Today marks the 78th anniversary of the death of Maria 'Mary' Fitzpatrick Ball, my maternal grandmother. Maria (pronounced Mariah) was born 22 June 1894 in Swords, County Dublin, Ireland. She was the second born child, and the first born daughter, of Thomas Fitzpatrick and Maria Hynes Fitzpatrick. In 1921, Mary married Patrick Ball, for whom she bore eight children, one of whom died in 1928.
Mary Ball died seven months after her daughter — my own mother Mary — celebrated her 5th birthday, yet even into the 81st and last year of her life, my mom still had very clear memories of her mother, and of life in their home around the time of my grandmother's death. They were recollections of sight and sound, scent and feeling, instead of what we might consider actual memories, but they were with her until the day my mother died.
They say that women learn how to be mothers from their own mothers, but for my mother the lessons never took place, because she was only five and a half years old when her mother died. Mary Ball died of blood poisoning, the result of an infection of a cut on her face, a cut possibly made by her young baby John's tiny fingernails. Penicillin, which could have saved her, was invented in 1928, but was not widely available, so she never received it.
The image of the mark on her mother's face was emblazoned on my mother's brain. There was a look in Mom's eyes each time she talked about it, at exactly that moment, she was seeing the mark and remembering what followed from it. This loss had an impact so profound for my mom that I will never truly understand it. My mother described the mark in exactly the same way each time she mentioned it, and she gestured to show on her own face precisely where it was, followed always by the exhortation, ‘God Bless the mark’. Mom would say, “A slender purple line, with blue and grey behind it, going from here to just there”, and I would imagine the colours soft and smudged, like those in a Renoir pastel.
My mother's memories were the memories of a five year old child. She did not remember the neighbourhood women coming to the house to prepare the body, and lay her mother out in the bed Mary Ball had shared with her husband for sixteen years. Mom did not recollect precisely when the mirrors in the house were covered with black crepe, or when the death announcement appeared, rimmed in black paper, or the black arm bands each man wore on his sleeve. Intellectually, my mother knew each one of these rituals were a part of that day, but she did not remember them because her memories were the emotional memories of a child.
Mom recalled wearing a very pretty dress, but the colour of it was lost to her. Instead, what remained was the feeling of a stiff lace collar which felt slightly itchy against her skin. She and her sisters wore pristine white knee socks and their black hornpipe dress shoes. She recalled the stilled faces of the adults, and their hushed conversation. She recalled standing on tip-toes looking out the window with her sisters, Bernadette and Kathleen, each time the funeral cortege passed their house, as it ritually circled the block once, twice, three times. She recollected the muscular black horses, the steam emitting from their noses, the tall black plumes which crowned each one of their heads, the sound their hooves made as they struck the cobbled pavement. For my mother these moments were locked in time. Each and every time she recounted the story, she was once again that five year old little girl.
When Mary Ball died she was only 42 years old. At the time of her death, her youngest son John was less than a year old, and her youngest daughter Kathleen was only three and a half. Neither has any memory of her. Her eldest son Anthony was not yet fourteen.
On Christmas morning, perhaps there was a small parcel awaiting each child — a pencil box, or handkerchiefs, or a tiny baby doll — but these things were of no consequence to a little child. All that mattered on that morning was the absence of a beloved mother, a loss no sort of Christmas magic could restore.
There were no sprigs of holly hanging on the door at 69 Gordon Street in Ringsend, Dublin. Instead, wrapped round the iron door knocker was a length of black ribbon — its long tails blowing in the winter wind — telling all that death had visited the Ball family. For them, that year there was no Christmas.
(Some of this post first appeared in 2011).