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Jay Pendergast: A Singular Man

Jay Pendergast and Steve O’Connor

Jay Pendergast: A Singular Man

By Steve O’Connor

My best guess is 1978. Summer workers for the Neighborhood Youth Corps had painted an Irish-themed mural on the back of a building facing Worthen Street. Naturally, after the dedication, the crowd meandered over to the Old Worthen. It was a beautiful day, a Saturday if memory serves, and I joined the throng. At some point, I found myself standing outside the old tavern in front of a  table, upon which sat an old set of war pipes, a silver breastplate, a steel targe or buckler shield, several swords, a waist belt buckle from the uniform of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and a somewhat disjointed but fascinating collection of Irish antiquities.

Behind that table stood a gray-bearded, barrel-chested, pony-tailed man with rose-colored sunglasses, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. This was clearly someone with whom one had to converse. The odd assortment of rarities together with his arcane knowledge of historical artifacts suggested a professor emeritus, but his ready smile and easy manner belied the stuffy seriousness I usually associate with such a person. When, finally, I introduced myself and asked his name, things began to fit into place. “You’re Jay Pendergast?” I had been hearing about this guy for a long time. It seemed that whenever anyone in Lowell discovered that I was interested in Irish history and literature, they would say, “You must know Jay Pendergast.” I didn’t. But here, at last, was the man himself.  And this, as Captain Louis Renault told Rick Blaine in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Jay lived just beyond the Tyngsborough Bridge in a house perched on the bank above the Merrimack River, with his wife Maire and their children, Ciaran, and at that time, the baby, Kate. Maire is a Dubliner from Ship Street in “the Liberties” neighborhood, known in popular song as “the rebel Liberties.” (At the age of eighteen, Maire would go to Slattery’s Pub to listen to a gathering of local musicians, some of whome later formed a band called “The Chieftains.”)  Jay met Maire during his five-year stint in Dublin, where he was working on a PhD and absorbing Dublin through every pore.

I became a regular at Jay’s Tyngsborough house, where I met a fascinating collection of people, including, of course, the aforementioned Maire; Dave Hardman, the horticulturist, Dr. Kiersey, the anesthesiologist, Rolly Perron, the farmer, Phil Chaput and Hank Garrity, collectors and antique dealers, and Jay’s long-time best friend, Charlie Panagiatakos, the chemist, and his wife, Marie.

Charlie had been granted a double promotion and entered Lowell High at the age of 12, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. He wasn’t into track or football. (I don’t believe Jay ever watched a competitive sports contest. He once expressed some confusion over whether the “Orioles” were a baseball or a football team and had little interest in the answer. When I told him that a new local soccer team was looking for a name, he suggested “the Poodles”).

Jay, Maire, Marie and Charlie Panagiatokos

At Lowell High, Charlie and a group of intellectual students who liked to talk about chemistry, math, and art, formed “The Barf Club.” A friend of one of the Barfers who attended Keith Academy came to one of their meetings, and brought another Keith boy, Jay Pendergast. Charlie describes himself in those days as “an oddball, brainy kind of fellow.” And of course, Jay would always hit it off with a smart oddball.

They graduated in 1955 into a rapidly changing America. Charlie tells me, “I became a beatnik. Then I became a hippie. Then finally just a mental case.” He still makes me laugh, and he made Jay laugh, too. They became great friends, shooting Super 8 movies in downtown Lowell in the 60’s and playing in an improvised garage band. (Jay played flute, but as he would admit, relied heavily on visual effects).

These were some of the characters who hung out on Riverbend Road, with Jay holding court, talking until the wee hours with some or all of these friends, often with a blazing fire in the wood-burning stove. If a party piece were necessary, he liked to recite “Sir Patrick Spens”:

The King sits in Dunferline toun,
Drinkin the blude-reid wine
‘O whaur will a get a skeely skipper
Tae sail this new ship o mine?’

Jay was a collector, probably from the time that his mother, a college librarian, brought home books that awoke his interests. He collected prints, coins, books, swords, military uniforms, arrowheads, and memorabilia of all kinds. He was in love with anything old, with anything that spoke to him of a vanished past. Every time I visited him, he had some new bit of history to show me: a clay Egyptian lamp, a signed letter from Edmund Kean, pages from a fifteenth century incunabula. One day, he produced an old silver spoon and handed me a jeweler’s loupe. The PR, that became clearly visible on the back of the tapered part of the handle, he said, stood for Paul Revere. “He sometimes used the Revere mark, and sometimes the simple PR.” The shop owner, unaware of what she had, had asked twenty dollars. “I almost hurt myself getting the money out,” Jay said, and he added, “That’s the whole game. You have to know what you have, or you have nothing.”

