‘Letters To My Dead’ is an experiment in writing a fictional blog of remembrance to paint a portrait of a man approaching the end of his life.
The story will be presented as blog posts written by Patrick Donovan in remembrance of his dead and posted each Saturday.
Thank you for dropping by this week.
To those of you who’ve sent me comments, here and on the other sites I’m linked to, thank you. This kind of writing is a lonely business. It’s just me and my ghosts. It’s good to know that there really are readers out there.
It’s also a little odd, making all this public. I’m trying to be honest but I find there’s still an editor in my head saying: ‘You can’t share that. It’s not right and it’s not necessary’. I could silence the editor and do a ‘Patrick Donovan Tells All’ set of posts but I’m not that kind of person. One of you said that you thought I’d held something back about Declan in my last post. You were right of course. I grew up in a family where the most important truths were shared silently because speaking them would alter them. So, I’ve been thinking about what I should and shouldn’t share and I’ve come up with three rules:
- I won’t make things up that didn’t happen.
- I won’t edit my emotions to make them prettier or make me look better.
- My Letters will be written so that the person I’m writing them to would recognise them as honest and know what they meant.
That’s the best that I can do. I think it’s enough to make writing Letters To My Dead worthwhile. I hope that works for you, my reader, too.
Anyway, I promised something a little more upbeat this week and said that I would write about Bridget. Thinking of Bridget always makes me smile, so I just assumed that my letter to her would be a fun one. Nothing’s ever that simple though, is it? Reeling in my memories of her brought a lot of other things to the surface too. Bridget remains a set of joyful memories for me but recalling them has made me more aware of the dark background that she shone against.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand how quickly our history evaporates, either disappearing altogether or leaving only a grainy residue behind. I’m only seventy-two and already the world of my childhood feels like barely plausible historical fiction. I know that I used chalk and a slate when I first went to school but even I find it hard to believe. For you to understand Bridget, I need to take you further back than that, to the start of the Second World War, when Operation Pied Piper imploded my mother’s family.
Launched in 1939, Operation Pied Piper was a well-intentioned, poorly-executed, barely-funded scheme that evacuated millions of children of school age from the big cities to the countryside to keep them safe from falling bombs.
My mother, Kathleen Byrne, was the oldest daughter of a family of six children, living on Scotland Road, Liverpool in what no one then called an Irish Catholic ghetto. In 1939, she was thirteen years old, in her final year at school. She ought to have been evacuated, along with her three younger brothers, Thomas aged twelve, Joseph aged ten and Francis aged eight, but my grandmother kept her behind to help look after two-year-old Bridget. Bridget had arrived as a surprise to everyone, especially my grandmother, four years after it was assumed that the Byrne family was complete.
So, the Bryne family was split in two. My mother, her older brother John, who, at fifteen was already working with his father as a carter on the docks, and baby Bridget stayed at home. Thomas, Joseph and Francis were shipped off to Wales.
No one expected them to be away for six years. Nor did they expect the three brothers to be separated. When they came back, the family learned that although Joseph and Francis had billets where the people were kind to them, so much so that Francis was reluctant to come home, Thomas was treated cruelly, ran away repeatedly and was moved unhappily from billet to billet.
Why didn’t my grandmother bring them home? She could have done. She was one of those small but fierce Irish women that always got her way. She left them in Wales because, in the Christmas Blitz of December 1940, her eldest son, John, aged sixteen, was killed when the bomb shelter he took refuge in suffered a direct hit.
My grandmother fell into grief and didn’t climb out again. It fell to my mother to run the household and raise and educate Bridget.
So, although Bridget was my aunt, my mother treated her more like her daughter than her sister.
Chronologically, Bridget sat between my mother and me, eleven years younger than my mother and twelve years older than me. She was always there for both of us, making our lives better.
Now that I’ve introduced you, letter my share my Letter to Bridget.
I’ve missed talking with you. It’s six years already since you died and I still see things and go I bet Bridget would have something to say about that and then I remember that you don’t get to say anything any more except for when your words echo in my head.
You were there my whole life. How can you not be here now?
I’m imagining you sitting opposite me with one eyebrow raised, silently asking me if this pity party has a point. Well, it does. But it’s not pity, it’s joy. I want to remind myself of all the joy you helped me find. I’m not good at joy – yes, I know, I shouldn’t dwell on the obvious – but I was always better at joy when you were around.
