8:45PM Thanksgiving Day – GLOVES OFF:
My mother, Mary, and her sister Alice were engaged in a wrestling match on the dining room table. Aloysius – my father - and Alice’s plus one; Jack, attempted to pry them apart, but both women had locked themselves into each other’s hair with vice-like grips, despite both their hands being splattered with custard trifle remnants. All I could do as an observing teenager was sit with mouth agape while holding my new Super 8mm silent movie camera, recording the whole scene. It was typical behaviour at family get-togethers of old, but this year, this Thanksgiving, was meant to be celebrated as a reunion several years and many miles since the previous family sit-down dinner.
My plan was to document the long-awaited family reunion – five years after we emigrated to Boston; however, I quickly found myself being caught between being a neutral documentarian and unwavering loyalty to my mother.
“Will the two of yous, please stop!” I yelled to deaf ears. “This is my favourite part of the year and you’re ruining it! I hate family reunions! They always end up the same way!”
The hypocrisy acted out by the two sisters - writhing around atop a table full of food, initiated a memory flash of the day we left Ireland. The tears of Aunt Alice and my grandmother waving goodbye alongside other heartbroken dockside relatives of migrating family members, touched my young emotional wellbeing. At the time, I imagined those left behind in the Emrald Isle, were desolately pondering if they would ever hear from or see their loved ones again. To those onboard, a ship sailing into the sunset is the beginning of an adventure, the onset of a journey. But to some of those left to grieve the departing, it can feel like the end of their own journey, leaving them to pick up the remaining pieces of a fractured family.
That’s why I chose to get this day on film, because it would be saved for posterity-sake to be sentimentally viewed time again in the future with fond recollection of days gone by.
The Sixties was a time of expensive long-distance phone calls where you competed with the crackling static on the line trying to have a conversation, so the choicest form of communication was the cheaper method using the written word and a postage stamp. It wasn’t instant news or timely updates, but it was something tangible that could be saved and re-visited at a future time. However, with the passage of time, weekly letters can easily fade into monthly correspondence, then drift towards a lazy twice per year, finally receding like distant memories into forlorn remembrances spoken around an open fireplace and a warm glass of stout.
“Did you hear from that one?” Would be a commonly asked question. “I must write to them, soon.”
Laziness turned to habit, and that letter never got written. Then, as if by magic, all past disagreements were forgotten, like time and distance had cured all the ill feelings and jealousies, wiping the slate clean.
“If only me sister were here,” my mother would lament. “Why did we ever leave Ireland?”
“Remember, Mare,” my father would say. “We came for a better life.”
“Sure, tis better to be amongst family poor than lonely and rich,” she would argue.
“Aye, my love,” my father would empathise. “But are we not better off, now? Sure, don’t we have each other?”
“Can’t even get a daycent cup of tea in a city famous for its tea party.”
My father would laugh at the innocent quips my mother often entertained him with. Being born into abject poverty in a damp, wet land with little job prospects; schooling – although a necessity – was not always convenient for families that needed wage earners to heat the home, put food on the table, and pay the inflated rents of slumlords. So, like many others of her time, my mother had to find early work in button factories and other menial and repetitive jobs, where unsolicited education accompanied canteen breaks relayed from the tip of every Irish Biddy’s tongue eager to stretch truth beyond recognition.
“My Seamus saw it with his own eyes and told it to me as I tell it to you, now,” would justify a story’s authenticity.
“Daft as a donkey’s arse that one is. Sure everyone knows the man upstairs was Jesus’s real father.”
In a Catholic country, to question authenticity, is to spit on the word of God.
“The priests have the knowledge you seek. Sure, why do you need to listen to all that rubbish on the radio? Nothing but filthy lies told by dirty heathens!”
Gaining the trust of the Irish has always been a difficult proposition. Suspicion and a lack of acceptance of outsiders is engrained into the indoctrinated embodiment of every child of Irish soil.
“Tis the God’s honest truth!” The liars would always finish with.