Jay always seemed to be grabbing at a past that might well vanish before he could collect it—save it from an oblivion that it didn’t deserve. One of the ceiling lights in his house wore the old POLICE lamp cover that once proclaimed the police station on Market Street. He always wanted to run in to any condemned building that was about to be taken down to see what he could salvage, to stop at any construction dig to pick through the piles of dirt, looking for arrowheads, shards of pottery or the polished stone head of a war club to add to his collection. When I complimented Jay and Maire on what I thought were new couches of a beautiful golden velour, he said, “They’re not new. I managed to purloin the curtain from the Strand Theater before they tore it down and had the couch and love seat re-covered with the material.”

These days, it’s difficult to be a Renaissance man. If you don’t have a degree in whatever it is you’re pursuing or opining on, people refuse to take you seriously. But Jay was interested in everything, wanted to know everything. A table at the Hollis Flea Market didn’t bring in much revenue, and Jay had quit his job at the Bartlett School. (He used to take his boat to work there—shoving off from his own dock, cruising down the river, tying up at the Lowell Motor Boat Club, and walking across the street). After he quit that job, he became what he referred to as “a gypsy professor,” teaching an array of classes at a dizzying number of universities and community colleges. He taught Film, Mythology, Archeology, Literature, Art History, Cultural Anthropology—the life of a gypsy professor was a struggle—more than a full-time workload with part-time pay and no benefits. His car, an old (naturally) Mercury Comet, was full of boxes of books and papers, and he told me he sometimes had to stop and remember what class he was going to teach. He said, “I’ll teach anything. Calculus? Yes. Give me the book. I got a wife and two kids. I’ll learn it and teach it.”

I remember my father laughing one day as he read The Lowell Sun. “That friend of yours is quite a guy,” he said. “There’s an article about Jay Pendergast, amateur archeologist. Two weeks ago, there was another article about Jay Pendergast, amateur film maker.” He was both, and more. As an amateur archeologist, he got a team from Harvard to come to Lowell to excavate the stone circle in LeBlanc Park, to try to determine if it might have been built by early Celts. They decided it was not so old as that, but who built it or why remains a mystery.

In 79’ I was accepted into a Master’s Program in Anglo-Irish Lit (literature written in English as opposed to Irish), at University College, Dublin, where Jay was still enrolled in the PhD program. He showed up, with Maire and Ciaran; first, there was a meeting with Roger McHugh, a department head at UCD about the status of Jay’s doctoral dissertation on Charles Maturin. Jay always had more than one iron in the fire, though. He was also working on a new scheme to import Irish gin to America. He had achieved a meeting at Irish Distilleries, to which he wore an ascot, thinking he would impress them with his urbane sophistication. Unfortunately, he said, “They kept staring at the ascot as if I had a big coke spoon hanging around my neck.” So, the Irish gin was left to later importers. However, Jay proceeded to introduce me to another great collection of people on the other side of the pond.

Jay Pendergast in Tunisia: 1968

They were all very fond of Jay and Maire. As long as I was a friend of theirs, I had the key to that society. There was Captain Hood, a retired Aer Lingus pilot, Tadgh McSweeny, the whimsical Cork artist, a defrocked Jesuit whose name I forget, and, in particular, a distinguished sculptor and restorer of paintings for the National Museum, George Laffin. These people took me under their wing after Jay had left, and I had another reason to be grateful for his friendship. (Note: There is a wonderful photo of George Laffin with one of his sculptures in Jim Higgins new collection of Irish Photos-Ireland: North and South).

Jay and I were stopped by a Guard in Dublin. Jay was driving a Morris Minor, for which, of course, he had not bothered to get the necessary insurance sticker. He gave an Oscar-worthy performance of the clueless, dumb Yank who had no idea about…insurance stickers? “I’m sorry, Officer! I’ll get one tomorrow!” The Guard was mollified and said, “Well, I should write you up, but I haven’t got me biro.” I think Ireland was where Jay learned valuable lessons about how you could get a lot done with “a bit of chat.” I should note that the Hibernian capital in which Jay had moved was truly, as the song puts it, “Dublin city in the rare ould times.” At McDaid’s Pub, for example, he might have a pint with Paddy Kavanaugh, Pearse Hutchinson. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Brendan Behan, or Liam O’Flaherty. Maire recalls how, working as a waitress in another Dublin bar/restaurant, she saw a drunken Peter O’Toole come in one night with a severed pig’s head under his arm. In Dublin, Jay learned to live by his wits; Maire recalls how he would stock the car with items he had purchased at Ging’s of Dame Street, (“theatrical costumier, fancy dress, carnival and novelties”). They would drive out to the Cliffs of Moher, where, out of his trunk, he would resell his purchases to French and German tourists while Maire built a fire by the side of the road and cooked up scrambled eggs.

