Monday, December 31, 2012

The 525,600 minutes of 2012: A season of love, loss and family history

'Seasons of Love', from the broadway play 'Rent', is one of my favourite songs, and as I began to reflect on the passages of the last year, this beautiful song was playing in my mind.  The year 2012 is not one I would care to repeat for so many reasons; however, within the 525, 600 minutes of this particular year, in addition to the darkness which fell upon us, there was also light. There were positive lessons learned, and insights about love within a family, and loss, as well as about family history, and the importance of celebrating all of the 'seasons' of life.

In part, the lyrics of the song 'Seasons of Love' read,

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?

In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died

It's time now, to sing out
Though the story never ends
Let's celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends

The first time I saw the play Rent was in 2001, in New York City, just nineteen days after the terrible day on which the planes struck the twin towers.  We were in the old Nederlander Theatre down on West 41st Street — with almost a full house — and everyone in the audience and on stage seemed to be filled with the desire to embrace life.  During the encore all those in the audience were on their feet.  Through tears, and singing as loudly as we could, audience and cast were joined in unison belting out the song.  It was a life affirming moment I will never forget.  It taught me that no matter how dark life gets, it must be celebrated by those of us who remain.

So... as I thought about this past year, I realized it is possible to remember the bright moments which came along with the very dark.

Although January of 2012 ended with a diagnosis of terminal cancer for our beloved dog Sarah, we had her with us for nine weeks after her diagnosis.  It gave us the time to truly appreciate Sarah and care for her in her last days, recognizing the light she brought into our lives. We had just over five years with our girl, and during that time she brought us more joy than we might have had if we'd been given five and twenty years, instead of just five.  Losing Sarah in April made me realize how precious are all the creatures of this earth, no matter how great or small, and made me truly grateful that we have her little brother Ulee who is a bright spark of joy in our lives each and every day.

Springtime was further darkened by the loss of my mom, but there was light in the fact that we were able to let Mom know what she meant to us just before she died in May.  In the hours before my mom fell into the deep sleep that is death, I leaned down, embraced my mother, looked into her eyes and said, 'I love you Mom', and my mom responded in kind.  Mine was not the type of family in which we often said such things to one another. When I was growing up, parents and children had their roles to play, and you just got on with it.  When my mom was dying it was as though I finally 'got it', unlike when I lost my dad.

I did not properly say goodbye to my dad because I think a part of me did not believe he would actually die, so I was more concerned about making sure his oxygen mask was on properly, and the butterfly bandages which delivered morphine stayed in place.  The madness of those last moments, before Dad fell into his quiet sleep, leave a heartbreak which will never heal, but when my mom closed her eyes for the very last time, I was caressing her forehead and stroking her arm, telling her she was truly loved.

This year, in addition to looking inside libraries and archives for the history of my family, I looked outside, watched real life unfold, and wrote about what I observed.  In the summertime I saw something in my older brother Mike which I had never before recognized, and I learned many life lessons from him, and the way in which he dealt with the death of his closest friend, Charlie.

One day in June brought with it a lovely surprise when this blog was named as one of Family Tree Magazine's Top 40 International Blogs. That very morning over coffee I had been telling my husband that I desperately needed something good to happen, anything good, and then it did.

September brought me back to Ireland again, but it felt so different this time. My observations were made with eyes that were opened wide. I watched faces and looked at places as though I had never before seen them, and would never again set eyes on them. Less time was spent in graveyards, and more time in the company of family. The flood gate holding back previously unasked questions burst open wide, and I allowed myself to be like an inquisitive seven year old who never stops asking why.

There have been far too many emotional bumps along the way this year, but we are still here, blessed with life and love, and a passion for living which beats so very strong within our hearts.  So too, gratitude is here.  Like an umbrella over all of life's blessings is the gratitude I feel for my own place in this world, and the thankfulness I feel toward each one of you for allowing me to share my journey with you. Thank You!

As we look forward to the new year, I wish for each one of you much love in your life and many blessings along the way, including many family history finds. May this world delight you each time you open your eyes to it, and may you always find some light within any darkness you might face.

It's time now, to sing out

Though the story never ends

Let's celebrate...


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Missing you Mom

It's been seven months, eight days, and a few hours since you left us, and I am really missing you Mom.  Our Christmas tree stands in the corner of the living room, bare of all decorations.  I cannot seem to find the strength to unbox them and hang them on the branches, but we will, I promise.  There are the little Santa boots in which you used to place tiny candy canes.  I recollect the shopping trip for those little sparkling red and gold treasures, and the crinkling sound made by the cellophane lid, as you freed each one from the package.  Now, I cannot bear to look at them.

