I just finished, and so thoroughly enjoyed Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? A Memoir, by Séamas O’Reilly. An easy and enjoyable read, but a personal one for me.
The author is one of an Irish Catholic family of eleven children who lost his mother when he was very young. I am one of an Irish-American Catholic family of nine who lost my father when I was very young. I’m a good bit older than the author, and I grew up far from the turmoil of Northern Ireland during the Troubles (where his story takes place), but I saw so much of my own experience growing up without my father in this story.
The author recounts how, when meeting new people who would eventually get around to asking about his family, he would try and preemptively soften the blow of having to tell them he’d lost his mother while still a child. I know this feeling, this reflex meant to lighten the burden of guilt for having inadvertently asked a question touching on a painful topic. A tool we “half orphans” (as the author describes himself) develop quickly as a way to reclaim our normality. “I’m so sorry,” people will say — to this day — upon learning that I lost my father while still a young child. “It’s alright,” I reply automatically with a comforting smile. “It was a long time ago.”
It being such a long time ago is one of the things that really resonated with me about this book. The discussion of memories of a lost parent.
The author describes the efforts he’s made in his life to catalog the memories he has of his mother, to hold on to them over time. He describes how this list of memories diminishes over time, how the memories fade and how it feels essentially like a second kind of mourning for a lost loved one. First we mourn their loss, then we mourn the loss of our memories of them.
Memory is a very strange thing as it relates to mourning. I have very few clear memories of my father when he was alive. Maybe a handful that are still left, some of them tinged with regret. It’s a strange condition that I think may be unique to people that have lost a parent at a young age. My older siblings (I am the 2nd youngest of our family) have no doubt experienced a similar diminishing of their memories of our father. But they knew him longer, and their well of memories was deeper before it started to dry up.
I find myself asking my mother (who just celebrated her 91st birthday) random things like what the weather was like on the day of my father’s funeral. I remember it being rainy and foul, the wind blowing the green canopies that had been set up at the side of the grave for us as we laid him to rest. She remembers it being sunny and clear.
I once dug through 40-year old weather data for Syracuse to try and verify my recollection. He died on the day after Thanksgiving in 1979. I don’t know what day exactly the funeral was on, but it must have been in the week or so after that date. The weather data shows unseasonable warmth for November in Upstate New York, and mostly rainy days in the week or so following his death. But there were a few clear days in that timeframe as well. The whole exercise is entirely unsatisfying.
I have one memory in particular that I have held with me all these decades since he’s been gone. That of me bursting into my house with the normal energy of a 10 year old boy one afternoon (or was it morning) and seeing my father in our living room. The sight of him stopped me in my tracks — I remember being shocked by his appearance, so diminished as he was from the cancer that would soon take him from us.
I don’t remember when this was exactly, but it must have been near the end. It may even have been one of the last time I saw him before he went to the hospital for the final stretch. I don’t know what happened immediately after I saw my father in our living room that day. What did I say to him? What did I do? That painful lack of detail has been a great weight of sadness I have carried with me ever since.
Did I give him one last hug? Did I tell him I loved him? God I hope so.
But in recent years I find myself reevaluating this memory. Not so much questioning whether it happened as much as wondering how it may have been warped over time. I’ve relived this moment in my mind so many times over the years. Maybe each replay deviated ever so slightly from reality, so that the cumulative effect over time has left me with an inaccurate recollection of what happened on that day.
I’m not sure I can trust what I remember anymore.
And in that, the essence of this book really hits home. Losing a parent as a child means you never really stop mourning. First you mourn the loss of a loved one, then you mourn the loss of your memory of them.
Anyway, memories are weird. This is a really enjoyable book and you should check it out even if you aren’t a half orphan like me.