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John Wooding’s Hospital Job in the ’70s Was Like Hospital Work Today–Often Unseen

John Wooding of Medford, Mass., is professor emeritus in political science at UMass Lowell and the former provost on campus. His next book is a biography of Richard Gregg, champion of nonviolent practice and the philosophy of simplicity. The book is due from Loom Press this fall. He is an occasional contributor to our blog. We look forward to more regular contributions.–PM

The Ladies of Central Sterile Supply

By John Wooding

So, we have finally realized that a functioning health care system is critical—and that those who work in it are heroes. As the world falls apart, and we begin to focus on the need to protect and honor our medical workers, some switch flipped in my head and I got to thinking about a job I had in England, some forty-odd years ago.

Great Ormand Street Hospital (Web photo by Nigel Cox, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5364709

It was the mid-1970s and I was fresh out of college, looking for work along with the then millions of unemployed in England during that depressing decade. But I was lucky, landing a job as a delivery driver at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in central London. While this was not precisely the occupation a newly minted graduate, anxious to join the middle classes, hoped for, it turned out to be a blessing. I had mostly forgotten about it until now.

The Children’s Hospital is spitting distance from Bloomsbury Square, home to England’s twentieth-century’s intelligentsia, and the likes of Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and all that lot. I used to think about these luminaries as the Number 19 double-decker took me from Finsbury Park, where I lived, down through Islington to the Square and on to Great Ormond Street. On foggy mornings, I’d be on my second cigarette, sitting “upstairs,” staring out of a rain-soaked window and thinking about the usually crappy day ahead. The working life. I used to wonder whether the author of Mrs. Dalloway had ever taken the bus.

I worked in the Central Sterile Supply Department (CSSD). I still have the ID badge they gave me. This was where equipment was packed and sterilized for use by the nurses and doctors, and the little patients above. Folks like me didn’t go in the main entrance but went around the back, next to the loading dock where the white van I drove spent nighttime hours. A door just to the side of the dock took you into a tunnel and the dark places, the basement warren of the hospital. In the tunnel the steam pipes and cables hung from the ceiling and showed the way. I can still see the asbestos-wrapped conduits with the word “STEAM” and an arrow stenciled on the side and the string of buzzing fluorescents that made pathetic efforts to light the way. A short walk under stalactites of hangers and rusty bolts, past the main boiler room, got you to the door of the cleanroom of CSSD, my workplace. Someone told me later that the gigantic boiler had been sitting there, doing its thing, since the end of the last century. It sure looked that way to me. The basement of the hospital, honest to god, was like being in the bowels of the Titanic. People who work in white-collar jobs rarely see the underbelly of the buildings they are in or the people who labor there, and I am pretty sure that was true for the passengers on the Titanic, too. But the cleanroom was as bright and spotless as the tunnels were dirty and dark. I still remember the feeling of relief on opening that door, like getting into a warm car on a frigid evening.

Mostly the job meant pushing a cart that was probably older than the boiler, loaded with supplies, back and forth along the subterranean path from the CSSD to the loading dock. My task was resupplying the wards and hospitals with medical equipment. Every morning I would take the ancient elevator up the floors of the old building, put supplies in a small room of each ward, check out the cute nurses, and pick up bags of used equipment. In the afternoons, I would head out across the city to the two other hospitals in the group to do the same thing. That was the best part. I liked driving the streets of London and getting out in the air. The van I drove had a blue light for emergencies. I only used it a couple of times to get through traffic, so I could get to my favorite fish ‘n chip shop before it closed. I still feel a little guilty about that.

The original hospital building was old. It was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, by a Dr. Charles West, specifically for the care of children. Dr. West was a personal friend of Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria—connections help—and it quickly became one of the leading children’s hospitals in the world. In the 1920s, JM Barrie signed over the rights to Peter Pan to the hospital, providing it with a pretty substantial and constant source of funding. By the time I got to grace its doors, it had long been part of the NHS and is still recognized as one of the best hospitals for kids in the world. I knew none of this at the time. This was a job.

On Saturdays, I would work in the main building only, collecting incubators and bringing them downstairs. Saturdays were great, I got paid time-and-half (we were all in the union), and the incubators were cool. I was a little bit in awe of these wombs on wheels, seeing as they had held babies who were tiny, sick, or weak. The tubes and gauges that snaked into the transparent plastic canopy had to be cleaned and disassembled. The whole unit had to be disinfected and put back together with care, a job I was eventually entrusted to do. I felt like a doctor.

