This might have been a very short story. When I was born, my mother and father lived near Highland Park, a high plateau area between Queens and Brooklyn, close to my Beatty grandparents’ home in East New York. Family legend has it that one day an aunt lost hold of my carriage, and it began to roll down a sloping sidewalk towards busy Hillside Avenue. Stopped in time by someone walking up. My Guardian Angel? There was more to come.
As we all do in time, I’ve faced my share of “dangers, toils and snares” along the way, but am still here in my 80th year. In pretty good shape for the shape I’m in. Eternally grateful to have come this far, mostly intact, only slightly scarred. My rousing rendition of that grand old hymn, “Amazing Grace,” at Sunday Mass sometimes startles people nearby.
A while ago I began to 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 from troubles. God’s bargain package deal for a lifetime journey covers both blessings and trials. There’s no free ride.
Among my gifts: Loving, caring parents. Happy childhood in a comfortable home. When my dad died at 45, a mom who courageously raised three children alone. More than a few true friends. Tuition free Queens College degree. Before it was trendy — At 38, married a good man. At almost 42, after prayers, tears, tests and surgery, gave birth to what the doctor pronounced “a perfect baby boy.” At 52, decided what I wanted to be when I grew up, returned to Queens for an M.L.S., worked as a librarian for 21 years, pension and medical benefits for life.
Some of my challenges — Struggles with depression since adolescence, two adult hospitalizations. Breast cancer, mastectomy, 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, even malicious, words and actions — some from loved ones — more painful than than bodily injury.
But I’ve been too busy hanging on for dear life, haven’t had time to do more than jot random notes now and then. My working title: “The Perils of Eileen: Still Hanging in There.” My inspiration: the intrepid heroine of the silent movie serial, “The Perils of Pauline,” first filmed in 1914, not long before I appeared on the scene.
Born in Brooklyn in 1931, I’m 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. George Eliot’s inspirational line is taped to my refrigerator: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Though gymnast might be a stretch!?
Played by the actress, Pearl White, Pauline cleverly foiled her wicked guardian’s pernicious schemes to collect her inheritance by hastening her death. She’s seen on a boat rigged with explosives. Held captive by sinister gypsies. High in the sky, drifting away in a runaway hot air balloon. Trapped in a burning building. Just a few of the evil villain’s dastardly plots. Never fear. Brave, resourceful Pauline always survived at the end, sometimes with the help of Handsome Harry, her faithful fiance. Not to worry. 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, the audience in suspense till the following episode. Hanging from a cliff as the dirt crumbled away. Tied down while moving closer to a circular saw. Bound to a railroad track as the train chugged nearer. Not rescued till the next chapter. I haven’t encountered any of these calamities so far. However, in the mid 1960’s, I fell through one of the infamous gaps between Long Island Railroad cars and platforms as the train was ready to leave Laurelton for New York City’s Penn Station.
Imagine the trailer: Running late that frigid winter morning, I dashed up the stairs, sprinted to an open, empty doorway — all other passengers had boarded — 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. Over 40 years after my horrendous experience, a young woman was killed by a train in Woodside in 2006, after falling through the wide opening there. Long Island’s “Newsday” then 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, mocking my modelling Pauline, once sarcastically remarked: “Eileen, you could never be in a silent movie!” She was wrong. My son, after graduating with degrees in Psychology and Communication, his chemotherapy and radiation treatments for Hodgkin’s Disease completed, enrolled for classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. At that time he aspired to be a movie maker, stand-up comedian, or both. He starred me in an assignment, a silent film, and got an A for his opus “Lights Out for Grandma.” Told me his classmates chorused “Aww” when I died at the end, silently and dramatically.
While dreaming his dream, he toiled as a waiter in several Pittsburgh restaurants, including a Friday’s where he met his future wife, working there part-time till she finished college. Now she’s a Speech Therapist in a children’s hospital. He’s an Occupational Therapist in a nursing home. Who knows what they’ll decide to be when they grow up?
I loved being a librarian, but since childhood had wanted to be a writer, often reading treasured books — “The Bobbsey Twins,” “Little Women,” “Jane Eyre” — by flashlight, under the covers, way past bedtime. I’ve since written poems and children’s stories, timidly sending some to magazines and publishers. None accepted. Gave up trying. Unlike J.K. Rowling, determined to deliver Harry Potter, her brainchild, into the world.
