people ‘n us: An experiment in memoir

Melissa Beattie-Moss
December 13, 2012

“I've been writing stories for the last few years,” says professor of art Helen O’Leary. “I’m trying to work with language—both written language and painting language—that has an informal diary feel.” The following is an excerpt from one of her experiments in memoir.

“I've been writing stories for the last few years,” says professor of art Helen O’Leary. “I’m trying to work with language—both written language and painting language—that has an informal diary feel.” The following is an excerpt from one of her experiments in memoir.


 We had a table kitchen in Killilane. It was half old, with a new
formica top that had been added in the fifties when they
married. The table held our history, the worn color
where she made the bread, the steady geometry of where we sat, my mother at the head with her back to the Aga, the rest of us sat in order of birth, my father and I near the door. The certainty of seating arrangements slowly expanding to the accommodation of strangers,
tourists, renters with their stories of America, of lives we couldn’t imagine, tourist board inspectors with their long stern lists of improvements that would later sterilize and sanitize the house of any of its memory or our family. We huddled under it in the tornado, as it circled the farm, pressed into the cement floor, all six of us, as if it’s age and certainty could save us from the raging noises in the exterior world.

sepia-toned photo of young girl with bangs smiling up at the camera
Courtesy Helen O’Leary

As a child

 She had stopped the train as I headed off, with my red padded skijacket and blue backpacks, the color of their flag. Your leaving us already she said.

 It was dark as the car headed down the hill of the harbour, other cars parked, children off to college, taking the train to Dublin or the boat to England. Dark, cold, engines on and off to give quick blasts of heat, the steaming windows, and the wipers scraping back and forth to keep a clear view of the station. Goodbyes, the unmentioned, unsaid in the way that we know how, with mirth and without sentimentality or tears. You’ll mind
yourself now she said as she handed me a roll of ten-pound
notes from her cardigan pocket. We’re always here. We could hear the train on the track and walked slowly towards the platform that we knew too well. It had been the two of us, taking on that world, rain or shine, carting tourists from that harbour in the back of the car, meeting the trains, facing the platform
reading faces, I had become good at spotting them, reading that
lost look on the traveler, people with no plan or place to go, and I would walk up to them and offer them a room. We had kept the place going, when most said it should have been sold, and now it was time to step into the train with the same look I had become accustomed to spotting. Maybe all those
trips down there in the dark night after night had been a rehearsal for leaving.

 I sat into the seat, into the quiet steady beginning that trains have, across a table from a young German couple, just in off of the boat. I imagined I looked like one of them, travelling journeyman people light, youthful, expectant. I wanted to fit in and be their sort of youth. I looked out into the black of the car park, searching for our car, imagining her loneliness at my leaving. We had been a team, working the harbour, each train, each boat, like the traders I knew later in Indian train stations.

art school photo ID card
Courtesy Helen O’Leary

Art school

 The train stopped suddenly and without warning, before it got
up speed. I heard her hands on the window, knocking, a blue and white plastic bottle tight in her fist, mouthing, eyes mad with urgency. She had given me what she could to protect me, the roll of money she had collected from selling knitted jumpers to tourist, medals on a safety pin sewn to the lining of my
red coat, and a small bottle of Lourdes holy water I had rested on the dashboard. She slipped it in through the gap at the top window and I felt the eyes of the carriage upon me, marking me as local. I often thought of that bottle, my raging embarrassment, left in a pile in the many places I had rented in the first few years in Chicago, and what money I would give to have it back. She had stood in front of the train, arms above her head,
signaling to Mick that I couldn’t leave without it. I could see
her as we left, one hand up above her head, reaching to the sky, a salute, lost in the bigness of the harbour.

 January. I arrived into O’Hare the searching look of the hundreds of young tourists that had eaten at our table. I had seen the city on a map spread out on the kitchen table explaining the scholarship, and what had been said about the college. It was an inch from Detroit, where uncle Ben had gone in
the thirties, and had come back with TB to a family that had too little already to take him on. Three inches from New York, where other relations had settled, they had returned once as tourists, with smiles and cameras, better dressed version of ourselves. The map had been folded and unfolded, weighing the pros and cons of letting me go. She had heard tell of its weather, its ice, wind, heat, and stories of roughness and murder. We had
watched re-runs of Starsky and Hutch, and knew of the EL on Wacker Street. We had heard songs by Frank Sinatra, and imagined wealth, lights, snow, cars, people smiling over well fed tables. Tourists knew of the school and told her it had a reputation and I was lucky to get in let alone get a scholarship. Some said wouldn’t I be better off staying getting a job in the bank, or taking over the farm and renting rooms as she had did.