When I finished my degree in Dublin, I had the opportunity to work in France, and ended up staying there for a year or so. Jay sent me a letter requesting that I search out used furniture stores that would be willing to export French armoires to the U.S. I did spend some time in France hunting around antique stores and talking to managers of various magasins d’ameublement. Finally, I sent Jay a report which I’m afraid was not optimistic, and the armoires went the way of the Irish gin.

One afternoon after my return, I drove down the rutted moonscape of a road to his house. Maire was tending her plants. The kids were playing with the dog, and below the steep bank, the broad Merrimack swept by. “Would you like a glass of Jamie?” he said. (Jameson was his drink. A bartender at some Lowell dive we stopped into once said, “We don’t have Jameson. You want Murphy’s?” Without batting an eye, Jay responded, “No. Murphy’s is filth.”) So, on this afternoon, Jay poured a glass of Jamie and we began to talk about James Joyce. “I wonder if his grandson is still alive,” Jay mused.

“I believe he is,” I said. “I think he lives in Paris. He’s Joyce’s literary executor; all the Joyce scholars hate him.”

“You think we could contact him?”

A few minutes later I had procured a number through French information of a Stephen Joyce in Paris and Jay urged me to dial. A man answered. “Allo, oui?”

Holy shit! “Je cherche le Monsieur Stephen Joyce?”

Oui. C’est moi! Que voulez-vous?” he barked.

Vous etes le petite-fils…” It struck me that if he was James Joyce’s grandson, he surely spoke English. “Then, you are James Joyce’s grandson?”

“Yes! What the hell do you want?” He sounded angry. I handed the phone to Jay. This is where my old friend shone. He wasn’t just a bullshitter. He was a master bullshitter, an imaginative artist. On the spot, he concocted a story: he was part of a committee representing a few local colleges in Massachusetts who were organizing a celebration of James Joyce, and this committee had decided to extend an invitation to Stephen Joyce, the great writer’s grandson and literary executor. They could offer a stipend, and air fare would be paid for. There was a bit of negotiating over Mr. Joyce’s wife’s air fare, and Jay offered to provide for that as well. They exchanged information, and fifteen minutes later, Jay and I were sitting there, in shock. James Joyce’s grandson was coming to Lowell. I said, “But Jay—there isn’t any committee. There isn’t any money.”

“Jayzus, O’Connor!” he said, disappointed in my lack of cunning. (He had picked up the Jayzus expression in Dublin. He was also fond of Elizabethen oaths such as, “God’s teeth!”) “Jayzus! There’s no committee now! But when I tell them that I have Stephen Joyce on the line, there will be a committee in short order!” And there was. Jay got a few colleges to ante up, and Stephen Joyce spoke at what was then the University of Lowell, UNH, and the Harvard Club of Cambridge. (Note: Stephen Joyce died in January of this year).

Another of Jay’s projects was to make Lowell and Kilkenny sister cities and bring the Lord Mayor of Kilkenny to Lowell for Irish Cultural Week; I believe that would have been in 1986. I went along with Jay to visit Mayor Kennedy, who loved the idea. It was done, and not long after, we were all doing a pub crawl with Phil Hogan, the Lord Mayor of Kilkenny, and his wife. After leaving Kantakis’s Bar, I remember leaning over the bridge railing with the His Honor and talking about the Irish who had dug the city’s canals. Within a week, the Mayor seemed to know every old lady at St. Patrick’s Church and what it was that ailed her. Phil Hogan is today the European Commissioner for Trade and confirmed on June 9th of this year that he will run for Director General of the World Trade Organization. Another interesting person we would never have met if it were not for Jay Pendergast.

Jay was finally awarded his PhD from University College, Dublin, sadly, a bit late to do his career a lot of good. He never lost his interest in Irish Literature; he was the only person I knew who read the entire three volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, but, in what turned out to be the later years of his life, he refocused on an interest he had had since boyhood: Native Americans. He published two books, The Bend in the River, a pre-history and contact period history of what is now Lowell and its surroundings, and Life Along the Merrimac: Collected Histories of the Native Americans Who Lived Along Its Banks. He took his research seriously and once drove up to St. Francis in Quebec to meet with some of the descendants of those who had been Lowell’s Pawtucket Indians.

