Let my soul smile through my heart and my heart smile through my eyes that I might scatter rich smiles in sad hearts.
The day after I got back I started reintegrating into Thunder Bay life. When I was renovating the Whalen Street house I became interested in Interior Design. That September I signed up for an evening course at Confederation College called “The Theory of Colour,” the first of five courses which I took over the next year and a half to earn a certificate in Interior Decorating. I was the single male out of an average 20 participants in each course. At first I felt like a fish out of water. But I got to like being the only man there and I developed a good rapport with the ladies. To this day Interior Design is a keen interest of mine.
Dad’s parents wanted him to be a commercial artist but Dad had his mind set on becoming an engineer like his Uncle Ted. Dad was always doodling caricatures of people and he was good at it. I’ve kept all of his drawings and one of his paintings hangs over my desk. I wondered if I had inherited any of his artistic skills. I signed up for a painting class as well. We made landscape and still life oil paintings and sketches. I found I did have some talent. I joined a painting group in January and found my niche in painting colourful landscapes.
I applied for work in other private labs in Thunder Bay and just about any job I thought I could do but to no avail. Nobody wanted me. There is no doubt in my mind that my general appearance shocked most potential employers. I got to know the expression on the face of a job interviewer seeing me for the first time. His/her eyes would widen slightly and gasp a bit while straightening up in the chair. They would be at a loss for words until I said hello. We politely went through the interview but I knew I didn’t have the job before we started. When I saw night work at the newspaper I applied for it. “At least nobody has to see me on the midnight shift,” I said to myself. I didn’t get past that interviewer either. The interviewers whom I met assumed my physical disabilities impaired my basic intellectual skills. That was their first impression of me and those perceptions are hard to change.
I vented my frustrations to my long time friend, Olga. She thought how unfair it was to turn someone down because of their appearance. Olga had left teaching to become a successful insurance agent and had joined a Rotary club. Twice she took me to a Rotary meeting to introduce me to her business contacts. Olga knew what I was able to do and her contacts would take her word for it regardless of what they thought when they saw me. But I shied away from Rotary. I was feeling very unsure of myself emotionally. The thought of working with confident, self-assured people was daunting. I didn’t join Rotary and I spent many frustrating years searching to find, on my own, those contacts Olga had tried to provide me with. I spoke to Olga a few years later and admitted, “Getting me out to Rotary to find contact people was exactly what I needed.”
Olga looked at me and said, “Brian, you weren’t ready for it.”
In many ways I was lost. In the split second when I found Mom dead in bed the tapestry of the protected world that my parents made for me unravelled. A big chunk of me jumped out of the middle of my chest, out through her bedroom window and away into the sky. It left a fathoms-deep, dark, cold, craggy-edged hole that I wanted to fill with whatever departed. I didn’t know what had left me but I knew I wanted it back. I felt the weight of that hole with every breath.
The effects of the shock wave that hit me that fateful morning when I found my mother dead stayed with me for a year. I shut down emotionally and yet my heart ached with an emptiness I could not suppress. Tears left me that morning and I have not shed a tear since. For the first two months I hurt twenty-four seven. As the year progressed I wasn’t hurting all the time and I felt guilty for not hurting. We’re strange creatures, aren’t we? The hurt turned into what I came to know as anxiety and depression. It was with me all the time dogging every aspect of my life – like wading through waste deep water impeding my progress to do things. Nearly everything I did was such an arduous task that any feeling of accomplishment was taken away and replaced with relief that it was finally done. For ten years I searched for a way to get rid of the grief my nerves caused me.
“I don’t control my nerves anymore. They control me. If only I could find what left me I’d be better.”
Once the first year had passed my anxiety and depression were at their worst from mid November through January. Maybe it was the seasonal bleak, cold weather, the approach of the Christmas season or both. Once November set in I dreaded the coming of Christmas. When the holidays arrived I wished the days away even though I still liked the cakes, goodies and get-togethers that came with that time of year. I breathed a sigh of relief when February came and an even bigger sigh when March arrived.
