By Marge Thorell
The O’Malleys, a troupe of Irish gypsies, were early television: colorful, exciting, rambunctious, a soap opera. Our dining room windows were adjacent—across the alley from one another. I, an only child, a sad child, sitting at a table by myself as my parents worked, would watch the goings-on across the way. Oh, to be part of that family!
Joseph Michael, aristocratic patriarch expounding; Molly, fat, indomitable mother, managing; six brothers, vagrant-like, sprawling—and the lone golden-haired daughter, Anna, head bent, who I would love forever.
Molly’s goal was to cross the Oakmont trolley tracks running down Dutchtown Avenue, but on her own terms. It was 1954, and the O’Malleys had aspirations. Molly was going to make something out of this wayward family, using her daughter as bait, if need be. They, shanty Irish, residing on the east side, had lace curtain pretensions, illustrated by Molly’s dictum: “Not one of my children will be a maid or a chauffeur,” unlike my mother who came from Galway on the same boat as Molly, proud of the opportunity to become a domestic. This was the expectation for Irish gaels.
Because of my wily ways, I eventually wormed my way onto that table to befriend Anna. During our growing up years, Anna and I spent time at the beach, a 45-minute bike ride across the causeway from our home, hair blowing in unison behind us as we flew seward. Regardless of my mother’s caution, “Gus, this will not end well,” I pursued Anna with both my heart and my soul. But my mother knew more than me: she knew that the O’Malleys only tolerated me and that I, part Italian on my father’s side, would never be considered a suitable marriage partner for their daughter.
My mother, a reader, a lover of Irish literature, who sat in her chair in the parlor late into the night waiting for my father, quoted me a line from an old Gaelic poem:
“You promised me, and you said a lie to me, that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked, I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you, and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.”
This epic story did not end well, she warned. “Take heed, my son, don’t become the bleating lamb.”
But Anna said, and I believed her, “Gus, we will be together forever!”
I didn’t take my mother’s advice, and for a while we were happy together, Anna and I. That is, until our seventeenth year when the sea spawned destruction in the form of Edward Grant, scion of a wealthy family from the rich and west side of Oakmont. Edward took one lascivious look at Anna, tall and tawny on the beach, a green and white faded swimsuit showcasing her figure. My broken heart would eventually be mirrored by hers.
From humble beginnings but with massive determination, the O’Malleys, as a stereotypical Irish family arising upward out of the bedrock of squalor, decay, and oppression, survived like many who came to a new land before them, believing that marriage could be entrée to a better world, with their daughter the price of admission. Anna would push them up the ladder toward social respectability and moneyed influence. Anna’s mother was thrilled by this burgeoning romance.
Anna was never the same after Edward broke all his promises, based on his parents’ premise for what a wife should be–not someone Irish. He left her bereft and pregnant, an old story every Irish girl and her mother knows—and fears. Molly, however, determined as she was, found a solution—another man to marry her daughter, someone not me, an older, more established man.
“I’m sorry, Gus,” was one of the last things Anna said to me, in response to my unarticulated yearning.
I never saw her happy again. And because of that, I left Oakmont, after her son was born, ostensibly to go to college, but really because I could not stand to see her pain nor face my own. I went away and stayed away. For a short while, I, a lonely boy, felt a deep kinship with an exciting yet contentious family and the girl I thought could be mine. The abject sadness I felt when this connection was broken left me bereft and heartbroken for the rest of my days. One’s first love is often one’s last. She was mine; I will never forget what might have been.
The O’Malleys eventually crossed those ubiquitous tracks because of Molly’s machinations for her daughter. My mother wrote that Molly could now say, “Ta siad chomb ardnosach faite!” (We had got so grand!). Molly had wanted much and achieved much. Yet she would pay a high price and learn the hard way that money doesn’t buy happiness. In fact, it could ruin it. I, helpless, could only murmur, as Bartleby would, “Ah, humanity; ah, the Irish!”