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Sunday, August 31

On the Relative Death of a Child


As Gustav edges ever closer, I am reminded of Katrina, and the horror’s she visited upon once beautiful New Orleans. I wrote this while watching the numbing aftermath. It was the sight of all those trapped children that re-awoke the memory. So - as Gustav hurtles towards its own collision with the Gulf Coast – I cannot seem to shake a presentiment that I have been here before. Our own serious storm damage only sharpened the focus (the ravages of Zoe), necessitating a new roof and a new car (has anyone noticed that insurance companies have undercut their payouts? It’s as if Katrina destroyed how America functions as a whole). Of course, we were luckier than our neighbors. Some houses one neighborhood over weren’t left standing at all. Straight line winds topping hurricane strength stripped them down to the floorboards. Needless to say, I try and count my blessings where they fall.

This story is about my mother. Poor woman, she harbored a variety of mental illnesses. Personal interaction of any kind was her nemesis. And she hated children – her own especially. I used to dislike children – until I realized why. Children are weak, and can be easily terrorized (as I was on a daily basis). As soon as I understood this – everything changed. It never did for my mother. She just kept repeating the same behaviors – hoping for….I don’t know what. Getting her own back? She used to constantly tell me that someone had to understand how badly she had been treated all those long years ago. So. If there was a reason – that was it; because it is my contention such behaviors have to come from somewhere. Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum. My mother’s childhood had its own demons – demons she unfortunately felt driven to visit upon her own children. I may not forgive – but I do understand.


My Mother was four years old when the Lusitania was torpedoed. I have seen her there – in the documentaries – a tiny girl with a big bow tightly gripping her older sister’s hand. Her family lived nearby, in a village called Rushbrook – so she’d often stand on that hill above the harbor and watch the ships go by. From whalers to sleek White Star luxury cruisers – everything passed by Queenstown and The Head of Kinsale on its way to America. So when the explosions happened, off she went, along with everyone else.

No one expected another Titanic. Fire and water and the stench of burning oil – she never got over that smell. Years later, she’d refuse to get out of the car whenever my Father got gas.

They stacked the bodies in the town square like so much wood. There were so many, you see - and the rescuers were overwhelmed. Some - those less intact, or without clothing - were relegated to dirty little buildings near the docks. Queenstown was really no more than a fishing village back then. After Titanic, well – the big ships still stopped; but Liverpool had taken over as the preferred port of call. Ireland was fast slipping into another wave of grinding poverty that would soon force more immigration – this one to include my Mother and her family. So when the Lusitania went down – it was a big thing. Everyone turned out to help and to see – no one thought to protect the children.

My Mother was convinced people were buried alive. She heard the exhalations, you see; the final breath of the dead. Sometimes they would move as well, shifting under the weight of those piled on top; lips moving to expel water trapped in their lungs. I imagine Buchenwald was like that, with bodies waiting for the ovens. Horrible, frightening – my Mother tried to get adults to listen to her fears, but children back then were not to be heard. As a punishment, her older sister locked her in one of the sheds near the wharf. Just a little girl, four years old, one hundred bodies bloated from the sea, and rats. Lots, and lots and lots of rats; black ones - grown fat from gorging on pale flesh. Do you know how big a wharf rat gets? About the size of a terrier. She screamed, of course – the poor little thing was terrified. All it did was make the rats look in her direction, their red eyes glowing like twilight.

She took me back there, years; no eons ago - took me to stand with her on that hill. She was 60 and I barely 12. I remember the wind colored her face, and it was cold. There was no inflection in her voice when she told me - only a kind of bitterness, especially regarding her sister. I reached for her hand, but she wouldn’t allow it. My Mother never liked to be touched. I cried for her.

We visited the grave, that day – where they put all those bodies. Mother wouldn’t even enter that part of the cemetery. She waited near her family plot. Blessed soil (to her) - Irish soil. I stood near the largish square allotted to the Lusitania dead and marveled at how small it seemed to contain all those dead. They must have dug deep, I thought. The memorial stone was discolored by lichen, weeds nearly masking the simple epitaph. It looked abandoned and forlorn. I stared back at my Mother, hands in front of her eyes so no one could see the tears. I wondered who she was weeping for.

It twisted her, the terror of that week - warped her perceptions. Turned life into death; and all those fears, all that anger misdirected itself - right onto her children. Four, she had - four children - and only two of us survived to adulthood. Alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, suicide – all this and more stalked my siblings into their graves. Only my sister and I were spared. I think of that, more often as I age, and I am at a loss to explain why. Perhaps it has to do with the relative flexibility of mind. Like all artists, I see life as Picasso did - all angles at once. My sister retreated into the bosom of religion, allowing her vision of God to buffer the shock. My Mother had none of my flexibility, and she didn’t believe in God - not really. For her, the only way to exorcise those demons was to visit them upon others.

The sights and sounds inside the Superdome – running gun battles, rape, mutilation of bodies - just how do you think the NOLA children will internalize such horrors? For those terrors were real, you know; despite recent revisionist efforts to ignore and erase them. Chaos, thirst and death – from a child’s eye view – it would seem God had all but abandoned them. So – will they be able to shed such memories? What about those left outside with the dead? Watching bodies eaten by those rats that survived the flooding of the sewers? Will they fear all rodents as my Mother did? The woman ran screaming from squirrels. Will they seek to expiate their fear and anger by acting out? What will they visit on their own children and the rest of society?

Well, I guess we all will find that out in about 20 years.

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