Mom was born Kathleen (Kitty) Shaughnessy on January 12, 1928 in Corofin, County Galway, Ireland, a farming community seven miles outside of the town of Tuam. In the 1930s you either walked or you drove a horse and trap to travel into Tuam. Going into town and back was a day long journey. Kitty’s father, Martin, asked his sister, Colleen, who witnessed Kitty being born if she would register Kitty’s birth when she returned home to Tuam. Colleen forgot. When Martin found out he went to Tuam and made the registration himself. To avoid paying the fine for not registering a birth within the time limit Martin put Kitty’s date of birth down as February 10th. In a way Kitty had two birthdays but she always celebrated her birthday on January 12th. Kitty was the seventh of nine children. No matter how many times I say it I have to count on my fingers to name her brother and sisters. Starting with the oldest they are May, Delia, Nell, John, Josie, Nora, Kitty, Rita and Gertie.
Kitty’s mother Julia (Mammy they called her) was widowed for the second time when Kitty was six. Kitty didn’t understand what dead meant. She thought Daddy had gone away for a while and was coming back. Evening after evening she sat in the trap at the front of the house and looked down the road into the sunset to watch for him. She knew the direction he would come from walking up the road. Kitty thought the world of her Daddy and she wanted to be the first one to see him return. I don’t know how long she waited but each evening Kitty would watch the sun set. When darkness came she had to go inside. I suppose that’s why the house Mom lived in had to face west and why she never liked dusk. It was always a forlorn time for her.
Mammy never married again. She chose to raise her children and run the farm herself with the help of her first husband’s father, Grand, who lived with them. A fatherless family with a farm meant they would have to struggle to make ends meet. Mom‘s older sisters remember not having much. “But neither did anyone else,” they added. To Mom they lived in poverty. Living on a farm may have been a saving grace. There was always food. Grand worked a patch of land which grew most of their vegetables. They had hens for eggs and a cow for milk. Even with food within arm’s reach Mom remembered going to school hungry because there was nothing for breakfast.
They also had a skinny pig, a sow, that could run like a race horse and jump fences. Despite all their attempts to fatten her up they could count her ribs. Everyone hated the job of making sure that the pig didn’t get into the adjacent field and root up the neighbour’s crops.
Each year sows were taken to a nearby farm that kept a boar to have them serviced. The Shaughnessy sow didn’t wait. When the time came she jumped the sty and trotted down to see the boar herself. Mammy was sent a message to inform her that her sow had just been to see the boar. Even though she was skinny she produced a good litter every year which provided the family with much needed income. Mom tearfully told me stories of hardship growing up, but she laughed when she talked about their pig.
All children were required to attend national (grade) school in Corofin for basic education. It was funded by the government. One of the teachers, Miss O’Dell, lost two brothers in the Irish war of independence from Britain. She had an intense hatred of the British. She told her students, “Burn everything you get from England but their coal.” She looked at the soles of the children’s shoes to see if they were made in England. If they were, as was often the case, she would hit the student across the shoulder blades with a cane. Every day the children went to school in fear of what would happen to them.
As Mom was finishing national school her teacher, Miss Reilly, implored Mammy to send her to secondary (high) school in Tuam. She only needed help financially for the first year. After that Mom would earn her own way through winning scholarships. Miss Reilly thought her pupil was that smart. Mom wanted to go but Mammy didn’t see the value in anything more than a basic education for girls. Girls grew up to get married, have children and take care of the house. Secondary school was not funded and finding the money to send Mom to school in Tuam would be a hardship for a family struggling to get by. So Mom never went to secondary school.
In the 1930s Ireland was economically depressed having just fought a war of independence from Britain, then the Irish civil war and then the great depression hit. Young people were leaving Ireland to find a better life. Families were forced to go their separate ways. Mom’s oldest sister, May, joined a convent in Drogheda, north of Dublin. Delia and Nell went to France. John and Josie moved to England. Nora left for Athlone in central Ireland. Mom in her turn would leave home as well. Only Gertie stayed on the family farm.