The first memory I have of finding out what fun could really be like was when you came to look after me when I was nine. Mum was in hospital ‘resting’ because she was pregnant. At least that’s what I’d been told. I didn’t know that she’d had three miscarriages in a row and she was in hospital because everyone was worried she would have a fourth and that that was why my dad was so tense. I thought he was tense because you and he never got along.
Anyway, I was excited because it was summer, I had no school and my glamorous Aunt Bridget was coming to stay for a few weeks. That was 1958 so you were only twenty-one but to nine-year-old me, you were a grown-up like no other grown-up I knew. You wore those wonderful, brightly-coloured skirts that swung around you when you danced and your hair was fashionably cut and your accent sounded educated and English But the very best thing was that you arrived with a portable record player and so many records you had boxes with handles to carry them all in.
We had a big old radiogram that I wasn’t allowed to touch but most of the records were 78s, heavy, easy to break and boring. The radiogram sat there in the corner like an altar to music that was supposed to be worshipped in silence.
You set up your record player on the floor in the middle of the parlour, like it was nothing special and then we sat on the floor beside it and chose record after record out of your boxes of 45s. It felt like freedom, sitting on that floor, something my mother would have told me off for. She’d have said, We’re not so poor in this house that we don’t have chairs. Use them. You never said things like that.
You had the latest songs and you let me play Great Balls Of Fire and Jailhouse Rock, over and over again until I knew all the words. You played them loud and from time to time you’d drag me to my feet and we’d dance.
I loved that record player. I loved the way it smelled of hot plastic and dust when it warmed up and watching that big heavy arm move the needle into place like magic. It seemed to me that we spent days playing records. I know now that you were distracting me from thinking about my mother and from worrying about my dad’s shortening temper but at the time it felt like there was just you, me and the music.
You stayed a while when mum came back with Declan but we didn’t play records any more. You spent all your time with mum, who wasn’t well and who spent all her time with Declan who never seemed to do anything but scream and shit, often at the same time. I could have felt excluded and jealous but you’d thought ahead and on the day Declan came home. You gave me a present that had me happily sitting in my room out of the way for hours: a portable transistor radio.
I wonder what you thought of me back then. I was so quiet most of the time. You talked almost constantly about everything and I just followed you around like a puppy. I know I never thanked you the way I should have. I hope you know that I wasn’t ungrateful, I was just tongue-tied and in love.
The next image I have of you in my Magic Moments With Bridget photo collage is from a day out to New Brighton. I’d never seen my mother so relaxed as she was with you on the seafront that day. She even broke her own rule about eating in public and let us all eat our Mr Whippy ice-creams as we walked along. The two of you walked together ahead of Declan and me in the sunshine, hair and skirts being lifted by the breeze of the Irish sea. I was fifteen and obsessed with taking pictures with my second-hand Kodak Colorsnap 35. I took a photo, like the one at the top of this post but not nearly so arty, of the two of you sitting on the railings. I’d never seen my mother sit anywhere but a bench.
We spent the day on the beach with Declan digging ditches in the sand and me trying to get the perfect picture of a seagull in flight.
That day felt like a gift from you, my Auntie Bridget. You were a fairy godmother figure who I loved but could never imagine being friends with because you were so much older than me and always would be. I was fifteen so I was allowed to think stupid stuff like that.
You saw it differently and you changed our relationship six years later when you came up to Manchester for my graduation.
My parents didn’t come. My mother was ill and my dad and I were fighting at the time. You came up to help me celebrate. I thought you were going to take me out for a meal, That was the kind of thing that Aunties did. You took me to a curry house where we did as much drinking as eating and I had the first really adult conversation of my life.
I should have paid more attention to that statement.
When we were both drunk enough, you asked me if I had a girlfriend. I offered an embarrassed No, Then you asked if I’d ever had a girlfriend. I got a bit indignant and said that I’d been studying computer science with a bunch of guys who preferred talking to machines than to people and that I never saw a girl. I told you that I wanted a girlfriend but hadn’t managed it yet.
There was a pause of a second or two that I should also have paid more attention to and you said you were the same at my age. I laughed and said, ‘What, a virgin who lusted after girls you couldn’t have?. You looked me in the eyes, raised your glass and said, Yes, that summarises it perfectly.