 The cold hit me as I left the train walking up the rise at the
stop at UIC. Paul had been mugged there when we had been in college, twenty years earlier, maced as he walked up to Halsted, he had curled to the ground, blinded while they went through his pockets, twenty dollars and his fly fishing rod, bag or paints, and a few clothes. I had fallen in love with his
love of the rivers, his gentleness, how he took to Ireland and his understanding for how much it meant for me to go back there. We had found a house in Leitrim, took it apart stone by stone and reassembled it into a home where we spent our summers. Our daughter Eva had learned the fiddle and how to catch a donkey, each year we added something to talk of our summer, a
sweat house, an outside bath, a house for goats, whitewashed
walls, mosaics with glass dragged from Venice. It was down a lane and up a mountain, away.
The locals had been warm to us, perched up there on the hill, mud, clay, bushes bent into the wind. You can’t live on a view was told to us again and again as we would pause in front of some ones house and admire the spread of Loch Allen underneath. We had learned to love the land, it’s worthlessness, how it had been abandoned, sold off to forestry, plot by plot, the geometry
of their invasion clearly marked in black squares on the
mountain. The drive down to the village was a winding descent into warm moist beauty, the rushy land falling away from the road, the damp, and the cloud of midges, marking the arrival of the evening. Dinny our neighbour taught us how to read the
sky, signs of rain, a page long. He said it was so wet there that the birds have to crawl up onto the road to take off. We had taken Eva there on our sabbatical, placing her into the local school, to round the corners off her the master had said alluding to her soft American upbringing.

 Each year we would close it up with sadness, piling our books into plastic tubs to preserve them from the damp, putting things away and imagining returning for good some day. We were called the yanks, the blow ins, and people would call, with advice on the water schemes and grants, cows, the
un-sticking of frogs from our taps, fences, forestry, cars, donkeys, jobs and mostly about our return to the US.

two cows joining heads in a field with shoreline in the background
Courtesy Helen O’Leary

Farm in Killilane

 I would tell stories of Killilane to Eva, of how life was different, the place I had come from, and in many ways had escaped. She would hear stories of the tornado, the fire, the death of my father, the drive of the neighbours to run us out, how we had rented rooms, one by ones, slept anywhere we could, people, and us. People were anyone other than us, peoples food, peoples rooms, their needs were more urgent than ours, people do things we don’t have or do, have shining cars, holidays, suitcases, you can’t get close to them, well dressed children, easter eggs, foreign holidays and smiling wives, intact families, other religions, languages. Us was just our reality. I’d tell her how we survived, Mam and me, hawking tourists at the ferry, reading faces, skipping school, of mam’s meningitis, our bankruptcy, the poisoned animals, the books hidden to read while we milked the cows, old men with their leering looks and straying hands cornering us against walls, how free and unbreakable our spirits seemed on that shore, how we knew we belonged and would never sell it, no matter what the cost. I would tell her how I had learned everything I needed to know at Killilane, learning to draw in the cow house to the hum of the milking machine, drawing each cow in tar and black paint on the white walls, dusting blue chalk on their backs to mark which cow was done as we milked
them until they glowed Prussian blue against the sky in the high field, and how I’d watch the pattern of milk clot into cow dung and the streaking white webbed patterns of Jeyes fluid down the yard as we hosed it down each morning. I told her I had learned of colour and kindness from animals and how my father would hold me with two roughened hands around my chest above the base of boat letting me slop warm tar from the big horse hair brush in long rhythmic movements up and down the boards to keep out the leaks, and how I had learned the power of repetition from labour, watching mam square butter the marble slab in the scullery and collecting eggs in the dark acrid cubicles of the hen house.

 When we drove down there, with the sea on the side of the lane
with Tuskar light house illuminating the lower field with a slow searching rhythm that I knew by heart, I would have a lift in my heart of return, that would sour as the days lingered, and the restrictions of the boundaries and the gates, and
the lanes, and the neighbours I had no respect for, and would have me scouring the real estate pages of the papers for a house of our own.

Drumshanbo was different than Rosslare Harbour, poorer, the same battles existed but they weren’t our battles. It held a history but not our history. The sky would was bright until after midnight, and we could see the northern lights as we drove home from surfing in Sligo. There was no darkness to face, the black of the forestry down the lane had the constant illumination
of Mauds light above on the mountain which told us she was home, safe, constant, we knew each star by heart. Each year we would come back to the lunacy of the University, where we both had jobs, and tells stories of the characters we had met, or the follies we had added to the house. The plastering, the stone work, the leaks that were fixed, the roof that was patched up, the fences shored us against the rot of the world and
could hold our spirits over for another academic year. Each Spring we would count down the days and buy the tickets, Eva would pout at the prospect of yet another summer on the mountain, protesting with silent sulks our nostalgic intoxication with the place.