When Mom was 16 she got a job as a chamber maid at a hotel in Tuam. She saved up the money for her fare to England and the tuition to attend the nursing school at Hillingdon Hospital in London. Mom lied about her education when she applied because completion of secondary school was required for entrance into the nursing program. Once she was at Hillingdon not having a secondary school diploma didn’t hold her back. Mom won the awards and scholarships Miss Reilly said she would. When she graduated Mom was a Registered Nurse and Midwife. She continued to work at Hillingdon.
During her training Mom was called back to Ireland. Her sister, Rita, had contracted tuberculosis which was running rampant through Ireland. Rita was close to death when Mom arrived. One evening Mom with her sisters and mother stood around Rita’s bed as she peered out at them. She brought one hand out from under the covers and feebly waved with her fingers. Rita could barely speak but the words, “Bye-bye,” were on her lips as she waved. Rita passed away shortly after that. Rita was buried in the family plot in the Corofin cemetery. Mom returned to England soon afterward. Rita’s death was hardest on Mom. She and Rita had been best friends growing up. Mom recounted to me many times how she and Rita played tea. Mom played the part of a poor woman who had left Ireland and come back from America to show off her wealth. She laughed as she told me that she milked the cow so they could have a proper tea.
Many years later Mom asked her sister, Gertie, if she had a picture of their Daddy. Gertie sent Mom a picture of the man she was sure was their father. Mom took one look at it and said, “That’s not Daddy.” The man in the picture didn’t match the image in her mind. The image of Daddy in her mind’s eye and the memories she had of him are all that Mom would ever have to remember her Daddy by.
“I know he was tall. He was strong and gentle,” Mom said, “and I know I loved him.” Her voice trembled as she wiped tears from her eyes.
Growing up without a father and in poverty haunted every aspect of Mom’s life. Foremost in her thoughts was the fear of being poor again. Right up to the end of her life, in her heart, Mom was a little girl waiting for her Daddy to come home.
Mom looked to be doing quite well during the first six months after Dad’s passing. We worked to close Tara and she sorted out Dad’s affairs. She had a positive outlook and appeared to be adjusting well to her new life. Catharine noticed it too.
Over the next three months Mom’s health declined. She lost her positive attitude. Mom became quiet and withdrawn and she got thinner and frail. Catharine said she was afraid to give Mom a hug in case she broke a bone. It seemed as if Mom had given up on life. I was doing more for her care.
Mom took me to dinner for my 40th birthday. The following week I found Mom dragging herself around the house. She literally didn’t have the energy to eat. I was concerned. Mom wouldn’t see a doctor but towards evening, due only to my insistence, she said she said she would try to see her doctor the next day. This relieved me somewhat. I helped Mom into bed at 11:00 PM. She didn’t want to read as she usually did. Instead she silently curled up resting her head on the pillow and sighed as she closed her eyes.
In the morning I looked in on Mom from her bedroom door before I left the house at 8:00 AM. She was sleeping. When I came home two hours later Mom was still in bed. As a rule Mom was up and about by 9:00 AM. It occurred to me that she said she hadn’t been sleeping well the last few nights.
“Okay,” I thought, “I’ll give Mom a bit longer then I’ll wake her up.” I went downstairs to work on my computer. An hour later I came back upstairs to find Mom still asleep.
“I’ll make Mom a cup of coffee and call her.”
At 11:20 AM, with coffee in hand I walked into her room and put it down on her bedside table. Mom was lying on her side facing away from me as I stood at her bedside with the window behind me. “Mom,” I called. She didn’t move. “Mom,” I called a bit louder. She still didn’t move. Then I reached out to nudge her shoulder. As soon as I touched her I knew. Immediately the logical Mr. Spock in me plainly said, “Mom’s dead,” but my heart wouldn’t accept this. “No, no, no. That can’t be. Keep trying to wake Mom up. She’ll wake up.”
In disbelief I ran around the bed bending down to look closely at Mom. Her eyes were closed. She lay motionless. It was too dark to see properly. I ran around the bed, yanked the drapes open and ran back. Making the room brighter didn’t change anything. Mom laid there in total stillness.