I was still struggling to process that when you raised an eyebrow and asked me, Have you ever wondered why I haven’t married, Patrick?. I hadn’t but my father had. He’d put it down to Bridget having too good a time and said her clock was ticking and she should get on with it. Now I knew why my mother had always looked at my father with bemusement rather than anger when he said these things.
Maybe it was my silence or your worry or not enough alcohol but when you asked me Do you have any questions, Patrick? Comments perhaps? your voice sounded a little harder.
For once in my life, my drunken brain stumbled down the right path. I asked, Do you have a girlfriend now?
You said, She’s a woman, not a girl, Patrick but yes.
You still sounded a little uncertain. I wasn’t used to that from you.
Inspired, I broke the tension by asking what turned out to be exactly the right question: Can I meet her?
I know I’m going on a bit here but I have a lifetime of memories of you and they’re all shouting for my attention.
I’m going to allow myself to revive one more memory, one more thing that made me love you. It was what you did for my mother after my father died.
It was 1991. My wife and I were living in Germany by then, following my job around the world. Declan and his young family were living in London. We’d all come home for the funeral but we’d all have to leave again and my sixty-five-year-old mother would be alone for the first time in her life.
Then you packed up your life and moved in with my mother. You were still together when she died five years later. My mother never talked about it. Took it as if it was an entirely normal thing to do. It didn’t feel normal to me and at first, it made me feel guilty because I felt I was failing my mother by being so far away and I was failing you by making you re-shape your life to pick up the slack.
I shared this with you when we went for a walk, the day before I was due to head back to Germany after the funeral.
You laughed, which startled me so much that I stopped walking.
You’ve grown so serious, Patrick. Lighten up. Not everything is about you. This is about who your mother is to me. Did she ever tell you that she almost didn’t get married because of me or that I almost ruined her marriage before it got started? Of course she didn’t. Kathleen never talks about the things that matter to the people who matter.
The panicked thoughts I was having must have shown on my face because you said, Don’t worry Patrick, I’m not going to tell you that I’m really your older sister. Your mother didn’t give birth to me when she was twelve. Let me educate you.
And that’s how I learned a family story that explained so much and which no one had thought to share.
Here’s the story as I remember you telling it to me
‘I was nine when the brothers I’d never met came back from Wales. I wasn’t happy to see them. They were noisy and they made the flat we lived in crowded. Kathleen tried to welcome them home and rebuild the family but the boys treated the place as a rent-free boarding house while they looked for work or planned to move away. Your mother became the unpaid housekeeper for brothers she barely knew. She met your father in the autumn of 1947 and by the end of the year, he’d asked her to marry him.
I can see now that your father offered Kathleen an escape that she desperately wanted to take. She’d get away from Liverpool across the water to Birkenhead. She was twenty-two and keen to start a family of her own. I was eleven. Kathleen refused to leave me behind.
Your father was a stubborn man and, even at twenty-six, he was a connected one. He was a shop steward at Cammell Laird’s and an active member of the Knights Of Saint Columba. Today we’d say he worked his network. Back then it was called having a quiet word with the powers that be.
He started with my mother’s Parish Priest, who was instructing them for their marriage and worked his way up until he’d gotten me a place at Bellerive Catholic Convent School for girls. Your father always felt that he was the one that made all this happen but I had a hand in it too. I was bright and I interviewed so well that the school was keen to take me. I count that as your mother’s doing. She taught me to read and write and always told me I could do anything if I put my mind to it.
Bellerive was important, not because it made me a Convent School Girl (ah, the irony of that) but because it was going to become a boarding school again in 1948 and I’d be able to live there but, for the first year of their marriage, your father, Kathleen and I lived together. I was the price Kathleen made your father pay for marrying her. He and I have been competing for her love ever since. And now he’s gone and my place is here.’
I remember that phrase, ‘My place is here’, said with love and certainty and a little bit of challenge and I envied you for it.
Of course, with you, there was always more and I never got all of it the first time around. My wife pointed out, when I shared the story with her, that you’d done a wonderful job in releasing me from guilt about my mother that I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about but which would still have made me miserable.
Anyway, Bridget, I have to go. I won’t let you go though. You’ll be bright in my memory until it dies with me.
Well, Reader, I hope you made it to the end of all that. I apologise for the length but my mind is full of memories of Bridget. Other than my wife, I she’s the person I miss most.
She died in 2016. She was seventy-nine and she’d packed everyone of her years with life.
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