Christine S. O’Connor until recently lived in the same small New Jersey town where she was born in 96 years ago. Much of her writing comes from memories or nature, particularly the ocean. The kitchen table has always been her favourite place to write, especially when I was surrounded by children. Her publications include Passager, The Journal of New Jersey Poets, St. Anthony Messenger, the Newark Library Anthologies, and the Paterson Literary Review.
Side by side they sit, anchored in the sand,
one boulder bent to touch the other, near,
whispering stories of a far off land.
Who listens to such tales, what clan?
Perhaps the wind will hear
them, side by side, rough hewn, grand.
The tide sends surf upon the strand
to make a grainy beach where children peer
at green-glass fragments whispering of Ireland.
But now the roughneck ocean takes command.
A northeast wind roars so loudly that I fear
these rocks will settle deep, far underneath the sand.
They’ll burrow down til freed by human hand,
listening to lilting voices soft yet clear
whispering of other lives in that far off land.
As fine new grains assail the coastal fan,
today clear, tomorrow disappeared,
will I still feel the rocks beneath my hand?
Wait! Whispering like cousins, I hear them in the sand.
I remember a small girls’ academy
wrapped in quiet: dark wood, leaded glass,
the smell of bananas, sliced on cornflakes,
for communion breakfasts on special days.
I remember Sr. Raymond’s tower room.
Once in a while we would climb the stairs
for talks on ethics, manners and cleavage—
you know, nice girls never showed it.
Springtime meant sometimes studying outdoors
and finding purple violets nestling
in the grass under leafy maple trees,
flowers to be gathered for the May Shrine.
We had giggled when Sister said,
“You should learn to cook,
You should learn to sew.
Your life could change, you never know.”
This simple world of peace and privilege
disappeared into the memory world
after nineteen twenty nine when migrants
came hungry to your back door and were fed.
Lives now changed for us in many ways
Where there had been servants now there were none.
Where groceries had been charged and sent,
Joe was closing his store, charges unpaid.
Before long the town was reinvented.
The most unlikely mothers selling
Nelson Knits and Cotton Suedes at tea,
served in their newly maid-free living rooms.
That must have been the year I learned the word
“foreclosure.” There was a lot of that around.
Friends moved from bigger to smaller homes,
from private schools to the neighborhood public.
Seasons changed and spring evenings
still brought us all out to roller skate,
But we didn’t go for ice cream as often,
lemonade on a neighbor’s porch instead.
Pictures of hungry faces filled with despair
stepped out of the old Herald Tribune.
We knew about starving babies in Africa,
But these folks were hungry in the next city.
Not long ago I returned. Climbing the stairs
the same soft quiet enveloped me.
Passing the chapel I could almost smell
snowballs that made our wreaths for May Day.
I missed the starchy rustle of habits,
the presence of black and white robed ladies
gliding through the halls and up the stairs –
ladies without legs or even feet.
The Day Aunt Nellie Died
She had shared our home for all my childhood.
That morning I took her a cup of tea.
Because of illness she was in bed, strange,
As she was always the first person about.
I was beside her when death appeared.
In fear we both cried out for my mother
who told me to stay while she called for help.
When she returned I was sent to the door
to wait for the doctor and our old priest.
As I opened the door for the priest,
our aging collie ambled out to greet him.
Terrified of dogs, Father refused to move.
These are some details I try to remember
to push back the terror that has stayed with me.
Aunt Nellie was a pillar of the church,
a daily communicant, always there
to do the things that pious women did
in sanctuaries all around the world.
As the oldest of ten, her vocation a luxury,
she came from Ireland carrying her dreams,
but she left her heart in the convent school.
Her stories filled our childhood evenings
with pictures of another, far off world—
Ballycotton where bath houses on wheels
rolled to the edge of the ocean, and bathers
dipped into waves, splashing their long stockings
and ruffled skirts. She saved her resentment
for movies depicting Ireland as a land of cottages
where pigs slept in front of slow peat fires.
No! Ireland was a land of culture, family,
church and the Christian Kings of Munster,
from whom of course we were all descended.
In light of her long life of faith and prayer,
I assumed she would be peaceful in death.
But she prayed frantically, terrified.
Where were the angels, ready to lead her
into paradise? Where Saint Theresa
welcoming her to heaven with roses?
If I could, I would choose to remember
my Aunt Nellie’s death differently.
After all I was not there at the very end
when comfort may have come to her.
After Aunt Nellie’s sudden death,
hysterics flew across telephone lines.
At the wake, after family and friends
called, prayed, and ate, grown up nephews sat
with her all night where she was laid out
in the solarium. I kept going in to visit and pray.
I remember wishing she could just stay there
with us forever, terror finally tucked safely
under her pillow, for she did look peaceful,
as if all those sins written in the big book
might not have to be punished after all.
Thank God for my mother who sprinkled
a grain of salt on the tail of superstition.
I do not remember the funeral,
only the talk of first car, second car…
and the cemetery, a homely place
of shadowed stones that we had visited
each Memorial Day, carrying peonies,
pink, white, and fragrant
to remember those who had set out
on their last journey.