The last time I saw Jay, we sat on his porch, with a glass of Jamie of course, watching the river flow by. He did look a little tired. He had had one heart attack a couple of years before, but he never changed his lifestyle much. He was so full of life that he refused to consider death. I remember that final conversation well. We had heard that a guy we knew had left his wife, and Jay shook his head and said, “I could no more leave Maire than I could cut off my own arm.” He went on to say that he loved his home by the river. “As soon as I get up on Frost Road, there are people on my bumper—they’re in a rush to get up to Ayotte’s and get a case of Bud Lite or something. I could stay right here perfectly content and never leave. You know, I’m rereading Samuel de Champlain’s five-volume memoire describing his early explorations of the New World. Unbelievably interesting! Honestly, I’m at the point now, where, if it happened after 1680—I’m not interested.” I laughed. A remark that only Jay would make.

Not long after, on Memorial Day weekend of 1997, Maire called me with the news that Jay had died. In my life, only the death of my own parents struck me with such a sense of loss. I feel it again as I write these words. I drove out to see Maire; the emptiness in the house was palpable, and, as we all know, there’s really nothing to say. At his funeral, I went up to the church loft and played the old lament, “Lochaber No More.” I saw Maire and Ciaran and Kate in the church below me standing near the polished casket, and my tears rolled down onto the violin as I played. I was sorry for them, and to be honest, for myself, too. An era in my life was over.

Jay’s family and his friends have met for lunch every year in June since his death, except of course, 2020. We’ve all gotten older, and sometimes, talking to Ciaran, I have the odd feeling that I’m talking to Jay. In any case, when I see him and Maire and Kate and Charlie Panagiatakos and Marie and Coco and Rolly Perron and Dave Hardman and Phil Chaput—in some way—I’m back in the house on the riverbank enjoying this rare collection of people. And I feel that Jay is there too, maybe just in the next room, pouring a Jameson.

A Perfectly Strange Day at the Beach

A Perfectly Strange Day at the Beach

by Henri Marchand

This essay, written in July of 2008 during the last economic crisis, seems apt for our current times.  On a recent  Sunday morning, a two weeks before the 2020 July 4th holiday, we took our first ride to the beach hoping that we had left early enough to snag what we expected were limited parking and beach spots.  We found things to be the same but different from a dozen years ago.  We took the back way to North Hampton and again encountered little traffic.  We turned into an open food stand across from the ocean in North Hampton for a smoothie and a rest room stop but when we cruised south to try to find a parking spot in the center, the parking area wasn’t just empty but completely off limits.  So we figured we’d try Hampton State park and as we approached it appeared less than half full and we were optimistic that we could find a properly distanced spot on the beach.  We made the turn into the drive but a “Full” sign deflated our hopes for a few hours of sand and surf.  No wave riding, no salt-water taffy, seaside reading, no pinball.  But on the upside, no four-dollars per gallon of gas, no greenheads and no sunburn.

So it was back home to isolate in the yard with tunes by the Beach Boys and the Boss providing, if we closed our eyes, the illusion of a perfectly normal day at the beach.

It was Sunday, Independence Day weekend, 2008.  The weather was sunny and warm, with a light breeze—a perfect beach day except for the likelihood of traffic tie-ups, the mirage of parking spaces, long restroom lines and hungry greenheads.  Still, the seaside beckoned and Nancy and I decided to cruise on up to Hampton Beach State Park and enjoy a few hours of sun and sand and surf.

We packed an umbrella and towels, a box of Cheez-Its and some drinks, sun block and books and off we went.  We drove up 495, looking forward to our first salt water dip and our first box of salt water taffy.  Before long my mental IPod began playing a West Coast/East Coast medley of Beach Boys and the Boss—California and Jersey shores colliding.  Somehow it fit and all seemed fine until we hit the 95 exit when suddenly we sensed that something wasn’t right.  Breezing by the Seabrook Fire Station on 286 the unease increased and by the time we ran the gauntlet between Marquis’ and Browns’ restaurants, we realized something was downright bizarre.  Turning into the state park’s gravelly, sundrenched parking lot, the surf music faded, replaced by the memory of the premiere episode of The Twilight Zone, Where is Everyone.  In it an astronaut is being tested for the effects of isolation on long distance space flights.  He hallucinates that he’s in a seemingly normal town except for the absence of other people.  His paranoia builds as he dashes from building to building, almost, but never finding anyone.  Doors creak as if opening and closing, food cooks on a stove, a cigarette smolders in an ashtray and yet he seems to be just a moment behind or a corner removed from the presence of others.

