Jen Ryan / Anne Ryan
I never knew my maternal grandmother, Phyllis. To me, she’d simply become a conversation at my doctor’s visits over the years, due to our family’s history of cancer. “Any new symptoms? Any history of cancer in your family?” Well, the answer there was always yes, but that was where my knowledge kind of began and ended.
The only grandmother I knew and identified as “Grandma” was my father’s mother who would sometimes use the colorful expletive, “jeeps!” and gave us many years’ worth of memories.
Growing up, and even now, my mother doesn’t speak of Phyllis often, and the few times that she has, it was either vague or in passing. I’d always chalked it up to not much to tell, but also, I had never thought to ask for answers. Only in recent months, decades later, am I learning parts of her through conversations with my mother.
There’s still so much left to the mystery, even as we go down this road together, my mother and myself. The hardest part is having to make peace with never knowing some parts of the puzzle.
Who was my mother, Phyllis? That is a question that’s really hard for me to answer, as she’d met an untimely death at age 48 from breast cancer. Since I was only 17, a senior in high school, when she was terminally ill, it was a time that I was consumed with all things associated with graduation. In addition, my parents decided to conceal her prognosis from us and downplayed everything as just a little flare-up. This decision robbed us of the chance to have any meaningful conversations with her prior to her death. I suppose that’s why I jumped at the chance to write with my daughter about our lives together. As a caution to well-meaning adults, please be honest with your children.
Right out of high school, she went to Robert Packer School of Nursing in Sayre, Pennsylvania, and joined the Army Nurse Corps after graduation. During World War II, she was then stationed at Staten Island as a nurse aboard the hospital trains. It would be wonderful to know what dreams and ambitions that young woman had as she posed in full Army uniform for a photograph. I can imagine us having that conversation over a cup of coffee during a leisurely visit. Unfortunately, that opportunity, along with those memories, passed with her.
If my mom could write about our relationship, I am not sure how that would go. My memories of her are sparse, and I’m not sure if that’s because I have forgotten them, or if there were so few memorable moments.
I do have a vivid childhood memory of her singing a song to me that I would later sing to my children. It turns out that this was not really a happy song, but perhaps it served as a reflection of her melancholy. The song, Molly Malone, tells of a fishmonger in Dublin named Molly who wheeled her barrow selling cockles and mussels, and ended up dying of a fever. As the song ends, “no one could save her and that was the end of sweet Molly Malone. Now her ghost wheels her barrow through the streets broad and narrow. Crying ‘cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh.’ At the time she sang that to me, I never really thought about the sadness of the message, and one could wonder why I chose to sing that same sad song to my own children. It simply reminded me of those special moments with my mom and how nice it was to have her spend that time with me.
In 2010, my husband Jim and I traveled to Europe with our three adult children. While we were in Ireland, during our foray in Dublin, we came across a statue of Molly Malone, complete with her wheelbarrow, on Grafton Street. One of the nights we were overseas, we attended a Hooley show at a local place called Johnny Fox’s and the band played a rousing rendition of Molly Malone. It was great to know the words to at least one song. Another fleeting memory of Phyllis passed through my mind.
Please share your childhood memories with your children. Believe it or not, there will be a time in their lives when they would like to hear about it.
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