“Mom,” I said loudly as I watched her. No response. “Mom! … Mom!!” I called louder. Still no response. “Mom, don’t do this to me … Mom!!!” I was screaming at her now. Again and again I tried in vain. I felt as if somebody had kicked me in the stomach.
Eventually I knew I had to call someone. Taking a few paces toward the door I stopped and turned back to scream at Mom some more. My heart could not accept that Mom was really gone. I finally made it to the kitchen and stared at the phone on the wall.
“Who do I call?”
Then I remembered that Mom had called Corpus Christi rectory the night Dad died. So I picked up the phone and called the number I knew by heart having dialled it many times since I was a boy. Monica, the church secretary, answered. I told her Mom died during the night and that I had just found her.
“Your Mom!” she exclaimed. “Brian, I’m sorry … Are you alone?”
“Have you called the police?”
“No,” I answered.
“Brian, you have to call the police. I’ll call for you.”
“No,” I said, “I’ll call.”
“Alright then I’ll call someone to go and see you.” I thanked Monica and hung up.
“Kate,” I said to myself. I wanted Catharine to see Mom lying in bed as I had found her before I called the police. When I phoned I got her answering machine. I said, “Call me as soon as you can.” Not knowing how long it would be until she called back I decided to call the police.
“Police,” I wondered, “what’s the number?” I thought some more. Then it occurred to me, “Inside cover of the phone book. That’s it.” So I got the phone book out, placed it on the kitchen table and opened the front cover. In the top right corner was a big, bold 911. “That’s right, 911.” I calmly said to myself and I dialled. Never in my life had I been so stressed out that I couldn’t think.
The woman who answered asked where to direct my call. “… police,” I replied quietly.
She put me through and the lady there asked why I was calling. “My Mom, I think she’s dead.” I knew Mom was dead. I just couldn’t say she was.
“Where is your Mom?” she asked.
“Are you alone?”
There was a pause and then she said, “Okay, we’re on our way.”
Right after I hung up the phone rang. It was Catharine.
“Kate, come right now.” She came as fast as she could but the police, paramedics and firemen arrived first.
I led the police into Mom’s bedroom followed by the paramedics and firemen. They looked around the room and then at Mom. The paramedics started to lay Mom flat on her back. I turned away. I couldn’t watch. As I walked down the hall toward the kitchen followed by a policeman I asked, “She’s dead isn’t she?”
“Yes,” he replied.
Somehow I needed conformation of what I already knew.
As we got to the kitchen the door bell rang. It was Joe our long time family friend. Monica asked him to come and see me. As we sat at the kitchen table talking Catharine came in the door. She had seen the Emergency Response Vehicles parked out front as she approached the house. “What’s going on?” she asked frantically.
“Mom died last night,” I said.
She wanted to see Mom and we walked together to her bedroom. The paramedics had laid Mom flat on the floor across the foot of her bed and covered her with a sheet. Catharine pulled back the sheet. She gasped when she first saw Mom’s face in death. Then she looked at me and I told her how I had found Mom – the story I’d just told Joe and the police.
More neighbours started to come. Joe, who was still in the kitchen when Catharine and I got back, could see that I was far from alone now. He expressed his deepest sympathies and said he should go. I thanked him as we walked to the door. Joe and his wife Peggy happened to be leaving for a trip to Ireland that evening. At the door I asked Joe to say hello to Ireland for Mom. He smiled saying he would.
The other neighbours all expressed their condolences as well but there was really nothing they could do. They gradually left leaving Catharine and me with the police and paramedics to wait for the coroner. The only other visitors were Fr. Randall and Fr. Alan, the parish priests from Corpus Christi, to give Mom the last rights as Catharine and I watched.
It was apparent to the Coroner after seeing Mom that a blood clot had worked its way through her body finally lodging in her heart during the night. He estimated Mom died about 4:00 AM. I know for sure she was alive at 2:00 when I last looked in on her before I fell asleep. The police called the funeral home and they arrived 15 minutes later.
I had to see the undertakers carry Mom out the door and put her in the hearse. Catharine and I stood on the front lawn and watched as the hearse drove down the street and disappear from view. We walked back into the house. Catharine wanted me to go back with her and stay the night. “Thanks Kate,” I said, “I’m alright by myself.” I just wanted to stay put.
