life, long ago along the banks of the River Shannon.


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