This could have been a short story. When I was born, my parents lived in an apartment near Highland Park, a high plateau area between Queens and Brooklyn, near my grandparents’ home in East New York. Legend has it that one day an aunt lost her grip on my carriage, and it began to roll down the sloping sidewalk toward a busy street — stopped in time by someone walking up. There was more to come.
As we all do in life, I’ve faced my share of “dangers, toils and snares” along the way, and am very grateful to have come this far — mostly intact, only slightly scarred. My rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that’s become my anthem, sometimes startles those around me at Mass on Sundays.
Some years ago ago I began to think I may have earned a memoir — even if just for family and friends. Therapy for me, maybe help someone else stay strong, not give up. Besides, picturing my plight in print diverted me in difficult times. I’ve learned that God’s bargain package deal for our journey covers both blessings and trials. There’s no free ride.
Among my gifts: Loving parents. Carefree early childhood in a happy home. Courageous mom who raised my sister, brother and me after our dad died young. Some true friends. Tuition-free Queens College degree. Before it was trendy: At 38, married a good man. At almost 42, after prayers, tests and surgery, gave birth to our miracle baby boy. At 52, decided what I wanted to be when I grew up, worked as a librarian till 73, lifetime pension and medical benefits.
Some of my challenges: Struggles with depression, two hospitalizations, shock treatments. Breast cancer, mastectomy, a year of chemotherapy, poor prognosis 32 years ago. My husband’s callous downsizing, then his sickness and death. Our son’s life-threatening illness the next year. Hurtful words and actions, especially from loved ones, more painful than bodily injury.
But I’ve been busy holding on for dear life — haven’t had time to do more than jot random notes. My working title: “The Perils of Eileen: Still Hanging in There.” My role model: The intrepid heroine of the silent movie serial, “The Perils of Pauline,” first filmed in 1914, before I appeared on the scene, but not long.
Born in Brooklyn in 1931, I’m 79 now — the same age as Grandma Moses when three of her colorful folk paintings were included in an exhibit, “Contemporary Unknown American Painters,” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. You never know. George Eliot’s inspirational line is taped to my refrigerator: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Though acrobat might be a stretch!
Played by the actress, Pearl White, Pauline cleverly foiled her evil guardian’s wicked plots to collect her inheritance by hastening her death — On a boat rigged with explosives. Held captive by sinister gypsies. Floating away in a runaway hot air balloon. Trapped in a burning building. Just a few of the villain’s dastardly schemes. Brave, resourceful Pauline always survived at the end of each episode, sometimes with the aid of her heroic fiance, handsome Harry. Not to worry — Pauline would be back, ready and able for a new adventure.
Later, what came to be called cliffhangers left the hero or heroine in a petrifying predicament: Hanging by fingertips from the edge of a cliff as the dirt crumbled away. Tied down while a circular saw churned closer. Bound to a railroad track as the train raced nearer. The audience kept in suspense till the next chapter next week. I haven’t encountered any of these calamities so far — but in the mid 1960’s I fell through one of the infamous gaps between Long Island Railroad cars and platforms, after all other passengers had boarded, and the train was ready to leave Laurelton, Queens for New York City’s Penn Station.
That frigid winter morning, I ran to a still open, empty doorway, started to step over the space, slipped on a patch of ice, and dropped feet down to the gravel bed, head not visible above the platform. Then, in 2006, over 40 years after my horrendous experience, a young woman was killed by a train after falling through the gap in Woodside. Long Island’s “Newsday” ran a series of articles exposing the many accidents and lawsuits not disclosed till then. How I survived in another post. Hang in there.
A former friend, mocking my modelling Pauline, once sarcastically remarked: “Eileen, you could never be in a silent movie!” She was wrong. My son, his chemotherapy and radiation treatments for Hodgkin’s Disease completed, enrolled at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and starred me in an assignment — a silent movie. He got an A for his opus, “Lights Out for Grandma,” and told me his classmates went “Aww” when I died dramatically, and silently, at the end.
After his recovery from cancer, my son’s career goals were movie maker, stand-up comedian, or both.. In the meantime, he worked as a waiter, though he had degrees in Psychology and Communication. When he met and fell in love with his future wife, he went back to college for an M.S. in Occupational Therapy, and now cares for nursing home patients with compassion and humor. Who knows what he’ll decide to be when he grows up?
