As we all do, I’ve faced my share of “dangers, toils and snares” along the way. I’m very grateful to have come this far — mostly intact, only slightly scarred. And I sing that rousing old hymn, “Amazing Grace,” as loud as I can in church, sometimes startling people around me.
Some years ago I began to think I’d earned a memoir — the hard way — 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 the journey of a lifetime covers both blessings and trials. There’s no free ride.
Among my gifts: Loving parents. Carefree childhood in a happy home. Courageous mom raising 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, 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, followed by his sickness and death. Our son’s life-threatening illness the next year. Hurts and disappointments, some 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. 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 reserved former friend 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 ended, 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 said 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.. He had degrees in Psychology and Communication, and worked as a waiter while following his dream. When he fell in love with his future wife, he went back to college for an M.S. in Occupational Therapy, and now cares for his nursing home patients with compassion and humor. Who knows what he’ll decide to be when he grows up.
Being a librarian suited me ideally, but since childhood I’d 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 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.
But back in 1953, with my new B.A. in English, I toiled as a file clerk at TIME Magazine’s Letters to the Editor — tears sometimes falling in the folders. The next year, typing and shorthand added to my resume, I transferred to Sports Illustrated Magazine as 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. After his death, at IBM Communications. Very briefly as an elementary school teacher in the South Bronx. Then seven judicious years as a legal secretary at Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, Esqs. Ten years later, I returned to Queens College for my M.L.S. — Master of Library Science. At last I’d seen the light at the end of the tunnel.
If you’ve read up to here, you’ve noticed I’m not at a loss for words. Obviously, I’m the latter of two primary Irish types: private and closemouthed, or outgoing and talkative. But on my first visit to Ireland in 1969 with my sister and a cousin, I couldn’t miss the chance to kiss the famed Blarney Stone, a custom claimed to bestow the gift of talking blarney — the talent to beguile and cajole. It’s just possible that smooching that stone improved my powers of persuasion, resulting in traveling with Honey this time, with microchip and shots up to date. The enamored Aer Lingus flight attendants told me she was the first pet ever allowed in the cabin.
I’ve never had a problem showing my feelings either, and some years ago honed this ability in a summer acting class at NYU. When I phoned The Irish Department of Agriculture for permission to bring my dog to Ireland, I tearfully pleaded my case — At my age, this may be the last time I traveled to the land of my ancestors. Honey was an emotional support animal, certified by a psychologist as my comfort companion for previous domestic flights on Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines.
Kissing the Blarney Stone is a sly, Irish way of pulling the leg — literally and figuratively. On that first trip, as I lay flat on my back on Blarney Castle’s floor, a jolly man — he seemed to enjoy his job — held my ankles as I stretched my neck outside the wall to peck that block of rock. Uncomfortable, but not dangerous — a grating prevents plunging to the ground if the guide loses his grip. My kin looked down on the silly tradition. The custom was beneath their contempt. They’d never lower themselves to such an awkward position. (Puns intended.) Could have loosened them up a bit. Their loss.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 wonderful honeymoon in that welcoming country — my beloved didn’t need to ask if I’d mind going again, two years in a row. And this year Aer Lingus made a reasonable offer I couldn’t refuse. Neither could my son and daughter-in-law, who 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 allowed in the park. My charming guide took a picture of my sweet friend, and said she’d write about our 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 picked 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 words didn’t make a deep impression in college, but I was struck by their wisdom when Peg Bracken repeated them in her “I Hate to Housekeep Book,” a title that caught my attention as a newlywed. Ms. Bracken cautioned us not to judge careless homemakers — we don’t know what problems may preoccupy them. We’re all on this voyage together, and should be there for one another — have our shipmates’ backs — especially in stormy weather. Now I know that endurance is rewarded. When one door closes, another does open. An oyster covers an irritating grain of sand with a lustrous pearl. Troubled waters have now and then 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. .