Last week, I drove by your house, and noticed that the people who now live there have dressed the eaves with Christmas lights, but they are not your lights. They have no angels in their front garden, and no lights streaming up through the pine tree at the corner of the house.  Mike and Charlie were not there climbing the ladder, stringing your lights across the front of the house and over the driveway, but you know that because Charlie is with you now. He is there with you and Dad and Sarah, in Heaven, and we are here, stuck.

On Thursday evening, travelling along the escarpment, I passed the hospital where you drew your last breath, and stopped at the lookout for just a few minutes.  The air was so crisp and clear, and the lights from the city below sparkled against the black sky.  Standing in the darkness, I closed my eyes and listened for your voice, but you were not there.  Do you remember our Sunday drives in the wintertime after evening mass, when we would say the city looked 'like diamonds on black velvet'?  We would just sit there in the quiet, enjoying the view, settled in the glow of contentment.

The Christmas Tree in the city centre seems much taller this year, and is all dressed in colour, but the lights glow a little less bright.  They have a carousel for the children, and a little red train too. The park side is lined with small red and white houses, holding tableaus of Christmas inside their simple frames.  It reminds me of meeting you outside of Eatons when I was a child, after you had finished a day's work. We would stand in the snow and the ice, waiting for Dad, and watching the whirl of figures dancing in the Christmas windows, the Nutcracker Prince, and the Mouse King, the ballerinas in fondant pink dresses and crowns of sparkling sequins.

In the cemetery, all around the grave you and Dad share, there is not yet snow, but the trees are wrapped in slender ribbons of ice, and the rain is gently falling.  The winter wind has begun its rush through the trees on the escarpment, and the grass fades in patches of amber brown.  I know this is the natural cycle of life, and death is the most inescapable part of it.  Still, we want you here, with us, in our own ever unchanging Christmas tableau. In my mind's eye I see you and Dad, and all of us around the table for Christmas dinner, with Sarah and Ulee chasing each other under our feet. I know it's just a fantasy, and I dream about it only because I'm missing you Mom, and missing Dad and Sarah too.

Have a very Happy Christmas in Heaven, but know that here on earth, you are much missed.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wordless Wednesday, almost: On the train, Irish streetscapes and seascapes

With the shutter of my camera sometimes clicking away at full bore, I love to take the train in Ireland. It offers the chance to just observe and contemplate, without the worry of dodging cars while on a bicycle, or avoiding pedestrians while driving a car. I like to daydream about what life was like way back in time, and sometimes imagine my ancestors riding in a 'big iron horse'. As their train steamed through the city or the countryside, perhaps travelling along the same routes as me, did they ever think about those who came before them?

At Pearse Street Station, as the train enters the terminal.
Croke Park and a full house for the GAA Hurling Final.
Hello down there.
Just over the rail bridge, the Custom House
Just under an old fashioned bridge which takes you over the tracks.
Flying past walls of green...
...and walls of stone.
Dublin Bay at low tide
Stopping at Dún Laoghaire in a sec.
There it is.
Ah, the sea.
Bray Station 1854, now called Bray Daly Station.
The train waiting at Bray Daly to set on its way back to Dublin.
Copyright©irisheyesjg2012. All Rights Reserved.
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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Making Irish Christmas Pudding: a complex ritual fondly recollected

At the bottom of a column in an 1895 edition of the Dublin newspaper, The Freeman's Journal, appears this brief article which includes a recipe for traditional Irish Christmas Pudding:

The Freeman's Journal Newspaper, 22 November 1895.
Although it may not sound as if something boiled for eight hours would result in an appetizing outcome, if made properly by a talented cook — with a few improvements on this 1895 recipe — a delightfully delicious Irish Christmas Pudding can emerge after hours on the boil.

Certainly, there are many among us who cannot bear the thought of any sort of Christmas pudding, let alone one that has been boiling all day. Having tasted the puddings of some of the less talented cooks on our family tree, I can certainly understand why it might be avoided. I remember feeling deeply grateful when old auntie gave up on her Christmas pudding. Although I cannot imagine how it ended up in that state, her pudding often tasted like a combination of wallpaper paste and sawdust. At least Auntie had a good sense of humour about it, each time someone declined the offer of one of her puddings. My mother's Christmas puddings were always moist and delicious. I am sorry that all of you did not have the opportunity to taste one of them, and very sorry that I will never again get to enjoy her pudding with my tea.

