My grandmother has told me the story so often, I vividly recall the milk house although I have never been there. It is built of gray stone gathered from the fields and held together with chalky mortar. A patch of moss by the door looks like a velvet pincushion. Inside: a cream separator, the churn, gleaming tin pails, and butter paddles, their wood frayed from years of use. I see them through her eyes as she recites them like the rosary, like a charm.
Even though she died three years ago, she comes to me in dreams to add more detail — an inch-long tear in the screen patched with black darning thread, the speck of the man coming toward her on the road, framed by the door. So tiny is he that at first she mistakes him for a fly, as she lifts the pails of raw milk and pours them into the separator’s mouth. Not a cloud mars the sky.
She whistles “The Prisoner’s Lament” off-key to take her mind from the milky smell, faintly sour in the August heat. Uncle Mike and Aunt Rose have gone in the buggy to town to buy a part for the mowing machine. My grandmother’s gingham dress is plastered to her back and a damp, red curl sticks to her flushed cheek. At thirteen she is gangly, still frail from her years in the orphanage.
“It wasn’t so bad, living on Uncle Mike’s farm,” she tells me long afterward when her pale hair is blue from a rinse bought at the five-and-dime. “Certainly not as bad as with the nuns.” The beatings and long days spent mending buckets of stockings, the cruelties handed out by the children who had parents, but nonetheless were boarded at the home, weren’t the worst. Those were nothing compared to the man who rented the orphans to beg for him.
He wore a bowler hat and a scratchy black wool coat, and he always arrived right before Christmas. “You make more of a profit begging around the holidays,” my grandmother lets me know. Her housedress pulls tight against her hips, as solidly plump as the flowered cushions on her brand-new Sears loveseat.
“He’d ask for about a dozen of us, and I’d hide because I didn’t want to go,” she says as she dusts. “But since I looked so pitiful, I was always picked. He’d take us on the ferry to Milwaukee, take our coats away from us, and dump us out in the street.” She stops her work now to hug me, and my nose fills with the scent of Tabu bath powder. “He’d paid the nuns a certain amount, and we had to make that back for him plus a profit or else he wouldn’t let us eat our supper. Stale bread.”
Her face closes with remembering. “The snow was never white in Milwaukee, always dirty gray like pigeons.” A shudder passes through her. “Dirty and cold, so cold. Sometimes he’d rip our clothes to make us more appealing to the fine folks with money, and when he’d return us, he’d tell the nuns we tore them playing. They’d slap us and send us to bed without eating.” My grandmother and I spend the remainder of the afternoon playing bingo, and she teaches me to play cards.
The Christmases she produces are spectacular and always include a reading of “The Little Match Girl.” Her lace-covered table is crammed with ham and turkey, mince and pumpkin and apple pies. A mountain of presents spills from beneath the tree to fill the living room. Each year I receive more dolls to make up for the ones she never had.
“You’re spoiling her,” my mother grouses annually.
“I have a right,” is my grandmother’s ritual reply, jaw set, eyes flashing blue fire as if gas jets burn behind them.
I am not afraid of her temper. She turns it against me only once, on Saint Patrick’s Day, when she pinches me hard enough to bruise my arm for wearing the orange ribbon that my mother insisted on tying in my hair. Crying harder than I do, she then bakes me a custard with nutmeg and cinnamon. “All’s fair in love and war,” she warns me sadly as I eat the peace offering from her best china. “It’s part of being Irish.”
There are other parts to being Irish. We don’t cry over spilled milk, not for long anyway. As proof, she instructs me to consider our wakes: whiskey- and tear-soaked celebrations of passage for a stiffening corpse laid out in a coffin on the dining-room table. We keen, wailing heart-wrenching sobs, and later tell jokes and stories, laughing ourselves silly with just as much enthusiasm. Some of us drink. “We know how to live,” she teaches me, “and we know how to die. And we know how to tell about it, too.”
On rainy afternoons I stay with her to keep her company while Grandpa works, and she fills me in on what she’s learned of the Easter Rising, secondhand of course, because she, after all, was living with her Uncle Mike here in Michigan. While my grandfather reads meters for the water department, we take turns standing on the ottoman, waving our arms and raising our voices in impassioned speeches for home rule. Since neither of us will pretend to be the hated English, we Irish volunteers wedge ourselves behind the sofa, aiming our fingers at invisible troops.
A voracious reader, she glibly paints word pictures of Dublin Castle and Connolly Street, of De Valera and Pearse, but she lets me direct the scenes she sets. “I don’t know how to play,” she tells me. “All I learned to do was mend stockings and scrub floors, so you will have to teach me.” I take delight in showing her how to barricade Connolly Street with a card table tipped on its side, how to make a Sinn Fein flag from a dish towel tied to a broomstick.
