I've heard Mom's stories many times, and I never tire of hearing them. They are always funny in some way or other, but more than that, there is a kind of sweetness and sadness to her recollections. In sharing with you this story from my mother's childhood, I want to take you back in time, so I'm going to use my mother's first name, Mary.
Four little girls and the Grand Canal
On a bright and very warm summer afternoon in Dublin, Mary, her sister Bernadette, and their friends little Lily Cowzer and Martha Doyle had some time on their hands. Near to their homes in Ringsend is the Grand Canal, a long and very old waterway which winds its way from Dublin all the way to the River Shannon. Many times the girls had been warned by Aunt Alice not to go near the canal, for fear that they might fall in. Mary and Bernadette risked a cane beating if Aunt Alice learned they had disobeyed her, but that did not stop them. As the story goes, it seems that elder sister Bernadette had quite a streak of mischief in her, and she prodded the girls to go, although my guess is Mary, Martha and Lily didn't need much prodding.
Nevertheless, off to the canal they went. As I mentioned, it was a very warm summer day in Dublin, and some of the boys in the neighbourhood had stripped down to their shorts (actual shorts, not underwear), and were jumping into the canal to cool off. Mary found the canal water a bit frightening because she thought it was very deep, a belief which was confirmed for her by the blackness of the water. In Mary's imagination the bones of other disobedient children were laid across the bottom of the canal's distant floor, forever lost, and she didn't want to join their number.
|The Grand Canal Locks at Leeson St. Bridge, Ballsbridge|
They sat there laughing and talking for quite some time, nudging each other, giggling over the silly boys, and relaxing in the lovely sunshine. Suddenly, one of the shoes Martha was wearing somehow came undone, and fell off her foot into the water. The four girls jumped up and began shrieking as though one of them had fallen into the canal. They laid down on their bellies, and although the distance was impossible for four such little girls, Mary, Martha, Lily, and Bernadette stretched their arms and their legs as far as they could in a desperate attempt to retrieve the lost shoe before it sank, but they could not reach it. A couple of the boys came over to their side of the lock to help. Each one jumped in and dove under the water searching as best he could in order to find the errant shoe, but it was all to no avail. Although the shoe was most certainly gone, the girls knew they could not return home without it.
Six o'clock came, and Ringsend Church rang out the bells of the Angelus. Mary knew her father would be stopped on the bridge near their house, on his way home from work, standing next to his bicycle with his hat over his heart. He would be whispering the lines of the Angelus prayer to the peal of the bells. So too, she knew they were now late home. They would have to go home without the shoe. Mary and Bernadette would have to tell the the truth about what happened, and they would have to face the wrath of Aunt Alice.
When they arrived at Mary and Bernadette's house, the four girls stood by the front door, breaking their hearts crying. Long gone was Lily's laugh. Martha made her way over the road to her house to tell her mother of the fate of her shoe, and face whatever punishment might come. Mary said the girls cried, not so much because they were frightened of beatings, but more because they knew their fathers worked so very hard to take care of their families, and shoes cost real money.
Mary and her sister Bernadette didn't receive a beating that day for disobeying Aunt Alice. That was not Alice's way. Instead she would hold off on delivering the punishment until the children least expected it, believing that they would truly remember the punishment, and learn from it.
Mary vividly recalls the day she received the beating for her part in the loss of that shoe. At school, weeks after the shoe was lost, Mary had been given the prize of a small picture of Jesus Christ as a reward for perfecting her lessons. Mary still remembers how happy she felt on the way home from school, excited to show Aunt Alice the prize. It was then that Alice decided the time was right for the caning, and she was right, Mary never forgot it.
My dear mother Mary will celebrate her 81st birthday in May, and each time she tells me of the punishment she received, there is never a hint of rancour in her tone. When I am indignant about the cruel way in which she was treated, my mom will say, "that is the way things were done". She always reminds me that if it were not for Aunt Alice coming to live with the family after the death of their mother, Mom and her siblings may have been taken away from the home into which they were born.