But it was the cleanroom of Central Sterile Supply that was my base and my home. It gleamed with stainless steel counters and cabinets, like an operating theater. Spaced around the room three or four autoclaves sat looking smug and intimidating. They were huge, like the base of an Atlas booster rocket, festooned with gauges and serious-looking handles and knobs. These babies “cooked” equipment in super-hot high-pressure steam.  They hissed and puffed throughout the day, tended by the five women who worked on sorting and sterilizing the medical equipment. I remember these ladies (they always referred to themselves in this way) better than anything else about the job. They were all from somewhere in the West Indies, and, for this lad from the Midlands, they were terribly exotic. They called me “honey-child,” which absolutely delighted me. They would sing reggae together as they worked, especially on the Saturday shift, when everything was a little bit different, a bit more like a party. They taught me much more than I realized at the time. The ladies were led by Mrs. Robertson, who was never called by her first name, although I think it was Elsie. Not that anyone one ever dared use it. She was a bit stern and a little scary and always immaculately dressed. I think, though I may be wrong, that she was from Jamaica.

One Friday, payday, we all picked up our wages at the bursar’s office and collected our little brown envelopes full of cash (yes, in those days, we were paid in cash), and headed to the pub for lunch. Somehow or other I lost my envelope on the way. A week’s wages! I was devastated.  The rent was due for the little-more-than-a-slum flat I shared with four others, and getting the money together for that was always a challenge. Damn near impossible when you had been stupid enough to lose your wage packet. Worse yet, no money meant a struggle to find the shillings for the electric meter so we had lights and the scant comfort of the one-bar electric fire that pretended to heat the living room. That was a rough weekend.

Dragging myself to work the next Monday, I wondered how I was going to make it through. When I got back to the clean room with my bags of used medical equipment that day, Mrs. Robertson pulled me aside and gave me a small parcel. “This is for you, honey-child,” she said, with a rare smile. The room went quiet, the ladies had stopped working for a moment, and were looking at me as I opened the package. Inside were forty pound notes held together by a piece of tape. I remembered looking up, puzzled. Mrs. Robertson grabbed my hand and whispered, “We had a whip-round, couldn’t let you starve.”

Writing this now, I still get choked up. Six hard-working women, who had come to England in the 60s from a much warmer place, and who did their job with quiet professionalism, had jointly made up the lost wages of the young white lad who worked with them. I don’t recall what I said to thank them, probably some mumbled dumb thing like “Thank you.” I do remember I was embarrassed and close to tears. Even then, I knew this was an enormous sacrifice for them. None of us working there made much money. I did know that many had families (I’d seen pictures of some of their kids), so giving away their money had to have hurt. But I remember this act of kindness was done without fanfare or pretense, Mrs. Robertson just said, “This is what we do.” The other ladies simply smiled and turned back to work.

I worked there for about a year. In addition to the wonderful women in CSSD, I also got to know the utterly dedicated nurses upstairs and the blokes who did building maintenance. These were the men who kept the old boiler running, made sure the oxygen supply got to the wards, and that the plumbing functioned. We used to gather when we were on break, sitting on a couple of old couches near the ancient steam pipes on the cold mornings, dunking our biscuits in mugs of tea and complaining about the government.

Although the job was hard and tedious (I did the same thing almost every day), it was the folks in the basement who made it worthwhile. And I think that we felt a kind of purpose, supporting the doctors and nurses upstairs because we were all part of looking after really ill kids. Can’t knock that. This sense of a common goal hit me hard when, occasionally, I made a few deliveries to the “Sunshine Home,” an old mansion that was a few miles out of London. It was the place they sent the terminally ill kids. Those trips always tore me up.

After about a year doing this, I quit. I was planning on going to America, and I left all the ladies behind, together with the lads down in maintenance. I rarely thought of them or the work again. But COVID-19 has finally woke all of us up, and we realize not only how fragile life is but also how dependent we are on ordinary, decent people doing their jobs. Across the world, there are many, many thousands of workers (often immigrants) who are packing and sorting and cleaning and looking after each other. They keep our hospitals running. They are there, in the basements, holding up the floors above, making sure that the institutions we rely upon for our survival continue to function. I thank and honor them all, especially the ladies of Central Sterile Supply. I, for one, will not forget them again.

