Out of Ireland: Unsaid
In the voice of my father, Eugene Cusack, 1910-2009
There wasn’t much said between father and son
in those days. I never knew much about him.
He was a farmer, a good provider.
Worked hard. Strong.
I don’t think he could read or write.
He died of a cancer
a few years after I came out here.
He was a big quiet man who only spoke
when he had something to say. You’d work
side by side in the fields for hours and wouldn’t
say a word till it was time to go back home for lunch.
Most things were just understood.
In some houses, people talked,
not in ours. If you wanted
to talk, you went out.
That’s what you had friends for—talking
and smoking cheap cigarettes down back of the pub.
Mammy was the exact opposite. A great talker
she was. The town schoolteacher
until she married my father. The farmwork
was fierce so she pitched in with the milking
and tending the chickens while he drove the cattle
to slaughter. Or went to the bog to collect the peat.
Yeah, Mammy was a great talker all right!
And a powerful cook. And what a baker!
Made the school clothes for all of us kids—nine in all—
and her own too. Bernie likes to talk about
what a looker she was—tall and handsome,
her back so straight—walking to town in her
fancy dresses. She was grand all right.
Took care of the house and all of us kids—
helping with the homework, cooking and sewing and
still had time to work alongside my father tending the farm.
And when the work was done and supper eaten,
she gathered us for the Rosary—all 15 decades,
followed by a litany. Every family did.
And there’d be no complaining—
we were all happy to honor our Blessed Mother.
And we did it on our knees. All 15 decades—
Mammy and my father as well. Every night
after supper all of us together on our knees.
My father didn’t believe in war—killing of any kind.
So when The Troubles started and all the lads were
going off to fight, my father wouldn’t let my brothers go.
It was against God’s Natural Law—killing was—
and no son of his would do such a thing—not with
his blessing. Mike, the oldest, joined the police instead.
But when the local lads came home from the war,
my father hid them in our hen house and
in the crawlspace above the attic.
He was a good man.
But then the freedom fighters came round
to collect a pound from each family to support the cause,
and he wouldn’t give ‘even a farthing’ he said.
It was a sin against God Almighty—supporting the killing.
They said we were traitors—
the people in the town. I recall walking to school
through the town center—and painted on the fence
of the old courthouse in huge red letters was—
The Cusacks are Fraternizers with the Queen.
It was terrible.
But there’d be no talking to my father—
I found a way to school through the back pasture.
But there was no relief there either.
and the ridiculing finally stopped.
We never knew who painted over the fence,
but Thanks Be to God someone did.
I never wanted to be a farmer.
I worked beside my father and brothers
all my young life, but when I was eighteen
and finished with school, I wanted to go
to Dublin to study auto mechanics. I loved cars
and you could make a good living working on them,
but there was no money.
So I stayed on the farm till my sister Peg
could bring me out. She had a good steady job
as a nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital and had brought out
Aunt May and Rose a few years before.
The day I left my father went with me
on the train to Cavan Town. We smoked
a cigarette together. I never smoked in front
of him before—we all smoked in those days
but never in front of our parents—
it was a matter of respect.
That day we sat across from each other and
he took a new pack of Players out of his pocket
and offered me one.
They were pretty fancy cigarettes—expensive—
You could get them in two sizes—10s and 20s.
This was the 20s.
We kids never smoked them—
our fathers neither—they cost so much.
He lit my cigarette and his own
and we sat there saying nothing for quite some time.
“We could buy that small field that abuts our pasture,” he said,
But I said nothing.
I wanted to go.
I don’t know where he thought
he’d find the money for more land.
When we got off the train and said goodbye,
he handed me the pack of Players.
That was the last time I saw him.
When I got here, I stayed at Peg and Bill’s.
I shaped up at the docks every morning
and found enough day work to pay my carfare
and give a little to Peg for me food. But
then the stock market crashed and the Depression started—
just a few months after I arrived—and there was no work
for anyone. I was lucky I had a roof over me head.
A lot of greenhorns didn’t.
I met Mike O’Donnell at that time and we went
over to the shipyards in Bayonne to find work.
That was one place there was plenty
of work—ships were needed for the war.
On Saturday nights, we went to the dance halls
on 53rd Street where all the greenhorns met their
girlfriends. Mike met a nice girl who worked
for a rich family, the Hobarts—he was the Vice President—
all the way out in Montauk. She was a housekeeper
or maybe a cook and had a friend who wanted
to meet me, so I went out there with Mike
one weekend. She was very nice.
We kept company for several years. Seven or eight.
But she didn’t want to get married.
So I broke it off.
I wanted to settle down and have a family. It was time.
Not long after, I met Mom at one of the dances.
She was a hair dresser. A fine looking woman in her
fancy clothes. We wanted the same things—
a home and a family—
so we got married after a few months courting.
We were crazy for each other.
There were other men around who liked Mom too,
but she only had eyes for me.
Peg and Bill stood up for us and lent us the money
for a bedroom set. We got a three room apartment
down on Simpson Street and got free rent for
working as supers. I took care of most of
the jobs evenings and weekends and Mom helped
out during the day when I was at the shipyard.
(She quit her hairdressing job when we got married.)
Catherine was born the year after.
We moved around a lot back then. Three times in one year.
Whenever you heard about a cheaper apartment, you took it.
We moved into the same one two different times.
It was hard on Mom
but she didn’t complain. Two years after
Catherine was born, Sonny came, with you
only 11 months behind. She had a miscarriage
after that and two years later Jerry was born.
She was told she couldn’t have any more children.
She had several surgeries—a ruptured appendix,
gall bladder . . . But that didn’t stop her;
she had the house and you kids to take care of.
By that time we were living in Edgewater.
We moved there when you were almost a year.
The houses were bungalows you could fix up
and live in year round. We did a lot with our house.
Raised it, built a cellar, added a few feet to
the living room . . . Well, you know,
it’s a good sturdy house.
It’ll be Catherine’s
when I’m gone—you and Jerry have your
own places and who knows about Sonny—
so it would be natural for Catherine to have it.
I miss Mom these past years.
But you get used to it . . .
And there’s plenty to do—I’m always busy.
Sometimes I’ll even hear myself talk
like she was still here in the room with me.
Mom was a great talker.
She always had something to say.
I miss that. The talking.
It’s funny—Jerry and I never talk
the way you and I or me and Catherine do,
you know, the conversations about things
you’ve been thinking of. Jerry and I
can drive two hours out to see Aunt Rose
and never say a word.
Not a word.
That’s just the way it is.
And it doesn’t bother us. We’re comfortable.
Jerry’s a Cusack, for sure.
Anyway, I started to say that Mom could do anything.
She liked a nice house, so she painted; she wallpapered;
she planted flowers everywhere
and still had a good hot supper waiting
when I came home at 5 o’clock.
I mind the times I watched her—cleaning, cooking
and sewing and not even noticing how hard she worked.
And that’s not all.
She was a powerful cook.
All my life I suffered from the heartburn
but when I started eating her cooking, it stopped.
Haven’t had a heartburn in 70 years.
Only now that I’m doing it all myself
do I know how hard it was for her.
I can clean and bake the bread and I’m tired.
Taking care of a house is a full time job.
And she did it with four kids, making all the clothes
and baking the peach upside-down cake I like
and still moving furniture around.
I’m sorry I didn’t have more time
to tell her how great I thought she was.
You took things for granted in those days.
You didn’t say much.
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