The older I get the more easily I see the stingingly successful arc of my family's life.
Because all but one of my immediate ancestors died tragically young, my point of view is limited to those questions I was mature enough to ask between the ages of three, when I first started to talk, and 33, when my grandmother Mary Bridget Riley Corrigan died a week after her 90th birthday. Today I thank God I was much too polite a child and young adult--or at least I think I was--to stop my uncles from their interminable stories about their youths, their thoughts about the father and brother and sitsters who died so young and their mother, my dear Nana.
While I envied my brothers who just got up and walked away to play ball or carouse with our boy cousins in the bedrooms and attic upstairs, I was seemingly pinned to the chair or couch by the lyric force of their stories. I knew I had to stay until their mind was spent, their anxiety, conscience or memory eased by the knowledge that I had heard and responded in some way to all they had to say.
Those stories burdened me. For they were full of mourning and unspent grief, shuddering heartbreak, dreams splintered by sickness and death, hopes buried in early 20th century caskets beneath the thick grass of Catholic cemeteries in formerly bucolic swards of Queens, bitter regret swallowed when young men left school to help support the young widows left in a foreign country with a full complement of children, no life insurance and no trade to ply but those instilled in young Irish women: cleaning, cooking and child care.
Since life oriented me toward the dead so early in life, I was unwittingly anointed to the task of learning from that which has already passed, it was all that was left to fill the enormous need for knowing how to go about life. As I've watched my brother's children grow I see that a child can absorb encyclopedic troves of information, but is unlikely to trust it--or be able to incorporate it into themselves--until their mother or father vouches for it.
I see that as the mother wrestles and struggles to push the baby into the oxygen and gravity they will live in for the rest of their lives, forcing the child to breath and use its own muscles, and the father struggles to give it food, clothes and shelter, teaching it how to protect itself in life; they both also struggle all their lives to help the child become its mature self. Each lesson life presents is tested and tried in the arms of a loving family in order to prove its value and purpose. It takes a lifetime of working together and beside each other.
Without that proving ground information accumulates but not ability. I've seen my brothers grow enormously once they married. Their wives become the partner to struggle through all the information with. But it is a rare man who can take a grown-up childlike woman and help her mature. It seems a man wants a woman who will help them mature, not the other way around.
So, despite what others have described as a high level of intelligence, I see that my heart and soul have remained tender and childlike. I take in information but fear using it to my benefit. It seems like information for other people, but not for me.
Without my own family to mother, without my own children to enlighten the future for me, I watch the others and I think about how it all came to be. The immigrant generation took it on the chin and mostly died young. The first American generation lost a third of its members in childhood and came out with scarred hearts, minds and souls. The second American generation is doing what second generations do, getting full educations, feeling fully American with few emotional ties to the homeland of its great grandparents. They are enjoying some of the best America has to offer.
My grandparent's dreams are coming true. I'd like to tell you how it all started.