Marie Sweeney’s Childhood Illness & Social Distancing in the ’50s

Remembering My Illness-Caused Separation, a Semi-Social Distancing

By Marie Sweeney (March 25, 2020)

Marie Sweeney, photograph by Kevin Harkins

THIS MORNING A TWEET from Dan Rather took me way back in time to Spring 1953. I was in the fifth grade—in Sister Mildred’s class—a double-grade that included some sixth graders as well. In fact, brothers Billy and Joe Sweeney were my classmates as were Leo White, Larry Wheeler, Joyce Collins, Joey Burns, and so many others. I was ten years old. I walked to the Sacred Heart School every school day from 99 Seneca Street where we lived just at the edge of a cluster of Veterans housing. As we got to Stromquist Avenue, our walker group grew with the Borst twins, the Kokinos brothers, the Slavins, and probably some Faddens, perhaps a Collins or Sheedy. Ma, Dad, me, brother Jimmy who was eight years old, Billy who was just six, and Agnes, three years old, and at that time my maternal grandmother, Tillie Deignan, lived in that recently constructed housing, a two-story end unit across from a fenced yard with two resident peacocks.

Dad was a breadman for Nissen who had an early time-call with Diamond Taxi—a cab picked him up sometime after 4 a.m. and took him to the Strand Garage on Market Street where he would load his truck with bread and other baked goods which came via trailer truck from the JJ Nissen Baking Co. in Maine. He was getting ready for his daily delivery route. Funny that his route was familiar stomping grounds, including all the variety stores/markets in the Grove, Swede Village, the Flats, Back Central area, lower Highlands and more—Quealey’s, the Stolpyne Market (Ed LeLacheur), McNamara’s Market, Nichols’ Variety (owned by Bill Martin’s grandparents), Joe Bigos’ Variety, the old Demoulas store, and even a store owned by Zenny Sperounis’ dad. Then Dad was up and out early to drop off his goods even before the stores opened. He would stop for a breakfast at one of his many favorite diners or lunch carts and then retrace his drive to the now-opened stores to load up the bread racks and shoot the breeze a bit with the proprietor or clerk as they checked the receipt of good delivered. A favorite stop was Quealey’s store at Lenox and South Whipple streets where owner Dave, Sr. held court! Dad was very outgoing, a natural salesman, and very well-liked. By the way, he could add a string of numbers faster than an adding machine!

Note: We had no car. We rode on the Eastern Mass. bus or walked or we got a ride or went for a ride with either our Aunt Pat Deignan or Uncle Bobby Deignan, especially when Nana lived with us. I remember a bus driver strike during this time.

In those days Ma was a homemaker, but she worked part-time and later full-time over the years. Trained as a bookkeeper, she was a skilled cook and baker, at one time a pastry “chef” at Manning Manse and for 25 years a bookkeeper for two nursing homes. In the early 1950s, she was at home— Agnes was a toddler—but Ma was very involved in school and parish activities. Dad was also active with the parish, which was his family parish growing-up. His grandfather was a founding parishioner. Nana and Papa Kirwin, our aunt Mary (Auntie Mimi), the great aunts, Jennie and Agnes Kirwin, the Blossom Street Kirwin cousins still lived there. Nana Deignan lived with us for about a year or so, and perhaps, it was because of me.

Why this long-narrative? It sets the stage for what happened to me and to all of us. This is the Dan Rather tweet that triggered my memory.

Dan Rather@DanRather

I was bedridden as a child with rheumatic fever. I could hear my parents’ words of worry as they spoke in hushed tones. But to me, they instilled a sense of purpose and hope. A particular inspiration came from a poem that steeled me then, and many moments since: “Invictus.” (it was also a video and he read the poem).

Early in the Spring of 1953, I wasn’t feeling well, was listless, tired. The diagnosis was strep throat. I was put on doses of penicillin. Seemingly okay, I went back to school. Then I remember having a sore toe and not being especially active but more a paper-doll person. I didn’t remember stubbing my toe or falling. My mother was especially close to her aunt Helen Burke Mac Lean, a highly respected nurse. She must have been involved in the situation as I was diagnosed by her good friend Dr. Samuel Dibbins as having rheumatic fever. I never returned to the Sacred Heart School or my classmates*. I can only imagine how my parents, who were only in their very early thirties, reacted.

I have no exact memory of their conversations. I am sure they were whispered or private. I was their eldest child, fairly responsible, and the “leader” of my siblings, the oldest grandchild. Life for my parents and my siblings was upended. The treatment in those days was exact. I spent three weeks in the pediatric section of Lowell General Hospital on a regimen of penicillin and aspirin, on strict bed rest with close watching of my temperature.

