Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Her Funny Valentine
This post was prompted by reading Rise's post yesterday, which you might want to read first. I wrote this for a life story writing class last year, dug it out last night, tidied it up a bit, and here it is......
In 1951 my mother was leading a charmed life. Glamorous and talented, one of the youngest nurses ever to become Matron at her hospital, she had a handsome husband and a lively toddler, complete with nanny, so she could continue to work at the hospital. She was expecting her second child. Life was good.
Half way through February she went into labor. She wasn’t due until mid April. She had the best of care. But things did not go well. When it was over they had a son. But something else was also over. Her charmed life. The premature birth of her beautiful, baby boy changed her life forever. Her other life was just beginning. The one of sleep deprivation, constant worry and chain smoking; the one that would lead this bright, beautiful woman into the dark depths of alcoholism.
I was not yet three, and only vaguely remember those early months with my Little Brother. It seemed to me he was always sleeping, and a hush hung over our house. The smell of fresh squeezed orange juice always makes me think of him. My mother squeezed it, strained it, warmed it, poured it into a sterilized baby bottle, then took it upstairs to try and coax it into him. I wondered what I’d have to do to be given such a delicious treat.
Delicate as he was, my LB survived. He was slow to achieve all the usual milestones, but eventually did. I remember my mother feeding him “goody”. LB loved his goody. Mum built up her biceps shoveling it into him, and when he finally learned to feed himself, he included the sideways scrape with the spoon that she always did after each bite to catch the dribbly bits.
My Dad used to carry him on the back of his bicycle. There was a leather strap to keep him in. One day, as they pedaled along the North Circular Road, the leather strap wasn’t enough. LB’s legs got caught in the spokes of the back wheel. Consternation! I can only imagine how terrible my Dad must have felt. LB was little, but tenacious. He recovered.
He carried this tenacity to school at age seven. If he wanted a toy it was his. He would not give it up. He was small and wiry, with the face of an angel. But all that orange juice and goody paid off. He was strong as an ox. One day there was a ruckus on the playground. LB had been riding a trike. He was loving it, and when the bell rang, he would not get off. The harder the nuns tried to loosen his grip, the tighter he clung. There was one nun, Sr. Brigid, who could manage him. He was crazy about her, but she was missing that morning. Exasperated, Sr. Margaret, the tall-drink-of-water principal of the primary school, came looking for me. My class was lined up in another part of the playground. We could hear the roaring. Please God, don't let it be LB....What did she think I could do about it? I was ten, for God’s sake. I wondered why the playground couldn’t just open up and quietly swallow me.
Eventually, LB needed a different school. So off he went to Miss Lennihan’s. Miss Lennihan ran a small private school for children who, for whatever reason, did not fit in at regular school. That seemed to work for a few years. My mother also took him to elocution lessons, because, even though he knew what he was saying, and we did, most of the time, it was often difficult for others to understand him.
LB couldn’t get his tongue around my name so he called me “Ya-ya”. Every night, after Mum tucked him in, he’d ask for a story from Ya-ya. I was alternately flattered and exasperated by this. I have no memory of what kinds of yarns I spun for him, but eventually he would start to move his head rhythmically from side to side on the pillow, and gradually fall asleep. Then I’d creep out, and back to my book or my homework.
Water had a soothing effect on LB. In the summer at the seaside, he’d stand on the rocks at Spanish Point for hours, mesmerized, watching the waves crash and recede….…..Off in a world of his own. Or wade out into the waves at milder Lahinch, until someone would have to go get him before he disappeared over the horizon to America.
There was water closer to hand.......the River Shannon. Many days, after school, LB would take his fishing rod, climb on his bike and head for the river. He had an amazing memory. He didn’t keep written notes but he could tell you how many fish, and what kind they were, that he had caught on any given day…..if you were interested.
Inevitably he outgrew Miss Lennihan’s. What now? I can only guess at the sleepless nights this caused my mother. The Jesuits agreed to let him try their school. It didn’t last too long.
The future was looming. He needed to be steered towards gainful employment. But what? And how? And where? In desperation they decided to send him to the Vocational School.
What a fortuitous decision that was! He took a class in woodwork. Pistons fired in his head. He brought home his first crude project, bursting with excitement. We all oohed and aahed! He brought home another project. And another. And each project was better than the last! And I’m sure my mother was overjoyed to discover that there WAS a God. And He WAS in His heaven and He WAS taking care of business, in His own sweet time. And all the daily Masses and novenas and pilgrimages to Lourdes were paying off.
I don’t know how many years LB spent at “the Tech” but they were happy years. He had found something he loved, for which he had an amazing talent. When he finished the course there, he became an apprentice at a small factory in Limerick, famous for handcrafted furniture, the kind people hand down from one generation to the next……
My brother's birthday is next week. He lives in the house we grew up in, and my houseproud mother would not just turn, but spin, in her grave if she could see it now. Every room is stuffed with other peoples’ furniture. People come from miles around to have him fix their antiques. He can only do so much, and the projects pile up.
He has a number of cats, who come and go as they please. My mother would have a canary! She always maintained cats belonged in barns for purposes of killing rodents. Period. He doesn’t trust banks, so he stuffs his money in drawers and under the mattress. When he accumulates enough, he goes off for a holiday to the Bahamas or the Azores. I think he thinks he is like the birds of the air, for whom God will provide, and so does not worry about saving for the future.
He came to visit us in California, Montana, and Brussels. He made a huge wooden swing and trapeze set for our children in Montana. We dismantled it, loaded it on the Mayflower van, and set it up again in California. We have carted the solid oak stools and bookshelves he made for us back and forth across the globe. And a huge dollhouse he made for our daughters that I’m. Going. To. Finish. One. Of. These. Days.
LB is maniacal about fitness and health. He has been an athlete all his grownup life. When running didn’t go well for him, he took up race walking and became one of the top race walkers in Ireland, competing all over Europe. He has visited us here in Florida, and gone out and walked for miles in the scorching heat. He figures if it doesn’t kill him it’ll make him stronger.
His current fixation is swimming. He shows up just as my sister’s swimming classes are ending, and wants her to analyze his stroke. Even though she is tired, and dreaming of cups of tea and the comforts of home by then, she stays and helps him, with advice and encouragement. There’s more than one angel in my family.
My brother is a good guy, even if he does have bats in his belfry. He’s overcome a lot. My mother was the center of his life, and he of hers. And thanks to her persistence and unselfishness, he didn’t fall apart when she died.
I know my mother worried herself to death. Only when you become a mother yourself can you begin to appreciate your own mother. And I was a particularly slow learner. I know her amazing talents were sidetracked by having a child who needed her so desperately and so constantly. I know her absorption with my brother profoundly affected her relationships with me and my sister. But maybe I know a lot less than I think. Maybe he was the work God had planned for her all along.