My Grandmother’s Dream
A family story across the years
When Doreen Mary Frick first saw an old photograph of a young 1900s lady, she was immediately drawn to her. She discovered the woman’s identity, and her story, and shares with Boomer readers the story of Mary Jane, her grandmother.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart,
and try to love the questions themselves …
Rainer Maria Rilke
A very young girl climbs into bed. She falls asleep as her mother scratches her tiny back. And while she sleeps, her sweet mother cries. Silent tears, a great heart, a night that has no morning.
This story began long ago, but changed in its telling. I will stay close to the truth, for it is in my nature, but I will look at it from afar, through the eyes of one who falls asleep with tears from long-ago sorrows.
Believe in a love that is stored up for you like an inheritance … (Rainer Maria Rilke)
The little girl wakes to a quiet house. Snuggling deeper under her down comforter, she shakes her head of honey hair and thinks she can smell her mother’s bread. The thought of a buttered slice quickens her from her sleepy nest, and soon she’s tippy-toeing to the kitchen in search of a seat by the fire, a quilt thrown over her goosebumps, a smile from her mother.
But the kitchen is empty. The bread has not been baked, the house is cold, and she cannot find her mother. Mary Jane is so scared she’s too scared to cry out, frozen in place with no one to turn to. Tears form and begin to spill when her brother appears in the doorway and she runs to his side.
But he pushes her away.
Whatever is wrong, it is terribly wrong. He tells her to sit down, he will make her a cup of tea. His voice is cracking and his eyes are red and swollen and Mary Jane wants to ask what is wrong but the words are stuck in her five-year-young throat.
Father died last night.
Mother is taking care of things.
She told me to watch you until she returns.
A shake of his head, and the subject is closed. They will not discuss Father again, and Mary Jane will be brave because brave is what she has been taught.
Brave. Quiet. Helpful.
But she can taste tears as they fall into her tea cup.
This story began long ago, but while it was in the making, a phone call came to the writer and she stepped aside from her story to listen to the caller from California tell her that the man she thought was going to marry her, has changed his mind. With a winsome and faraway voice she said she thought that after all these years being a widow, she had found love again, and now that love has failed to commit.
and I know she is the brave sort, but even the brave ones cry …
Mary Jane cannot swallow, her throat is stuck with unspokens. When her brother isn’t looking she dunks the thick bread into her lukewarm tea. She folds her hands around the cup to disguise the dunking part because Mother does not allow such things, and Brother is upset, and Father is gone, and she doesn’t want to cause any trouble. She cannot bear to cause trouble.
Brother starts a fire in the cookstove and puts the kettle on to heat. Her tea water was from last night’s fire, last night when Father was on his last breaths, last night when Mother tended him into the Promised Land. Last night when Mary Jane fell asleep and did not know anything of terrors.
Last night seemed so long ago.
She sat in her chair and felt her little heart breaking. Father was the songster of their home, the joking laughing Philadelphia grave-digger with big strong hands, a great black beard, and a drinking problem.
Father loved to call her his little Mary Janey, loved to swing and twirl and jig the evening away, cooing to his little Irish lassie who sat on his knee and watched him by the fire cleaning his great boots and brushing his wonderful great coat. The great coat that had carried him across the ocean to the Emerald Isle where he had gone away to this whole year for to see his other daughter, his older child by his first marriage, a sister Mary Jane would never meet because this half-sister was on her dying days and her father had boarded the ship to see her before she died.
To see her buried.
His Annie-girl, all of nineteen. Her father’s heart was broken, on his way back to America he changes his ways. He confesses his sins to his Philadelphia minister, and prepares to meet his Maker because somewhere on the ocean journey home to his second family, he has caught a terrible sickness. The good man will die at age fifty-five.
This part is documented in an old family Bible, this column of words in tribute to a man named John Kerr who died in 1895. The pieces of a life are not always this clear, but we have all had a grandparent, a parent, a history, and wondered about what it was like when they went through hard times.
And this is the story that appeared as the great-granddaughter of John Kerr came upon her grandmother’s Bible, the grandmother named Mary Jane, who was once a little girl who lost her poppa when she was but five-going-on-six.
She who reconciles the ill-matched threads of her life
and weaves them gratefully into a single cloth … Rainer Maria Rilke
And the little girl waited for her big brother to get home from work, for now it was he who would bear the brunt of the workload. Her mother would take in boarders and cook meals and through it all she would keep a steady watch over the household. The turn of the century was a time of tumult, and a time of busy work, but it was also a time of a little child growing up and missing her father and the bright sunshine he gave them – and the troubles he brought with him from Ireland.
Mary Jane would grow into a lovely young woman and fall in love with a man from Ireland, and he would ask her to marry him, and John Stevenson would give her a ring with that promise.
But promises are made on today, on this one hope that tomorrow is given us, and when typhus swept through the workplace where John Stevenson was working, the hearty and handsome man to whom she was betrothed would fall victim to its grip, and pass away in the summer of his twenty-fourth year.
There is a stop in the story because I know no more. Perhaps it was a grief to be put away like her wedding gown, where in the privacy of her room Mary Jane will weep for the first love of her young adult life.
In my author’s mind, it is here, once again, I stray from the story and its facts on paper to fall in love with the poetry of old. In this author’s heart, I have my grandmother Mary Jane receiving a poetry book, a last gift from her beloved carpenter.
And Yeats fits this time period, and has found a place in this author’s poet-heart, for it is in the long-ago tears, and long ago braveries where I find the gold to weave into stories …
Stories about a girl named Mary Jane who lost her love when she was but seventeen.
The Player Queen (Song from an Unfinished Play)
My mother dandled me and sang,
‘How young it is, how young!’
And made a golden cradle
That on a willow swung.
‘He went away,’ my mother sang,
‘When I was brought to bed,’
And all the while her needle pulled
The gold and silver thread.
She pulled the thread and bit the thread
And made a golden gown,
And wept because she had dreamt that I
was born to wear a crown.
‘When she was got,’ my mother sang,
‘I heard a sea-mew cry,
And saw a flake of the yellow foam
that dropped upon my thigh.’
How therefore could he help but braid
The gold into my hair,
And dream that I should carry
The golden top of care?
William Butler Yeats, Irish poet
And Mary Jane will be courted and wed five years later, to her beloved’s younger brother George, and there, my good friend, is where the story ends, and begins …
Read more childhood memories and other contributions from Boomer readers in our From the Reader department.
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