Opinion | Biff America: Second chances
My grandmother Bridget Shelley was born in a poor house along one of Ireland’s famine roads.
The family story goes that during Ireland’s Great Potato Famine in the mid-1800s, the British government created (often unneeded) work projects where the starving Irish were forced to labor for food. To this day, you can see crude roads winding up to the hills to nowhere. Usually associated with the work project were “poor houses,” where women and children lived and worked for barely enough food to keep them alive.
My great-grandfather worked on some of those roads. After his wife got sick and died, he left my grandmother in that poor house and somehow managed to get to America.
It was years later before Bridget’s teenage aunt was able to bring 10-year-old Bridget to Boston to unite her with her father, who had remarried.
I learned this secondhand from family stories, and the facts are blurred with the memories. Much of what happened afterward, I was told by the people who actually lived it.
Bridget arrived at her father’s door to a lukewarm reception from his new wife. She was held in a lower regard than her half-siblings by her father and stepmother. Years later, two ancient Irish ladies told my mother, “Bridgy was little more than a scullery maid in her stepmother’s house.”
I loved my grandmother Bridget but I am delighted I did not inherit my looks from her. She was barely 5 feet tall with thick glasses, a weak chin and bad teeth. She married a man named John O’Malley, who was handsome but mean. John would abandon her for months at a time but still managed to father three children, one being my mother.
John would write his own mother telling her his whereabouts, but those letters were not shared with Bridget. Finally, John left and never returned.
With three kids, no income and no husband, Bridget was forced to surrender custody of her children to the parents of the man who abused her. Bridget would send money to her in-laws for her children’s care, a fact the in-laws kept to themselves.
On paper, Bridget had little going for her: She was poor, uneducated and unattractive. It was a blessing that Frank Mcloughlin didn’t read that paper.
Frank proposed to Bridget as a teenager, but she had her heart set on John. (Turns out her heart betrayed her.)
Frank did not have any better luck in marriage than Bridget. He married Verna Casey, who was young, pretty and epileptic. Neither Verna nor her family told Frank about her condition, which at that time was a death sentence. Soon after the honeymoon, the seizures became more frequent. Verna suffered brain damage and died in an institution. Their son, Harry, inherited his mother’s condition and was sent to the same institution.
Ten years after Bridget was abandoned and Frank was widowed, Frank showed up at her door and asked, “Do you remember me, Bridgy?”
Frank worked in a factory, and he had a car. He invited Bridget to lunch. They drove from Brockton to Maine, had lunch and returned. The meal must have been tasty; Bridget and Frank were married soon after.
It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I learned about the hardships of my grandmother’s life. To me, she was always a happy, old lady, who loved to play bingo and had a wicked sense of humor. Bridget and Frank were wonderful grandparents to my five siblings and me.
My grandmother was born in a poor house. Most of us need only to look back a few generations to be reminded of the hardships our forbearers were escaping and the opportunities they were seeking in this country.
But just as Bridget and countless others looked to this nation as salvation from the horrors of their homelands, there are many today who would do anything to be given that same opportunity. Though their skin is darker, their desire for a better life is the same as my redheaded grandmother.
It is my belief, if given the chance, those poor souls can be a blessing and a contributing part of the wonderful experiment that is America.
Jeffrey Bergeron’s column “Biff America” publishes Mondays in the Summit Daily News. Bergeron has worked in TV and radio for more than 30 years, and his column can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He is the author of “Mind, Body, Soul.” Bergeron arrived in Breckenridge when there was plenty of parking and no stop lights. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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