Lovely memoir of a roving life, full of dread and great affection.
Murphy (“a cross little weasel”) was born into privation and poverty that are still with her after 75 years. Yet the memories held in these pages resound not with bitterness, but with spunk and wonder. Her story starts innocently enough, in Ireland after WWI, with tales of gypsies and card-playing, singing and superstitions, rituals and herbal cures, carbolic soap and childhood mortality, and concocting sins for confession. The author creates for readers a deeply atmospheric world, hard but vital. There came a time when her mouth was one too many to feed, and she had to make her own way in the world. She met a man at a dance (a venue for socializing that gives the period a very specific gravity), got pregnant, got married. And she stayed in that marriage, to a man who would cheat on and beat her: maybe because she was Catholic, maybe so that her nine children would have a semblance of family, maybe because she just thought it was the right thing to do. Security would not be the couple’s fortune. Seeking domestic employment, they were footloose; twice the children had to be sent into foster care when their mother was sick and their father too feckless to care. They endured evictions and bailiffs smashing the furniture, episodes of English bigotry toward the Irish, many nights when they were lucky to have scallions, bread, and margarine for dinner. Their children had to grow up fast, learning to dodge the stinging familial bullets amidst the throat-tightening displays of love and protectiveness. Threaded throughout the narrative, gnawing like a rat, is the lung cancer whose discovery, in 1999, led the author to leave her husband and their by-then 50-year marriage.
When it’s “time to shove off,” as she says, you’ll want to be there to lend Murphy a hand onto any coach of exit she chooses.