Saturday, January 31, 2015

Well played Grandma, well played.

Mum posted a reminder on facebook today that not only is this weekend the festival of Imbolc and St. Brigit's day but that it is also the source of her mother's middle name. My maternal grandmother was born in 1914 on January 31st. Custom in Ireland at that time was to name your child with the closest religious feast day (perversely, the roman catholic church was the original culture jammer). So on January 31st, 1914 an infant girl named Marie Brigid O'Sullivan launched into this world for a much too short life. She died of skin cancer in her 50s after a lifetime of tanning (which is still a strange fascination of women in Ireland, despite all evidence that this practice leads to skin cancer). My grandmother was also the victim of torture known as symphysiotomy. The long term effects on her health due to this horrific procedure we might never know but she got sicker and sicker after each of 6 live births and had to remain hospitalized for a very long time after her last child was born in 1957 (her pelvis had to be rebroken since it hadn't healed correctly after the procedure).

I have written about my maternal grandmother before. She was a fantastic storyteller (or in Irish, seanchai). How do I know this? Well one of my earliest memories involve her telling me the story of the food growing in her backyard.  She was dying and Mum went back with me and my infant sister to spend a few months with her. We were the only grandchildren she ever got to meet. I am the eldest of 18 grandchildren (and a still growing posse of great grandchildren and two great great grandchildren) on my maternal side so there is a huge gap in our lives due to this loss. I remember her pointing to the fruit trees and her telling me that they were planted in that location in order to maximize the sun they would get. Grandma literally planted the seed of my food justice activism because I remember being fascinated with how much thought went into something like the fruit I enjoyed eating.

Despite her early death one particular story of hers continued on in my life and has had a lasting legacy. I had an early talent for mathematics and was often told the story of how my grandfather was also gifted in math and had scored in the top 10% of the national Irish exams in math. Alas, as the only son he had to forgo studies in the subject in order to support his mother and sisters after his dad died just as he was finishing secondary school. As a child, Mum was given strong encouragement by both her parents for learning to do arithmetic in her head so she wouldn't be stuck serving tables. Grandma often told her the story about her dad as an explanation for the talent she was displaying. This encouragement helped her to excel in maths and is was what enabled her to have a successful career as a corporate accountant. And this encouragement also helped me excel in maths and I felt so proud obtaining the mathematics degree in 1990 that my dear grandfather was unable to obtain.

So imagine our surprise when in 1996, after my grandfather passed away, we were all back in my mum's childhood home in Ireland clearing out some bedroom cupboards and we came upon Grandpa's Leaving Certificate. His standing in Maths? Ordinary level/pass.

So today dear Grandma, I am having a good chuckle in your memory as I unpack into a new house and hang up my two framed degrees (one math, one engineering) obtained via a story you told to your daughter and that she passed along to me. In the parlance of today's world:  well played grandma, well played.


  1. Oh dear I think my previous post was swallowed whole :( I was adding that your grandmamma had been put into "service" in her time, at the age of 12 but rose to become chief bookkeeper in her workplace with a large staff reporting to her. I am sure our familial mathematical ability comes from her.

    1. How did I not know this???!!! Geesh. Thanks for flushing out the fuller story :) xo


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