My mother is not pleased when she comes to pick me up. “Your grandmother’s time in the orphanage affected her,” Mother warns in the car later. “She’s never even been to Ireland, and we aren’t that Irish.” She grinds the gears. “Well, she may be, but I’m certainly not, and you’re even less so.” Her hands grip the De Soto’s steering wheel. “She’s always stretched the truth. Next thing she’ll be telling you about the stone angel falling on her father. It was a load of stone blocks.” Two bright spots of color appear on her cheeks. “With her, everything is high drama.”
Afterward I am forbidden to be alone in my Grandmother’s presence for two months because she is a bad influence on me. So for two months I shell peas and snap beans for canning. Standing on a tall chair, I iron my father’s shirts, wondering all the time how Grandma will ever manage to play without me.
One afternoon when my work is done, my mother curls my hair, using sugar water for setting lotion. As she winds the curls in tight spirals, she holds the metal bobby pins between her teeth. I have never been quite so afraid of her. Then she sends me out with a quart jar of water to pick dandelions in the yard between our house and the barn. Standing in the kitchen window, she watches as bees swarm around my head like a buzzing brown cloud. I try to defend myself with the water, but even so, two of them sting me. When I run to the house, shrieking and crying, she orders me to my room to wait for my father to come home. “She deliberately poured water on herself,” she says to him, and he spanks me to calm her. I believe that my grandmother was lucky to live in an orphanage.
When my grandmother and I are finally reunited, I ask her to tell me the story about her father and the stone angel. She pulls a tin of butter cookies from the cupboard and brews tea in the pot with the shamrocks on it. “Patrick was a dancer and a drinker,” she tells me as we get cozy on the loveseat. The faint smell of Grandpa’s cigars lingers in the room. “A boxer, too,” Grandma continues. “A devilishly handsome man with blue eyes and black hair, a black Irishman with a black heart to match, Patrick was. He was a master stonemason.” She pours more milk into my tea and stirs it. “Before I was born, before Ma died, he helped to build the Catholic orphanage where I stayed.”
“How did she die?” I would rather listen to my grandmother than listen to the radio or even go to the movies.
“I was two and she was thirty-six when she died,” Grandma says. “She was big with a baby inside of her when she went out to the back yard to boil the wash and hang it. She took a chill and she died of pneumonia two days later, on Christmas day, coughing blood. They called the priest, who came in his black coat, smelling of whiskey, and gave her last rites. I don’t remember much else — just my da crying and then lying on the floor later in his own vomit from drink. I was so young I couldn’t figure out why we didn’t open the presents.” When she recounts this suffering, it is as though it had been inflicted on someone else.
My grandmother’s mother was beautiful, the daughter of a lumberjack who farmed when the virgin timber in Michigan had all been cut. After marrying her off to the Irish stonemason, he moved to northern California to fell redwoods. There are no pictures of him or of his daughter, so I must take her at her word. “He ached to feel his saw blade bite into the soft wood of the biggest trees in the world, just like a knife going through butter,” my grandmother recounts. “And he died when one of those very trees fell on him.” She thinks for a moment and hints that this family history of having heavy objects fall upon us with crushing force may be a curse.
Then she goes on. “After Ma went to heaven, Da would be gone for days at a time, drinking and womanizing. Min, who was eleven, did her best to raise us. Frank had a paper route. Every night when he was finished, he’d bring me a cream puff wrapped in paper from the bakery since I was the baby and he liked me best. Sometimes when Da came back, he brought us money, so we got by.”
By then the orphanage was long finished and Patrick was working on Saint Alphonsus Church. A statue he was carving toppled and smashed the bones in one of his legs, crippling him. She describes the angel to me, how it had her mother’s face, how its gray wings arced toward heaven like a prayer, defying the weight of the stone they were carved from. “It was as if his heart was already flawed,” she tells me. “When the angel fell on him, it broke wide open.” We both nod wisely at the poetic justice in this.
She tells me that nobody cares to take the time to make such angels today. If I want to see good work like that I will need to visit a cemetery or the church. She herself will no longer set foot in a Catholic church, not after the nuns. When she must pass either church or nun, she hurries to the other side of the street. Even so, she teaches me to say the beads, to cross myself, and to recite at least one Hail Mary before I go to sleep each night, silently so my mother won’t know.