The next day Catharine and I went to finalize Mom’s funeral arrangements. Sunday we went to the funeral home to see Mom as she lay in her casket dressed in her fondest off white suit. Just like Dad Mom looked as if she was sleeping. Catharine and I sat quietly with our thoughts and watched Mom. Eventually we looked at each other and knew we had to leave. The following evening I went back to stay with Mom for an hour until they closed. I was trying to reconcile the disbelief in my heart.
Tuesday morning we gathered at the funeral home for the half hour visitation. I sat with Catharine through the service and only she and I rode in the hearse to Mom’s funeral mass. As we entered the full senior choir was singing. Fr. Carey spoke warmly of Mom and said prayers over her at St. Andrew’s cemetery. I carried Mom to her final rest.
As we left Mom’s graveside to go to a reception in the church hall a few darkened clouds drifted by. The breeze picked up slightly and the skies threatened to rain. Catharine was too lost in her thoughts to notice the weather. I looked up at this and thought, “Ah Mom, a stormy end to a stormy life.”
When Dad was 14 he got a job at The Northampton Electric Light and Power Company in nearby Northampton. He fixed fridges and stoves, well pumps, installed wiring in houses that had never had electricity until then and wired up runway lights at Northolt Aerodrome so the allied bombers could land at night. World War II was raging in Europe at the time. Northampton, not being of industrial importance, was unscathed by German bombing raids. Dad remembered seeing from where he lived 20 miles away in Lower Harlestone the night glow of the manufacturing centre of Coventry burning from German bombs.
Dad could wire up anything. When I was growing up if any wiring needed doing around the house such as installing a light or electrical switch Dad would take care of it. I helped and he showed me a few basic things such as how to properly connect two wires. But on the whole Dad was left to do it. As a kid I accepted that this was Dad’s job. As an adult, and especially after Dad died, I wish I had learned more from him when I had the chance.
I listened as he told me about the people he met on his travels around the district to do various jobs. Roger, the butler of one of the houses Dad wired up sat him down at the pantry table when he had finished and said, “Here, have these.” Dad looked at the plate of different kinds of chocolates in front him that was unavailable to most people during the war.
“Where did you get these?” Dad asked.
The butler replied, “This is too good for those people,” referring to the Lord and Lady of the manner.
An elderly man in Northampton, Mr. Thomson, called regularly to have something fixed. He often asked specifically for Peter Spare. Dad showed up to fix the stove or whatever Mr. Thomson needed doing. Usually there was nothing wrong with it. He just wanted someone to talk to and he liked talking to Dad. All the jobs were timed so they knew at the shop about how long it would take him to return. Dad said, “I have to go they’re expecting me.”
“Oh, tell them the kitchen light and the fridge needed fixing as well,” Mr. Thomson was lonely. He had the money to pay for the all the work and having Dad’s company was well worth the expense.
One afternoon Dad arrived at what should have been another routine job. A Mrs. Jenkins had a problem with her space heater. He knocked on the door. No reply. So he opened the door a little and called in. Dad listened and heard a faint, ”Help! Help!”
Dad went in to discover Mrs. Jenkins elderly mother in bed with the bed clothes on fire. The space heater had shorted out and set the fire. Mrs. Jenkins mother was bed ridden and couldn’t get out. Dad pulled the burning bed clothes off and threw them outside before the flames got to her. Mrs. Jenkins had just gone to the barn when Dad arrived and would not have been back in time to help her mother. Needless to say both women were very grateful.
When he wasn’t telling me about his days in Lower Harlestone Dad talked about his time in the Royal Air Force and his posting to India. Dad volunteered for the RAF when he was 17 rather than be drafted into the army at 18. His Uncle Ted was an engineer in the RAF stationed in Dayton, Ohio, developing the jet engine with the US Air Force. Ted was Dad’s idol and the reason Dad wanted to be an engineer. But that would have to wait until after the war. Dad wanted to work with radar – the new technology of the day. The RAF wasn’t hiring for that position but they needed people in the medical lab. So Dad changed his plan. It turned out to be his life’s career.