Catholic hypocrisy knows no bounds. Random expressions of gossip fuels an ignorance that turns folklore into fact, and fact into suspicion, distrust, then finally, ostracization. It was the latter that forced the decision to rip us from the familiarity of immediate family and sail across the Atlantic to a foreign land with foreign ideas and foreign food.
But time seemingly forgot the ignorance of the devout, so we found ourselves reluctantly assimilating into what we deemed American culture – and the uniquely American Thanksgiving was one of the holiday traditions that converted this young filmmaker into a free young man.
8:42PM – PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKE:
“Mam’s death is on your shoulders,” Alice coldly stated, as she took her seat at the table. “She was never the same after ye’s left.”
Aunt Alice had just downed another glass of false courage, before raising her voice to my mother.
“I was never her favourite,” my mother replied. “You made sure of that.”
“Now, Mare,” my father tried to intervene, when hearing raised voices. “Tis not the way to welcome family. Sure, they’ve only just arrived in America.”
“Yes, fresh arrival, but with stale memories of spite,” my mother pointed out.
My father had been in the middle of enough encounters of similar ilk between the two sisters back in Ireland, to know when hostilities were about to kick off.
“She can feck off back home for all I care,” was Mary’s conclusion.
No sooner had the words trailed from my mother’s mouth, a lump of custard flew across the dining table and filled the void her words had just vacated.
8:40PM – CALM BEFORE THE STORM:
I was panning the dining room with my movie camera, documenting the pre-dinner chit-chat, while in the adjoining living room, the coal fireplace glowed, spreading much needed warmth on a cool evening. My father and Jack clowned for the camera, pretending to be old Irish women by draping table napkins over their heads, while singing Irish songs of hope, rebellion, and the forty shades of green pastures they once roamed. The silent camera captured the tomfoolery but missed a roaring chorus of Mother Macrae. However, the camera didn’t fail to capture two pairs of male eyes tearing up from the words of the emotive song. Jack – another displaced Paddy had met my Aunt Alice on the ship coming over, and an immediate attraction blossomed, causing wedding bells to ring loudly in an expectant air of matrimonial coupling.
Like many Irish immigrants to the USA, Jack also left a grieving mother behind, so any songs about Irish mothers solicited the same response in distant sons. Melancholy to the point of tears.
The strongest emotion displayed in that touching moment was from my father. My grandmother on his side had passed away during our voyage to the new world. Some said it was her time, but other bitter gossipers said she died heartbroken after her son uncaringly sailed away. Having neither the funds nor the time to get back for her funeral, my father went on a drunken three-day wake through the Irish pubs that Boston provided a taste of home to those mourning souls pining for the Auld Sod they left behind in search of a better life. His pub crawl of self-pity ended when my mother tracked him down and ordered him out of the pub, then marched him home by his ear – much to the amusement of his fellow drinkers.
Since that day, my father has mellowed in his emotional reactions, and found a respectable job in a post office sorting facility, where he enjoys a camaraderie of fellowship with similar tales of Irish woe to share in a pseudo psychotherapeutic counselling environment. Well, that’s what he calls the after-work drinks at the pub. My mother calls it the pub of woes.
8:35PM – STAND WELL BACK:
“Will ye put down that thing and come sit, please, Sully,” my mother addressed me using my nickname. I was a serious child of Eireann for my young years. The constant bickering and in-fighting of the family of my childhood, had left little room for frivolous youthful normality. Instead, it created an introspective sullen personality, where I used art as an escape, and filmmaking as an expression of my true opinions.
“Ye are so sullen,” she would say. “That, I’ll call ye Sully.”
It stuck and most of the family would address me by my nickname. I didn’t mind. Having a nickname was a sign of respect and admiration, so I gladly accepted it.
“I’m capturing the moment, Mam” I replied. “It’s going into my documentary.”
“Make sure you get my good side,” Aunt Alice mentioned.
“That’ll be the back of yer head, then,” my mother quippingly followed, causing my father to halt his conversation with Jack and throw a disapproving glance toward my mother.
In one innocuous moment of flippancy, my mother had unintentionally lit the touch paper to the subsequent eventful evening.
