Short Story about an Irish Immigrant to America
Who was our paternal grandfather?
Christened Kevin Pierce Craigavon, his date and place of birth remained uncertain, even to him undoubtedly. Birth records at that time, if kept at all, were vague and haphazard. Literacy was rare in Ireland then. Word has it that my Papa Craigavon never learned to read or write, beyond his signature.
The ship SS Germanic
Escaping Ireland due to a charge of poaching
Family lore held he had fled Ireland due to an accusation of game poaching. Some glint of luck allowed him to sail, in 1903, on the ship SS Germanic, routed to New York. Once having landed there, as so many immigrants did then, he boarded a steamship to Boston harbor.
First years in Boston
Once there, by then in his late twenties, he took a job as a coal deliverer for a local business. The pittance he was paid allowed him to subsist without the need to steal; that was enough, at least as a beginning-besides, he had few choices in a place where signs on doors of nearly every shop and factory read, “Irish need not apply.”
Coal being delivered via horse and cart
Finding a wife
After some weeks, he noticed a young woman wearing a maid's bonnet, scavenging, for bits of coal, and then storing them inside a sack she wore, tied to one shoulder.
It seems few words were needed after that. Courtships were short then; within a month, they two were married.
My Nana Craigavon
This young woman, Theresa Flynn, had also fled Ireland. Her reason had been deep sorrow combined with fear. Apparently, some time in her late teens, shortly after having nursed her mother through her last months of consumption, Theresa was left a few scrawny lambs.
Finding some comfort in caring for them, in two years, with a good deal of toil, she developed and bred them into a fine flock of sheep. She cherished these sheep like those children she hoped one day to have.
In addition, living in an area where most single men were emigrating, she hoped her flock might serve as a kind of dowry.
A flock of sheep: a maidens dowry
One day, when she returned from visiting a friend in the next county, she learned her brother had sold her flock of sheep in order to finance his passage on a ship about to set sail to America. Though he left a promise to send for her as soon as he was settled, she felt certain he would not.
Convinced life nearly anywhere would hold more joy than the future awaiting her if she stayed in Ireland, she persuaded a steamship captain to take her on board as a cleaner and work in exchange for her passage to America. Once in Boston, she worked as a maid until meeting and marrying Kevin Craigavon.
Leaving the fog back in Ireland
Shortly after their marriage, Kevin got a job in one of the growing number of steel mills. As Theresa remained in domestic service, the couple was able to rent a flat on the ground floor of a tenement which housed two other families. Despite its ramshackle shabbiness, Theresa did all she could to make it a home. Hence, having bought a few lengths of cloth, she began, at odd moments when home by herself, to stitch together curtains. She hid this sewing, hoping Kevin would be glad and surprised when he saw the results of her effort.
After some weeks, she hung a cheesecloth curtain, with butterflies embroidered upon it, in the front window. To her absolute shock, when Kevin came back from his work, he tore down her curtain. In response to her tears and reproaches, he said he had vowed to have sunlight wherever he lived. He had left fog, darkness and mist in that Irish bog, where they had all but jailed him for thieving just enough to stay alive. For the rest of his life; he would not lessen the sun rays through any window.
Wifely acceptance of tyranny
Difficult as it was, Teresa understood the need to succumb to Kevin’s insistence. To oppose it with too much vehemence would have been to unman him. She could only gather the cloth from the floor, and in time, cut it to use for diapers for their offspring. Thus, even when the summer afternoon sun pained her eyes as she toiled to shape dough into bread, scrubbed clothes on her washboard and ironed sheets, there could be no curtains.
Indeed, it would be almost twenty years, when their two daughters had beaux, and pleaded they would be disgraced by bare windows, did Kevin concede that curtains might become somewhat acceptable. Having sired daughters, he felt forced to make every effort to secure them husband's “fine, upstanding Irishmen”.
Softer moments between the two
Yet, in his taciturn way, Kevin could be tender. On Sunday Mornings, when Theresa, not needing to keep her hair in its work-a-day bun, let it fall loose and free to fall below her slim shoulders. Seeing her in her cream-colored Sunday dress, Kevin would sometimes take her hand, and clasp it for a moment, then say, “I’m proud to be seen with you, Theresa.”
Then, when their first baby lived only a few hours, they had him baptized Peter. He was buried in the church cemetery, where Kevin carved a small headstone from a large slab of granite. After that, every year on the birthday of their firstborn, Kevin and Theresa would go to the grave and place a few wildflowers on it.
From the steel mill to the streetcar
Finding work in a hostile city
Layoffs in the steel mills were common. Kevin’s work was more-or-less steady during the early years of their marriage. Then came the layoff which showed no indication of ending. Having heard of job openings at the local streetcar company, Kevin walked four miles to the company’s office.