That was how we felt—little traffic, plenty of parking, no lines at the restrooms.  It should have been ideal but it seemed odd and strangely desolate.  Not right for any summer Sunday, never mind the July Fourth weekend.  Did we miss a reverse 911 alert that the Seabrook power plant was about to blow?  Were Great Whites prowling the coast?  Had the tide turned as green and slimy as the Chinese Olympic sailing venue?  It couldn’t be the forecast of possible showers – that never seemed to keep people away before.

It was, strangely enough, in the men’s room that I finally got a reasonable idea of what was keeping people away on such a beckoning beach day.  I was washing my hands when the only other patron, standing at a urinal, cried out, “Heavens to mergertroid!  Do you believe it? Fourth of July weekend and it’s just you and me.”

“Yeah, pretty quiet,” I replied weakly without inflection, unable to tell if there was enticement or entrapment in his voice.  Either way, I wasn’t going for the bait.  I cut short the rinse cycle and grabbed for the paper towels.

“I never thought I’d see this,” he continued as I scooted for the exit, “gas at four dollars a gallon keeping people away from the beach!  I’m not complaining, but…”

“That’s it!” I thought as I scanned the parking lot and realized that the gregarious bathhouse economist was probably right.  Considering Hampton draws heavily from the Merrimack Valley and 495 corridors, not a terribly long ride, it was startling to see the lot better than half empty at that time of day on that weekend.  Could times be so difficult, gas prices so high, budgets so tight as to preclude, under such perfect conditions, a packed parking lot on the high holiday of summer fun?  I worried that this might tell us more about the state of the economy than any of the official surveys and leading economic indicators do.

I dwelled on this briefly as I slathered on some SPF 30 and settled down next to Nancy.  Even though high tide had narrowed the beach considerably, we were surrounded by a wide expanse of sand.  There were neither greenheads, nor sand fleas nibbling at our flesh.  I devoured a couple handfuls of Cheez Its, chewed on some molasses taffy and continued reading Dave Daniels’ latest book, The Reunion.  Except for the new and troubling idea nibbling at the back of my mind that I might not be able to afford the drive home, it was a perfect day at the beach.

“Petting Zoo” and Other Offerings by E. R. MURRAY

For the month of July, here on Trasna, we will be highlighting some of the literary and artistic events cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Featured this week is the West Cork Literary Festival, an annual, weeklong celebration of writing workshops offered by some of the finest Irish and international writers. This year’s festival was scheduled to begin today, July 10th. Many of the varied workshops are now offered online.

Among this year’s talented, festival writers is Elizabeth Rose Murray.  She is currently co-presenting a weeklong workshop for teenage writers from her home in west Cork. Her debut novel, The Book of Learning – Nine Lives Trilogy 1, was chosen as the 2016 Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide. The novel features Ebony Smart, a twelve year-old girl who discovers she is part of a special tribe of reincarnated people – and a terrible curse. It is currently being made into a film. In addition to her four YA novels, Murray also writes poetry and essays. Trasna is please to present two of her essays, and the following poem. Murray is a writer whose words “burn bright and linger.”

 

E. R. MURRAY reads “Petting Zoo” 

“Petting Zoo” was read as part of Poetry Day Ireland 2020 celebrations

Petting Zoo

We laughed at the fainting goats, like they were stupid,

These evolutionary failures who, with a single snap of hands

or crack of twig underfoot, would seize, tumble, and lie

rigid. Their defense mechanism to become easy prey.

 

My sister told me about her pet goat, that walked her

to school and found her in lanes and waysides. She loved

that goat. Took it on picnics. Once, accidentally fed it

sandwiches of rhododendron, that made it froth and die.

 

We didn’t laugh at that and my sister shed a tear. Turning

back to the fainting goats, we kept our hands and feet stilled, let

the animals skip and noise and chew. If I had known how, I would

have held my sister’s hand, erased the poison from her fingers.

 

E. R. Murray reads “I Think of Grief as a Dying Star” for Tiny Essays https://tinyessays.com/2019/08/08/i-think-of-grief-as-a-dying-star-by-e-r-murray/

I Think of Grief as a Dying Star

A star collapses when its fuel is used up, and so does the human heart. Not only in the physical sense, but also the nebular, nuclear stuff that we attribute to that particular organ. Grief can manifest in many forms, but it is always ascribed to loss; of a person, self-respect, hope, dreaming. We can grieve many things, and often do, but we tend to pack it deep inside as though always ready to move on, without experiencing any impact.

