‘We write for ourselves, but also for others. Everyone should write a memoir’
Author Mary Rose Callaghan reflects on how she captured her mother’s influence
Mary Rose Callaghan and her mother.
In 2009, I was diagnosed with a serious illness which started me thinking of my mother and how she coped with difficult times. She was a person who never lost her optimism. Around the same time, I read My Father’s Fortune by Michael Frayne, a moving life of his father. I wanted to do the same for my mother.
I started off with a plodding history of my mother’s Limerick family who were interesting enough, boasting an opera singer. After her mother’s death from typhoid fever, my mother, although born in Ireland, had been brought to New York as a toddler by her Irish-American father. Her life had been different to many Irish women, but she wasn’t a famous person. How would I interest a publisher? Steve McDonogh, who brought out three of my novels, had died. Then, on a visit to America, I was at a dinner party and met an academic friend of my late husband, Robert Hogan. The friend asked me what I was writing. I told him, adding that I didn’t have a publisher, so had few hopes. He suggested I send it to the university press where he worked. When I sent a first draft, they replied that they didn’t know who my book was about. They wanted more of my story. How had my mother’s life affected me? And how had I become a writer?
I had no idea. I had created characters in fiction, but now I was to be the protagonist in my own life. The publishers wanted the new literary genre, creative non-fiction, of which Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Tobias Wollf’s This Boy’s Life are best-selling examples. This genre differs from autobiography, which involves dates, by being a personal story of an ordinary person, while Memoirs, with an ‘s’ and a capital ‘m’ are usually the life of someone famous. Creative non-fiction is like a real-life novel where imagination plays a part. You can’t possibly remember every word someone has said – I have difficulty in remembering what I said this morning – so licence is permitted in dialogue. But the events have to be true in essence. Feelings are the important thing.
Henry James said life was “all inclusion and confusion” while art was “all discrimination and selection”. How could I dramatise my mother’s effect on me? Where would I begin? Then I remembered an incident when I was about 13 or 14. It was one of those hot summers that occur in Ireland once a decade. Our family was having a picnic at Sandycove beach. My father was sitting on the sea wall, peacefully reading the racing results. My siblings were playing with buckets and spades or paddling in the sea. I was probably reading a book, when my mother, then aged about 40, announced she was going for a swim. This wouldn’t have been unusual except she was a bad asthmatic and not the swimming type. I had never seen her swim. I didn’t even know she could. But she wriggled into my togs and dived off the sea wall into deep water. My idea of swimming in those days was a dog-paddle in shallow water, but my mother took off with a strong, graceful crawl. I watched anxiously as she disappeared out to sea. Where had she learnt to swim like that? Would she ever come back? She did, asking me why I was looking so worried.
I opened my memoir with this incident and used “The Deep End” as its title. Swimming became a metaphor for an attitude to life. Also, as well as capturing my mother’s character, I remembered realising for the first time that no one knows his or her parents. My mother had moved to Florida after the Great Depression where she must have learnt to swim, before her children were ever thought of. She had come back to Ireland in the 1930s, aged 18, and started nursing in the Mater Hospital. It was reverse emigration. She met my father, a well-off farmer, on a train in her early 20s. They married after a short engagement in 1941 and went on to have six children, of which I am the second. For a while things went well. My early childhood was fortunate. Then my father developed a brain tumour which caused personality change and financial hardship.
The homelessness in Dublin nowadays brings back my teenage years, when my mother supported us by working as a night nurse. At the time of the swimming incident we were living in Dún Laoghaire, but we soon moved from there because we were evicted by the landlord. Luckily, we were helped by my mother’s relatives, who took us in. But the family was split up for a while. We got together again and spent the next few years renting summer houses from Bettystown to Bray. This gave me a structure for my book as I set my chapters in the different houses. With each move my mother would say, “you’ll look back and think what fun we had”.
She was right: I do. The best time was when we rented a flat in a Palladian mansion in Harcourt Terrace, beside the Grand Canal. Nigerian students occupied the top floor while we rented the middle. A Bohemian type lived in the dank basement – I can still see his face, but forget his name. On Christmas Day my parents invited one of the Nigerians for dinner. He was a small young man, lost in a huge overcoat who gave me a bunch of flowers. This provided another scene for my memoir and was a chance to capture my mother’s generosity. Although badly off, she wanted to share anything we had with a lonely student, far from home.
The Deep End was eventually published in an expensive hardback edition for academic libraries. Writing it was a liberating experience and I learnt a bit more about myself. We write for ourselves, but also for others. Everyone should write a memoir. It is like psychotherapy but much cheaper, although siblings will often dispute its accuracy. Mine don’t remember my mother’s famous swim for instance, but this is because everyone in a family has a different viewpoint, you could almost say a different childhood. Everything is relative and memories are no exception. The neurologists say we don’t remember accurately at all. Every time we recall an event, we add to it and the first memory is replaced. Memoirs are often called “misery memoirs” because they deal with hard times. But would a childhood be memorable if it was like something in Enid Blyton? I doubt it. I recently heard Karl Ove Knausgaard say on TV that life is interesting because it’s hard. My father’s illness and death had an effect on my mother’s mental health. I was affected as a young woman and so were my siblings. I worry about all the children now who are homeless or about to be. The effects can be permanent. Wouldn’t it be cheaper for the government to form a housing co-operative to help those about to be evicted, rather than pay for illness and addictions in later life?
I suppose health is the most important thing in life, but a home must come second. The two are interdependent. Despite some hardship, my childhood was far from miserable. Today my favourite place in the world is Dun Laoghaire, despite what happened there. My mother always said “know when you’re happy”. Lately I did a Word search of the word “happy” in my memoir. I had found her quote in another book and wanted to check that I hadn’t repeated myself in the memoir – there are many books but one life. “Happy” was used so often in The Deep End, that I exited the search in alarm. I recovered completely from my 2009 illness, but have always been a terrible editor.
The Deep End by Mary Rose Callaghan (University of Delaware Press) is available from Amazon