When Dad was signing up the officer taking down the personal information asked the Irishman in the line in front of him, “Name?” then, “Occupation?”
The Irishman and his friends had been smuggling goods across the Irish Sea. When they realized that the authorities were catching up with them they decided to enlist.
“Smuggler,” the Irishman replied.
“A what? I can’t put that down,” said the astonished officer.
The Irishman turned to his friend further back in the line, “Seamus, I’m a smuggler, right?” Seamus confirmed this. The Irishman looked at the officer who thought for a moment and then wrote transportation.
The new recruits were sent to Yorkshire in the north of England for three months of basic training and to life in the RAF. All kinds of people from every walk of life were thrown together to work as a team. Some of the men in the unit couldn’t take it and broke down. Dad’s non-judgmental nature allowed him to accept people as they were and to make the best of whatever situation he was in. It enabled him to both endure and prosper by seeing the good side of whatever he did, wherever he was, or whomever he was with. Throughout his life Dad could see the humanity in people that made them who they were and accept them for it. He would find people who were interesting for what they knew. But moreover he liked people because of their character that made them different in some way. It’s what I learned to like about people too.
Dad and the other recruits were each issued a riffle and taught how to use it. Then they were ordered to board a Lancaster bomber for the long flight to Karachi which was in India at that time. The men sat on hammocks strung over the bomb bay doors that didn’t quite close. Their hammocks were strung low enough that when they sat on them the men could put their feet on the bomb bay doors and watch the land or sea go by through the crack. They all hoped nobody opened the doors. In Karachi they helped to run the RAF #10 base hospital.
The war in Europe was coming to an end so the hospital’s main function was to treat British casualties who fought the Japanese in Burma along with receiving British POWs held by the Japanese. Dad squeamishly talked about the huge jungle sores he saw on the casualties and the emaciated state of the POWs. The jungle sores and other injuries were treated and the POWs were fattened up before they were allowed to return to Britain. They also provided medical treatment for the local people.
The RAF brass regularly ordered the British lab staff out on a route march. A sign was posted on the bulletin board giving them notice: ROUTE MARCH WEDNESDAY 0900 HOURS. Dad’s commanding officer, who was a physician, called to head office, “Look, we don’t have time for this. We’re trying to run a hospital.”
A note to state that the march was cancelled was later attached to the bottom of the sign. The RAF brass didn’t catch on. They kept ordering route marches and Dad’s CO would be on the phone to get them cancelled.
After four years in Karachi Dad was sent back to Britain. He always spoke warmly of the Indian people and his time there. Although Dad never went back to Karachi a part of him never left.
Dad returned to Lower Harlestone and to the job he had before he left. He now wanted to become a Clinical Chemist and work in a hospital. The regular program in London at the University of London was full. So Dad worked full time during the day and took evening courses in Northampton set by the University of London for four years to earn his degree.
After a full day’s work Dad often came home to find that he had been volunteered, usually by his mother, to repair the stove or a light for a neighbour. Everyone helped each other in a small village. He had to squeeze it in between supper, going to class and/or studying. By the time he graduated Dad was tired of being Mr. Fix-it. Uncle Ted told Dad that he couldn’t stay where he was if he wanted to get ahead in life. Dad decided then that he would leave the UK.
In 1952, when Dad received his degree, he took a job as assistant Clinical Chemist at Hillingdon Hospital in Uxbridge in Northwest London. Before he left to go to London his father, Pop, advised Dad, “Son, if you need a helping hand you’ll find one at the end of your arm.”
Dad never forgot it and it influenced many decisions he made throughout his life. He would do things by his own device rather than seek help – an ideal that also influenced me.
One Saturday morning close to a year before he died Dad reminisced about his boyhood years in Lower Harlestone. He looked straight at me with an expression of sudden realization on his face and said, “You and I would have been good friends.” I have no doubt we would have.
Instead Dad and I enjoyed a close friendship as father and son. Dad called me Pal. I was his pal and he was certainly mine. My heart ached when I realized I would never hear him call me Pal again.