Michaela Brady

© Copyright 2020 by Michaela Brady

Photo of Breeda and Michaela.

This 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 it.

Breeda 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.

The 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.

Now 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.

Such is the routine of disemboweling an old house after both parents have gone.

But 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 the time.

This memory, an episode in a series lost to childhood’s haze, will remain and transform with each passing year:

Christmas 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.

Unfortunately, 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 other nine-year-olds.

Only in a corner reserved for nonsense did I hear my parents bickering as Breeda eased herself onto the forest-green sofa.

Sue, you wouldn’t get me and Breeda some tea?” was my father’s default request the second my mother sat down.

Why couldn’t you ask me downstairs?”

I’m asking you now.”

My mother laughed, irritated, asked Breeda how she took her tea, then went downstairs. Relieved, my father commandeered the remote and flicked on Antiques Roadshow, convincing 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 our patio.

Breeda played the price-guessing game as my mother ascended the stairs with two mugs of chamomile tea.

Mick? Mick.” No response.

Set 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.

Are those…is that yours over there?” Breeda whimpered.

Yeah…they’re my American Girl dolls. They’re having a tea party. I just felt like setting it up today you know?”

No response, so I continued.

It’s a full tea set and everything--”

Oh 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…”

Oblivious, and not the patron saint of sharing, I asked, “Are you going to play with them, Granny?”

And the chairs! The little milk pitcher…what’s supposed to be in here? Oh, sugar! So beautiful. Lovely, lovely, lovely.”

As 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.

It 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.

A 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:

Here 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 its place...

The 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.

She had seven children and a house.

The house we sold.

And 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.

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