I am breaking a rule and writing about Pat and his family, but, since I cannot be at the wake or the funeral, here are my Olive recollections. But, I hope I get a pass from the Carrs since I have just come to realize Pat was right and I was wrong.
My mother-in-law, Pat's mother, died last night. Pat had rushed home to be with her when a recent doctor's visit had revealed total kidney failure. She had been unwell for months, there was a bout with a respiratory illness that had left her homebound earlier this year.
Olive had always been a sort of charming hypochondriac, regularly updating a "how are you?" with a detailed list of aches and pains. And, Pat knew something was wrong when he would call lately and she would say she was fine and sort of trail off.
His instincts were right, the doctors would confirm how gravely ill she was a few days ago. So the trip to Ireland that was planned for December got moved up to this week. Pat hated leaving the children for Halloween, his birthday, and PJ's big basketball game, but, he had to go home. Pat wondered if he should pack his suit, the suit he had worn to his father's funeral. I nodded, hoping he would get Olive stabilized and be home in a few days. Neither of us believed it. Kidney failure is something people don't bounce back from....I live with nurses and that's how my dad died, it was just like last year with Dad all over again..
So Pat packed his bags and left. He told the children his mother was sick, but not that she was close to death. He couldn't tell them about my father-in-law or my father, the same would be true with Olive.
Pat was a devoted son, and Olive was an Irish mother. Pat was the prince and his crown came with burdens only sons of beautiful women demand.
Olive was stunning, and even until the very end, she got her hair done. She stopped eating and walking but her stylist came each week. My favorite photo of her is in my house, she is holding a two year old Pat's hand in the garden of their house at Peter Street. She looked like one of those sixties starlets with her hair in a twist and wearing a shift dress. She was a young mother with two children, but, even with the hard times of Ireland in the 60s, she stood out, you could see why Paddy had fallen in love with her. Her face was perfectly symmetrical and her eyes smiled in spite of the lingering sadness, like so many women of her time, she carried the pain of the child she had lost (a little girl who died from spina bifida) but since it was unseemly to speak of such matters, she mentioned this child only once to me.
In another time , I don't know if she would been a housewife. I think her temperament was more of a career woman. She loved clothes and jewelry and was always drawn to just a touch of sparkle and flash. When she picked out PJ's christening gown, I had assumed a linen cotton outfit would arrive in the mail, much to my surprise, she had selected a satin unitard with a surprising amount of embroidery.
My favorite Olive story is about the day Pat and I went to Drogheda to tell his parents we were getting married. Pat and I had a huge fight on the day we were set to fly out of Boston because I was wearing this loose, empire waist dress and Pat said I shouldn't wear it because the cut of the dress made me look like I might be in the early months of pregnancy. I burst into tears and was not sure whether I was upset because he thought I looked pregnant or that he believed his parents might think Pat had to get married. Then, my father, came in, upon hearing the argument, and sided with Pat saying "well, that dress does make you look pregnant."
My mother kicked Dad out and I did change the dress, I am sorry to say. I was too young to appreciate how much fun it would have been to get the rumors started in Drogheda. How the tongues would have wagged.
But, anyway, we arrived in Ireland, I was so young I didn't really understand what a big deal this was, to go to another country and meet a family and then announce an engagement. It was hardly surprising Pat, who fell in love with America as much as he did with me, would follow the great migration of Ireland's young and educated to America and England.
But, marrying me meant his life in States was not a youthful adventure that would come to an end after graduate school.
So, Pat took me into the kitchen where his mother was doing her morning routine of peeling the potatoes for dinner. Back in the Ireland of the 1990s, Paddy and Olive ate potatoes everyday, the only reprieve might be a meal of smoked salmon and with sliced brown bread. But otherwise, there was never rice or pasta, always spuds covered in butter or that dreadful margarine that we all pretended was healthy until the world learned the ugly truth about trans fats.
And hand peeling spuds on a cold Irish morning and is an unpleasant task, and Olive did it in such a way that I nicknamed her food preparation style: rage cooking. She would stand over the sink, her cigarette trailing ash as she peeled dozens of potatoes. Her hands were stiff and bloodless from the water and the damp Irish air, even in June. And, Olive was not a big eater, so all this food was for everyone else. If the Greeks and West Indians view food as a stand-in for love and a source of their matriarchal authority in a family, for the Irish, especially Irish woman of my mother-in-law's generation, it was a symbol of the burden of a world that gave women more obligations than opportunity.
So, Olive, stood over the kitchen sink peeling potatoes and Pat took a deep breathe and said, "I have something to tell you....[pause for effect and to give himself the energy to get the words out]...Maria and I are getting married."
Looking back, I was too clueless to understand what these words meant....why Pat was so anxious. And what happened next counts as my favorite Olive story.
In my house, as the oldest daughter who had not dated and who had seemed on track for a fulfilling single life as a college professor without kids (minus the cats since I hate cats), the news of my engagement was met with unabashed relief from my father who loved Wellesley College but worried how this expensive education might have made his eldest daughter unmarriageable.
Keep in mind, my sisters were engaged at age 20, and I was 25 when Pat and I met.
But anyway, when Olive heard the news, she swooned and collapsed in a chair. Somehow, and maybe this is my memory playing tricks on me, but the cigarette stayed dangling all the way through the move from the sink to the kitchen table across the room, even as one arm grabbed a chair and another arm fell across her chest. Olive managed to pull it off with a grace and style that made me think she had used this choreography before.
The message was loud and clear: Pat marrying me was going to kill her.
