Search This Blog

February 25, 2014

An Invitation

As we grow, we often meet our own parents more than once. We know them first as supervisors of our nonverbal lives, then as teachers, later as individuals. Sometimes the lessons we learn from them may be costly, other times those lessons may be life-saving. As you read this essay about Donal Mahoney's father, it would be a good moment to remember the ways in which you "met" your father or mother. This essay reminds me that no generation can stand tall, if they have had no shoulders to stand upon. We all owe something to those who have gone before us--and endured.


Meeting Dad Again

by Donal Mahoney

My father emigrated from Ireland to the United States in the early 1920s. He had been released from Spike Island by the English who "occupied" Ireland at that time. Spike Island was the "Guantanamo" of that era, located just off the coast of Ireland. It was there the English warehoused prisoners of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). 

My father had been imprisoned by the English at age 16 for running guns through the marshes of County Kerry to aid the rebels fighting to free Ireland from the rule of the English. Young Irish lads were recruited for duties like this because they would be less apt to be captured by the English—or so the IRA thought. My father was not coerced into doing this. He volunteered for the duty and would have done it again if the English had not insisted that he and other prisoners leave Ireland as a condition of their  release. 

On arrival in America, he found work as a grave digger in Brooklyn, New York. Later he boxed professionally and sang in night clubs that catered to Irish immigrants. After he married, he moved with my mother to Chicago where he was hired by the Commonwealth Edison Company. There he spent almost four decades as a lineman, often working as a troubleshooter who was called out in the middle of the night when a storm knocked out the power. He liked this work and was very good at it, or so I was told by his peers when I visited him in the hospital. They had gathered in the hall outside his room after he had survived an electrical accident that occurred high on a pole in an alley. He survived 12,000 volts, an incident that got his name in the Chicago Tribune.  

In January 2012, decades after my father had died, my wife discovered a photo of him on the Internet. It showed him as a prisoner on Spike Island, circa 1920. He was a farm boy, poor as the chickens he fed when he was a child, but the English dressed him up nicely for the photo that accompanies this story. Perhaps they didn't want his age to show and to a degree they succeeded in that. You would think that they had treated him well, but they broke both his legs with rifle butts and let him sit on an earthen cell floor for a long period of time. 

In the photo, my father is in the first row, third from the left. He is identified as “J. O’Mahony,” which was the family name until he became a citizen of the United States. On that occasion, the judge suggested he change his name to "Mahoney," which was "more common" in the United States. My father agreed to the change but it was a decision he would rue for the remainder of his life. More than once he told me, "I should never have done it but I was a greenhorn, what did I know?" 
The young Mr. J. O'Mahony is third from left, front row.
My poem, “Meeting Dad Again,” was written many years later after my father and I reunited in Chicago briefly after he had been out of my life for awhile. His two years on Spike Island as an adolescent had taken a toll. He suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) before that ailment had been identified and named. Despite this problem, however, he was a sober Irishman who labored hard in Chicago for decades to save money to put me through college. His goal was to make certain that I would never have to "work with my hands." He didn't have to worry. I can operate a hammer, but have no manual skills beyond that. 

My poem records our reunion when my father, back in town unexpectedly, phoned me at work and, to my surprise, asked that I meet him for lunch. He suggested a cafeteria that was then a Chicago landmark. No fancy restaurants for him, even though in retirement he could afford a touch of the posh. I can't remember for certain, but I doubt that he let me pay the check. He knew that I had bills as the father of five stair-step children. 

The lunch went well. Conversation was light. I did not ask him where he had been or what he had been doing, and he asked only pleasant questions about me and my children. He showed no mood swings to indicate that he had once been a guest of the English, a confinement that affected him far more, I believe, than absorbing 12,000 volts. The voltage crippled his hand and gnarled his arm, but the English crippled and gnarled his nervous system. On this day, however, he was in fine fettle, as he liked to say. This time he was more interested in seeing me than my report card. 


Meeting Dad Again

Thirty years later, Dad came back
and we met for Ham and Yams at Toffenetti’s.
Pouring his tea, he told me he had
to restore power once
at a newspaper warehouse
and the storm broke again
and the lightning cracked his ladder.
He spent the whole day, he said,
sitting in that dark warehouse,
waiting for the lightning to stop
and for the truck to bring a new ladder.
He had a great time, he said,
sitting next to a flickering lantern
and reading for hours the Sunday comics
printed and stacked
six weeks in advance.


 Nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes, Donal Mahoney has had poetry and fiction published in various publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his earliest work can be found at

February 20, 2014

You're invited ....

You're invited to send a vintage family photo with a brief story or caption to post on the blog. I've started the visual adventure with the imperious and beautiful Regena, below.

Otra reina del sur: One Family's Queen

Regena, 1917

Aptly named, my Aunt Regena acted queenly from a young age. Here, she is just 16, southern belle and budding intellect. Her credits include: Secretary of the Senior Literary Club, Junior Class Poet, DAR Medal Winner, English Medal Winner, and proud member of the Suffragettes Club. After high school, she traveled from her native Mississippi to earn a degree at the University of Chicago. She had more than intellect and charm, however. Hers also the gift and curse of clairvoyance.