If her father couldn’t work, he still could drink, and that became his full-time occupation. He returned home only to move his children from tenement to boardinghouse — rough places as my grandmother remembers them. “Finally we were out in the street where it was even rougher,” she says. “My grandparents couldn’t afford to take us in and the other relatives only wanted Anna and Mabe, who were old enough to keep house. Min found a live-in job caring for an Episcopal priest’s children.” She frowns at this disgrace.
“Then, of course, neighbors told the nuns on Frank and me, who were the youngest, and they locked us in the home like prisoners.” Abruptly she switches the subject. “Let’s play Easter Rising.” We do, making believe that the British have taken us captive in Dublin Castle and we must break out. While we plan our escape, my grandmother sings “The Prisoner’s Lament.” “If l had the wings of an angel,” her voice strains and crackles. I join in. “Over these prison walls I would fly, I’d fly to the arms of my darling, and there I’d be willing to die.” By the time Grandpa comes home from work, we have managed to break free and put supper on the table.
When I see her the next week, she has decided I will write her story and the story of the Irish race after I am grown. Someone must stand witness to what has occurred, even a distant witness. We have the gift of gab, she allows. It is in our blood from the famine time and well before. It comes from the pain of being misunderstood for centuries, and if we do not write about the pain or tell it in a story, it often gets us into trouble. Since she has only an eighth-grade education, she judges I might be the better grammarian, and therefore the task falls to me. “When you do it,” she insists, “you must change our name to Kelley, so no one will recognize us.”
For months, her storytelling escalates. I learn of bright spots in the orphanage, about how she wore out her shoes sliding down the hill in winter because there were no sleds. And when the nuns whipped her, she would look at them defiantly and say, “Thank you very much, Sister. Have you finished?” — which would set off another round of beatings. Once, on a bet, she pulled off a nun’s habit to see if sisters shaved their heads as was rumored. They did, and that prank earned her yet another whipping. She teaches me to read tea leaves, and invariably tells me I am coming into money. She shows me how to twist the stems carefully from apples to discover the last initial of the man I will marry. She instructs me on the art of avoiding black cats and ladders.
In the home, her big brother Frank watched after her, holding her hand whenever he could, and when he couldn’t, smiling a rakish smile at her from across the room like Patrick’s ghost. Mostly the boys and girls were separated, though. Her eyes fill with tears when she talks about the morning she came down to breakfast, took her place on the bench, and looked across the room for Frank, who wasn’t there. For days the nuns wouldn’t tell her what happened to him; finally, one informed her that he’d died, to forget about him. Months later, she learned that some second cousins had taken him since he’d grown old enough and strong enough to help on their farm.
She teaches me to wear spotless white gloves when we go to town. She shows me where the fairies sleep in her garden and promises me I will one day see one because she knows in her heart I have the sight. Every year we celebrate our birthdays together, since they fall only a few days apart.
The worst part about the Irish is that they drink, my mother informs me repeatedly. They drink because their imaginations work overtime. There are other bad things that she won’t detail because I am too young to hear them. My grandmother has never touched a drop of spirits and she forbids my grandfather to drink, because she has seen the power of whiskey. Lips that touch liquor will never touch hers. Her sisters are all slaves to drink, though, and even her beloved Frank has succumbed. “Sins of the fathers,” my mother grumbles on our way to a meeting of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at the Methodist church, and she adds something about whores and barflies. I wonder if they are as black and ominous as the fly on the milk-house screen in my grandmother’s best story.
In late summer, as my grandmother and I inspect the snapdragons and the phlox in her garden, she gets to the part about the fire in the orphanage. She had no place to go except with Uncle Mike and Aunt Rose, the latter a dreaded Protestant. “When they saw how bad off I was,” she tells me, “Uncle Mike, a good Irishman, told the nuns they could go to hell before he’d send me back to that place. I couldn’t even sit in a chair; I didn’t know how to anymore from sitting on the benches. ‘You’ll take this poor girl back over my dead body,’ Mike told them.” Her voice is as brave and clear as when she gives her home-rule speeches. I feel like clapping and cheering.
“When the trustees from the orphanage came to get me, Uncle Mike held me on his lap and put his arms around me. He threatened to punch the man’s lights out.” She smiles. “And he would have, too, if the terrible fellow hadn’t left right then. So they served us with papers and took us to court. I can still remember how the nuns said that because Uncle Mike hadn’t married in the Church, he and Aunt Rose were living in sin and that I’d lose my mortal soul if I stayed there. I was born and baptized a Catholic so I belonged to the nuns lock, stock, and barrel. But the judge at the hearing just looked at those old nuns and said, ‘I married this couple right in this very courtroom. If you keep saying they aren’t legally married, I’ll hold you in contempt. Case dismissed.’ ” My grandmother’s fist pounds the side of the toolshed like a judge’s gavel. She smiles so broadly she shows her teeth, which she is ashamed of because they are crooked.