When he stated his name and address, the bespectacled man at the desk said, “We don't take Irish; company rules.” Kevin said, “I don't believe there is any such rule; it’s only YOUR rule.” With that, he turned and walked towards the door. Then, “Come back here, young fellow,” the man said. “I was being a horse’s ass, and I like your gumption. Can you start driving tomorrow?”
Impact of the America entering the First World War in 1917
For a few years, Kevin’s job was secure. Getting up every morning at 5 A.M., he worked until 3 P.M., taking whatever overtime shifts were available.
He and Theresa had four children and were expecting their fifth. Still, though Kevin’s salary was not large, the couple’s thriftiness ensured not even a half-Penny was wasted. Thus, when their landlord offered them an opportunity to buy their flat, they were able to do so. Then, a year or so later, the countries entry into the Great War caused a downturn in passenger transport. The streetcar company was forced to lay off some of its most steadfast employees-Kevin among them.
Traditional cobbler repairing shoes
Becoming a cobbler
Though Kevin took what jobs he could find, digging gardens, painting houses, building wooden coal sheds, even those grew far sparser. Theresa took in work sewing and laundering, but her body, after continuous child-bearing, tired quickly. Meanwhile, their children’s hand-me-downs became ever more threadbare.
Walking about one late afternoon, Kevin saw a faded sign which read, “Ben’s Shoe repair and sales.” Inside sat a man at a stitching machine, making a half-hearted effort to mend a shoe far beyond any hope of repair. Feeling foolish but having nothing to lose, Kevin asked, “Begging your pardon, but might you be thinking of hiring someone?”
The man gave a joyless laugh as he switched off the machine and said, “You have got to be joking.”
Still, Kevin persisted, assuring Ben he had been trained by his dad, his county’s most sought-after cobbler. As to sales, he, Kevin, could sell the moon and stars to the sun, and then buy them back again. Somehow, this man Kevin would later come to know as Ben Thorpe was persuaded to hire him, strictly on a commission basis, meaning his week’s pay might often be nil.
Friendship borne of respect
True, there were weeks when Kevin could bring home nothing. Still, the pittance he earned was enough to keep the family in their home, and safe from the worst horrors haunting those war years. Then, when conditions improved nationwide, Kevin was asked to return to his job as a streetcar driver.
On his final day at Ben’s shop, he admitted to Ben that when he had asked for the job, he had barely known his left foot from his right foot, while his skill at the stitching machine had been nonexistent.
“I knew that, Kevin,” Ben said. “And I almost ordered you out of my shop. But when you stayed, I saw a man prepared to have his fingers and feet frostbitten if that was what he needed to do in order to look after his Mrs. and kids.”
The two men shook hands, both near tears.
Ben Thorpe was godfather to the Craigavon’s sixth child, who would later become my dad. Until then, Kevin and Theresa had named all their children in honor of Catholic apostles and saints. They never inquired into whether or not there had been a saint Benjamin.
My dad’s recollections
At this point, the narrative becomes fragmented, viewed in separate ways by the seven Craigavon children, constituting five boys and two girls. Naturally, my sense of their developing years springs almost wholly from my father’s perspective. As a child, I delighted in climbing up onto his lap and listening to stories about their childhood. Some of these he doubtless made up, as my brother or I might urge, “Tell us one about Uncle Don or Auntie Bernie.
Still, one fact was repeated, too authentic to have been invented. Papa Craigavon, as I would come to call him, did all he could to conceal his lack of ability to read or write. Determined his children would find civil service or office jobs, if any of them slacked off at school, his warning would be,
“If you keep on with your idle ways, one day you'll wind up like Tapper Malloy, with your ass against the bandstand.”
Who Tapper Malloy was, or whether Papa Craigavon even knew, was of no relevance. Perhaps every family has its own version of Tapper, brought forth when parents sense a warning is needed.
Silence at the supper table
One truth we found shocking was that, during their evening meal, called “supper”, none of the children were allowed to speak, unless necessitated by something as crucial as choking on a fish-bone, or worse, knocking over Kevin’s glass of rye. As an adult, I can understand that, after laboring through a tedious day of, driving a streetcar, he would have felt too cross to endure the chatter of seven rumbustious children.
Although one of many drivers at work once ensconced in his home, he became a potentate. Perhaps this went some way towards balancing the sense of being a peon in a corporate structure where those with the roughest, most hazardous jobs were at the lowest end of the pay scale. At any rate, his arrival at home sank his family into serfdom.
In addition to cutting his meat, Theresa would, when serving corn on the Cobb, chop each kernel from the Cobb before serving it to him. After a glass or two of Guinness or rye, he might berate her, with little restraint as to language or tone, for some slightly over-baked bread, or her failure to have a freshly filled pipe at the ready upon his homecoming.