But I do know a little of the thrill of publication. “The New York Times” printed my terse comment on W’s Iraq fiasco. And “Newsday” accepted two letters, one about the LIRR Woodside fatality, and another about breastfeeding’s protection about breast cancer after a Long Island pollution study failed to find a definite association. And came close when Mothering” magazine first accepted, but then rejected my article: “Missing Link: Vital Connection” on the same subject.
I’ve had what can kindly be called A Motley Career. Back in 1953, with my B.A. in English i hand, TIME Inc. hired me as a file clerk in “Time Magazine’s” Letters to the Editor Department, where a tear or two sometimes plopped into a folder as I pondered: “Is this all there is?” So I learned to type and take shorthand, and in 1954 transferred to the new “Sports Illustrated Magazine”as a secretary in the Advertising Department. “Mad Men” got it right!
After seven itchy years, I found more meaningful work at Dr. Tom Dooley’s MEDICO Foundation. When he died the next year, at IBM Communications. Then, as an elementary school teacher in the South Bronx, very briefly. Seven sensible years as a legal secretary at Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, Esqs. Five blissful years as a full-time mother. My son safely launched in kindergarten, part-time jobs in the community. After my mother’s sudden death and the family drama that followed, I bravely boarded what in library school was pretentiously called Librarianship.
You’e noticed I’m hardly at a loss for words, happen to be the latter of two Irish types. Private and closemouthed. Outgoing and talkative. In 1969, on my first visit to Ireland with my sister and a cousin, I couldn’t miss the chance to kiss the famed Blarney Stone, a custom said to bestow the ability to speak the blarney, the gift to beguile and cajole. It’s possible that smooching that stone polished my powers of persuasion, resulting in traveling with Honey this trip. The doting Aer Lingus attendants said she was the first pet ever allowed in the cabin.
I’ve never had a problem showing my feelings either, and had honed the facility in a summer acting class at NYU. When I phoned The Irish Department of Agriculture about bringing my dog to Ireland, I tearfully pleaded my cause — 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 mental health professional as my necessary comfort companion for flights on Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines.
Kissing the Blarney Stone is a sly, wry way of pulling the leg. Literally and figuratively. Back in 1969, a jolly man — he enjoyed his job — grasped my ankles as I lay on my back on the castle floor, stretching my neck outside a wall opening to peck the designated block of rock. Somewhat uncomfortable, but not dangerous — a grating underneath prevents plunging to the ground in case the guide slips his grip. My kin looked down on the daffy procedure. The custom was beneath their contempt. They’d never lower themselves to such an awkward position. Puns intended. Their loss. Might have loosened them up a bit.
Fabled, beautiful Ireland is the birthplace of my maternal grandparents and paternal great grandparents, probably most of their forbears. My husband’s grandparents and great grandparents on both sides were born there, too. He didn’t really need to ask if I’d mind going again the next year on our 1970 honeymoon. This year Aer Lingus made another offer I couldn’t refuse, and several days after our arrival my son and daughter-in-law joined me and Honey in Dublin.
One gorgeous, sunny afternoon, wandering a long time 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 led me to a refreshment pavilion where my son and his wife were waiting. We’d walked different ways. Barbara, a Dubliner, was much taken with Honey. No dogs permitted in the park! Barbara took a picture of my pet, saying she would write about our chance meeting on her blog, “Just Add Attitude.”
When I read the post, Honey’s photo attached, I knew that’s how I could tell my story. That day I’d been led to take exactly the right path. Barbara cited Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” so I’ll return the favor and quote Herman Melville’s Ishmael as he wisely observes: “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 an impression when I first read “Moby Dick,” but struck me when Peg Bracken repeated it 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 — we can’t know what worries may be distracting them. Melville was saying we should be there for one another, have our shipmates’ backs in stormy weather. To belabor the metaphor: We’re all in the same boat.
I now know that faith and endurance are rewarded. When a door closes, anoone or more open. Disturbed by an irritating grain of sand, an oyster covers it with a lustrous pearl that wouldn’t otherwise form. 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. Slipped my moorings. Got carried away on an irresistible tide.)To be continued, God willing.