He kept his suits in the cubbord in the spare room that we had
marked as my studio, picking his steps over the plastic we had taped over the grey carpet to dress each morning, avoiding fresh splashes of color of paint and stray sharpness of staples. I would watch him dress, coffee in hand that I would serve in a cup that he liked that we had bought in Dublin, holding on to
each moment before he left for the office. Fine suits, well tailored, freshly pressed and recently taken in at the waist to accommodate the weight we had both lost with the strain of the divorces, and the blossom of new love. The loft was near his firm, we could see it’s pointy tower from our table. I had met him when I had first come to Chicago, twenty-five years
earlier, looking for a job in an Irish bar that had a reputation
for hiring straight off the boat people like myself. He was a lawyer, one of the handful of professionals working an occasional shift to augment his salary, each shift would tell me stories of cases he was working on, murders, gangs, from the inner working of the city, crimes I had seen on Starsky and Hutch
on our rounded television in killilane. The years working the
harbour had given me skills with crowds, reading faces, hustling, serving more drinks than was humanly possible, and living on less sleep than most people could manage. I had her determination, and would wake each morning and walk to the
school, carrying a fresh shirt on a hanger ready for the
evenings work. I had learned tricks to keep the paint off my hands, soap under what nails I had, vaseline, gloves, keeping a safe distance between love and money. In the bar, I was yet another emigrant of the eighties, another illegal, quick
with my mouth, working her way back home. In school, I had a
name, not irish as we were all called, but a classification of our own, foreign student, with a student visa, motivated, one of many people from elsewhere that had an affinity and affection for difference. He had shown me respect, admiring my determination, noticing how I wouldn’t linger after my shift was finished, quickly slipping out into the night, tipping out the bar and the door, drinking a half glass of wine and leaving the rest on the bar. He told me of his young children, his wife, their house in the suburbs, on the North shore. I knew their names, and I would talk of books I had read, the house I wanted to buy in Ireland once I had graduated, before the prices went up, the work I needed to make. He was marked by difference, intelligence and mirth, ambition, quickness, fullness of spirit, above everyone
else in that world of easiness of Rush Street, different from some of the barmen who would leer at women, over serving and screwing them in the beer cooler downstairs. Working there was like being back at the harbour, the people and us mentality that we had imagined to survive, the roughness of it, the other
worlds that co-existed, the drink, the coarseness, the glamour,
facing the blackness of the door through which the gaudiness of that glitzy Chicago night world would enter. At the harbour other hawkers would jeer us for thinking we were a step above buttermilk, who were we to think ours was different from the raw desperation of others, that we held our chins in a
way that told us this was temporary, that once we stepped back into the shadow of the car and drove back down that lane to killilane, the certainty of our normal life could be resumed over cups of tea at the kitchen table.

It was the same in the bar, I would leave and take a taxi home in the black of night, showering myself thoroughly to rid myself of the clinging smell of smoke, changing hats for school in the morning.

 I took Eva there to show her the ornaments at Christmas and
Paul’s signs in curly arabesques of fake celtic calligraphy above the door that he had painted for money before we had left. The old man who owned it was a legend in Chicago, part of the fabric of the city, was much a grandfather as she
ever had and I had made a habit of visiting him when we could. I was genuinely fond of him, my Amercian father, he was the home I had over here, had flown to Dublin for my first Irish solo, and had come to Pennsylvania to visit the university and see how and where I was living. New girls from home would wait on us, and he would tell them stories of how he had found me, stories of the legend I had created for breaking glasses and selling liquor.
We made that trip by train, back and forth from the depths of
Pennsylvania, cutting a line across the country with bags of books, through the ever ending stretch of Ohio, Gary Indiana was the marker that told us we were close, with its stench, stagnant chemical pools, with children fishing, bleakness of existence held together with clouds of smog. That first January
we had the car packed with our belongings, Eva strapped in a baby seat, surrounded by bags, pots, pans, paintings and books. We hadn’t much to move, things we had collected in thrift stores had been left on the curb in WickerPark, and we had limited the move to a small trailer behind the car. I was fiddling with the dial as we approached Gary, Indiana looking for a station, panning between Christian and traffic radio stations, I let it rest on a rock station, the Doors came in loud and clear, this is the end blared in through the speakers between the garbled pauses of interrupted channels. The song lasted as we snaked our way through the town, we didn’tspeak, the dank oppressive stench matching the darkness of the song and our own apprehension about leaving. In many ways it was an end of sorts, this leaving of Chicago, our loft on the west side, with studios in the city, our young bohemian life, our marriage, trading our life of imagination for the meager security of a University job with health benefits.

middle-aged woman looking out onto rocky shore
Courtesy Helen O’Leary

Recently in Ireland

 January, it marks beginnings, my coming to America, rearing Eva in Pennsylvania, the leaving of Paul and my life with him in Chicago. A time of year for starts, new year resolutions that would wear out with the coming of spring, exhausted by fall, lost and re -imagined the following January.

