01 December 2011

Una Mary Bernadette

Mervyn and Una

Last night my little girl tells her mother and I that we have to write about her heritage for a school project. I said, that's easy 'You're half Welsh and half American.' Then, after trying to explain why as Welsh people we do not speak Welsh, I realized we should probably go a bit deeper with the heritage thing. Next thing I know, I feel like the old man re-hashing tragic and fantastical tales of family members of yore. I soon realized the one member of the family my little one really had to know more about, from, my perspective, was my grandmother. I don’t have much communication with the dead but Una is one of them.

Now, I know in America people love to claim various heritages. 1/16th this, an 1/8th that, half this, always part- Irish if you're white... Personally, I don't claim anything but Welsh. I have a British passport but I'm Welsh. End of story. But in the interest of being fair to the heritage of my little girl, I am going to tell her about my chain-smoking Irish Catholic grandmother who had had a Welsh of an accent as they come, Una Mary Bernadette York.

Una was born in Wexford, Ireland in 1926 and must have moved to South Wales shortly thereafter. I don’t have much information on her parents. ‘Gypos’ I’ve been told. Possibly. From photos I’ve seen they certainly didn’t look very conventional. My great grandmother wore a trilby and smoked a pipe, apparently.

After living through the Nazi’s attempt to flatten Swansea, Una married Mervyn in the fifties and had two kids, Mike and Kathleen, my mum. Mervyn died at age thirty-seven, when my mum was six and I don’t think Una ever recovered. Even though she was only in her thirties, she became an instant old woman at that point.

I’ll never know the truth but let’s just say I was not exactly planned by nineteen year old Kath but nevertheless I entered the picture in 1975. From the beginning Una filled the gaps where my mum and dad where unable to. She was a third parent, as I’ve always said. Una became Gran or Granny to everyone from that point on. A new identity that I believe she thrived on in her own unstated way. She was still a tragic widow but with a new purpose in life.

When we began our world travels in the 80s, Una came with us. All six of us would be wedged into a rental car, driving across some far-flung highway. While Dad snarled and sweated behind the steering wheel, my little brother, sister, Una and I would be squished into the back, trying to keep calm.

I’d often  share a room with Una, trying not to breathe in too much of her cigarette smoke as I attempted to sleep. Consequently, I have still yet to smoke a cigarette. Her bibles and crucifix’s scared the shit out of me and I partially credit them with an early and obsessive fear of death; a fear that took me years to confront in a healthy manner.

Despite the cigarettes and the morbid paintings of Christ, Una and I developed a connection. Providing less discipline than my parents, she was more of a passive guide. I now wonder how intentional it was. Well I suppose, if the boy is going to attempt to walk across this tight-rope, I’ll try and guide him across the chasm…

Probably aged twelve or so, for whatever reason I wrote a poem. It became a nasty little habit that I shared with nobody. Unable to articulate why or even what I was attempting to do, I kept my writing secret. There was no way in hell I would tell my mum or dad, let alone share anything I had written with them. It was the same with friends and teachers.

Una and I would often be the last ones up at night, often watching Peter Falk as Columbo on the telly before going to bed. I might be hacking out some story about surfing in outer space, vampires or being a social retard, and she’d be smoking away reading women’s magazines, drinking endless cups of tea. On one such night I decided to share some of my writing with her. I’m sure it was painful to read but the result was probably one of the most crucial boosts of self-confidence I ever had. I want to think she was just glad I was even pursuing literature and also that she had been the first one to be let in on it. My next story about surfing in outer space ended up in a school literary magazine.

She never gave me shit when she caught me stealing my dad’s beer, or sneaking in the house at three in the morning, or when she caught me taking the car out for a spin, or found used condoms wrappers under my bed. She kept calm when I called her from jail, never once judging my fuck-ups, there was never even a sigh of disappointment.

By my late teens Una was in her early seventies, and she was breaking bones, on what seemed like a monthly basis. The smoking and poor diet had already contributed to what was a nasty does of osteoporosis. Combine that with the mentality of someone who had assumed the role of old widow for the last forty years and the deterioration was quick. Each time I’d come home from university, she appeared more withered, hunched and pale. It was hard to see her resembling a child, barely able to walk, feed herself or talk but still able to smoke. Her delicate hands shaking as she tried to light a cigarette that looked eerily long as it shook between her quivering lips. She stopped dying her hair but still applied lip-stick, a comi-tragic effort to… I don’t know what… she was trying to do…

She eventually quit smoking when she ended up in a nursing home. I went to see her every week or so but sometimes I would go a few weeks without visiting. I remember telling myself, I was going to step up my visits. Of course, I was caught up in my own shit in my early twenties and barely keeping it together myself, let alone in a space to help someone’s last months on earth be a meaningful transition.

I was one of the few relatives that lived closed to her. My mother, who struggled with the nursing home decision, lived half way across the globe at that point. It never occurred to me that Una would die so quick. She kept telling me, she’d get better and would be living with my mum again soon and I believed her. Perhaps, soon I’ll start visiting her twice I week, I’d say to myself…. at least until she’s back living with Mum again.

She soon died in that nursing home, asleep, and alone. I felt terrible, of course. I felt like our family had just given up on her and had just sat it out waiting for her to die. That was an unfair assumption but back then I believed that we were no better than any other modern western family, unable to cope with this inevitability.

At the same time, her death opened a window for me. A gust of Autumn air rushed into my stagnant bedroom that night. Cold reality rushed up through my nostrils and deep into my lungs and it was good. That night, I slept hard and had the most vivid dream I have had to date. It was as if Una was at the foot of my bed. An overwhelming sense of peace overcame me as she told me, ‘Everything is OK, now.’ That’s all she said. She seemed calm and happy. I woke up and started a new stage of my life the next day and took my first confident steps towards death.