Although my mother's formula differs in some ways from the 1895 version above, her ritual for making puddings was one inherited from generations of women before her. The talent for making it was in her bones; Mam never had to measure out a single ingredient, or consult a recipe. The preparations and the time taken would have never passed muster with Betty Crocker, because there were no shortcuts here. The time honoured course of preparation for the puddings was done over a period of weeks leading up to the Christmas season. Of course, fresh ingredients were always an integral part of the mix, and the care taken and attention to detail ensured the puddings were no less than perfect. Also, critically important were the proper implements in which to steam the mixture. When my mother emigrated from Ireland, among the items packed into her steamer trunk were the pudding tins which she would use for many years to come.

There were never ever any plums in the mix; the notion of Christmas pudding as plum pudding comes from the old English use of the word 'plumb' to describe raisins. However, there were mountains of golden sultanas, deep black currants and amber brown raisins, ruby red cherries and dates from Egypt. Added to the mix was Mam's homemade candied peel, crafted from deep yellow lemons and sweet oranges from Italy and Spain. Every piece of fruit had to be thoroughly washed, and any stems or blemishes removed. All was then dried, rolled and wrapped in white cotton cloths, and left on wooden boards for days.

Dozens of walnut, almond and pecan shells had to be cracked, and the salty nut meat pulled out, as full in its form as possible. Then the nuts had to be roughly chopped, slivered, or thinly sliced. When I was a very young child, my mother even had an odd little implement for slicing the almonds wafer thin. Bowls of flour had to be sifted, wafting down into the vessel like the softest snow. As noted in the 1895 recipe, the butcher's wares came into play as well. Mam would go to the shop of an old German butcher downtown, and ask for a couple of large squares of suet. She would slice off the outer layer of each one, and shave the suet down until it was almost as fine as flour.

Once the ingredients were properly prepared, all of the components were set out on the kitchen table. The end result would be many puddings, so my mother would have an assortment of large mixing bowls at the ready. Her hands would work the mix, so she scrubbed them thoroughly before touching a single ingredient. Then, from all that was laid before her, Mam would draw out and fold in various amounts — sultanas, currants, almonds, peel, flour — pausing to assess her work, making little additions here and there, turning and tumbling all in together, a mesmerizing whirl in the bowl.

After the ingredients were married together, parchment paper was placed over the mix, a china plate over the parchment, a fresh tea towel over the bowl, and it would 'rest' for a while, usually a period of days, until Mom was ready to add the Guinness Porter. Guinness Porter was not available in Canada when I was a child, and since he could not buy it here, each year my dad would ask a friend of his, who travelled to Dublin every summer, to bring back a couple of bottles. Usually a cardboard carrier with six small bottles would show up in the late Autumn, and Dad would place it on a storage shelf in the cool basement to keep it just right. I used to love watching Mam pour the creamy black porter into the bowls. The beer seemed to hiss and giggle as it rolled down over the ingredients. The fragrance of the entire concoction was heavenly.

When the porter was added, the time for making wishes was at hand. My mother would let each one of us take a turn, stirring the spoon through the massive amalgam in a large mixing bowl. Anyone who happened by the house while she was making puddings was welcome to have a stir and make a wish. As we plunged the large spoon into the mix, Mam would say, 'Three times around — make sure it's a full three turns, and be certain to make your wish'. Oh, when I think of some of the wishes made over those puddings.

After all of the preparation was complete, the resulting mixture in each bowl was again tightly covered with parchment paper, a thick layer of cotton tea towels, and a china plate on top as a weight. The bowls were placed on a shelf downstairs and left for days, sometimes weeks. There was no fixed schedule for this, my mam once explained. She would know when the time was right to 'tin' the pudding and steam it, based solely on the colour of the mixture and the fragrance emitting from it. Every couple of days, Mam would lift the elaborate cover and check on the pudding progress.

