Happy St. Patrick's Day!
It’s St. Patrick’s weekend, so my thoughts naturally turn to my ancestors.
Both my mother’s and father’s side have their roots in Ireland. My maternal Great Great Grandfather Patrick Dempsey was born in 1837 in County Kildare, marrying Hannah Phoebe Short in Newark, NJ, so arriving in the States sometime in-between. I’m not sure about my maternal Grandmother’s side of the family, but I understand the Whites and Weys, while English in origin, also came from Ireland to the U.S. at some point.
Then there’s my beloved paternal Grandma Catherine McGuinness Daly who hailed from Garrison, County Fermanagh, and my Grandpa Charles Edward Daly, who was born in Bantry, County Cork…and their son, my dad, Charles Patrick Daly, born in Bayonne, New Jersey. I have been blessed to meet and visit both sides of Dad’s remaining extended family in Ireland.
I thumb through some printed records I have of our family’s Irish heritage.
It’s just a few folders. I think about legacy. What has been passed down to me through this family? And what am I passing down to my kids?
Mostly, I think of the influence of my grandmother, Catie. (Her story continues below)
Though she was poor in material wealth, she passed down riches that remain precious to me today.
So what exactly is Grandma’s legacy?
Storytelling – She was no exception to the tradition of telling stories of the old country, of fairies and folklore, and the new country too, as she recounted the raising of her mischievous and so-well-loved son.
Laughter – Though each day brought very real and crippling pain of broken bones never healed, hands gnarled by arthritis, and near-blindness, Grandma loved a good laugh. I can see her now, head thrown back, as she “roared” (her word) with laughter.
Song and Dance – Grandma walked with a cane…and she would threaten to use it if we didn’t obey, but mostly she would have us dance an Irish jig, hopping over the cane as she sung out the strains of a traditional Irish tune. (We've kept up this tradition...)
Prayer – Grandma had a little transistor radio next to her at all times, listening to Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale as much as possible. Her fingers were laced with the rosary. She prayed constantly. When people came to our home, they would include a visit with Grandma and requests for prayer, knowing this was her greatest work.
Listening – Grandma had time to listen quietly no matter what time of day or night. I shared my deepest fears and sorrows…and greatest joys with her, knowing she heard me and cared.
Seeing – Grandma couldn’t see very much with her eyes in the last years of her life, but she saw with her generous heart. And she saw beyond the obvious with her keen intuition and insight.
Contentment – There are people who live a hard life like Grandma’s—plenty of pain, physical and otherwise, sorrow, loss, near poverty, physical labor—they become bitter, depressed, angry. Grandma learned and demonstrated contentment and gratitude in all circumstances.
Faith – Grandma had a childlike faith. She did not question God, she just believed. She did not preach, she lived it. Her faith was unshakable.
Fierce – Not violent (though if pushed far enough by the fresh and sassy shenanigans of our brood of five, she could get plenty angry), but deeply determined and brave. Grandma forged ahead against plenty of odds.
Love – The greatest of all gifts, Grandma loved unconditionally, unquestionably, mercifully, generously, and gracefully.
Grandma was born in a two-room stone cottage. According to the records, she was born in 1893 to a farming family who occupied a two-room stone cottage; one room was for the family, the other for the animals.
Grandma left Ireland at about 18 years old. When we visited her family farm, one of our cousins explained as we walked along the bushes and fences that edged the farm, there were at one time “hedge” schools that Grandma may have attended. This was a “school” that might take place under cover in the shadow of the bushes in the rural areas of Ireland, especially for the Catholics of Northern Ireland who at one time did not have access to public education.
|Cattle and Hedges|
Moving amongst the rocky, jumble of ruins that were once her home, we walked the very same rugged path Grandma would’ve traveled upon her departure from Ireland to the United States.
She was given what was known as an “American Wake,” which meant friends and family gathered to say goodbye; to both celebrate and mourn the leaving of the young girl who would likely not return to her homeland ever again…and she didn’t. The family and friends, after an evening of singing, storytelling, laughter, and tears would trod up the lane alongside the cart that would carry Grandma to the port, whereupon she would board a ship, and make the long journey to Ellis Island.
|The Path Grandma Followed to America|
Grandma joined her brother in Bayonne, NJ. He was an iceman, who delivered the huge chunks of ice that helped keep food from spoiling in the ice box, the precursor to our refrigerators. Oh there are so many tales to tell…but suffice it to say, Grandma did not have an easy life, yet she considered herself immeasurably blessed. She married Charles Edward Daly and they had a son, my dad, Charles Patrick, on December 14, 1930. They lived through the Depression, even became homeowners, but sadly lost their home when my grandfather died of pneumonia.
Grandma became a domestic and nanny. She and my dad moved into the back rooms of a doctor’s office, where Grandma worked as a caretaker (cleaning lady) and receptionist. And she continued in this line of work until she moved in with us, the Daly family, which consisted of Mom, Dad, and five children, ages 3 to 10, from 1966 till her death in 1973. I believe those may have been some of her very best years. She was proud beyond measure of the success Dad achieved, having once had to basically cry my upstart Dad back into the prep school he attended free as a “child of promise” and a potential priest.
For the seven years Grandma lived with us, she was a quiet constant in the midst of a very loud active family. She was peace in chaos, assurance in fear, always ready to listen and to pray. Grandma made everyone she knew feel special, important, valuable, confident. She kept to herself when Mom was around, so as not to interfere in any way. But when Mom was out and about having lunch, playing tennis, paddle, bridge, which was frequent, Grandma was there to greet us every day after school with enthusiasm, interest, love.
When Grandma died, her last of thousands of prayers was answered. She died quickly, in the midst of being useful. Emptying the dishwasher, a sudden stroke took her life in an instant. Oh it was a shock to us all…you can never be prepared for the death of someone who loves so well and is so well loved. And I will never forget the wailing, sobbing sounds of utter grief that came from my dad’s core. There is rarely a day I don’t think of her, over 40 years later.
|Beloved Dad with Shelagh, Elise, Seton, and Phyllis|
On this day, I pause to think about the rich heritage passed on by my grandmother. And consider the legacy I will leave.
How about you? What legacy do you want to leave?