Following up on our previous post, Elegy, here we present a second excerpt from Barbara Anne Kearney’s forthcoming memoir, Bough, Broken. First, a synopsis of the book:
For reasons I am still uncovering, the land of my ancestors was the birthplace of my imagination. I was born in New England to Scranton-born parents, whose grandparents were immigrants from the West of Ireland. When I was a little girl, the burning culm dump at the city limits was the first beautiful terrible sight of my life. My memoir, Bough, Broken explores the nature of this compelling touchstone, as well as the compulsion to research and re-imagine the lives of my forebears. I trace the etches of the deep memory of exile and emigration, the resonances of landscape and loss, and the truncation and displacement of the American Dream, inspired always by the words of poet Kahlil Gibran: “Time’s definition of coal is the diamond”.
“Patrick,” excerpt from Bough, Broken
by Barbara Anne Kearney
One morning after breakfast on a visit to Scranton when I was a teenager, in response to my question the day before about the existence of any old family photos, my Aunt Mildred came in to the kitchen. “Here, I found these” she says, handing me two. One photo is of my grandmother and her sister, and the other is of my great grandfather, Patrick.
In the sepia print he is wearing a heavy, shapeless jacket and soiled, well-worn, loose fitting pants of the same material—work clothes. He has on his miner’s hat with a lamp. Patrick is handsome, like my mother always said and often added: “They made a striking couple, Grandmother and Grandfather did”.
I notice his dark eyes, like olives? or almonds? But then I find myself drawn to the animal in the center of the photograph. It’s a small donkey with a gaily-studded harness. Donkeys and mules, I knew, were also workers in the mines, used to haul coal cars. I recall descriptions of what miners witnessed when after spending years below ground, mules were brought to the earth’s surface. This was only when they were no longer able to work due to infirmity, or when nearing the end of their lives. Dazed, and disoriented, the animal would fight helplessly against all that listing brightness and air. Imagine such a delirium.
The photo in front of me is was made by an itinerant or travelling portrait photographers where a donkey served as pack animal, carrying the photographer’s camera and equipment. It was also prop for posing the subjects, and, I imagine, a lure for children. My mother is explaining this to me because she has a clear memory of them roaming throughout the city. “A photo like this probably cost less than a nickel, “ she muses.
A blonde wispy haired little boy, about three, with a Dutch haircut, bangs cut crookedly, is astride the donkey. He is holding the animal’s lead tentatively. He is looking directly into the camera, unsmiling. My great grandfather is standing in an adult’s protective stance of the perched child – turned slightly and leaning in. He is also looking directly into the camera. He is slightly smiling. “That’s Jimmy, I’m pretty sure”, my mother identifies her younger brother as she studies the picture over my shoulder
A quick calculation using my Uncle’s birth year, and I date the photo around the year 1920. I look back into it, sense a sudden swell, and I swear, the photograph began to breathe and give, so anxious was it to unloose the transfixed moment. The subsidence from the mines encrusted in the folds of Patrick’s work clothes. The acrid smell of powder and sulfur mingling with the beasty odor of the animal. My great grandfather’s tin lunch pail plunked down in the dirt yard just outside the photo’s frame. A duck clucking. My grandmother turning the corner to go back into the kitchen with the scissors in her hand. Three hard candies and two pennies settled in Patrick’s outer jacket pocket. These last few things I cannot know, but I do. All gives way.
My Uncle Jimmy is wearing a pin striped one-piece suit with short pants. And shoes. I learned later of the importance of shoes to first generation immigrants. Important not merely in the practical sense of protecting the feet, but shoes as symbolic, a forthright and unmistakable basic measure of prosperity, of the difference in quality of life between the Old Country and the New. The shoes look too small for my Uncle Jimmy, and there is a small hole near the front toe in one. I notice a patch sewn above the knee of Patrick’s right pant leg. And a glimpse of a thin chain. Is it a watch chain? It seems incongruous.
I suddenly realize I too love Patrick. Patrick: the emigrant from the unknown locale in Ireland, Patrick, of the one single photo. My great grandfather, one whose parentage, roster of siblings was so full of gaps and so garbled that it confounded my family history research for many decades.
My mother made no bones about her distaste for her father. “He wasn’t really nice”, she would say. His response to the tears of any of the girls’ in the household was hard-edged and cutting: “Ay, now these tears must be because your bladder is too close to your eyes”. Shalus as he was known, was a “Socialist, active in the Carpenter’s Union”, my mother always summed him up. “He had no use for the Church. Grandma had to see to it that he had a Mass and proper burial”, she would add.
My own father was perplexing; impassive and inarticulate. Both traits were an impotent foil to my mother’s roiling emotional states. He didn’t know what to do with the flotsam and jetsam that so often washed up on our domestic shore; he neither picked through it, nor picked it up; he just weaved in and around it. The path not wide enough for me as well. Maybe my mother’s outsized sheen and shimmer just proved too much for my father. Maybe it was like living in an excruciatingly slow solar eclipse, where whatever might have been brought forth in him through their union, became increasingly dimmed, blotted out, with each passing year.
What can I say about the women in my family? One thing is they often just stopped speaking to one another for stretches of time, ranging from days to weeks. Even my grandmother Nora’s sisters gave one another the “silent treatment”. But it was my mother’s oldest sister, Evelyn, who was notorious for observing the longest periods of angry, sullen withdrawal. She lived on the other side of town with her third husband, and would often go months refusing to take a call from Mildred. Word would also get back that in the Giant supermarket, Evelyn had deliberately turned her back on someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew either MoMo or husband Al.
Evelyn was best remembered though for a rage. We had just arrived in Scranton and my mother dialed her sister to catch up, a chance to talk at length without paying for an expensive long distance call from Rhode Island. Evelyn hung up suddenly and angrily in the middle of the conversation. My mother uneasily set the phone receiver back in the cradle: “I don’t know what I said that got her mad”. An hour later, Evelyn burst in the front door. My mother was still sitting in the black Windsor chair near the phone. Evelyn went right for my mother’s limp hair, yanking out a clip, calling her sister names.
I didn’t learn anything about cooking in that kitchen. There are no family recipes. But sitting in that matriarchal stewpot — maybe better to call it “colcannon” and not stew, since that’s more of a mash – I did try to discern ingredients. Made with potatoes and cabbage, I never actually tasted colcannon until many years later when in Ireland. That’s when I learned that like “barnbrack”– a bread where little items are placed inside the dough before cooking – whatever you found in your serving portion would reveal your fortune: a coin predicted wealth, a ring meant an upcoming proposal, while a twig portended a husband who will beat you.
My mother and I, it seems all we have is Patrick. And an unsmiling, but robust, time-travelling donkey.
Barbara Anne Kearney credits her early awareness of being an Irish-born coal miners’ great granddaughter with inclining her towards her first job providing social services to newly arriving Indochinese immigrants. This was followed by a career in teaching English in open admissions institutions serving working class and first generation college students in Greater Boston. She currently lives on Outer Cape Cod, where she writes, swims, surf paddles, Instagrams, and rambles in the dunes. She has recently begun a research and archivist internship for a local history organization.
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