After college, she fell in love and married Mr. West, who managed a large farm. One day, two farm workers started a fight. Mr. West tried to break it up. In the process, he was injured. He was rushed to the hospital, where my clairvoyant aunt told the doctors that her husband's spleen had ruptured. They chose not to believe her, chose not to operate, and he died. The doctors later asked Regena's forgiveness. I can still remember the look in her large grey eyes when she told me the story. "They told me that if they had taken me seriously, my husband would not have died."

I don't believe she was ever truly happy again. She devoted herself to teaching the literature that she loved to high school students. She recited long passages of classical poetry at the dinner table when the relatives gathered. I found it enthralling--a word I rarely use, or feel.

At some point in Regena's life, a gypsy woman (so she said) taught her to read cards. I still have the notes I made when Aunt Regena read mine. Contrary to the cards' advice, I did marry the Jack of Spades, and, in keeping with their prediction, the marriage did not last.

Regena's life ended in a tiny house in a poor neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi. The caretakers she paid to help her took most of what she owned. Years before this sad turn of events took place, Regena gave me her beloved (reproduction) statue of Nefertiti. The fact that we both held a fascination for ancient Egypt was one of several factors that made us kindred spirits, as well as kin. I look at the statue daily. It has a special place in my office. I maintain that the queen in Regena never died. I hope she is now reunited with her true love, reigning over their eternal happiness.

As for me, I'm still waiting for the King of Hearts my aunt promised me as she scanned the arrangement of those rectangular messengers. After all, who else but a queen could promise me a king?

February 18, 2014


In the "olden days," when we had family pictures taken, we were first given "proofs" to review. We chose the final photos that we wanted to have printed from those proofs. The word has lost its way in the world of digital photography, but this story by Annette Green takes me back to its meaning as though I were on a new road to a familiar destination. 

In "Family Photo," we see that photos still offer us proof. We see them on a screen, or we hold them in our hands, and as we gaze at them, we travel into the time that the image preserves. In the case of photos of loved ones gone on before us, and in some cases, who left before we could know them in their three-dimensional, human form, these photos grant us time with that person.

Annette's story is Haiku-like in its simplicity, elegant in its spare use of language. You could read it quickly, but my advice is that you don't. Savor it, linger over each sentence and think about where the simple statements take the narrator--and you. Then, dig out some of your own family photos--especially the ones you can't click on--the ones you can touch on the pages of albums that your hands open gently--and gaze into those family photos, knowing that we remain connected.


Family Photo
by Annette Greene
Photo, Ysabel de la Rosa

My favorite family photo is one that was taken before I was born. On the far left is my mother (five months’ pregnant with me) resting her right hand on the shoulder of my older sister, Yolanda, age seven. Yolanda looks like a little doll with her bangs cut straight across and a big bow gathering up her hair at the back. In the center of the picture is my grandmother, barely taller than Yolanda, and next to her is my brother, Sean. Quiet and introspective even at age five, his solemn facial expression stands out in contrast to the bright smiles of the rest of the family. Next to Sean is my sister, Marilyn, three years old and the youngest of the group. She’s pretty cute in her Sunday best, making a peace sign with two fingers of her right hand. On the far right behind Marilyn, dressed in a suit and tie and towering over all of us, is my father, Aaron.  My parents were both in their 30s at the time and, according to my mother, money was tight, but they were happy and in love.

In the years since the photo was taken, Yolanda had to grow up fast and help my mother and grandmother take care of us. Today, she’s a serious person with a determined, ambitious side. Still caring for people, she works as a nurse but is saving her money to go to Europe before she’s 30. I hope she makes it.

My grandmother lived with us until she died ten years ago. I remember her as patient and wise and never too busy to spend time with me when I was little.

Sean, now 23, has become a computer programmer and lives by himself, finally getting the privacy he always craved in our family’s small, overcrowded apartment.

Marilyn, the extrovert of the family, got married at 20. John, her husband, is twice her age. and they had a baby girl a year later. Some people will say that Marilyn needed a father figure, but I think she just knew what she wanted and found it young.

I look at this photo and try to imagine what my family was like before I was born. I especially like to look at my father who died six days after this picture was taken.  He was working as a gardener and fell out of a tree he was pruning. Mom says the tree wasn’t even very high so I guess he was just unlucky that this fall broke his neck and killed him.

My mother named me after my father, but everyone calls me by his nickname, Ari. People say I look like him. I’m eighteen and just graduated from high school this year. My family’s a lot bigger than most of my friends’ families except for the fact that my father hasn’t been here for my whole life. When I was growing up, I didn’t think I missed him like my mother, brother, and sisters used to.

It was my father’s birthday this past Sunday, and we all went to the park where he died, like we do every year at this time. It’s weird but, now that I’m older, I have begun to miss him more. He and my mother got married young—not much older than I am now. He certainly got cheated out of life, and we all got cheated not having him around. Maybe I’ll get to be a father someday. I want to be around for my kids and get to see what being a father is all about. I bet it’s kind of cool.


See Annette's other essay on this blog here.

Annette Greene is a freelance writer and educator living in Washington, DC. Originally from Vancouver, BC, she writes on a variety of topics, including health and wellness, travel, and cross-cultural communication. Essay copyright Annette Greene, all rights reserved.