Family Photo Album: Neither a Nun Nor Married

Aunt Peggy, far left, in New York City's Central Park, before she moved back to Ireland to take care of her parents. Submitted by Cecilia Donohoe.

Submitted by Cecelia Donohoe
April / May 2013

Aunt Peggy

Last year my mother began to hang old photographs and framed documents on what she calls the “family wall” in her living room.  No need for a coat of arms or Céad Míle Fáilte sign when we have the family wall. There’s my Donegal-born paternal grandfather’s naturalization certificate from 1935, which states “British” as his former nationality. There’s my mother’s class photo from St. Attracta’s Lowpark National School, 50 scowling girls in dark dresses. And there’s a large portrait of a smiling young woman with her hair arranged in glossy waves.

“Is that Aunt Peggy?” I asked.

“Yes,” my mother said. “I think that was taken in a studio in the Bronx, when she lived here.”

“Peggy lived in America?” I had not known this, had always pictured her tucked away on the farm in Curry or in the dark house in Charlestown, caring for old people.

“Oh, yes,” my mother said. “She lived in New York for seven years, during World War II, but then they fetched her back.”

Peggy was a cook, my mother told me, on the estate of a family so wealthy that they had a chauffeur. It was rumored back in Charlestown that Peggy had followed a man to America, but, my mother said, “Nothing was ever said about him after that.”

Which makes me all the more curious about a series of snapshots my mother gave me, photos too small and faded to merit a spot on the family wall, but more fascinating than any formal portrait. In the snapshots, 10 young men and women, all Irish undoubtedly, cavort in Central Park, playacting for the camera.

They’re dressed in fine clothes for this outing in the park; the men in suits, the women in patterned dresses and high heels. Yet their finery hasn’t stopped them from plopping on the grass, heads on laps. In one picture, a young woman stands behind a young man, her hands over his eyes, while their friends face the camera, bodies huddled close, propriety forgotten. Arms are slung around shoulders, hands rest assertively on waists. Their laughter is almost audible. They’re tasting life in America, away from the expectations of their families, their villages, their parish priests. In another photo, a standing couple kiss, bent sideways in a showy embrace, the woman’s curly hair masking her features, while the rest of the gang sprawl on the grass, arms linked. (Propriety is not completely forgotten: the girls’ legs are, to a woman, crossed at the ankle.)

And in their midst is Peggy. In each photo she is next to a young man with curly hair who looks as if he’s spent the seconds between each pose saying outrageous things to make the girls shriek. He has his arm around Peggy’s waist, pulling her close. In one photo, Peggy’s face is turned to the side. She looks up at the man, while he grins slyly at the camera. One hand snakes around on her midriff, the other encircles her wrist. Peggy’s hands clasp one of his. Is this the young man she followed to America? Or someone else, a fellow worker in the house of the rich family? No names or dates are written on the backs of the photos, but even without those details, the faded images capture a day that Peggy and her companions would have recalled as great craic altogether.

The Visit
Charlestown, County Mayo.  It was August, 1977. Our flight from JFK had landed at Shannon the day before, and my parents had already begun the ceremonial relative-visits that would continue for the next three weeks. In the morning we’d stopped at my uncle’s farm a mile outside Charlestown, and a few minutes ago we’d arrived at this row house in town where my mother’s Aunt Peggy lived. As she’d opened the front door, Peggy had been half-laughing, saying breathlessly as she hugged my parents that she’d been expecting us, and wasn’t it grand we were here at last, and was this fine little girl Cecilia, and how delighted she was to finally meet me.

That visit to Ireland was the only time I met Aunt Peggy—her full name was Margaret Henry—so I hang on to the few memories of her that I’ve salvaged. The print dress she wore when she sat next to me in the back seat of our rented Le Car on day trips to Ashford Castle, Cong, and Knock Shrine. Her amazement that I’d changed so quickly into a bathing suit on an Achill Island beach. (My mother explained to her that I’d worn the bathing suit under my clothes, as children usually did in America.) Peggy’s animation as she argued about the merits of the local hurling teams with my male cousins, and my jealousy and bewilderment as I listened, for I knew nothing of hurling. I remember, most of all, the fond regard in Aunt Peggy’s eyes when she spoke to me, an affection I’d done nothing to earn except be born. As she opened the front door to the house that wasn’t hers, she’d been prepared to love me.

When we returned to New York, Peggy’s letters to my mother always mentioned me. She asked questions about my dance lessons and how I was doing in school, and wondered at how big I must be getting.

By the time my family returned to Ireland ten years later, in 1987, Aunt Peggy had been dead three years. We drove by the row house in town, but couldn’t go in. Eventually, the old couple’s relatives had remembered her, and she’d moved back to the old kip.

How did Peggy feel, I wonder, at being called back to Ireland to care for her aging parents, who went into a steep decline as soon as she went home, as if, my mother says, they’d been waiting for “Margit” to return before giving in to infirmity? Did she regret putting away the fur trimmed collars, high heels, and lipstick that she wore when she got off the ship in Cobh harbor? For such vanities were frowned upon in small Irish towns in the late 1940s, just after the war. And what of the young man in the photos? Was Peggy sorry to leave him?

My mother remembers that her father sometimes tried matchmaking, had a farmer come round, in the hopes of courting Peggy, but nothing came of that. The farmers with their country ways and farming concerns would not have compared favorably, I think, to the men Peggy met in New York. To the man in the snapshots.

Yet Peggy defies my attempts to feel sorry for her. She shakes her head at my fanciful imaginings of the sadness and frustration she must have felt in leaving America and romance in Central Park. She doesn’t recognize the stifled life that I’ve conjured for her in Ireland, for it never existed. My fabrications don’t jibe with the facts before me.