When I was allowed home, I was carried upstairs to my prescription of total bed rest, a daily aspirin, and daily, periodic taking of my temperature. It was my job to keep track of the temps in a marble school notebook. I was religious in my temp-taking and recording the results. I look back now and see that it was a way for me to be a participant in my recovery. The deal was one-year in bed or at least at rest, no school, no church, no activity, just a passive passing of time. I was already a reader, but that year made me appreciate my love of reading even more. It saved my life, and changed my life.

I had visitors, not being contagious. Family, of course! One of my stalwart visitors was Bobby McNamara who lived across the way with his parents; his dad Jim worked nearby in St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Although a few years older, he would play cards with me, talk about who knows what. I was ten and he was probably thirteen. He had a quiet, gentle way about him and I like to think that he developed his bedside manner with me before he later went to medical school!

My godmother Rita Deignan Karosas kept me supplied with many books. As a sewer, she made sure I had projects. At some point I was allowed out of bed but could not walk down the stairs. As Dad was gone so early as I described earlier, it was my mother who carried me down the stairs. We did a piggy-back thing most mornings. Dad would do the return trip in the evening.

By the fall of 1953 with sixth grade impending, I was assigned a home-school teacher/tutor by the Lowell Public Schools since I could not return to the Sacred Heart School. Miss Eleanor Carmichael arrived twice weekly by cab and guided by the SHS curriculum and her own experience, she taught me well and thoroughly. I loved her approach, strict but with a velvet glove. Later in the spring of 1954, after we moved to Burnham Road, another tutor finished the year. I don’t remember her name. By the time my bed rest/little-activity prescription was over, they had prepared me to do quite well in the seventh and eighth grades at the Immaculate Conception School. Nana was always there during my schooling. She was also my companion as we watched day-time TV (there was little of it), including the Army-McCarthy hearings in early Spring 1954. She was an active, dedicated Democrat with strong points of view, quite appalled by Joe McCarthy, a Republican but a Catholic. I was eleven years old but used to political discussion and positions. We were a political family, local and state politics.

I shared my room with my grandmother. She was a wonderful, loving, smart woman of great faith and patience. As I think back, she was a role model not only for her Democratic Party activity but also as a founding member and officer in the AOH-Division 46 Auxiliary, and for her love of music and her faithfulness to her church and to her family. Born in 1900, she was a traditional homemaker who got fully dressed every day from foundation, stockings, house-dress, sometimes an apron, house slippers, always coiffed with a lightly powered face. I would watch her morning ritual,  just fascinated. She and my grandfather Jimmy Deignan raised three sons and three daughters. Tillie was widowed in 1948 when her beloved husband of twenty-nine years died of complications of lung surgery. She was very close to her siblings and her parents whom she predeceased, dying so young in 1957 as she succumbed to oral cancer.

I never really spoke with my parents as an adult about how they felt about my illness, about how it was to have a bedridden child, about how it affected my brothers and sister (Patti wasn’t born until 1955). How did they cope? I was one of those kids who listened to adults but conversations from that time about me are a mystery to my memory.

So, to circle back to the Dan Rather Tweet. In a similar circumstance his memory of his parents, that “they instilled a sense of purpose and hope,” resonated with me. My parents and my grandmother were strong, purposeful, and without question sure that if I followed Dr. Sammy Dibbins “prescription” all would be well in time.

*Note: My Sacred Heart School fifth & sixth  dual classmates included Billy and Joe Sweeney, Steve and Jimmy Borst, Larry Wheeler, Leo White, Joey Burns, Richie Avila, Carol Metivier, Jimmy Daley, Leo Tighe, Jerry O’Connor, David Hunt, Arlene Goulet, Judy St. Pierre, Sally Rourke, Mary Alice Mullane, Mikey Cahill, Anne Marie Wilkins, Andy Wolfgang, Ruthanne McFadgen, Judy Roche, Eddie Gillick, Annabelle Birrow, Cecilia Donohue,  Norma Matthews, Marie Sharkey, Joanne Bachelor, Joan Gawlick, David La Salle, Lillian White, Joe Skehan, Patricia “Pappy” Mc Keon, Dottie Moran, Ann Evans, Bernie Kokinos, Jackie Sheehan, Charlie Ryan and more.

Stephen O’Connor: A New Essay

Stephen O’Connor’s new novel is This Is No Time to Quit Drinking: Teacher Burnout and the Irish Powers. 