The results of unfair parental treatment
As to discipline, Kevin divided it along gender lines; he would whip the boys if mischief occurred, leaving punishment of the girls to Theresa. Not surprisingly, with five boys, the occasional baseball would crash through the glass of a window, or a neighbor might report the boys’ stealing apples.
It may have been due to my dad’s being the quickest to move, combined with his tendency to smile a lot which meant when a culprit was needed and none of my dad’s brothers stepped forth, my dad was the one lashed.
Even during his later years, my Dad, on occasion, voiced hurt at always having been the whipping boy for the rest. Writing of it now, I feel saddened to think of both my dad’s pain and its source of injustice.
From my own vantage point
For my part, I found Papa Craigavon remote, almost daunting. Indeed, during one Saturday afternoon, when some of his grown sons, having drained a few beers, began a pretended boxing match, one shout from him turned what was denoted the living- room into a sanctum of silence, akin, I imagined, to the kitchen of their boyhood suppers.
My contact with him, and to a lesser degree with Nana, was somewhat formal. My name, Janine, he changed to “Pauline.” Still, I fared better than my sister Monica, who he called “Harmonica” This was not so much a lack of respect as a reflection of his transforming our names into what he thought they should be. Nana did as he did, so in time it became habitual. My sister and I both sensed it would have been wrong to correct them. Besides, in the over-all sense, how much did it matter?
A definite distance
Our branch of the family was never close to Papa and Nana Craigavon. Initially, this seems to have sprung from my dad’s flouting of the family taboo: all spouses of their offspring must be of Irish descent. Despite the fact that they both had felt compelled to flee Ireland, their sense of being Irish lay at the core of their souls; they would, or perhaps could not disavow it.
Thus, a quiet estrangement began when my dad, during World War 2, met and married a lovely young Frenchwoman, my mom. This, combined with our living across the city, meant our visits were largely on holidays such as Christmas and Easter. My brother and I viewed the Craigavon’s as quaint in that they always referred to their refrigerator as an icebox, and the TV listings section of the newspaper as the radio news
Papa Craigavon’s passing
The last time I saw Papa Craigavon alive was at my high school graduation party. In fact, he probably should not have been there. He looked pale, and somehow I saw deep wrinkles I had not noticed before, although I had seen him at Easter. For that day though, having been accepted into a good university and recently met a young man I believed might prove my ultimate love, I thought of nothing more than to dance, toast myself and us with champagne, and revel in our shared sense of unending vibrancy.
Still, politeness mandated my walking up to every guest, thanking each for having come, and for whatever gift they had given. Hence, I left my beau to chat with others while I, by myself, did the requisite thanking. When I reached my Craigavon grandparents, Nana and I touched cheeks. Papa tried to stand, then sat down again with a suddenness which jarred me from my Olympian pride long enough to say,
“Are you OK, Papa Craigavon?”
“Very good as always,” he said, his response to any such inquiry. He tried to stand up again, but, to prevent him from doing so; I gripped his hand in a way which urged him to stay secure in his chair. He pressed my hand, then said, “You’ve grown up to be a fine girl, Pauline.”
“Thank you, Papa Craigavon,” I said. “I’m so happy you and Nana are here. . .”
Papa Craigavon held my hand a bit longer. Although the June day was warm, his hand felt unnervingly chilly. For a second I thought, “The coldness of death”, then chided myself for what were, no doubt, literary pretensions. Then, sauntering back towards my boyfriend, we continued our dancing.
The Gravestone of Kevin Pierce Craigavon
I had taken a summer course at my university, ostensibly to immerse myself in learning, but in truth, to have fun, for the first time beyond Mom and Dad’s supervision. Then, during the final week of the course, my Mom phoned to tell me Papa Craigavon had died. I went home for the final viewing and funeral. By then my beloved and I were at odds, so he did not come with me.
At the funeral home, some relatives kissed his cheek or his forehead. When my dad suggested I join them, I drew back a little. I had never touched a dead body before, much less kissed one’s face. Instead, I leaned forward and touched Papa’s hand. It felt deeply veined, yet well-muscled and strong; he was still Papa Craigavon.
Then, I turned towards Nana. She sat alone, dry-eyed in her dignity, fingers moving reflexively over the rosary beads which lay on her lap, her lips murmuring words I hoped and felt sure would bring her some comfort. Uncertain what to say, I bent down, kissed her cheek and said, “I’m sad Papa died, Nana.” Looking up at me, she said, “He was a good man, Pauline.” I replied, “Yes, I know he was, Nana.”
In saying those words, I knew they were true. Yes, he had raged, browbeaten, often been ruthless. Still, in his own honest sense, he had been a fine, upstanding husband, father, grandfather and Irishman.
© 2014 Colleen Swan