Last November I wrote about my discovery of the records of my mom's brother Thomas, a brother who died almost three years before my mother was born. Mom had a photograph of Thomas, but beyond that knew nothing about him. His life was never spoken of, until my mother asked the question that had long been weighing on her mind, 'we had another brother, didn't we?'. The information gleaned from documents informing the passages of his life and his death do little to tell us of the mark Thomas made on his family, so when I was once again in Ireland I decided to ask my family members about him.
The story I was told made me realize that no matter how long each of us spends on this earth, no matter how small a footprint we make, we matter to someone. People hold their loved ones within their hearts, although decades may pass in which some names are never uttered.
It is a strange thing to hear the recounting of one man’s long ago loss of a sibling, a loss which conveys such fresh sadness that it belies the passage of over eighty years. It is as though the recollection brings us back into precisely that place and that moment in time, and there is an intimacy in the story which makes a listener feel like an interloper.
On the day their parents returned home without baby Thomas, there were no questions from the Ball children, although the elder among them longed to ask their mother and their father what had happened that afternoon. Instead, as she always did, Mary Ball began to prepare a simple evening meal for her husband and the little ones she still had. She leaned heavily into the table while her hands quietly completed their task, chopping cabbage, peeling potatoes, and slicing small rashers of bacon.
Little Gerard joined her at the table, standing steadfast next to his mother, pocketing himself into the folds of her long skirt, his tiny hand gripping tight to her apron. He could feel her body trembling, and almost swaying, as though she was rocking a baby to sleep. She would not utter a word. He looked up to see heavy tears silently streaming down her beautiful face. He gently tugged on her skirt and his mother gazed down at him, causing those tears to fall ever so lightly onto his forehead and down over his nose. Letting them dry where they anointed him, he would not wipe away those tears. They were the mark that told Gerard his baby brother Thomas was dead. He did not move away from his mother, but stood there silent and stock-still until she was ready to hang the cooking pot over the fire.
That night, tucked away warm and safe in the room he shared with all of his siblings, Gerard wept quietly, a little boy with no idea about how he could solve his mother's deep sorrow, but desperately wanting to do so. Gone was the tiny wooden cradle which once sat on the floor next to his bed.