Her teeth may be less than perfect, but she has good legs, which she shows off to her advantage and my mother’s chagrin. Like a racehorse’s, they are very good legs. In fact, it was those very legs which attracted my grandfather’s eye when she was eighteen and on her own, working in a candy store. Both of them ended their engagements to other people, she to a handsome boy named Frank. My grandparents married within the year, but that is another story.
Her best tale remains the one about the day in the milk house that faraway August. The black spot through the screen slowly spread like a stain, and she saw it was a man. Frozen, she was terrified it was the orphanage official who had lain in wait for her to be alone. Many a night she had stayed awake, rigid with fear she’d be kidnapped and returned to the sisters. Now, since there was only one door, she was cornered like an animal.
As the stranger came closer, she could tell he was just a raggedy hobo with matted hair. His shoes were tied together with twine and his pants were so dirty and old they fairly glistened in the sun. Her shoulders relaxed, and she heaved a sigh . . . until she recognized the stranger as her long-lost da, and the pail of milk she’d been lifting flew crashing to the stone floor as if it had wings.
What could she do but hurl herself out the door with the fury of a banshee and start pounding her old man’s chest with her fists? His yellowed teeth were rotting, his face was bearded, nose red-veined from years of drink. Oh, but she would have known those eyes anywhere. They haunted her dreams. She hated those eyes burning into her, wanted to put them out.
He was pitiful, she says, and stank to high heaven, but she was relentless. And when he wouldn’t fight back like an honest Irishman, but whined, begging her to forgive him and take him in, could she do anything but refuse him? Mother of God, once she knew for certain he wouldn’t kill her, she knew without doubt that she would kill him, finish the job the stone angel started. Someone seemed meant to die that day. Suddenly afraid of the consequences of that murderous rage on her mortal soul, she took off on her racehorse legs, running toward the farmhouse with him flapping and wheezing behind her. “I slammed the door in his face.” Her voice rings with triumph. “I told him I hoped he rotted in hell; he’d have me back as a daughter over his dead body.” Giddy with excitement, although I’ve heard the tale at least six times, I let out the breath I have been holding. “And that was the end of it,” she concludes. Before I can fully recover, she directs me to find the cardboard bingo cards and goes off to look for her button box for markers.
Obviously it is not the end of it because she tells and retells the story for the rest of her life. During the Alzheimer’s years, it blurs like a bad print of an old movie. The images are nearly unrecognizable, but since you know the story line by heart, you make allowances. After the fatal heart attack, she began invading my dreams, and the focus has become so painfully sharp, it hurts me to view it directly.
In the time between my childhood and my grandmother’s death, I managed to escape the weight of my mother, but my lips did touch liquor and, nearly crushed by the bottle, I forgot to write Grandma’s story. Instead I married a man from the South Bronx who, although he was not Irish, resembled my great-grandfather Patrick in more ways than I care to recount. Let’s just say he was a boxer in his own right. Later, too long after I’d turned from drink, I ejected him from my life, cursing his dark heart and telling him I hoped he rotted in hell. In the days before my thirty-sixth Christmas, I let the dirty clothes pile up, afraid that if I did the wash it would seal my fate. I read my tea leaves that always foretold I would be coming into money which never arrived.
Finally, sick and tired of grieving over spilled milk — mine, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, which lay mingled in a clotted puddle — I decided to wipe up the mess by sending away to the orphanage, the county courthouse, and the department of health for the records that would substantiate or disprove my grandmother’s history.
My great-grandmother did die on Christmas Day in 1902, exactly as I’d been told. Her husband deserted his children shortly afterward, and my grandmother was committed to the Grand Rapids Catholic Home for Orphans when she was seven, along with Frank, the brother she idolized. I have the papers to prove it, those and the court records from the custody battle the nuns waged against Mike and Rose five years later. There are newspaper clippings, too, about the orphanage fire. And Frank’s boy, now an old man with a pacemaker, confirms the begging in Milwaukee.
As it turns out, though, Patrick lay cold and decomposing long before my grandmother’s thirteenth summer. He was buried in a pauper’s grave outside the churchyard, and since the drink finally caught up to him in winter when the frozen earth was difficult to spade, he shares his final resting place with two other derelicts, one of them nameless, none of them properly waked. And although that blackhearted, drunkard of an Irishman did lay the stones for the orphanage that would imprison his own daughter’s mind and heart throughout her life, he was no stone-carver. Saint Alphonsus Church doesn’t have any stone angels. It never did.