But the truth is, most stars take a million years to die, and in the same way grief will linger. From months to years to generations; grief can pass down through blood, song, and stories, an intuitive memory that weaves into century after century. War, colonisation; these are difficult griefs to forget. I was born in England and feel its terrible past keenly; I know I will apologise for its history until I die.

If you take a photo of a galaxy 100 million light years away, you are recording that galaxy as it looked 100 million years ago. Likewise, when someone dies, we time travel. Whoever dies, we seek a return to their best selves, even if it means delving back decades. It is important for us to care if we are to grieve, even when the person has done terrible things. It is a positive trait of the human condition.

Yet we also have the power to grieve a person long before their death, if they injured our heart deeply enough. This means we can experience loss without additional pain. People who are meant to be close to us may die, without that death impacting us in the way society expects. It is entirely possible, for instance, to not attend your parents’ funerals and to do this without anger or enmity. Which in many ways, may be the saddest grief of all.

My father was absent during my childhood, until I met him aged thirteen. He died after a few visits, yet I celebrated that we had actually gathered a few precious memories. His absence felt no different than before. My mother was violent and tyrannical, and I had finished mourning the absence of her love by the end of my teenage years. When she died, I felt only relief and empathy – she had finally left a life that she always seemed to despise. I wonder if I am capable of grieving? Or if, unknown to me, I am grieving still?

By the time we see another person’s grief, we witness only the tip, a glimmer of its true depth. And in that glimmer, we see a hint of ourselves. Grief is dealing with phantoms in all their forms. And just as we tend to forget to acknowledge the stars as we go about our daily lives, we live as though we, and everyone we love, is invincible. As though the one true fact of our lives – our death – does not apply.

Humans and stars are dying all the time. When we look at stars with the naked eye, they have already gone, and we are seeing an illusion; a ghost of their greatness. If you crashed a spaceship into a star tomorrow, you’d be long forgotten before it was even discovered. A buried piece of history. Like the ruins that litter landscapes, your successes and struggles and woes reduced to rubble and dust. The leftover glimpse of a star.

Now, don’t be sad about all this death, because people and stars are being born all the time – even if we won’t see them in our lifetime. It is in our nature to worry about what will happen to the world when we’re gone, but death does not have a definitive end. There is always a legacy, though it may exist in a different galaxy. Whether our life (and death) affects one person or thousands, our example can burn bright and linger, falling as a phantom star, ready to be captured in the hearts of future generations even a million light years away.

 

Maps audio link:  E. R. Murray reads “Maps” as part of Keywords Podcast (@ minute 3 from intro) : https://soundcloud.com/keywords-podcast/08-maps

Maps

Maps have always meant possibility, to me, rather than boundaries and borders. As a child, I would read Atlases the same way I read novels, deciphering the contours and keys, imagining the lives and experiences within those tiny demarcated areas, the colours, smells, tastes. The desire for travel was innate even then, and to this day, creates a physical reaction. Staying in one spot for too long feels like a physical constraint on my gut, my feet, my soul.

Change and adventure motivate me. New experiences and risk bring comfort and joy. Some say this is because my father was Romany gypsy, but I didn’t grow up with him or experience any Romany traditions in childhood, though I would have liked to. Some say this nomadic spirit is in my blood; I don’t know what to make of that because I’m a strong believer in hard work and making our own destiny, yet I acknowledge that many things are mapped out for us. Genetics, for instance, cultural histories, societal pressures, childhood trauma. I also believe that our experiences leave an imprint, mapping the next moment from what came before.

I am sitting across from Long Island, West Cork, where my husband proposed with a treasure map. We’d been together for less than a year when we took the punt across. My husband had a huge bag of secrets with him, which he often does because he’s creative and curious, so I took no notice when he asked me to sit and wait for his return. I wrote, I read, and one hour later, he brought me a hand-drawn treasure map and a rusty trowel and told me to dig.

I may have read maps a lot as a child, but in an aesthetic way; practically, I’m a bit useless. Google maps confuses me. So, as I followed the instructions, my husband’s head would pop up on occasion, shouting, ‘you’re going the wrong way.’ Often, when someone tells me that, I’m actually just taking a path they fear. Thankfully, that was not the case in this instance.

Eventually, I dug up three bottles containing letters that I could only read once they were all found. The letters were full of love and sentiment, and the third one ended on ‘X marks the spot’. I found the X – two pieces of wood, criss-crossed – dug deep, and uncovered a ring box containing shells and the message: Will you marry me?

As I ran to where my husband was cowering behind a rock, he suddenly panicked that he hadn’t made enough effort because there were no flowers, so he wrenched up a huge handful of sea-pinks, roots and all, which collided with my face and trapped sand in my contact lenses.

