As we all do, I’ve faced my share of “dangers, toils and snares” along the way. But I’ve managed to survive nine years past the biblical three score and ten, with only a few scars to remind me where I’ve been. That great old hymn, “Amazing Grace,” is now my anthem, and I sing it loud and clear, forever thankful to have lived this long.
Some time ago, I began to think I might have 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 imagining my plight in print diverted me in difficult days. I’ve learned that God’s all-inclusive package deal for the journey of a lifetime covers both blessings and troubles. There’s no free ride.
My blessings: Loving parents. Carefree childhood in a happy home. Courageous mom who raised my sister, brother and me after our dad died too young. True friends. Tuition-free Queens College degree. Before it was trendy: At 38 married a good man. At 41, after prayers, tests and surgery, gave birth to our miracle baby boy. At 52, decided what I wanted to be when I grew up, and worked as a librarian till I was 73. Pension and medical ben3efits. And more.
My troubles: Struggles with depression, two hospitalizations. Beast cancer, mastectomy, and a year of chemotherapy. My husband’s callous downsizing, followed by his sickness and death. Our son’s life-threatening illness the next year. Meanness and disappointments, some from loved ones, more painful than physical injury. And more.
But I’ve been busy holding on for dear life — only had time to jot down 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 now the same age as Grandma Moses when she was discovered for her colorful folk paintings. “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” George Eliot’s words are taped to my refrigerator. Hope for a late bloomer.
Played by the actress, Pearl White, Pauline cleverly foiled her evil guardian’s wicked schemes 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 plots. Not to worry. Brave, resourceful Pauline always escaped at the end of each episode, sometimes with the aid of her heroic fiance, handsome Harry. She’d be back again, ready and able for another adventure.
Later, what came to be called cliffhangers, left the hero or heroine in a petrifying predicament:: Hanging by fingertips from a cliff as the dirt crumbled away. Tied to a railroad track as the train chugged closer. The audience kept in suspense till the next chapter. But though she encountered many calamities, Pauline never clung to a cliff or lay bound to a railroad track. Neither have I, so far. However, 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 for New York City’s Penn Station.
That frigid winter morning, I ran to a still open 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 a future post. Hang in there!
A former friend, amused at my channeling Pauline, once remarked: “Eileen, you could never be in a silent movie!” She was wrong. My son, his chemotherapy and radiation treatments completed for Hodgkins Disease, now called Hodgkins Lymphoma, enrolled in a film school, 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 expired dramatically, and silently, at the fade-out.
After his recovery from cancer, my son’s career goals were movie maker or stand-up comedian.. He had degrees in Psychology and Communication, and was toiling as a waiter while following his dreams. When he met and fell in love with his future wife, he went back to college for a M.S. in Occupational Therapy, and now works in a nursing home, caring for his patients with humor and compassion. Who knows what he’ll decide to be when he grows up?
There are primarily two Irish personalities: private and closemouthed or gregarious and talkative. I’ve inherited the genes of the latter, and am rarely at a loss for words. However, in 1969, when I first traveled to Ireland with my sister and a cousin, couldn’t pass up the chance to kiss the famed Blarney Stone, a rite said to give the gift of talking the blarney — to talent to beguile and cajole. Smooching that slab of rock may have helped me persuade the powers-that-be to let my little dog Honey stay with me in the Aer Lingus cabin when we flew there this April — the first pet allowed that privilege.
I’ve never had a problem conveying my feelings either, and had honed this ability in an acting class at NYU’s Continuing School of Education. So when I phoned The Irish Department of Agriculture, my tears flowed freely as I pleaded my case — At my age, this may the last time I visited the land of my ancestors. I needed Honey with me on flights for emotional support. A psychologist had verified her as my comfort companion for previous trips on Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines.Kissing the Blarney Stone is an Irish way of “pulling the leg,” figuratively and literally. That first visit, as I lay flat on my back on the castle floor, a jolly man (he obviously enjoyed his job) grasped my ankles as I stretched my neck outside a wall opening to smooch the magical stone. Uncomfortable, but not dangerous — a grating underneath prevents plunging to the ground.in case the guide loses his grip. The custom was beneath my companions’ notice. They looked down on the silly procedure. They wouldn’t lower themselves to such an undignified position. (Puns intended.) Their loss. Beautiful Ireland is the birthplace of my maternal grandparents, paternal great grandparents, and their forebears. My husband’s antecedents were born in Erin, too. And in 1970 we spent our sentimental, wonderful honeymoon in the land of our ancestors. (My beloved needlessly asked if I’d mind going two years in a row) This was my third pilgrimage. Aer Lingus had made an offer I couldn’t refuse. Neither could my son and daughter-in-law, who joined Honey and me in legendary Dublin, three days after our arrival. One gorgeous, sunny afternoon, wandering by myself for some time 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 led me to a refreshment pavilion outside the park where my son and his wife were waiting. We’d walked different ways. Barbara, a Dubliner, was delighted with Honey, who sat patiently in our car — dogs not allowed in that park. She 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, the photo of Honey at the top, I knew that’s how I could tell my story. It seems I’d taken exactly the right path. My friendly guide quoted Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” so I’ll return the favor and cite Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” — “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.” Ishmael’s words didn’t make a deep impression in my English major days, but I was struck by the wisdom when Peg Bracken repeated them in her “I Hate to Housekeep Book,” a title that caught my attention as a newlywed. Ms. Bracken advised us not to judge careless homemakers — we don’t know what worries may be distracting them. We’re on the same voyage — and shipmates should have one another’s backs, especially in turbulent weather. I know now that endurance is rewarded. When one door shuts, another will open. An oyster covers an irritating grain of sand with a luminous pearl that wouldn’t otherwise have formed. Stormy seas have sometimes made me change course, navigate to a safe harbor, drop anchor, repair my vessel, chart a new route, and sail forth again. (Couldn’t resist. Got carried away on the tide.)