When I was about five years old I thought that everyone in the whole world must have at least one Irish Grandmother. While I knew that somewhere in the world I had a Russian-Jewish Grandmother whom I was not allowed to see (because of my Christian Baptismal status), my childhood perception allowed only for the Irish woman I called “Gramma”.
I knew that she cooked seven days a week for us, that she shopped for food in the neighborhood “grocery store”, that she made everybody’s bed, that she spent hours bent over the washboard ( the antecedent of the washing machine), that she hung the clothes and bed sheets on the “line” in the tenement backyard, that she cleaned the “apartment” each day and generally took care of the seven of us under her care. Two of us were children and the other five were out trying to make enough money to support us. We were huddled together emotionally against the outside world which we intuited as hostile and unfriendly.
Gramma, who was paid no salary, would (it was apparently understood) be our de facto servant. It was as if this was totally accepted and understood by the whole group. Looking back over sixty years ago, I can only now really appreciate something of this unusual woman. She didn’t want money or approbation. She wanted only the opportunity to show her love for all of us. I cringe as I remember my superficiality. Perhaps it was part of being immature and inexperienced simply to expect that the meals would be there on time and that I would have a clean handkerchief as I set off for my First grade classroom.
Her name was Mary Gallagher McArdle. She was from the strange world across the Hudson called Jersey City where she was strictly raised by her Irish Mother and Father (who had served his adopted country in the Civil War). She would often tell us of her fun loving brother (whom Gramma’s children called “Uncle Tom). His reputation for heavy drinking and chasing girls was apparently legendary. With just a hint of invitation, he would entertain anyone with his personable renditions of “I was walking through the park one day in the merry, merry month of May” and “I’m a dude, a dandy dude….” or any song from his large and sometimes raunchy repertoire. But since his easy going nature made It difficult for him to keep a job, he was usually unemployed. Gramma, with her usual loving care style, would “put him up” until one day he dropped on the street and went to his Maker Whom he might eternally amuse with his singing and joking and livening up the celestial Party!
The 15 year old Mary Gallagher presumably bored with the limitations of Jersey City and, looking for some kind of action and excitement (might we say “boys”?) would take the Ferry across the river to what we now call the Big Apple. Being a very pretty Irish lass with a quick quip and outgoing personality, she attracted the attention of a tall, handsome young Irish bartender, who wore a vest and a pocket watch with a gold fob!!! Did they meet in a bar? Why not! After all, she was Irish, too - - a beer or two never hurt anyone, right?
He was Edward McArdle from a tiny village called Dromcondrath in County Louth and was very ambitious. He later acquired TWO saloons (or what we currently call gin mills).Besides, he wore a derby, a kind of sign of affluence. Although he was about ten years her senior, the Great Love Bug bit them both. So they were married and began what looked like a Paradisiacal Phase. The now Mrs. Mary McArdle loved kids and babies and appropriately good sex with her husband - - - so - - they had ten children. Edward brought some of his family from Ireland to share his good fortune and happiness - - and of course Mary, his little wife, was totally agreeable. There now was laughter and love and very good times. Grampa was even able to offer a free Lunch with every five cent glass of beer. It was a jolly time.
But life was not without heartaches. Her first pair of twins died shortly after birth. Her 12 year old son, Matty, fell down the saloon stair case and broke his neck. Since Medical skills were not what they are today the boy died shortly thereafter. After 20 years of relatively happy married living, in March of 1906, Edward fell ill with pneumonia and with the unbelievably poor treatment then available, he died, within ten days in the flat above the saloon on 52nd and Tenth avenue in New York.
Mary (Gramma) was told that due to her husband’s debts the saloon had to be sold leaving her totally penniless. She with her seven surviving children was “dispossessed” from her apartment. That meant that they literally were thrown out on the street. There was no Social Security or Widow’s pension. No one helped except her Church which found her some kind of primitive housing for her brood.
Something called “ The Gerry Society” offered to take her kids and put them in what sounded like orphanages, a fate that was whispered around as worse than death. This gallant, little woman instantly refused the offer, preferring to keep her children with her believing with her staunch Faith that they would “make it somehow.” And indeed they did!
Gramma told me that she had to scrub floors for a dollar a day and to scrounge even to survive in the cellar-like digs they inhabited. The children who were old enough all went out to make a few pennies for the common “pot.” None was able to finish even high school except Margaret who gained a Master’s degree from Columbia University with 13 credits towards her Ph.D. All the others went to “woik.” They entered the various worlds of photography, Automobile repair, domestic service, education, theatre, postal service
While modern De-constructionists wax poetic about the philosophical need to be tolerant, Gramma wove the tapestry of real tolerance. All her children married contrary to her ethnic instincts, save one. Her in-laws were generally NOT of her Irish preference but were German, Italian, Pennsylvania Dutch, Jewish, and even English. She loved and accepted them all, nurturing them, kidding with them, sharing what little of this world’s wealth she personally possessed.
Her sense of humor was gigantic but her ability to characterize people with a phrase would send us all into laughter spasms in seconds. There was a verbally abusive young woman who was instantly named “Mouthy” by Gramma. And the young lawyer with the huge head and little boy’s body became “The head on a stick” and Mrs. Brennan with a huge posterior and a forward tilt became “ Here’s me head, me arse is comin’.” And the woman upstairs who was afflicted with excessive activity of the articulatory organs became “ Babblin’ Bess.”
