Always Listen to Your Irish Grandmother
Or your Jewish bubbe. Or your Italian nonna.
And don’t just listen. Ask questions, Get them to talk.
This lesson was reinforced for me recently in a column about Christine C. Quinn’s grandmother, a passenger who survived the Titanic.
As it happens, I also had an Irish grandmother with strong connections to the same White Star line that owned the Titanic. I am angry with my youthful self for not asking questions of my grandmother, or at least observing. Quinn was better at it.
Quinn is the speaker of the New York City Council and a front-runner for mayor in 2013. As the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic approached, Quinn told Jim Dwyer of The New York Times how her elderly grandmother almost never talked about how she managed to get out of steerage and into a lifeboat on that terrible evening.
Dwyer’s lovely column is included here:
Quinn said she knows a little about her grandmother’s adventure because she had the opportunity to ask questions when she was 13.
“The only time we spoke about the Titanic was when she was recovering from a broken hip, and I asked her the story when we were hanging around her room,” Quinn told Dwyer.
Now that I am a grandparent, I wish I had asked questions of my Irish grandmother, who mostly lived with us until she died when I was 12. I had plenty of time to observe her and ask questions, but, unlike Christine Quinn, I failed miserably.
I can remember my grandmother as an old lady in a black dress, who took me, the oldest of five, to church, to the diner for breakfast, and a few times to the movies. I can see her visiting her old-lady friends on Adirondack chairs at Lake George in upstate New York. In my mind, they are all dressed in black, interchangeable.
But I cannot even remember her voice – I think she had long since lost any Irish accent -- and I cannot remember her ever speaking about being Irish. If Bing Crosby would sing an Irish ballad on the radio about “strangers” who tried to impose their rule on the Irish, there was no response from my grandmother. Nana had long since become Anglicized and Americanized.
And I never asked her – and she never told me, as far as I remember – how she got from County Waterford to the New York area. It involved a circuitous trip that I cannot piece together. I do know that my grandmother’s sister moved to Brussels and lived through two ruinous world wars, but my grandmother took a different path. And it also involved the White Star Line.
When my mother was fading in her late 80’s, she mentioned that her mother had worked in South America as a governess, but by that time she could not supply any details. I know my grandmother spoke French from her frequent visits to her sister at Rue Sans Souci in Brussels. Did my grandmother also speak some Spanish? Did she work on the White Star Line to gain passage from England to South America? How did she meet the Australian-born ship’s officer whom she would marry, as they settled in Southampton? All gone now.
My mother could remember being in Southampton in May of 1915 at the age of 4, and going down to the harbor as people grieved for family and friends who were lost on the Lusitania. The Titanic was part of her life, through her father.
And after the war, the officer’s family immigrated in style on the White Star Line and ultimately settled in upstate New York with a large home and a nearby farm.
I’ve asked my younger sister, Janet, who was the “pet” of my grandmother, if she could remember anything about Nana, but she was too young to take in those kinds of details. We all agree, we were not the kind to sit around and tell stories of the old days. I try to tell family history to our grandchildren, but the opportunities are rare. One of my grandchildren, the youngest, actually uses the old-fashioned implement of email to ask me questions about trips I take, and what I do. She shows promise.
I am respectful and a trifle jealous that Christine Quinn had the sense to ask questions of her grandmother. I would urge everybody to do the same.
4/13/2012 04:55:07 am
4/15/2012 01:23:05 pm
@Alan, your observation about the rivets calls to mind the testimony of physicist Richard Feynman who demonstrated that the Challenger blew up because expansion rubber gaskets became brittle from the cold and allowed fuel to escape and ignite. There's a reason for inspection and bureaucracies. If left to their own devices, people and corporations will often take shortcuts.
4/17/2012 02:07:56 am
4/15/2012 01:49:12 am
Don't feel so bad, George, not at all. You would never have gotten straight answers. Quinn's grandma was probably spinning malarky. I remember well my Irish grandfather's five older sisters -- once sitting together at my uncle and aunt's wedding in 1959, all in museum-like black dresses and pearls. Quite an imposing site. Straight-laced doesn't begin to describe the scene!
4/15/2012 02:36:00 am
Brian, the grandmother was on the ship, and it doesn't sound as if she dealt in malarkey. More to the point, she didn't talk about it. I heard Quinn on the radio saying her grandmother only talked about it when old age (Alzheimer's?) unloosened her.
4/15/2012 09:41:06 am
That's exactly my point -- the Irish who were the products of 19th century immigration didn't talk about things like that. The only time I ever heard of a possibly bad experience from any of them was when they found a way to turn a smile to it. You would have gotten nowhere with the questions of a ten year old.
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The picture brings about a lot of nostalgia. That picture is a very rare one of those times. I am glad to know that there are many of them who survived the disaster. The experience of these people ha great value I am happy to know that they were willing to express themselves. Thanks a lot for this post.
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“I don’t think people understand how Covid affects older Americans,” Mr. Caretti said with frustration. “In 2020, there was this all-in-this-together vibe, and it’s been annihilated. People just need to care about other people, man. That’s my soapbox.”
---Vic Caretti, 47, whose father recently died of Covid at 85.
---From an article by Paula Span, who covers old age for the NYT, which currently has 2646 comments, the majority criticizing the American public – and public officials – for acting as if the pandemic is “over.”
Classic wishful thinking, at a lethal level.