During lockdown, my biggest challenge is the impact of being static. All the maps I’ve made, all the successes I’ve had, were built on risk and change and new experience. But as I sit here, across from Long island, West Cork, I think to myself – I might not know what to make of my gypsy blood, my need for movement, my incessant drive, but this is a change too, this stillness, this pause. This moment will lead to another and afterwards, a new map will be made, and new roads will open.

 

E.R. Murray writes novels for children and young adults, plus poetry, short fiction and essays, for adult readers. Her books include a YA contemporary novel, Caramel Hearts, and a fantasy trilogy for middle grade readers. The Book of Learning – Nine Lives Trilogy 1 was chosen as the 2016 Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Read for Children, is currently being made into a film, while The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2 was shortlisted for the 2016 Irish Book Awards & 2016 Irish Literacy Association Award. The final installment, The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3 was published in 2018 to high acclaim. Shortlists include the Francis McManus, Irish Times, and Aesthetica Creative Works short fiction competitions. Recent anthology and journal publications include The Elysian: Creative ResponsesReading the FutureAutonomyPopshots, Terrain, Tiny Essays, HCE, and Banshee. Elizabeth is highly supportive of new and emerging writers, providing manuscript reports and creative writing workshops, as well as being a mentor for Words Ireland. Raised on a council estate in Southbank, Middlesbrough (England), she now lives in rural Ireland (West Cork). For more info: www.ermurray.com Twitter: @ERMurray Facebook: ERMurray.Author

children’s books: All of the Nine Lives Trilogy is published and available as e-book or physical copy. The Book of Learning – includes option to ‘Look Inside’.

PHOTO CREDITS: Nighttime sky: Robert and Giovanna Mills; Sunset in west Cork: E. R. Murray.

The Art of Getting Home: Bart Giamatti and the 1952 Saint Patrick’s Girls Softball Team

1952 St Patrick’s Softball Team

The Art of Getting Home: Bart Giamatti and the 1952 Saint Patrick’s Girls Softball Team

By Christine O’Connor

No one has ever written about the game of baseball with more intelligence and beauty than former Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti. In one of his many essays on the subject he described the narrative of baseball as “the story of going home after having left home.” My mother, Martha, has always loved baseball. Maybe, part of the reason is that the narrative Giamatti describes – that journey around the bases as ancient as the Odyssey and as new as America – appealed to her. Perhaps it was reflective of the story of her own family, and that of her many neighbors, all of whom left their homes to cross an ocean and find a new home here, in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Her best friend growing up was Athena Letsou, her parents came from Greece. Across the street was a Jewish man, Morris Malenski, and next to him, Stanley Koweski, an immigrant from Poland. This depth of ethnic diversity was reflected in my mother’s home as well. One side of the family were Russian Jewish immigrants, the other side emigrated from Ireland. If Lowell was at one time a melting pot, its ingredients were mainly from this neighborhood, the Acre. It was a densely populated area of three-decker homes, backyard gardens, coffee shops and corner stores. In the Acre, residents walked everywhere, women swept even the sidewalks, and in the streets, kids played baseball; which brings me back to my mother.

Martha “Annie” Regan O’Connor

She was called Annie back then, and grew up playing pickup games of baseball. As she recalls, she was the only “girl” who played, but she could hit, run, yell, and chew gum with the best of them. With a hand-me-down glove from Billy Letsou, (Athena’s older brother) Annie caught line-drives, grounders and pop flies. In that space between the granite curbing, she learned the game of baseball and likely something of herself. After all, as Giamatti says: “Home is where self-definition starts.”

At night, with her father Dan, they’d play cards and listen to the Boston Braves over the transistor radio. In 1935, the year she was born, the Braves acquired Babe Ruth. But not even the Bambino could save the Braves, as they recorded the second worst record ever in baseball that season. For a time, their third baseman was from Lowell, Skippy Roberge. The Manager, a Southerner, didn’t care for Skippy: “I don’t like you Yankee-Catholics,” he reportedly said before shipping him out. It wasn’t until 1948, that the Braves turned things around, winning their first National League Championship. But something even bigger happened to the Braves that year. Sam Jethroe joined the team and became the first black player to break the color barrier on the Braves. A reminder that “the tale of leaving and seeking home is told in as many ways as one can imagine.” Yes, Giamatti said that too.