When the time was right, Mam would pile the gorgeous concoction into the pudding tins, place the tins into pots half-filled with water, and set them on the cooker. Atop each one sat an old china plate, ensuring just the right amount of weight to secure the pudding tin lid. Then the watching and waiting would begin. As the hours ticked by, Christmas music might play on the stereo, or the house might be still. Linens for the Christmas table might be ironed, or cards written out. Snow might be gently blowing in winter's breeze, or the crackle of ice might bite at the window glass, but all would take second place to the sound of Mom's Christmas puddings in the pots dancing on the cooker.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Jane & Teresa: A brief history of two sisters

Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Little Women: From childhood, the best loved novels on my bookshelf were those which featured stories about sisters. I always wanted to have a sister, and imagined she and I would be just like Jane and Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Together we would be not just sisters, but great friends and confidantes who only wanted the best for each other.

In uncovering the life of my maternal great-grandmother Jane Early Ball, I found a 'sister story' in the details of the documents, the story of Jane Early and her youngest sister Teresa.

There are no extant images of either Jane or Teresa, at least there are none in my possession. Imagination is now the only artist that can sketch the faces of these two women for me. There are neither pictures, nor paintings, there are only documents, the bare bones of these two lives. Looking at the documents elicits more questions than answers, but still I wonder, is it possible to find the real flesh and blood sisters, Jane and Teresa, ‘between the lines’ on those pages? Although you might imagine a thirteen year age gap would mean they had little in common, the documents speak to a relationship that must have been close.

Jane Early was born in Dublin City in April of 1852, the fourth born child, and second born daughter, in a family of fifteen children. The now faint entry in the parish register for 13 April 1852 tells of Jane’s parents, Thomas Early and Julia Moss, bringing their baby daughter to be baptized at St. Catherine of Alexandria Roman Catholic Church on Meath Street. Thomas’s sister Bridget Early was Jane’s godmother.

In terms of Irish history, Jane was born in the year which is usually acknowledged as marking the end of An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger (1845-52), the second of two major famines which blighted the island of Ireland. Although the famine may have been over ‘officially’, in many areas of the country, including Dublin City, food shortages would continue to affect families for years to come.

The Early family lived in the ‘Liberties’, an area of Dublin notorious in the 19th century for its grinding poverty and filthy tenements. During the famine period matters were made worse in the area by an influx of persons, particularly from the south and west of the country. They had come to the city seeking food and shelter, in hopes of escaping the horrors of the famine. History tells us the streets of the Liberties were littered with many homeless and indigent desperately seeking relief.

Jane's family was still living in the Liberties when her youngest sibling, her sister Teresa, was born in March of 1865. Teresa was christened on St. Patrick's Day, 17 March 1865 in St. Catherine's church, the site of the baptisms of all of her siblings. Thirteen years earlier Jane had been baptized here, and now she was her youngest sister's godmother.

As they stood at the font on the altar of the church for the baptism of each one of these girls, I often wonder, what kind of life did Thomas Early and Julia Moss hope would come to pass for their daughters Jane and Teresa?

Along with their thirteen siblings and their parents, as sisters Jane and Teresa were growing up, they lived principally in the Liberties area of Dublin City. The family moved many times, living at various addresses on Meath, High, and Thomas Streets. With the birth of each child seemed to come a new address. By the time of their respective marriages, their father was dead, and Jane and Teresa were living with their mother on Strand Street Little on the north side of the river Liffey.

Jane did not marry until she reached the age of 32, and she married a slightly younger man. On 24 August 1884, in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Marlborough Street Dublin, Jane Early married her beau Francis Ball. Francis, the son of Patrick Ball and Mary McCabe, was a carpenter and box maker just like his father, and at the age of 31 was a few months younger than Jane. At 19 years of age, Teresa was by Jane's side as her maid of honor. There would be many times in Jane’s life in which I would find Teresa there by her side.

Four years after Jane and Francis pledged themselves to one another for life, Teresa Early also wed in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, joined in marriage to John Pell on 23 September 1888. Jane did not stand as a witness for Teresa. Perhaps responsibility for her four month old baby daughter kept Jane from the task, but I like to think she was there for the occasion, watching Teresa take her marriage vows.

Left: St. Catherine's Church in which all of the Early children were baptized.
Right: St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in which both Jane and Teresa were married.
Following their respective marriages, there was some common ground in the lives of Jane and Teresa, but for the most part their lives took markedly different paths.

After their marriage Jane and Francis lived at a number of different addresses. In the summer of 1885, on 27 July, Jane welcomed her first child, a boy whom they named Patrick Joseph, (my grandfather). The family was living in rooms in a house on Henrietta Street at the time of his birth. Down the cobbled road, the house is just a stone’s throw away from the prestigious King's Inns, the site at which barristers have been educated since the mid 18th century. The life of Jane and her family could not have been more different from that enjoyed by those educated at the King's Inns.