When her fortunes improved through the combined contributions of the now grown kids, she wanted to grow flowers in the pots around her back yard. Since our street was used by horse drawn carts and carriages, there was a plentiful supply of the valuable substance so helpful for plant health. So, one day, Gramma in a very loud voice commanded one of her very favorite grandsons, named “Chick,” to scoop up a large supply of the droppings and bring them to her for the beloved plants. In spite of Chick’s pleadings, she demanded he obey her - - which he did, not only interrupting a stickball ball in progress, but a at the same time suffering the jeers and guffaws of the insensitive West Side kids. Gramma was a strong woman who knew clearly what she wanted.
Clearly, her strong spiritual “spine” was her Catholic Faith. Though totally unaware of past Christological heresies and Biblical subttleties of the Synoptic Gospels, she was “in touch” with God. She knew all about the Eucharist by pre-articulate Faith. She knew the power of the Rosary which she “did” everyday. She knew all about the effectiveness of Holy Water which was in a little font at the door leading outside and which we all piously used going “out” into the world.
She took me with her to Evening Devotions in the Paulist Church where my eight year old mind was awed by the Great Golden Monstrance showing forth the Eucharistic Presence of the Lord and the flickering candles and the pungent smell of incense and the exciting stories told about the saints who faced lions in the Arena and whose bodies were pierced by Roman arrows or were tortured for the Faith by evil Kings. The huge Organ pounded out mystical and rousing hymns about Jesus and the Blessed Mother and St. Patrick and the many inhabitants of Heaven. I was impressed and moved and loved it. We all wore scapulars, tiny, cotton squares hung around our necks by little strings, and which were brown or blue or red, depending on which personal devotion we preferred. We all had little holy cards with saints looking dreamily up to heaven. Of course, it was de rigueur to have a Rosary and the lucky ones wore Miraculous Medals around our necks on a silver chain. Gramma approved all this - - - so therefore we all so acted.
How much she influenced me to consider entering the priesthood myself is known only to God. I do remember her palpable glow when she would invite the local Paulists to dinner in our cramped little apartment on 61st street - - - - and what presentations she would offer their Reverences! These were the most overwhelming of repasts. She would say, a little defensively, “Nothing is too good for God’s priests.” I remember her telling me about my Grandfather’s framing and hanging over his bar one dollar bill that the local priest had given him for “services.” (Maybe a draft of good Irish beer!!!!) I remember, too, her cherished friendship with the brusque but manly Fr. Peter Moran who stood six feet four inches, had a deep voice and a huge shock of sparkling white hair. He would sit in her kitchen sensuously drinking Gramma’s strong, strong coffee as he complained, very colorfully, about the deficiencies of the Rectory’s “Protestant” coffee. I would respectfully meet the great man at the door and escort him to Gramma. Then, they would talk for hours, he, the master theologian and she who mastered only the complexities of the Third grade.
While her coffee was exceptional, she had a secret concoction called Beef tea”
reputedly the cure for pneumonia, warts, arthritis, anxiety and belly aches. Priests, family and friends were dosed with it whenever she deemed it necessary. Once, however, in one of the very few times she gave in to what we might call understandable “self pity”, she got “bombed” and was singing away in her darkened bedroom. She called me in which she rarely did and proceeded to give me a lecture about life. With some ROTC training in my background, I had registered for the Draft in World War II. So, Gramma was terrified that I would go to war and be killed like a neighborhood kid she knew who was killed in World War I. Florid as the proverbial Lord she grabbed me by the hair I then had and said: “Jimmy, be the father of a fine family OR go into the Seminary.” There could be NO in-beween status. No single life. No gender ambiguity. Be a Priest or parent. And the message had the note of urgency to it! “Make up your mind” she seemed to saying to me:“Get to it.”
Since my parents, as vaudevillians, were “on the road” most of the year, Gramma, in fact, raised me. I became so attached to her that when I was about 6 years old, I made a deal with God that He should take five years off my life and add them on to hers so that she could be with us that much longer. How the Lord figured that one out is beyond me since I am now 83! However, Gramma’s influence on my life - - even my approach to life - - - - was apparently enormous. Even when I was a teenager, she nudged me to “righteousness”. At 15, I was preening what I considered to be an attractive head of red hair, and was admiring myself in the hallway mirror with typical adolescent narcissism. Gramma came by and quickly sizing up the situation “ zinged” me with her quick barb: “You stink.” Ever since I have been very cautious about the Imperfection called vanity. Of course I have no longer any temptation to preen my hair since my head today looks like a peeled egg. Applied to other dynamics of my spiritual life her barb has been an ominous and strict conscience (or to my therapeutic minded colleagues, a powerful super-ego). Gramma’s approval of all of us was essential for happiness. Her scowl of disapproval (though infrequent) could lead to inner turbulence
When she was dying in Roosevelt Hospital and delirious, she instructed her nurse that she must get well immediately since she had an Ordination to attend (mine). She was about three years too soon in her calendar but her appreciation of the priesthood was always with her. She was some kind of lady! She knew the score of life. As she often remarked: “I did me bit.” She had known happiness and some ecstasy, sadness and pain. She knew how to cry for her brood but also how to laugh with all. She was one of those rare people- a true believer in God and Life. I guess she was what we all need at some time or other in our lives - - - - - a real Irish Grandmother.
|The Greek diner on tenth avenue and 52nd street (2004).|
In 1905, it was the McArdle saloon and immediately above
Is the apartment where Edward (himself) went to his Maker
And from which Mary was dispossessed with her brood.
|1944 Grandmother visits me in Seminary|