A House in Carlisle

by Stephen O’Connor

I’ve often asked myself if I am envious of those who can afford to live in Carlisle, or if it is a better place to visit than in which to live. For years, I’ve driven there to walk with my terrier in its expansive natural preserves, Thoreau’s “city of the woods.” On Sunday mornings I get a coffee at the quaint general store where cyclists in brightly colored spandex and streamlined helmets riding five-thousand dollar bicycles stop to buy energy drinks, looking like so many Tour de France contestants. Outside, other Carlilians (if there is such a word) read the Globe or The New York Times at small circular tables, sipping coffee and nibbling croissants beside the bee-laden lilac bushes that border the terrace.

It’s very different from the mill town where I was raised, though it is a mere twenty minutes away by car. The smugness of Carlisle grates somewhat, but I love its colonial graveyards, its meandering stone walls, and the quiet paths that run for miles through woods of pine and oak, past marshlands where the shoreline trees cast a deep shadow line across the near bull rushes, and beyond which they stand like a golden river in the sunlight. Ah, the wealthy inhabit beautiful places. And though their spoken politics are the most egalitarian, and they profess their love for refugees, the poor, and the disadvantaged, I suspect they harbor some fair amount of guilt at the secret truth—they enjoy their “privilege,” and they like their town just the way it is. You’ll certainly never hear a clamor for Section 8 housing near the common.

And that brings me to what is missing in Carlisle and neighboring Concord and all the wealthy enclaves of Massachusetts. There are no ethnic neighborhoods where citizens of all backgrounds are welcome to come in and buy a loaf of Greek bread and some spinach pie, or a Colombian bandeja paisa, or Thai spring rolls. There are no African Festivals or Asian Water Festivals. There is no Semaine Franco Americaine. No Irish pubs or Hindu temples that I know of, and the lack of these things, in spite of all the professed progressive politics, makes the rich town poorer, or at least less interesting. Carlilians, in general, may be better educated than my mill town brethren, but that means I would never meet someone in Carlisle like the old buck I met at the coffee shop this morning who blamed climate change on the astronauts, who, he said, ” . . .have gone up there and fooled around and messed the weather all up.” I would not meet the skinny, heavily-tattooed short order cook who told me he was in the movie, The Fighter, and when I asked him what part he’d played, responded proudly, “They told me I was ‘Drunk Number Four.’”

But what Carlisle does have that my town lacks are those deep woods where ancient moss-faced boulders left by retreating glaciers twelve thousand years ago are strewn across the forest floor, where a deer crosses the leafy path before disappearing with a few high kicking bounds and a flicker of white tail; where the gray-blue egret stands in the shallows as still as an image on a celadon vase. As I grow older, these things became more and more important to me. To be honest, the croissants aren’t bad either.

Here’s an anecdote for you to illustrate my mixed feelings. One day I brought my five-year-old daughter Molly and our dog out to Carlisle while my wife took my son to his soccer game. I was trying to develop a love of nature in my kids, so I often brought them out to the woods. It was a day that made you feel alive—a blue sky painted with fat unmoving clouds. Walking along a path that made a circuit of a cranberry bog and ran into the woods, we encountered a middle-aged woman in full equestrian apparel on horseback. Jake, our schnauzer, nosed the air, but paid little attention to the horse, which had stopped before a wooden bridge that crossed an irrigation stream. The animal did not trust the bridge and ignored its rider’s urgings to proceed. The woman turned and looked over her shoulder at us. I’m sure she felt a bit ridiculous seated on the stubborn motionless quadruped.

“Let him see us crossing the bridge,” I called. Sure enough, once the horse had watched us cross safely, he ventured forward, hooves clopping on the wooden planks.

She thanked us, and Molly began with the hundred questions of the child. “Is that your horse? What’s his name? How old is he? Do you have other horses?”

The woman answered patiently, and we learned that the horse was a mare and her name was Lady. We also learned that the woman lived in Carlisle and had two other horses and a grown daughter who often rode with her. There comes a time when the helpless parent stands by as the child ventures on to the inappropriate inquiry. I cringed at Molly’s next question: “Are you filthy rich?”

I chided my daughter, aware that the woman must have deduced that the little girl had heard the expression from me. The horsewoman was unabashed. “Yes,” she said, “I suppose I am.” A line I had read somewhere came back to me: “He held a glass of wine as though it were his due.” She was the picture of blue-blood complacency in her rounded black helmet with its narrow visor, her prim buttoned jacket, her tan breeches tucked into the well-polished riding boots that rested in silver stirrups. She handled the reins loosely in gloved hands, as—well—she looked down on us. Even the horse she sat astride was a Lady, for God’s sake. Something in the spirit of my dispossessed Irish ancestors made my hackles rise. I imagined those old turf cutters leaning on their loys and spitting as they watched the Lord of the Big House pass their boggy cottages.

