Thursday, June 2, 2011

Remembering Maggie

My little sister Jean and Grandma Peggy 

Brave little Maggie.

I have had the profound good fortune to have my life fabric intertwined with strong vibrant women with amazing stories. Many people may think I make this stuff up about my relatives but if you know me and my family you know, we may shine the brass of a story a bit but the real luster to us are in our dents and scratches and are all mostly true.

My Gram was one amazingly strong wild Irish lass. As a prepare my eldest son to take a journey back to Ireland this summer for a school trip, I am trying to in vain to remind him how his own great grandmother Peggy made this trip in reverse almost 100 years ago to this country for a new life. Tom is a sweet, kind son who has sensitivity and an open warm soul. He is however a sixteen year old who has the gift of omniscience and obviously is burdened by an overbearing intrusive mother. Join the club kid, we all have that type of mother in this family. It is this type of mother that could collect her meager belongings in 1919 leave her home town for the first and last time for a new unknown foreign country alone. She was not only brave but a bit fearless. I can remember asking her when she was still with us if she was scared and she said a little but she was just too naïve and stupid to be scared. She really had only 3 choices: stay and marry a local, become a nun or leave.  She chose to leave.

My Gramma Peggy was known as Maggie Kneafsey and was born in 1900 in County Mayo Ireland. She lost her parents in her tales when she was 7 and 8 but when I did a little digging in records it may have been when she was 10 and 11. Her parents were illiterate farmers in Ireland who scratched out a hard life for themselves and their 8 children on a small farm by the river Moy. She went to school for a short time and learned the basics.  After her parents passed away, she was taken out of school to work on the farm and was raised by her eldest brother Michael and sister Bridget. She was a bit of a hellion and had a spirit that drove her to be internally busy always. She fretted and was a worrier and planner. We call it “being Peggy”. She left for a better life to the US at 19, worked hard for a German businessman who leapt from his office after Black Tuesday in 1929. She won a 20 dollar gold piece in a step-dancing contest in Chicago and she caught the eye of a Canadian Railroad man name Morgan O’Neill who was devilishly handsome but a bit of a womanizer and a serious drinker with a bad temper. She once cooled that temper dumping a pot of boiling peas on his head after he came home with a bit too much drink.  She raised 4 children with Morgan until his death in his 50’s. She went to morning mass, was a devout Catholic and whether she had sinned or not without fail went to confession every 2 weeks. She worked rosary beads like no other and was the fastest novena in the Midwest. My strong pangs for the need for faith I am sure are rooted in watching my Gram and taking her to Mass. Gram learned to cook from her Canadian mother-in-law and made a killer Date nut cookie. Although no one would describe Peggy as a beauty, her personality and no none sense approach to life, people and her faith made her one of the most beautiful stunning interesting people I have known. I could only hope to be half as interesting and strong as she. 

When I was 6 weeks old my Dad moved my Gram into our home after she was left a young widow with my Uncle Joe still in the home. Joe was headed out soon for the army and my father wanted to provide a place for his mother. She was a little woman who stood maybe 5 feet tall with pearl white hair, steel blue eyes, creamy skin and sweet little cotton dresses and shoes that looked like she stole them off of Minnie Mouse. She shopped Evergreen Plaza long and hard for that uniform of sensible shoes and cotton cap sleeve dresses for the summer and long sleeve housedresses for the winter and fall with a cardigan. Never in my entire life did she ever wear pants or go without stockings. It was shameful to have “Naked legs”. Her hair was white as snow, curly and always kept short. She wore White Shoulders perfume used cold cream and always wore just a touch of powder and the same shade of petal pink carnation for years.  She had a fine sense of style was proud and always a lady.

She could be a force to be reckoned with, had a glare that could melt steel and was a fierce protector of her children and grandchildren. Her temper was legendary. She once defended me after my Dad came home with a bit of the drink and teased me to tears. Gram came to the rescue and never have I seen my father so humbled and sorry when she shook her little crooked finger at him.  I remember her words that echoed in the large hallway as she let him have it. I can still recall her brogue scolding him as if I was that 13 year old to this day, “Jack, you are a better man than this! Shame on you for making that little girl cry. You are acting just like your Father with Mickey.  (His older sister) You are a better man than that. Shame on you.” As she walked away she clipped those Minnie Mouse heels on the tiles leaving an echo that scratched wounds in your heart.

She was the center of our gyroscope as a family. She was the one all her children, grandchildren, sisters and family ran to for sage advice and comfort. Although she was not one to display affection openly if a hug was offered she would hold you tight and you know there was love and strength in her arms. Once my Mom came to her upset that a woman she was friends with at church had ignored and acted dismissive to her. Gram in her usual blunt force trauma honesty said to my Mom, “Don’t pay her any attention. Your ass would make her a good Sunday face.”  Comments like that floored us all but she was our rock.

After Gram left us at 94 it was the last time the whole family was together and our family has lost a bit of its center. We are a bit of a wobbly gyroscope banging into walls without her. We have scattered ourselves all over her new land but are still bound together by her brave fearlessness in our hearts and souls. 

It is my hope that when my eldest son travels back to Ireland and sees the places she came from he will help establish a bit of that center in himself to the connection of his past and the brave little Maggie who ventured far to give him a chance at being here today. 

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