In addition to listening to baseball, she occasionally took in some local games with her father, Dan. Together they would walk down Broadway and Fletcher Streets to the South Common. On the way to the game, they’d stop at the corner store, picking up a couple of Moxies and a brown paper-bag of Pete’s chips.  In 1905 the city had built a baseball field at one end of the Common. Bowl shaped, the park was blessed with natural bleachers. The Twi-League played there and the games were free. The players were all semi-pro. It must have been a joy to watch these games from the green grass of a hillside in the cool of a summer night. On the way home, Dan and Annie would stop again at the corner store, and buy a 5-cent dill pickle for her mother, Sally. The simplicity and magic of such evenings cannot be replicated in today’s world.

By the spring and summer of 1952 things changed for my mother: she went from spectator to player. Baseball wasn’t an option for her, or any other girl. In 1931, after a girl struck-out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a much earlier Baseball Commissioner than Giamatti, banned women from professional baseball. But, the relatively new game of softball opened a variation of the game to female players.

Carol Archibald

A junior in high school, my mother joined the first-ever, Saint Patrick’s Girls’ Softball team. For Annie and her teammates there were no role models; what they were doing was as new and bright as the red stitching on the ball. The things my mother later taught me – how to catch and throw, and grip a bat – her mother couldn’t have taught her. My mother use to say: “knee down! knee down!” in explaining how to stop a grounder. If only she had met Bill Buckner in his formative years.

Mary and Mary – Shattuck and Beauregard

Together the Saint Patrick’s Girls’ Softball team ran down pop-flies, threw strikes, hit homers, made double-plays, argued with umps, and genuinely cheered for each other. That summer, they met every morning at the North Common and played and practiced till supper. She remembers all her teammates: “Ann Charity was at shortstop; Mary Purtell was our pitcher. There was Betty Davis in center; Rita Davies in left; Doris Levaseur in right; Mary Shattuck was the catcher; Carol Archibald was on first, Joan Davidson on second, and I was on third base.” According to my mother, Ann was their best player. I remember meeting Ann when I was a kid. She was a Notre Dame nun by then. But back in those days, her specialty was home runs. As Giamatti says, it’s at home plate, that “teammates are . . . all true family.”

Annie Regan O’Connor and Ann Charity

That year they played nearly every Catholic school team between Lowell and Boston; schools in Ayer, Brockton, Medford, Arlington, and Tyngsborough. The success of that season is in the many headlines taped to the yellowed pages of her scrapbook: “Saint Patrick’s swamps ND 22-2,” “St. Patrick’s Tops St. Raphael’s 10-1,” “Betty Davis hits Three-Run Homer,” “St. Patrick’s Girls Win Another;” “St. Patrick’s Girls Still Undefeated.” By the time they reached the playoffs, the Sun described “a large motor caravan” leaving from the rectory to the away game. As it turned out, they were more successful than the Braves of my mother’s childhood. “St Patrick’s Wins Girls’ CYO Crown” reads another headline, this one in big print.

Ann Charity

But there was still more ball to play that summer. After defeating nearly everyone, (one game ended in a tie) a special post-season game was organized. Earlier that year, they had played, and won, a non-league game against the WACS (Women Army Corps) of Fort Devens. These players were older, generally bigger and, as required by the Army, were “physically fit.” The game would be at the South Common under lights. As reported in the newspaper, “it was the first softball game played under the lights in [the] city.” It was estimated that some “4,000 to 5,000 people jammed around the playing field” to see the game. One paper claimed it “was one of the largest crowds [they’ve] seen for any event at the South Common.”

Giamatti has described baseball as the “Roman Epic of homecoming America sings to itself.” That night beneath the lights, beneath the open skies of the Common, the memories of past summer nights with her father must have crowded over Annie as she stood at the plate. I thought too of my grandfather as he sat somewhere in the crowd with a cold bottle of Moxie and Sally at his side, watching his Annie reach for the fences.

The Banquet, at left, Ann Charity and Annie Regan O’Connor

In honor of their triumphant season the girls were given a banquet. Mayor Geary addressed the gathering and each player received a white team sweater. It was a great night of celebration for the Saint Patrick’s Girls Softball team. My mother says she misses her teammates. The first she said goodbye to was Ann. A non-smoker, Ann was just in her forties when she died of lung cancer. Most, if not all, are gone now.

“Home,” says Giamatti, is “the place where reunion, if it ever were to occur, would happen.” Whether in baseball or in life, home is what we often seek. It’s intended to be a place of safety, and where we can reunite with friends and family. Perhaps on some endless summer night, when moonlight stretches across the field in the Common, faint sounds of a long-ago game will lift into the nighttime sky, and the girls of the Saint Patrick’s Softball team will again gather in celebration at home plate.

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