It seemed to me that those lords and ladies, those absentee landlords fattened by rack-rents, were her forbears, if not in blood, at least in manners and self-esteem. When a separate path offered itself, we said goodbye and set off along it. That woman, with her spiritless acknowledgement, “Yes, I suppose I am,” became the personification of the New England aristocracy for me. Yet the truth was I still loved their land and perhaps resented the fact that I would never be able to afford a bare half-acre of it.

My aged grandfather from County Limerick laughed when I once expressed these sentiments to him. He reminded me that it was also the eighteenth-century inhabitants of Carlisle, Lexington, and Concord who had begun the war that drove the army of the oppressors of the Irish (and half the world) back across the sea. “By that ‘rude bridge that arched the flood’ there are two unknown British soldiers buried,” he added. “Poor lads probably took the king’s shilling for a square meal.” All that was true.

There was another group of dispossessed who were never far from my mind as I walked the Carlisle woods, for all of the land in question was once, in a relatively recent past, the domain of the Indians; the paths I trod were close by the place where the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers joined to form the Concord River. There, the glacial drumlin of Nashawtuc, “the hill between the rivers,” was home to the Massachusett. Nipmuck and Pawtucket Indians also inhabited present-day Concord and environs, the land the Native Americans called Musketaquid.

I say it is impossible for me to forget because though the Indians did not leave great monuments or viaducts or elaborate tombs, they did leave marks beyond mere place names for those who take the time to look. Deep in the Carlisle woods, beyond Indian Hill, where the Deer Run trail meets the Garrison Loop, just a few feet from the path, is the Grinding Stone, a boulder the size of a Volkswagen where the Indians ground their corn. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the women there, working the jawbone of a deer to scrape the corn across a deep bowl worn into the top of the rock. At the pond-side nearby, I imagine animal skins drying on frames, while men fashion points of flint and women heap glowing embers about the clay pot in which a rabbit stew simmers. The passing of the tribe can be read in the stone-walled cellar hole beside the grinding stone, the remains of a seventeenth-century settler’s home. The grinding stone itself and the bowl it held have been split in two—the old marks of the iron bars that were hammered into it are visible in each half. Was it done to let the Indians know that their way of life here had ended?

It is December 21st, the winter solstice. Before sunrise, I’m standing in the Towle Woods in Carlisle atop the Turtle Rock. Names of lost tribes are shifting, and primary sources present a confusing picture. The source that has led me here refers to the native inhabitants simply as “Musketaquids,” and informs me that they had configured these rocks in the shape of a turtle, the head of which faces sunrise on this morning.

I have found no mention of how old the sacred rock is, but I try to imagine the tribe gathered here, five hundred years ago, or perhaps a thousand? I wait in the gathering light, listening for the sound of their ghosts, and almost seem to hear it in the cry, not of summer’s songbirds, but of a couple of crows that screech somewhere in the pines above me, and then are silent. From the turtle’s back, I follow the direction in which the stone head seems to gaze. An orange fire has been lit amid the distant woods and the dim forest is suddenly alive with light and shadow. The sun will illuminate these woods, what is left of their world, and our new world for nine hours, four minutes, and thirty-seven seconds before it sinks again. I walk farther into the woods in the strengthening light and meet no one.

Later, I’m searching the internet for the history of Musketaquid. The key word “Nashawtuc” brings up a home for sale on Nashawtuc Road near the former Indian village. The price is 3.5 million dollars. It’s a good deal more than the few yards of cloth, hatchets, knives and hunting rights the local Indians received, along with a good dose of smallpox, (from the people I imagine, perhaps unfairly, as the horsewoman’s ancestors) for six square miles of their motherland.

I remind myself that we who live in the old mill cities, the descendants of more recent immigrants, are no better. The woods and the native markers have all but disappeared; a church stands on the buried ruins of the river village of the Pawtuckets, and the hot-topped parking lot of a McDonald’s may cover the graves of native generations. We’re all on stolen land, and I suppose we all become smug when we have more than our neighbors.

I guess the difference is that in my hometown I see a lot of people who are struggling, and in Carlisle I see only people who are comfortable, well-educated and self-assured. It seems the only immigrants there are foreigners with degrees in medicine or engineering or computer software. I love the peace of their world; there is little traffic, pollution, or crime. The woods still stand for their pleasure. If I should win the lottery, I might not be able to resist the temptation of a house there on a quiet rural lane. But I’m afraid I would always feel out of place. Always what I am now—a visitor from the mill town.

