Copyright 2020 by Michaela Brady
is by no means the whole story of my grandmother’s
life; it is more of a swan song for the last time we were able to
really bond, since she lived an ocean away from me and became quite
sick soon after. I was only nine years old when the events of this
piece took place, and even 13 years later, the implications of
Breeda’s actions, words and feelings in this moment still
reveal themselves in clearer, sharper light. She was and still is a
tangible example of a lost childhood, a story many people in rural
Ireland knew all too well, and how you are never too old to reclaim
passed away today. And I didn’t cry. I didn’t weep for
Breeda Nulty, Granny, Daddy’s mother, grinning epitome of
childhood visits to Drogheda. Yet when I held the phone in my hand, I
expected that pinched, loving voice to say, “Hallo, lovely”
through the static. Five hours ahead, years beyond me, and gone in a
wisp. My father is pacing somewhere outside, cursing the Irish
doctors in this sickening June heat. At least that’s what I
speculate he’s doing; I’m too scared to seek him out.
Some dictum about leaving people alone to grieve skirts past my
memory. No, he sits in a ruminating reverie, a time bomb disguised as
a pie in a Looney Toon, and absorbs the news as a known unknown.
overcast night bleeds into day, and still I have not cried. The image
of her squinting eyes, all warmth and wit sapped away, drifting their
gaze along a hospital ceiling is too imaginative to ever be real. Yet
I am perfectly content with this image above any reality. When we had
the chance to see her in the hospital for whatever she had—adults
never sufficiently explain to children the ailments of loved
ones—only my father went. He and his six siblings crowded
around a hospital bed, their mother’s body collapsing while her
mind already soared to Heaven. Her eyes flew up, her mouth unable to
form coherent phrases anymore, and I imagine she bore witness to
wherever a mad, innocent spirit goes after a life of labor.
they must sort
out who gets what from their cramped home. All the trifles in the
attic, religious paintings, cereal bowls, jellybags that held
abandoned kittens, clothesline clips, and whatever garden implements
standing upright like palace guards in the shed must go. No longer
would Fozzy Bear fall into the arms of a giddy Tony; Sean would not
dance to The Talking Heads in his room; their father, Johnny, would
not catch Martin’s inebriated friend relieving himself on the
radiator in the cover of night and exclaim, “Breeda! There’s
a little old lady stealing the laundry!”; Linda would not lean
over the kitchen table gradually eating her one biscuit while the
others had to sit back like bulldogs chained to a post, regretting
their rash consumption of a rare treat; the armchair would no longer
reside in its hastily fixed position after Martin had chased Deirdre
down the street begging her not to go to America; Ged would not stand
outside smoking with Rita and their father; no longer would the
center hold. Now they sell the past.
is the routine of disemboweling an old house after both parents have
I lament more over my everlasting memory of Breeda than the
implications of her death. I don’t know about those yet. As
such, the past will reveal itself when I am old enough to comprehend
it, long after I can form a concrete memory of what was happening at
memory, an episode in a series lost to childhood’s haze, will
remain and transform with each passing year:
vacation was a sublime, blustery hiatus from the mild pressures of
fourth grade. On the floor of our TV room, I sat on my ankles and set
up an American Girl tea set with Felicity and Elizabeth—the
colonial America-era characters. I brushed back Felicity’s
auburn curls and readjusted Elizabeth’s cubic zirconium stud
while both vapidly stared straight ahead, mouths stuck in that giddy
half-smile all American Girl dolls wear so well. The mock-rosewood
table and chairs in the illuminating gray light created a picturesque
scene in which to begin an imaginary tea party. Empty cups, a teapot
filled to the brim with game tokens for the arcade at the local
skating rink, and a dusty-rose colored milk jug that could hang on my
pinky finger were set down with definitive thuds, as though I knew
what a tea party looked like. As though I had extensive experience
with afternoon teas beyond “Merry Un-birthdays” dancing
across a screen.
I was a committed tomboy, so this was more of an attempt to play with
the tea set for the first time in months than a routine activity.