Olive had the heart and soul of an performer, or at least, one of those beautiful women who could make things happen just the way she wanted without ever saying a word. It was a power I admired and dreaded.
There were moments Olive would express her displeasure with minor things, but no huge blow-outs. Olive was more subtle, I understood that she needed her son and on what came to be known as "The Paddy and Olive tours of America" when they would visit us, I let her have her son back. Pat would fuss about his parents, make sure they had their cigarettes and an evening at a nice pub. I thought it was very Irish for Irish tourists to visit America and recreate Ireland somewhere else, and it was easy to do this in Philadelphia and Chicago.
When Camille was born, and then PJ, and both children loved Ireland and their grandparents so very much, Olive was overjoyed. I might have been the American interloper, but my children, her grandchildren, were beautiful and tied to Ireland and the family. She had won them over with magical Ireland and crisps and all the Cadbury chocolates she hid in her pantry. Olive had fallen in love with the chubby Carr babies the moment they showed up at the house, they might live in America, but they fit in just fine in Drogheda. Cal was the only one not to make the trip to Ireland and stand on the beach where Pat had spent so much time as a boy. I often wonder if failing to bring Callie to Ireland meant she was not protected by the 500 years of the Carrs in Drogheda. Did I mention Pat was the first Carr to leave Drogheda?
All was well until Pat got the chance to go back to Dublin to be the Chair of the Sociology Department at the University College Dublin. The job would bring Pat home and provide Olive with endless bragging rights about her brilliant son and the impressive post. But, as a dual career couple, moving to Ireland was good for Pat but it was professional suicide for me. Pat had a great job at Rutgers, and the job at Dublin was a step down for me, I would be a trailing spouse with no job security. Ireland was expensive and we struggled to find a school for the kids. The only thing good things about Ireland was the stuff that would happen for Pat and his career, for the rest of the family, it would mean painful readjustment and struggle. So, I pulled the plug and made the call not to move.
In the long run, this choice was right. The Irish university system would go into a free-fall with the economic crises in Europe, Pat would have gotten a paycut and they would have terminated my contract. Without an EU passport, an American who writes books about America would have been unemployable. But, more than that, the long waits and cutbacks in the medical system there meant that Pat's cancer probably would not have been treated as quickly, or as successfully as it was at Abramson. It took months for the doctors to confirm my father-in-law's cancer, and if Pat had spent weeks waiting to see specialists, he might not have survived, or at the very least, he would have ended up on dialysis.
Pat begged me not to tell Olive about the job in Dublin. But, I liked Olive too much to keep such a secret. It had been a long time since the Marlene Dietrich scene in the kitchen, two grandchildren would purchase good will.
Surely she would understand. But, for Olive, not going to Ireland was a betrayal. I had broken our arrangement over how we shared Pat. She never spoke of the matter, but she was more distant and Pat took to visiting Ireland with the children and without me for the years that followed.
My first real and sustained anger with Olive came when Pat refused to tell her about his cancer, and then, Cal's diagnosis.
It made no sense to me that he could hide such huge parts of his life from his mother. The first thing I had done was call my parents with Pat's diagnosis and then Cal's. I was not sure they could do anything to help, and my parents didn't exactly rush to the hospital, they could not face Cal's illness. Daddy and Mom came down to help me when Pat got sick, but for Cal, they stayed away. Dad's cancer had progressed, but, more than that, Daddy couldn't face Cal's disease and mom was trapped between her dying husband with cancer and a granddaughter with a terminal illness. In fact, Daddy never saw Cal after her diagnosis. It is something that haunted him in his death and the only moment in my life where my Dad let me down. I can forgive and understand why it happened, but, God help him, he was not there.
But, I thought it was unfair for Pat never to give his mother the chance to take care of him with his cancer and share the sadness of Cal. I still don't fully understand why he didn't tell his mother, but given how my father dealt with Cal's illness, I now wonder if I made the right decision. Pat's willingness to shield his mother made things harder for him but safer for Olive. My point was that not that Olive would make things better, but that she had a right to know.
But there will be a cost to paid for this decision he made three years ago. And now I fear Pat's grief over his mother will be much rockier. He cannot say goodbye with the knowledge that there was nothing left to unsaid between them. My father disappointed me one time when he did not come to see Cal after she got sick. But, then again, as my father was dying he had visions of Cal as an angel who was waiting to take him to the other side. The dreams he shared with me about Calliope were his reconciliation with me and him asking for our forgiveness.
But, as Pat mourns the beautiful and complicated woman who was his mother, I try to console him with the fact that Olive knew he was the most devoted son, a son who took care of her until the very end. Even if he could not say goodbye to her yesterday, the truth is now out. The fact is Olive finally understands all the pain and love Pat must carry forever because he longed to protect her.
Olive was keenly aware of how pain and love were inextricably linked.
I might be Pat's wife, but Olive was his mother, and me marrying him never diminished his love for her in the way she had always feared.
So, yesterday, PJ cried and begged for me to take him to Ireland so he could tell his Granny how much he loved her. And in the lovely Camille, Olive has a beautiful young woman, who understands the pain and suffering love requires...has just a perfect amount of the complexity and drama from Olive that will live on.
And now that Olive is gone, and Pat protected her from the knowledge of his cancer and Cal's illness, it feels right to let her go without knowing the pain of it. It was a kindness and gift I could not give my own father, and, it seems to me, Pat understood his mother better than I understood my father. And, God help me, but Pat was right and I was wrong. I wish I could have saved my father from the anguish of it all.