Christine P. O’Connor: A Week of Writing in Ireland

This past Sunday I revisited notes from a writing course I attended in Ireland three years ago. At the time America was a few months into a new presidency, and with much talk at home of building a wall, the warm welcome I received abroad was reassuring. Over the past three years, much has changed in the world; but what remains a constant, particularly in this time of crisis and self-isolation, is the reminder that we’re never alone.—C.O.

Notes from Carlow: A Week of Writing

By Christine P. O’Connor

I RECENTLY COMPLETED A SIX-DAY, in-residence writing course with The Story House Ireland. My introduction came by way of author Michael Harding. In early January I noticed an online interview with Harding on WLR, a Waterford radio station. Walking the dog along a wooded path, an ocean away in Massachusetts, I listened to Harding talk about life, writing, Buddhism, and his time as a priest. “Faith is not a certitude. Faith is an act of hopefulness that maybe we’re not alone.” I enjoy Harding, and while I thought about his writings another interview followed.

It was two women. They were describing an upcoming course in Carlow. The students, limited to twelve, would be tutored on writing, take turns cooking, share passages from favorite authors and eventually read from their own work. The women were Margaret O’Brien and Nollaig Brennan, founders of The Story House Ireland, and in just a matter of weeks I would come to meet them both.

Modeled after the Arvon Foundation in England, Story House is based on the belief that the act of “writing is transformative.” It offers courses, resources and support for developing writers. I decided to send an email, more curious than serious, and discovered that the course was “Writing for Young Adults.” That was disappointing since I was writing a memoir.

For the past three years I’ve been working on a book. It took me a long time to feel even partially comfortable referring to my 100,000 plus word count as a book, but eventually I concluded that whether good or bad, that’s the reality of what I’ve been doing. It was originally a nonfiction piece about my grandmother and the Titanic, but an editor in California got me thinking about what I was really writing. When I began working on a second draft, it became a memoir.

Although the underlying subject matter was the same, the rewrite was intended as a modern-day Jeremiah, a literary device of 17th century American Puritans used to describe a personal journey, usually spiritual in nature. In my case, it was moving from an exceedingly rational view of the world to one more excepting of unexplained and magical aspects of life.

Given my particular project, Margaret and Nollaig sent me a link to Arvon where there were many course offerings more related to my own work. I came very close to not attending Story House, and even sent an email to that effect, but sometimes you have the good sense to follow your instincts and do what feels right. I secured the second to the last spot. As it turned out, the daily writing classes were as valuable to me as to those writing for young adults, for “good writing is good writing” as we repeatedly learned during the week.

I arrived in Ireland a few days early to visit with family. I was last “home,” as the Irish say, in November for a Month’s Mind Mass, a sad time. But the skid of tires on Shannon’s tarmac remained a joyful sound, and it marked the start of days that quickly passed: dinner with Marie at Moran’s Oyster Cottage; a trip to Teresa’s; lunch with Henry, Mary and Loretto in Gurteen; a drive by the empty stone cottage where once the Toolans lived; a night at the Landmark overlooking the Shannon; catching up with Padraig, Lorraine, Eta, Breda and the girls; a pint at Pat Nestor’s; Chinese take-out with Ann; listening to A South Wind Blows while Puss, pregnant with kittens, lay by the cookstove, and several times throughout those days we passed the graveyard where Annie now rests beneath a most comforting thought: In Iothliann Dé Go Dtugtar Sinn (“We Are Gathered in the Haggard of the Lord”), because maybe we are not alone.

Monday arrived. As I carried my bags out to the car that morning, I was surprised to be a bit nervous. Marie tossed a hot water bottle and an electric blanket into the boot, though as it turned out neither were ever needed. We took the N80 towards Tullamore and eventually on to Carlow. Along the way we passed through Stradbally, a Tidy Town winner, and in the distance admired the Comeragh mountains. Once in Carlow, we made a quick stop at the Brownshill Dolmen. It dates back to 4000 BC and weighs an estimated 100 tons, the largest in Europe. Its size can’t be appreciated until you stand before its massive capstone, resting these past centuries on two portal stones as it opens to the Otherworld. The Ancients also hoped that we are not alone.

The course was held at Lisvanagh House, a 19th century estate in Rathvilly. After a communal dinner, we gathered in the library for our first exercise. We were to state our name and say something about it. Waiting my turn, I thought of my grandmother and this long journey I’ve been on working to tell our story.

“My name is Christine O’Connor. I am named for my grandmother,” I began. I told of her coming to America and that when she first arrived in the States, American relatives convinced her that her name (Delia Toolan) was too Irish sounding. “Over the years she would say to me: ‘and to think I listened to them and changed my name.’ The thing is because of my writing, I now think of her only as Delia.”

What I didn’t share, regrettably, was the meaning of her name: for Delia was the goddess of fire and poetry and Toolan, translated from the Irish, means a mighty people. However strange and unlikely, I felt as if Delia, though gone for many years, with me that night in the library. This wasn’t shared either.

The week went well: a communal pot of black coffee each morning in the barn; breakfast by the wood stove; a solitary walk to the main house for the start of classes; the “chimes of doom” ending each writing exercise; at lunch fresh breads and local cheese; time with tutors E.R. (Elizabeth) Murray and Sheena Wilkinson; afternoon walks with Ger; a steaming hot shower before dinner; the most delicious of meals; evenings gathered in the library for readings; and, if we were lucky, an amazing display of stars as we made our way to our rooms in constant chatter and roaming torch lights.

The morning classes covered the mechanics of writing: dialogue, world-building, knowing your characters, editing. On two afternoons there was a private session with a tutor, each an important part of the week. The evening readings varied: selections from our tutors; a talk, at times hilarious, about the publishing industry from mid-week guest Patricia Forde. Thursday night, students read from their favorite authors. I brought an excerpt from Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, and a scene from Dermot Healey’s A Bend for Home, but read Elizabeth Bishop’s In The Waiting Room: “What similarities/ boots, hands, the family voice/ . . . held us all together/ or made us all just one?”

Friday afternoon, I had cooking duty with Megan and Derek. After dinner, all participants would read something of their own. Taking a break from our aubergine curry dish, Megan and I read our selections to each other. I felt ready. The piece was the appropriate length, it had some dialogue and it gave listeners a sense of what I have been writing. Returning to the kitchen Megan said: “You know, all afternoon I’ve been thinking of my grandmother, and I think it’s this kitchen. It reminds me of hers, even this table with the knife drawer.”

I stopped stirring the meat sauce. You should read the Prologue, I immediately thought. It’s about Delia. It takes place in her kitchen. She too had a table with a knife drawer. If it wasn’t for her, you wouldn’t even be here this week. But my thoughts then turned to the practical. It’s way too short, there’s no dialogue, plus I already practiced my reading. This internal debate continued throughout meal preparation, dinner, and while waiting my turn in the library.

“Christine, Derek, who wants to go next,” asked Margaret. Derek was pouring a Smithwick’s, so I opened my Mac, located the prologue and began: “My grandmother use to wonder about heaven. She wondered if there was such a place. Often she wondered aloud. It was one of the many things in life she repeated, like the lyrics to the Red River Valley or the opening lines of a favorite poem: ‘October gave a party/ The leaves by hundreds came.”

The piece goes on to describe her kitchen, recalls the afternoons I spent at the house, and ends with Delia singing the refrain to the Red River Valley by the stove. It was short and unrehearsed, but in the same way I felt that attending Story House was right for me, reading that piece felt right too.

The evening continued with chat, laughs, and an occasional Carly Simon song. Over glasses of red wine and opened books, emails were exchanged and pictures of dogs back home were shared. Sitting by the fire, Sheena announced to the group that she had something for me, and in a moment she returned with her guitar. After flipping through a few pages of her notebook, she began to play a certain nineteenth century folk song, the Red River Valley. Others, including myself, sang the refrain. It was a meaningful moment, impossible to replicate, and it filled me with what Bishop termed, “the sweet sensation of joy.”

Unknown to Sheena, or anyone there, I begin and end the book with the lyrics to that song, and return to it in various parts of the book. It’s the song everyone in our family associates with Delia. It’s about leaving your home, the place and people you love, and it’s also about remembering those gone. In many ways this American “cowboy” song is descriptive of Delia’s south Sligo, when in autumn, the surrounding hills, valleys and roadside brush all turn beautiful shades of a reddish, rust color. Whether “rua” in Irish or “roe” in English, many of the place names around Gurteen, from Meelroe or Mullaghroe, reflect this colorful transformation.

There was much I learned that week in Carlow: walking is as important as writing; reading too; it’s important to know your tribe, but sometimes you have to create your own tribe; creativity can come from many places, including in the kitchen; write every day; but, more than all that, Margaret is right: “the act of writing is transformative.” It can take us to places we never intended, it can make us do things we otherwise wouldn’t and it can even have us come to believe in things we normally wouldn’t. That night with Sheena and others in song, I felt a certainty that we are not alone.

 

 

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