Civil registration record of Jane's eldest son, my maternal grandfather, Patrick Joseph Ball.
The street sign for Montague and the little
house at #16. It is now a restaurant.

When their daughter Jane was born in May of 1888, Jane and her family were living at 16 Montague Street, just a short walk from St. Stephen’s Green. Away from the tenements of Henrietta Street, and away from the heart of the ‘Liberties’, this small and simple accommodation could have portended a life of good things, but it was not to be. Over the course of the life of their family, Jane and Francis would move at least six times, and life would remain difficult.

Teresa Early’s household appears to have had more stability. First she and husband John Pell lived at 16 Merchant’s Quay, and then they moved to a small cottage at 23 Liffey Street, where they would live for the rest of their lives.

The birth of a baby was almost an annual occurrence for Jane, while Teresa had a child about every two years. There were also two years in which both women were pregnant around the same time. In 1889 both women gave birth, with a daughter named Rosanna Maria born to Teresa on 6 September, and a son named Christopher born to Jane on 16 December. In 1893, both women birthed sons; Francis Joseph was born to Jane in February, and John Junior arrived for Teresa in August of that year.

Jane's sister Teresa was godmother of the first three of Jane's five children, Patrick, Mary Agnes, and baby Jane, yet another reason why I imagine they were close. At the baptism of each child, as the priest gently poured the holy water over the baby's head, did Teresa gaze over to Jane and smile at her sister over the blessing of another child? Each time Jane learned she was carrying another baby, was Teresa the first sister she told? Did Jane have to ask Teresa to be godmother each time, or was it understood?

Only three of Jane's five children lived to adulthood, Patrick, Mary Agnes, and Christopher. Jane’s namesake and second born daughter died in 1889 at the age of fifteen months (see: Finding baby Jane: ‘Boxmaker’s child’). Youngest son Francis, namesake for his father, died in 1905 at the age of twelve (see: Francis Ball: 1893-1905: 'casemaker's son' lost).

Teresa would also know the loss of children. Her first born son William fell on the fields of battle in Europe during the First World War (see: A young man in a photograph...). Teresa's son John died in 1927, having lived only until the age of 34.

In August of 1889 at the time of baby Jane's death, Jane and Teresa and their respective families were living all together at 16 Merchant's Quay. Baby Jane's godmother Teresa was pregnant with her first child. On 7 September 1889, just one week after tiny Jane was buried, Teresa had a daughter of her own. Rosanna Maria Pell would never know her cousin Jane.

These losses bring more questions to the fore. When Jane brought her deceased daughter Jane to Glasnevin for burial, was baby Jane’s godmother Teresa by her side? When Jane returned to Glasnevin cemetery in June of 1905 to bury her youngest son Francis, was his Aunt Teresa there?

Jane not only saw two of her young children buried, but she had to bury her husband as well. Francis Ball was relatively young when he died, only 56. Suffering from dementia, Francis had been treated on two occasions in the infirmary of the South Dublin Union Workhouse in 1907, in July and again in August. He was committed to the workhouse infirmary for the last time in January of 1908, where he died 3 July 1909. Teresa's husband John survived her by four years, living until the age of 80, and dying in May of 1943.

In 1914 Jane died in Dublin, a full seventeen years before her granddaughter, my mother Mary, was born into a home just a few miles away from where her grandmother once lived. In an unkempt area of Glasnevin Cemetery, my great-grandmother is interred, alone and in an unmarked grave. Teresa died in 1939, a full twenty-five years after the death of Jane. Teresa is buried with her husband John and two of their children, their daughter Rosanna and son John.

In the middle of this patch of earth is the unmarked grave of my maternal great-grandmother Jane Early Ball.
Thus ends the brief history of two sisters, Jane and Teresa, born into hardship, and bred into the history of Ireland. Where is an accounting of the happy times?  Where is the joy? Surely we can see it between the lines. It is there, fully present, in the lives they lived within the heart of their family.


Burial Registers, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin: see Glasnevin Trust.
Civil registration records, retrieved at GRO Reading Room, Dublin. (reference numbers available on request).
Crowley, John, William J. Smyth & Michael Murphy, editors. Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, New York University Press, 2012.
Parish registers of St. Catherine's Meath Street, National Library of Ireland (NLI) microfilm #s 7138, 7139, 7140.
Parish registers of St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral, NLI microfilm #9161.

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