I loved being a librarian, but since childhood I wanted to be a writer — often reading treasured books past bedtime, under covers, by flashlight. Later, I sent several poems to magazines and a children’s story, “Kieran’s Climbing Tree,” to Greentree Press — all rejected — and didn’t try again. But I know a little of the thrill of publication — The New York Times printed my letter about the Bush Iraq fiasco, and two appeared in Newsday — one about breastfeeding’s protection against breast cancer, and another about the LIRR Woodside fatality and my earlier mishap.
Back in 1953, with my new B.A. in English, I toiled as a file clerk at TIME Magazine’s Letters to the Editor — an occasional tear falling into the folders. The next year, typing and shorthand added to my resume, I transferred to Sports Illustrated Magazine as a secretary in the Advertising Department . (“Mad Men” got it right.) After seven itchy years at TIME, inc., I worked for Dr. Tom Dooley’s MEDICO Foundation. After his death, at IBM Communications. Very briefly as an elementary school teacher in the South Bronx. Then seven sensible years as a legal secretary at Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, Esqs. Ten years later, I returned to Queens College for my M.L.S. — I’d seen the light.at last.
If you’ve read up to here, you’ve noticed I’m not at a loss for words. I’m obviously the latter of two basic Irish types: private and closemouthed, and outgoing and talkative. But on my first visit to Ireland in 1969 with my sister and a cousin, I couldn’t pass up the chance to kiss the famed Blarney Stone, a tradition said to bestow the ability to talk the the blarney — the talent to beguile and cajole. It’s possible that smooching that stone improved my powers of persuasion, resulting in traveling this time with Honey. The doting Aer Lingus attendants told me she was the first pet ever allowed in the cabin.
I’ve never had a problem showing my feelings either, and had honed the skill in an acting class at NYU. When I called The Irish Department of Agriculture for permission to bring my dog to Ireland, I tearfully pleaded my cause — At my age, this may be the last time I came to the land of my ancestors. Honey was my emotional support animal, certified by a psychologist as my comfort companion on previous Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines domestic flights.
Kissing the Blarney Stone is a sly way of “pulling the leg” — literally and figuratively. On my first visit, as I lay flat on my back on Blarney Castle’s floor, a jolly man (he seemed to enjoy his job) grasped my ankles as I stretched my neck outside the wall opening to peck the designated block of rock. Uncomfortable, but not dangerous — a grating under the head prevents plunging to the ground if the guide slips his grip. My kin looked down on the silly procedure.. The custom was beneath their contempt. They’d never lower themselves to such an awkward position. (Puns intended.) Their loss. Could have loosened them up a bit.
Beautiful, legendary Ireland is the birthplace of my maternal grandparents, paternal great grandparents, and their forebears. My husband’s antecedents were born there, too. And in 1970 we spent our honeymoon in that welcoming country — my beloved didn’t need to ask if I’d mind going again, two years in a row. This year Aer Lingus made an offer I couldn’t refuse. Neither could my son and daughter-in-law, who soon joined Honey and me in Dublin.
One gorgeous, sunny afternoon, wandering a long while by myself in lushly blooming Mount Usher Gardens, I saw a woman across a stream and called out: “How do I find my way out of here?” She crossed over a small bridge, and we talked as she led me to a refreshment pavilion where we joined my son and his wife. We’d walked different ways. Barbara, a Dubliner, was delighted to meet Honey, who waited patiently in our car — windows wide open — no dogs permitted in the park. My guide took a picture of my sweet friend, and said she’d write about our chance meeting on her blog, “Just Add Attitude.”
When I read her post, including Honey’s photo, I knew that’s how I could tell my story. I’d chosen exactly the right path that day. Barbara quoted Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” so I’ll return the favor and cite Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” as Ishmael says: “I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right, that everybody is one way or other served in much the same way — either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is, and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each others’ shoulder-blades, and be content.”
These wise words didn’t make a deep impression in college, but I was struck by the insight when Peg Bracken repeated them in her “I Hate to Housekeep Book” — a title that caught my attention as a newlywed. Ms. Bracken was cautioning us not to judge careless homemakers harshly — we don’t know what problems may be distracting them. We’re all on this odyssey together — should be there for one another — have our shipmates’ backs in stormy weather.Now I know that endurance is rewarded. When one door closes, another does open. An oyster, disturbed by a grain of sand, covers it with a lustrous pearl that couldn’t form without irritation.Troubled waters have sometimes made me change course, navigate to a safe harbor, mend my sails, chart a new route, then set to sea again. (Couldn’t resist. Got carried away on the tide.) To be continued, God willing. .