Similar to my real-life interactions with girls in general, I could
not relate in any way to dollies aside from the fact that I envied
how pristine and well-kept they were—the shining eyes, taut
outfits, baby-sized shoes they never outgrew—and used this
admiration as my gateway to social leverage in the reindeer games of
in a corner reserved for nonsense did I hear my parents bickering as
Breeda eased herself onto the forest-green sofa.
you wouldn’t get me and Breeda some tea?” was my father’s
default request the second my mother sat down.
couldn’t you ask me downstairs?”
asking you now.”
mother laughed, irritated, asked Breeda how she took her tea, then
went downstairs. Relieved, my father commandeered the remote and
flicked on Antiques
his mother of how fascinating it was while I retreated further into
my forced playtime to avoid the ensuing ennui that program never
fails to inflict. It’s basically a trade show, and even though
I tried to make it entertaining by guessing the estimated prices of
the various objects people presented, I might as well have been
standing outside watching the rain weather away the boulders lining
played the price-guessing game as my mother ascended the stairs with
two mugs of chamomile tea.
Mick.” No response.
up the table, Mick!” she shook me out of my head. I pulled out
the collapsible tray table and set it up alongside the couch. As my
father proceeded to sip his tea and flick through channels during the
ads, I could feel a gaze drift over me every few minutes, hindering
my immersion into pretend play.
those…is that yours over there?” Breeda whimpered.
my American Girl dolls. They’re having a tea party. I just felt
like setting it up today you know?”
response, so I continued.
a full tea set and everything--”
would you look at that! The little mugs and teapots!” Her voice
had somehow risen in pitch, like a child’s. She ignored her own
mug of tea and pointed, signaling with her hand as if to ask, “can
I play?” Her grin was that of a blooming pansy, illuminating
the room, the earth, with its beauty. I watched as the
seventy-something woman glided to her knees, level with the table,
and shuffled over to get a closer look. “Oh they’re
lovely little dollies…why, I…”
and not the patron saint of sharing, I asked, “Are you going to
play with them, Granny?”
the chairs! The little milk pitcher…what’s supposed to
be in here? Oh, sugar! So beautiful. Lovely, lovely, lovely.”
if in a dream, she picked up each item and examined it. I would like
to believe her eyes welled up somewhat. She was uncovering a treasure
in the plainest of settings, on a lazy day during the sunset of her
years. Outside, I could see the clouds parting a little to form small
spotlights dancing around our patio, I panned down again to the woman
tinkering with toys, overcome with indelible joy.
took me a few years to understand quite why that memory lingered
above all else. In time, I may faintly recall her patching up my knee
when I was five, and eating breakfast in her little kitchen in
Ballsgrove, but nothing more.
month or so after receiving the news, I lie down to rest in Aunt
Deirdre’s plush guest bed she has prepared for me. The day’s
activities have drained me of any energy to read a book, so I take
her up on her offer to tell me a story. She hops on the spongy
comforter to my right and lightly scratches my back, beginning with a
smile, but soon her words take on more and more weight:
is a story of a girl a little older than you. She grew up on a farm
in Ireland way, way back, in the early decades of the 1900s. And
every day she would put on a dress, ride her bike to school, and do
chores when she got home. From her first year to the age of eleven,
she rode for a few miles to school, which she absolutely loved. But
remember, she grew up in a different time, in the 30s and 40s. She
didn’t have any of the sorts of things you’d enjoy, like
dolls or TV, and attending school was a privilege. However, when she
was eleven, she had to leave school to begin working in a factory.
Every day she cycled five miles there and five miles home, where she
would spend the evenings caring for her younger siblings. Imagine
leaving something you yourself are so used to, like school, for the
real world. She didn’t get a full education, because work took
story went on to describe how the girl worked, grew up, and the long
story of how she came to fall in love with Johnny, her future
husband. Breeda had work, a family, and a childhood cut short for
others. She had no dolls.
had seven children and a house.
house we sold.
I still did not cry.
Michaela Brady has
a persistent interest in creative writing, especially imperfect and
distressed characters. An NYC native, she studied creative writing,
media history and social psychology at Sarah Lawrence College. She
then completed a master’s degree in the social science of the
Internet at Oxford University in 2018, where she focused on
cyberbullying and mental illness online. Although her public policy
consultancy job demands a lot of time and mental space, she makes
sure there is always time to write, and time to watch the
inexhaustible variety of people making their way through their days.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher