Even though I was named after me Da’s favorite sister, it was Brenda, my sister, who was me Da’s favorite. That was what me Mammy told us anyway. She told me lots of things about me Da and men in general. About how dirty and nasty they were and how they were all after one thing. How me Da made her do awful things when he was drunk, and him stinking of his own piss and vomit.
She said that she had to lock us in our bedroom to keep us safe and did we remember when he threw our plastic tea-set in the fire? I didn’t know how to feel, I know I was disgusted and shocked. Did I need to take her side against me Da and all men? Was that the way all men were, because me Mammy said so? Me Mammy told me that there wasn’t a need for a Father figure in our house. Sure wasn’t me Granda doing his best to fill those shoes. I didn’t know how to make it better for her. I sympathized and listened and cleaned and cooked and tried to be a good eldest daughter. After all she suffered all that for us three kids, didn’t she? All I could do was try and make it easier. It was my responsibility as the eldest daughter, wasn’t it? I know that I was pleased that she shared all of this adult stuff with me but it made my stomach twist into a tight spring. Nights my dreams were full of demons and by day I chewed my nails into gnarly stubs.
Kids at school knew him and made remarks about seeing me Da, ‘Old Bo’ lying in the gutter over the weekend. I was so ashamed. Me Mammy said ‘The Drink’ should have killed him in his thirties. The Doctor in England told her to try and get him committed when the ‘D T’s’ had him screaming at the insects crawling up the walls. She couldn’t do it then, have him committed, I mean, because the law was so messed up that a woman did not have the right do such a thing to her husband. But, the other way around, that was a different matter. The Doctor told her to take us three kids and get the hell away from him before he killed someone. Her chance came when I was five years old and we came back to Ireland and left him in Strangeways prison. It’s hard to tell which memories were real or what me Mammy actually put there , I realize It was a slow poisoning of the mind towards a man I never really knew.
I have an image of Me Mammy and Da screaming and fighting on the floor and she is beating his head in with a glass milk bottle. I remember standing in the street with the city’s emergency phone in my hand talking to the Police as me Da threw stones at us from the front door
Me Da, came back to Ireland to live with his Mammy when he was released from jail. His village was about 12 miles away. It may as well have been the moon. I don’t know if I passed him on the street in town and didn’t recognize him and I don’t know if he watched us from afar.
I do know that he came to see us a few times. Mammy would come in and announce the ‘our Da’ was at the door and wanted to see us. Me Ma then sucked angrily on her cigarette and sat on the hall stairs to watch us. I could feel her hatred each time at his intrusion. I once told her that I didn’t want to see him and it made her smile. Her eldest daughter, she understood, was on her side.
One time she told me he was at the door. He had a birthday present for me. I was scared and didn’t know how to react. I was coldly polite and tried not to show any emotion for I could feel me Mammy’s eyes boring into my back, it made something in my stomach harden and hurt. He asked me for a hug and I looked behind me for me Mammy’s permission. She nodded, curtly. I reached up my arms to him and I felt the roughness of his beard and smelled the sickly, sweetness of his breath. His eyes were bloodshot and deep lines creased his brow. He held me a little too long and a little too hard and I wriggled to get down just as a big salty tear fell on my face and ran into my mouth.
Me Da dipped into his pocket and brought out a little square box. His nails were bitten and he had big freckles on his hands with golden hairs on his fingers. I could see them as he handed it over. I looked around again as me Mammy nodded her permission sullenly, as I took my gift. Then he looked over my head at me Mammy, on the stairs with her arms wrapped tightly around herself and the cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.
“Can I see Brenda and Alan?” a pause and a sob, “Please Margaret.”
Me Mammy waved me into the living room. I really wanted to look at him, me Da, to see his face properly, to see all of him. But me Mammy’s anger was so strong, I couldn’t. I didn’t have enough pieces of his person to form a full image in my mind.
Brenda and Alan were wide eyed on the sofa, waiting. I told them to go outside as Mammy wanted them to go and talk to me Da. I stood with the living room door cracked open and watched.
Brenda walked openly and easily to the door. My brother, Alan stepped slowly and carefully his eyes on me Mammy looking for a clue as to how to behave. Brenda had no fear and rose smiling into his arms. Me Da’s eyes closed as he buried his nose in her hair. I saw me Mammy’s face contort with disgust. Alan held a finger in his mouth and his eyes were huge. Me Da knelt down and put Brenda on his knee and reached out for Alan. My brother stood stiffly at his side and braced himself against the hug. Brenda’s laugh tinkled as she stroked me Da’s beard.
Suddenly they were all on the floor. Brenda was on top of me Da’s chest and they all were giggling wildly. In seconds me Ma was up, sparks flying from her cigarette tip.
“Get up, ye drunken scut. Ye always spoil it. Get up or ye’ll hurt the weans.”
Me Da’s face changed. He cautiously winked at Alan and Brenda. He slowly crept to his knees and toppled again and they all laughed loudly. Me Mammy smacked my brother and sister across the head and they came running into the living room crying, not knowing what they had done. I watched her; I had the awful feeling that she was going to kick him. He needed help and she stood there stiff in her hatred and watched him wobble and fall again. His hands climbed the walls until he got steady and straight. The front door was wide open and me Da passed within inches of me Mammy, his back to her and disappeared out into the darkness of the street. Me Mammy slammed the door behind him nearly breaking the glass.
I remember that I wore that little birthday bracelet that he gave me until the hearts finally tarnished and broke. It was real silver, I’m sure of it.
Me Mammy started drinking herself when Brenda and I started working. I was scared to be awake when she came back from the pub. But I was more scared not to be. I was her eldest daughter and I should care. I sat on the sofa and watched her until she got up off the floor and went to bed. I made her a cup of tea and listened to her drunken ramblings. It was always my place to make it better.
Brenda told me that me Da came to visit her in the Flower Shop where she worked. I was afraid for her, afraid what me Mammy would do if she found out.
We met him one day at ‘The Bakery’ for a cup of tea and a bowl of stew. He didn’t have the sickly sweet smell about him, but then the pub didn’t open until after lunch. The lines on his face had increased and he asked questions about our lives. There was a hint of a twinkle in his eyes. The lines on the side of his mouth ran deep. He must laugh a lot; I wondered when I saw them.
The next time I saw him was at Sean’s funeral. Sean, his brother had died of alcohol poisoning. Me Da had had to kick his door down as Sean’s body was slumped behind it, we heard. Brenda held my arm at the graveside. She stepped away from me for a second and stretched out a hand to this withered, stooped man.
“Look Da , it’s Teresa.”
Me Da looked up into my eyes and that’s when it happened. The breaking away, the freedom to choose which side, I couldn’t hate this poor, broken man. I stepped into his arms and smelled that sickly, sweet smell and cried, gulping, wet sobs.
I received a letter from him when I moved to England after I had been married for about seven years. He wanted to come and stay, my choice now as an adult. But I selected the words carefully. Even though they were hard to write, they were written with love. I knew it wasn’t good for my wellbeing to try and take care of him. I never heard back and that was okay.
I got the last call at my hot dog stand in the Cayman. Islands where I ended up after my first marriage broke up. Me Da had died. I dropped the knife I had in my hands and went to sit under an umbrella to weep. Me Da was dead and I never really knew him. My sister told me that it was a grand funeral. Sure they sent him off to heaven with a bottle of whisky in his pocket.