Like most people my age, I didn’t really know most of my grandparents. Three of them had died by the time I hit double digits. But the older I get, the more curious I become about them as I marvel at their lives and how they compare to mine. With both my parents now on the other side as well, I am left with only the family stories in the place where I hope my own grandchildren will have real memories.
These family histories focus a lot on my grandfathers, which I suppose isn’t really a surprise since both were involved in wars. My paternal grandfather, Joe Scully, fought for the British Army during the First World War. He was a country boy from Laois who had lied about his age to turn himself in.
He was the last of my grandparents to die and spent some of his final years with us when I was a young teenager, so I have vivid memories of him telling stories around the dinner table.
Of course, like most children, I wasn’t very interested in his stories at the time. How I wish I could go back for just one evening to listen to his stories about being shipwrecked and not swimming and his time in India again.
My maternal grandfather, George Power, was in the old IRA. Although he died when I was about four years old, it was the stories of his “feats” during the Revolutionary War that achieved legendary status in our family. To hear as a girl the story of his involvement in the capture of a British General on the banks of the Blackwater River outside Fermoy, Co Cork was a far better adventure than any other The Famous Five or The Secret Seven served.
My grandmothers were quieter, smaller characters in our family history. Joe’s wife May was also a farmer who kept chickens in her garden in Middle Third in Killester in Dublin; a home made available by the British government to ex-soldiers and where they lived together all their lives.
I knew a little more about my mother’s mother, Kathleen. She had a maths degree from UCC and went to England after independence to teach – apparently because she didn’t know Irish, which was a requirement for teachers in the new Free State.
In England she met my grandfather who had left Ireland during or shortly after the Civil War because he was opposed to the treaty. At the outbreak of World War II my grandparents returned home and George enlisted in the Irish Army to serve during The Emergency. They spent most of their lives at Dún Laoghaire in Co Dublin.
My mother, Noirin, always said she was a bit disappointed for Kathleen because she wasn’t academically gifted. That wasn’t true – my mother was simply much more concerned with words than with numbers. So I had Kathleen cast as a pretty, well – apologies to all math teachers everywhere – boring woman.
However, it was Kathleen who decided that my mother needed to spend a year abroad in her early 20s to gain some maturity. This led to Noirin spending a year in Spain teaching English to Spanish girls in a convent outside of Seville. A sort of gap year – highly unusual in Ireland in the 1950s.
My mother passed away last January and I’m only now coming to terms with the fact and have started sorting through her house. I came across a few letters that Kathleen had written to her in Seville that year.
These two precious letters, which I have never seen before, were the most beautiful gift. As an adult, reading them is the first time I can ‘hear’ my grandmother’s voice. And I met a very different woman than what existed in my imagination.
Both letters appear to have been written in a hurry. Reading them gives me the impression of a busy woman using precious minutes to write a few lines to her only daughter, with whom she is obviously close. I recognize this relationship because it mirrors mine with my mother. Neither of us had sisters, so we both grew up in male-dominated households.
There is a conspiratorial tone to Kathleen’s writing that I know very well. In a letter, she says she’s been busy all day and that none of the three men in the house offered to lift a finger to help. Your despair is a universal cry!
About a week before I found With those two letters, I had phoned my own youngest daughter, who was just finishing a magical six-month Erasmus semester in Padua. She didn’t want her odyssey to end and had fallen so in love with Italy that she ‘la dolce vita tattooed on her thigh.
She hesitated to book her flight home. The purpose of my call was to tell her to pull herself together. Airfares were skyrocketing and I needed them to book theirs right away. My speech went something like, “Okay, I know you don’t want this to end, but it’s going to end. You will always love Italy; It will always be special, but now it’s time to come home. And Ireland is beautiful too.”
It was only a week later that I knew my daughter had finally booked her flight home and while enjoying the delicious prospect of our reunion at Dublin Airport, I found Kathleen’s letters.
The longest was written a few weeks before my mother returned home from Seville, and in it Kathleen writes: ‘…even if you don’t return to Spain this year, you can always get in touch…come back with a vacancy home spirit. Spain may be beautiful and romantic and glamorous, but it’s no prettier than Ireland.”
I almost fell off my chair. I had repeated almost exactly the same words my grandmother had written under similar circumstances nearly seven decades earlier.
The last paragraph of this second letter was her instruction to my mother not to book a late flight if possible, as she would like to be in “Collinstown” to watch the plane land. I laughed out loud reading this because there is a family joke in our house about how I’m convinced that when one of my kids returns home, their flights won’t land safely unless I’m at the end of the runway get parked watch her.
I love watching their flights land. Knowing that they are home – sometimes from the other side of the world where my eldest lives – is just nice. I never could have imagined that this is not just a weakness of mine but a real family trait, something I would never have experienced had I not found Kathleen’s letters.
Suddenly I knew Kathleen. she is me And she is my mother. And I hope she’s my daughter too. Until now I never felt connected to her and only knew her academic brilliance. But it turns out that Kathleen and I are more alike than I could have ever imagined.
Letters are powerful means of communication. They enable storytelling. But most importantly, they transport our voices, our personalities, in a way that text and email just can’t. Perhaps it’s the actual act of putting pen to paper that makes the difference.
Almost 70 years after Kathleen penned her hastily scrawled words, they have found their way into my home, bringing with them my maternal grandmother’s personality. She is no longer this shadowy, one-dimensional woman. I’m so thrilled to meet her now and to know that we have a lot more in common than just noirin.
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/decades-old-letters-revealed-my-late-grandmother-and-i-are-more-alike-than-i-could-have-ever-imagined-42004035.html “Decades-old letters revealed that my late grandmother and I are more alike than I could have ever imagined”