  I had wanted to write and ask how much paint had crept inside
that plastic on studio floor in Chicago. Had he lost the security deposit because of it, or had he filled in my colour with new carpet, simply replacing me with new modular industrial squares. Had any of me leaked in, indelible, worming its way through a hole or a tear, had it been found later with annoyance
when all had been packed and removed into a storage unit in the suburbs. The boxes were labeled HO, like a third of a Christmas card. I had worn red patent shoes to the partner ball, glinting scarlet at the end of my long black dress, bed shoes he had called them as we dressed that evening, while I pinned his tuxedo with the blue sapphires from his grandfathers wardrobe.
Blue and red, I should have known it signaled another leaving. We had stood in my studio putting our bits of finery together, paint at his feet, bracing me for the night ahead. We were us, both of us, together the same species, heading to a party of people. Names of partners, names of their wives, who to avoid,
seating arrangements. The pecking order of the firm, arranged by
power, our table was at the centre.

  Bad luck to put shoes on a table my mother would have said, a
death in the house. He had sent the box of shoes at my request before I left for Paris, the red shoes on top with a note.

 Its hard to get vomit out of leather, by right you should throw it away.

Wine takes a bit of doing but you can manage it if you get it
early enough. I had loved the jacket, found in a little second hand shop on my way to the metro, piles of clothes, like dung hills closing in on the room, the thin man with his dreadlocked dog shared the same walk of a broken mechanical toy. There were two paths in the shop, one to left leading to larger piles
of clothes and one to the desk where the man sat and sorted through his inventory of assortments. The dog lay on a pile near the desk. I had watched the dog try to walk one day, stumbling and tripping on his long matted hair, hobbled by ornament, stopping and starting, unable to move beyond the pile of clothes that had become for him an upholstered cage. I’d go in for a root on my way home, invariably finding a deal, and the blond leather jacket was the jackpot. Five euros. I had enough French to
barter, not enough to ask him why he lived in that shop, or who
he was, with his lame dog, his bedraggled customers who came in with mysterious bags, which he would then carefully label and pile against the wall. I had wanted to take photos but was always too embarrassed to ask. Four months in Paris,
I had got the hang of it, the metro, getting lost and found in happy rotation, uncaring of clocks or the logistics of maps. The studio was in the courtyard at Culturel Irlandais, a quiet solitude amongst the hacked tortured trees and raked gravel. I had moved with two suitcases, ordering supplies of pigments from Germany. I painted on plastic on the floor, deliberately dripping paint on shredded canvas, to find where they’d settle

 I said. I would count the days of when I didn’t think of him,
didn’t check my email for hours on end, falling in love with paintings in the Louvre, with le Corbusier, with my colleagues, the five of us from our different lives, around the kitchen table in the smallness of the kitchen and at Teddys bar with it’s leopard skin decor after a days work. I fell in love a million times that summer, with Eva as she made it from the airport alone, arriving from San francisco with no French and a disabled iphone, indignant at my direction that she make it downtown to me alone, visiting to spend her twenty first birthday and sharing my bed, we walked miles each day arm in arm, taking photos of each other, of odd things, watching her eye as it had developed into a voice of its own, of the pictures she would take of me in front of couples making out, writhing in their own world of absorbed love, a backdrop to my singularity. I fell in love with my new camera, bought with the grant the university had given me before I left, with copper pots I collected at flea markets, the solitude, with the slowness of my routine, with people who sold me bread, with kindness, and clothes, and finally after four months, of walking, of silence, of forgetting, and then the forgetting I was trying to forget.

 He had skyped me, at my insistence, two days before I left, while I was packing to come back, and told me some of what happened. I asked had he married, he said he had. I asked was she younger, he said she was. I asked him if I knew her, he said yes. I asked him if he had a baby, he said he did. A boy, with blue eyes, he said. I asked if he could pack my things and send them back to Pennsylvania, he promised he would.


Last Updated December 13, 2012