8:15PM – A CAREFUL REMINDER:
“Yous should have been there,” my Aunt Alice said to my mother. “Family from all corners of the globe attended.”
“Families with money,” my mother tried to justify her absence from her own mother’s funeral. “We were barely scraping by. I couldn’t leave my job. Not so soon after starting. I would have surely lost it to someone else.”
“We just thought that you and Aloysius had started your own trend of missing funerals. Too busy to remember your own - back home.”
“Mare?” My father attempted a distraction. “Have a sip of the black stuff and let’s get everything on the table. I’m sure we’re all hungry to sample your fine cooking.”
The condescending smile from Alice’s lips suggested the topic was not closed. Not by a longshot.
7:45PM - REUNIFICATION:
My mother and Aunt Alice sat on the living room sofa sifting through the photo album Alice had brought with her across the sea. They giggled at photos of them together holidaying in Ballybunion, gasped at the photos showing the hand-me-down St. Vincent De Paul’s charity clothes their mother used to dress them in, and silently blessed themselves whenever they came across a photo of their late parents.
The initial news of her sister’s emigration had excited my mother. At last, she had her sister close-by to confide in. Momentarily forgotten, were the sibling disagreements, the vociferous arguments between family members of the generation that preceded them, and the hardships they had endured living under the roof of parents who were always late to rise, late to work, late to build any self-esteem in their two daughters, but always early at pub opening times – then, late home after closing.
For the first time in a long while, I glimpsed a moment of happiness creep across my mother’s face, and I was so ecstatic to capture that moment on film.
7:30PM - ARRIVAL:
My Aunt Alice ruffled my hair as I greeted her at the front door.
“Don’t look at the camera, Auntie Alice,” I directed. “I’m making a documentary. Just act natural.”
My directing debut lacked the commitment to control. This was demonstrated by Aunt Alice curtsying while raising her skirt above her knees.
“Ye shameless harlot,” my mother said in passing.
“I hear short skirts are all the rage these days,” Alice pointed out. “Lucky I can sew. I’ll have new hems in no time.”
The disagreement in opinions didn’t prevent the two reunited sisters from hugging each other warmly. For my mother, this was indeed a day for thanksgiving.
“This is all so new to me, Mary,” Alice confessed. “I feel like I went to sleep in Ireland and woke up in heaven. Such opulence, wealth, and friendliness. We stopped to ask directions to your house, and the policeman went out of his way to accompany us to the corner. Ask directions in Ireland and you’ll get the reply, Who’s askin?”
“Well, you’re here, now,” my mother reassured her. “At long last. Tis the fourth Thursday in November and the first day in your new life. That’s a lot to be thankful for.”
7:25PM – LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION:
“I hope there’s film in that thing, son,” my father asked. “Your mother has prayed for this moment for so long. Having her sister living near us, will be a godsend. No more pining for home when everyone’s in the same spot, hey? Would ye like a song to start things off?”
I hadn’t the heart to tell him there was no sound recording in the cine camera, but his antics at the piano made up for that - as he played and sang a version of Molly Malone at the top of his voice. With every high note in the chorus section, he comically raised his seated posture, then dramatically flopped back down on the piano stool to begin a new verse. The festive air of the Thanksgiving holiday had been set. Music, a warm fireplace, and the smell of my mother’s cooking pre-empted the arrival of real family to our humble Boston dwelling. It was an opportunity for me to use my birthday present to document the beginning of a new chapter and the anticipated emotional reunion between estranged Irish sisters in their new land of opportunity.
My mind drifted to imagine that across the country, families and friends alike were giving thanks to a time in the past when the pilgrims shared their harvest with the natives of a land they would soon displace, but I was too young to recognise the irony. However, across the centuries, Thanksgiving has evolved into a time for families and friends to share stories, food, and drink in a welcoming and friendly atmosphere, so I had high hopes for the success of the rest of the evening.
7:24PM – ANTICIPATION
It’s the fourth Thursday of November. The table is almost set, there’s a sparkle in my mother’s eye that hasn’t been there in a long while, and I’m excited to get this all on film. When Aunt Alice arrives, it’s going to be great seeing family back together again…