The woman I met when I was seven years old was a happy one, loving and lively.

As the adults drank tea in the low-ceilinged kitchen of the old house, I crept through its dark wallpapered rooms, exploring. The house was not actually Aunt Peggy’s, but had belonged to an elderly couple. Peggy, who was herself approaching seventy, had been their caregiver. From the grownups’ conversation, I’d learned that the old man had died the year before. Just two weeks before our visit, the old woman had died, yet Aunt Peggy remained in the house, waiting for the old couple’s relatives to remember she was there and ask her to leave. When that happened, she’d have to return to what she referred to as “the old kip”—the two-room farmhouse she’d grown up in, and where she’d cared for her parents until they died. That house was away out in Curry, Sligo, down a forgotten boreen where the brambles grew so thickly that a car could barely scrape through, although Aunt Peggy had no car, only a black bicycle.

I mulled over Aunt Peggy’s odd living arrangements as I tiptoed up the stairs, which, despite my slight stature, protested noisily with each step I took. At the top of the stairs I paused in the doorway of a bedroom, then took a hesitant step inside. There was furniture in the room, no doubt, and lamps and bric-a-brac, but I saw only the bed. It sat at the center of the room, massive and draped with an ivory-fringed coverlet. The mattress sagged heavily in the middle, and the coverlet fringes reached for the floor like emaciated fingers. I knew instinctively that this bed wasn’t Aunt Peggy’s. The old man who owned the house had lain dying in the bed, and later, the old woman had died there too. Had Peggy been with the old people as they died? Had she leaned over the bed to hear their last whispered words? In death, I imagined, the old people’s bodies had grown heavy and weighed the mattress down, making it sag. I stood immobilized inside the doorway for a moment, then backed out of the room and skittered downstairs.

In the warm kitchen, Aunt Peggy greeted me with a plate of white and pink iced fairy cakes. “Did you have a good poke around?” she asked. I wondered at her cheerfulness. How could she stand to live in such a house, with such a bed, and wouldn’t she feel better if she had a husband to keep her company? Women, I understood, either married or became nuns. It was unsettling that she’d done neither.

“Are you going to get married?” I said. Her eyes grew wide for a second, and then she began to laugh, her eyes smiling down at me.

“There’s hope for me yet,” she said.

Although Aunt Peggy lived out her final years in the little farmhouse down a forgotten boreen, she didn’t molder away there. She found a job as housekeeper for a doctor in Killasser, and rode her bicycle into Charlestown for Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, and tuned in for the hurling and Gaelic football matches on the radio. In letters to my mother, Aunt Peggy wrote about visiting her good friend Winnie, and hitching a ride to town, and a trip to Lourdes, and a night at a dance, and drinking a few whiskies (she called them “hookers”) in the pub, and how some land she sold got a great price that “was the talk of three parishes.” And, of course, I remember Peggy’s peals of laughter at my youthful suggestion that she marry. Perhaps, in that snapshot from long ago, she is not holding the young man’s hand close, but prying it away.

12 Responses to “Family Photo Album: Neither a Nun Nor Married”

  1. pat bonner says:

    wonderful essay on aunt peggy, an unforgettable lady. we all should be grateful we knew her.

    • Liz Reumann says:

      A compelling piece. The author skillfully brings out both Peggy’s strong, optimistic character and her own curious seven-year-old self, reacting with affection and sometimes wonder to her unusual great-aunt. I found myself inspired by Peggy’s devotion to duty over self and her ability to retain her joie de vivre, despite life circumstances that others would have found stifling.

  2. Veronica says:

    Fantastic story, beautifully told. I wish I could meet the author and Aunt Peggy!

  3. Jessie says:

    What a fantastic piece!

  4. Honor says:

    Wonderfully evocative photo and essay! I love the boy jumping into the air to the right of the photo. And what vivacious writing … I can see Peggy’s smile!

  5. Honor says:

    I mean the girl who looks like she’s jumping!

  6. Mindy Lewis says:

    With an eye for detail, Cecilia Donohoe brings her Aunt Peggy vividly to life and unearths a mystery. A tenderly written, reflective portrait.

  7. Steve Bonner says:

    Great writers put you, viscerally in the environment they write about. This did that. Beautiful.

  8. Maggie Braff says:

    I loved the last sentence. It takes the sad pale off the idea of Peggy growing old mourning this fantastic life in New York, and replaces it with the evidence that she was a truly happy woman. But still, there are many questions I wish I could ask your Aunt Peggy.

    You did a marvelous job creating this whole person out of a photo and one visit. Bravo!

  9. Cathleen Lawlor says:

    Cecilia, I enjoyed reading about your Aunt Peggy. Your story made me feel as if I was actually poking around Aunt Peggy’s house with you. My spirit was uplifted with how the story ended and left me wanting MORE! You are a gifted writer and story teller, I look foward to reading future articles/stories by you, please keep them coming.

  10. Krystal says:

    What a spectacularly written piece and with such an ending it gave me goosebumps! In such a short piece, I felt moved and fluidly so from one space to another, learning so much about this one character, this one person who encapsulates so much vibrancy and history.

    And what exactness with language! Phrases like the “ivory-fringed coverlet” and steering the reader to certain emotions so effortlessly with sentences like, “The mattress sagged heavily in the middle, and the coverlet fringes reached for the floor like emaciated fingers,” is the mark of a talented writer, one who can hold your interest, not an easy feat.

    Thank you for sharing this Cecilia!

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