Hominy & Hash
THE MOURNFUL NUMBERS OF A WELL-LIVED LIFE
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- If you're born at a time of change in your part of the world, you will one day learn it was never on an ordinary day. What might seem ordinary - the birth of a baby girl to a woman who had already delivered eight babies - could not be ordinary on Dec. 6, 1931. This was another mouth to feed, and a frightening prospect at a time later called The Great Depression.
My memories of those years are clear. Actually, they're wonderful. We were poor, not "dirt" poor as they say, because we lived in New York where there was more concrete than dirt, but deprived nevertheless of the usually anticipated three square meals a day and a warm bed at night. Americans were poor, whether housed in tar-paper shacks across the land or in shingled row houses in the cities. But, I only know what I read in the history books.
On the day I was born, I became the ninth child, forever called the baby.
Today, June 6, 2005, I learn I'm the only surviving child of the Dunn's, a large Irish family from Corona, a community in Queens County. If we angled our view somewhat, we had clear sight of the Empire State Building, completed in May of that year. We were a subway ride from Wall Street where just two years before the stock market crashed and continued reverberating around America. But thanks to the tender, loving protection of all my brothers and sisters, I never felt a thing. And, I was never alone.
Today, I do feel alone. Yesterday, my sister, Genevieve, died. She was just shy of 90 and the third in the lineup of us all. There were 16 years between us; she was always my mentor, my inspiration.
The first thing I learned from her was not to eat the bottom crust of a store-bought pie: "It's cardboard," she said.
However, her back was to me when she spoke so I continued eating the pie, not only cutting into the bottom crust, but also using the side of my thumb to get it onto the fork.
"Don't do that," she said, never turning toward me. She was setting her hair in pin-curls to form ringlets into the day's fashion. "I see you in the mirror and I know what you're doing." At four, I hadn't yet learned about seeing what's behind you in a rear view mirror but I did know all about God.
What I knew was that although we can't see God, He is everywhere and He can see us. I decided she was God.
The thought that she had some of the Divine in her never diminished and as the gap between our ages narrowed in adulthood, she became my role model. She did what I wanted to do and so I felt confident that I could do it. She led my brothers and sisters in creating a life for me that they never had.
I didn't know we were poor. They worked their odd jobs and brought home treats for me. They'd hold me on their shoulders and play with me and include me in their singing.
During World War II, with two little boys of her own, she worked tirelessly for "the boys," as the troops were called, by visiting veterans' hospitals and writing to our five brothers in all theaters of war. She stayed up late each night to hear radio broadcasts from Germany when George Hicks gave on-the-scene commentary.
Genevieve was one of the greatest generation's women at home as Tom Brokaw noted in his historical reference of that era. No one ever said an unkind word about her and, come to think of it, I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone.
Her inspiration on how to get through things stops today. Faced with my own mortality now, I realize I'm no longer in line waiting my turn; today it becomes my turn. I am on the highest rung, the top plateau, "the last one in's a rotten egg." Luckily, I've never been one to dive right in tot he unknown.
I prefer to extend one toe at a time into the murky waters to test its depth, to feel its warmth. More often than not the water's been too cold to venture forth and that, too, is how I feel now. I'm counting on continuing to follow in the brisk strutting steps Genevieve always took. I'll focus on those sixteen years between us and live until I die.
Together we mourned the passing of our parents, brothers and sisters. Now, I hold fast to the notion that they may not be around to mourn me, but they'll make a jolly welcoming committee on the other side of the light. Those days of mourning the others were filled with the frivolity the Irish are famous for when we hold a "wake" for our dead.
We recall the times of their living among us. Sheer joy came as we remembered our Mama telling us it might be cold in our house, but we should pretend we were in one of the old Scottish castles where fairytales were born and our hot porridge kept us warm. How we'd laugh at Mama's inventiveness - laughter that got us through the Great Depression. Reliving it all together got us through the wakes and the tribulation of each other's dying, one by one.
I miss them all, and yet I carry something each left as a legacy. I still don't eat the bottom crust of a mass-produced, store bought pie; and, I can still hear her voice saying: "I never buy anything I can live without." I am all the poorer for not having followed that advice. One day I couldn't live without something and in a week it was a Goodwill Industries donation. You might say I squandered an inheritance.
It is through all of my siblings that I'm part of most of the last century. The older ones were born before World War One, were raised in the Roaring 20s, Prohibition, The Great Depression, fought in World War II, gave birth to the Baby Boomers, promised their children finer educations and material things they never had themselves.
As the baby - born seven years after the eighth child - I was never playmate to any of them. Common interests kept Genevieve and me very close and the memories she had became the memories I have now.
Oh, I didn't get them by osmosis, no. I hold the memories gleaned through long conversations, usually over a hot cup of tea, and those are what I'll miss most of all.