Tuesday, March 31, 2009


“In those days you didn’t call for a doctor unless you had money, which we didn’t. You took care of things your self; there were all kinds of home remedies about. When my sisters both got sick at the same time we didn’t think too much of it at first, we didn’t know anything about the Spanish flu, didn’t know anything at all. Besides, they were strong, beautiful girls; handsome we used to call them. They were so strong as to be able to do nearly the same work as any hired man, my father used to brag. Course there weren’t many men to be hired back then, what with the war.”

“Anyway, my sisters got worse so quickly there was barely time to realize it, we didn’t even have time to get the priest. They’d gotten sick on a Sunday after church and by the next morning you could hear the death rattle in their heaving chests and there was a strange foam coming out of their mouths. By the evening they were both dead, within an hour of each other. My parents were in shock; I don’t think they could believe it had happened. I remember thinking they were very strong because they didn’t cry, but now I wonder if they were just so stunned they couldn’t.”

“People were laid out at home back then, and since there were two of them they lay side by side, barely fitting on the dining table that was moved into the parlor. I remember they had coins on there eyes too, but now I can’t recall what that was for. I think it was because sometimes the dead’s eyes wouldn’t stay closed. Yes, I’m pretty sure that was it. I was very young at the time, you have to realize, so a lot of things didn’t seem clear to me.”

“Both Mary and Katherine had their Sunday dresses on and so did I. My father had picked a small bouquet of flowers and placed each of the girls’ hand around it, so they were both joined together with those posies. I remember thinking that they looked so pretty and clean and I wondered aloud how that happened because when I saw them last in their sick beds they looked awful, Mary’s red hair was wild and tangled and Katherine’s dark eyes looked big as saucers, like she had no pupils at all, they were just black empty holes against ghostly white skin. But my aunt told me that she and my mother had stayed up the night before bathing them and getting them fixed up and dressed. Then she started crying and said, ‘It should be the other way around, our children should be dressing us for the grave.’ She had five children herself. By the end of the winter she was dead too, and so as my uncle. I don’t know what happened to my cousins. We couldn’t take them in, we were barely scraping by.”

"It was just a few days after my sisters died that my baby brother, Nolan got sick. You know that’s where your name came from, don’t you? Yes, of course you do, I’ve told you that before. Nolan was named after my father’s mother, Nolan was her maiden name and the name of the village we lived in, Nolan Hill. I remember my father used to sing a little song he must have made up, something about ‘Rollin, Nolan Hill, God bless us yes He will.’ I wish I could remember the words. He had a lovely voice. "

"My mother seemed to go numb when baby Nolan took sick, but my father got crazed, he got desperate. He began cursing God and yelling at my mother to do something, not to just sit there weeping like an idiot. He wanted her to nurse Nolan as she had Mary and Katherine, but I just don’t think it was in her, I think she knew it would do no good. She was already in mourning for the boy. But my father wouldn’t believe it, he tried anyway. When the poor baby’s fever spiked and his breathing started to become hard I watched as my father did what looked to me then with my young eyes like torture the boy. He wrapped him in thick woolen blankets and held him tightly, the baby’s fever made him strong for a bit and he struggled against my father’s sturdy arms but eventually he resigned himself to it, I guess. You see, the thought in those days was that you needed to sweat a fever out to break it, so they’d cover you in blankets and put hot water bottles ‘round you even."

"All night my father held the boy in his arms, just sat there at the kitchen table and rocked little Nolan back and forth, singing until his voice was just a hoarse whisper. No one sent me to bed; I sat there with him and my mother. I fell asleep with my little head on the table. In the morning when I woke it was obvious the boy had died sometime during the night, he was limp in my father’s arms, wrapped in all those damp, sweaty blankets.”

"I think that drove my father over the edge; I think that’s what killed him. He went shortly after Nolan. It was just my mother and me then. We had to leave the farm in the spring because there weren’t enough men, what with the war and all, to help work the farm. We had to move to the city where we could both find some work. My mother always said we’d get enough money together and go back, go back to Nolan Hill. But we never did. I’ve never been back and now that your grandfather lies here in this plot with your own baby brother, I’ll rest here someday too, instead of with my parents or brother and sisters back in Ireland. That’s what you do, Nola, you marry and go where your husband takes you, you make a life out of what you can and hope God doesn’t give you too much to bear. That’s all you can do."

No comments: