40 years ago today my Nana died. While hers wasn’t the first death I’d experienced, her loss affected me and everyone in the family profoundly.
Lizzie Condon had lived with us my entire life. When my mum – her youngest daughter Frances – married my dad Jimmy in 1960, the newlyweds moved into the room and kitchen in the Gorbals where Nana had raised her two daughters for the last 27 years. Three months later, when they were rehoused in a two-bedroomed flat in the then-brand spanking new part of Glasgow’s vast Pollok housing scheme called South Nitshill, Nana went too.
Round the corner was her eldest daughter Pat Connelly and her husband, another Jimmy. Her first grandson James had been born in 1956.
When the Traynor babies started to arrive along with additions to the Connellys, Nana was there to help, though she was only in her early 50s at this point and still working herself.
We moved to a bigger house in another part of Pollok when my brother Tony was born. My parents had had five children in six years – it was the 60s and they were obedient Catholics (or as my dad put it later, they’d tried the rhythm method, but have you ever tried finding a brass band at midnight?!) – and Nana was not only our grandmother but also an essential part of the economic lives of both her daughters’ families.
Her being there let mum and Pat find part-time work, knowing their mum was there for the tots and the bigger ones once the bell had rung. I don’t have many pre-school memories, but I do recall hectic lunchtime as 10 kids (including a tiny baby, my cousin AnneMarie) jostled for food and attention as Nana doled out grub and admonishments in equal measure.
Another dim memory I have is when the big ones had gone back to school after lunch and Tony and I would climb up on the couch with Nana for Watch With Mother and she’d tell us how the sandman was coming and “Quick! Cover your eyes before he gets you!” She’d get half an hour’s peace for a fag and to do her crossword while we were bawbaws and none the wiser for having been suckered into a nap again.
The kitchen was her domain. She loved nothing more than a natter with a cup of tea, her cigarettes and matches tucked into the pocket of the apron she wore daily, a fresh one on every morning. When I was first put to work helping Mum with the ironing at the age of 10, the only things I was trusted with were dish towels and those aprons, though by then only Mum was wearing them as Nana was quite infirm.
But that was then and this was now, in that kitchen in Lunderston Drive with its cold pantry and Belfast sink over which a mangle was fixed. I recall playing in the kitchen as Nana sat at the table, her back to the pantry. Mum was washing clothes at the sink and went to the pantry to haul out the little spin dryer. As she did so, a mouse ran out and Mum, who was terrified of rodents, let out a scream. In what seemed like an amazingly seamless manoeuvre, Nana swivelled on her chair, grabbed the heavy metal shovel that was by the pantry door, whacked the mouse and scooped it up before flinging it out the back door into next door’s garden. In my mind’s eye, the neighbour’s bad-tempered Alsatian, the inappropriately named Pal, ate the mouse, but I think I’m stretching my memory somewhat at this point.
In 1968, I think, she had breast cancer. She had a partial mastectomy, but she never did give up the cigarettes. In our health-fixated age, it seems crazy that she didn’t quit smoking once she’d had that brush with cancer, but the reality is she had so few luxuries in life that I completely understand why she’d rather have had a fag and the occasional whisky than deny herself a little joy.
She was great to us kids because she was incredibly affectionate and interested in what we were doing. On my fifth birthday, she took me to join the library because I wanted to get books the way she and Mum did. I got to choose one book while she had two, and when we got home and she’d read it to me (taking all of about five minutes), I demanded we go back so I could get a new one. Oh the disappointment as she told me I’d need to wait two weeks.
She’d sing to us – old music-hall tunes like Oh Oh Antonio and Why Did You Make Me Care? Always the sad songs, the heartbreak tunes, more than a hint of melancholy about her as she crooned about a love affair gone sour.
She could be nippy, too, sharp with her words to Mum and especially to Dad who was always joking and always loud. But then our whole house was loud, all the time. It must have driven her mad because she’d only been used to a quieter time with Mum and Pat.
Then everything changed. Like my dad’s mum, Nana Traynor (as she was always referred to in our house as if we needed something to tell the two apart), Lizzie was a widow. We knew that Dad’s dad, Sam, had died when Dad was 18. Nana, Mum and Pat were always a lot hazier, if not downright evasive on what had happened to their father, Lizzie’s husband.
An unexpected reunion
On March 30, 1970, we found out why when Andrew turned up on our doorstep. Here was the son she’d been forced to give up for adoption 40 years earlier in America, the half-brother her daughters had no idea existed.
Imagine you have kept a heartbreaking secret for almost 40 years. Imagine every day of your life you think about a child you were forced to leave. Imagine the pain and grief that plagues you. Imagine the burden you bear as you get on with life knowing those closest to you have no clue as to the sorrow you feel.
And then imagine the devastating moment that secret is exposed and your shame and hurt are laid bare to the world.
Lizzie never talked in any depth to anyone about what had happened to her and Andrew in those terrible couple of years she spent alone and terrified as an unmarried mother in 1930s New York. I don’t think it’s simply that she didn’t want to relive a dark and painful time or that she was embarrassed to admit she’d had a baby outside of married. It’s that she simply couldn’t. She had to bury her feelings and memories because her survival depended on it.
She didn’t tell Mum or Pat anything more about their father than they already knew. That she’d either left him or been abandoned by him when she discovered she was pregnant with Mum a mere three months after giving birth to Pat. That she’d thrown herself on the mercy of her own widowed mother back in the Gorbals, in that same room and kitchen where Mum and Dad would start married life almost 30 years later. That she’d been allowed to return to Glasgow but without her son and his name was never to be spoken of again if she knew what was good for her or by God, she and those girls would be out on the streets.
And how that had been that until Andrew, by now a Catholic priest, had somehow tracked her down and took a chance on crossing the Atlantic without making contact first, determined not to give her any opportunity to ignore any letter or, worse, reject him by post.
There was no rejection, only relief and joy in their reunion.
A happy ending
Lizzie – Nana – was whole again for the first time in decades. Andrew visited every year, sometimes twice a year, but wrote long, chatty, remarkably open letters to his mum – he used to call her the Duchess because he said she was so regal – and to his two sisters that filled in a lot of gaps and, while painful for him to write and even more painful for his mother to read, began a remarkable healing process.
Emotionally, Lizzie was whole again, but physically she was beset by illness. The cancer returned, this time having spread to her stomach. She became increasingly frail and was eventually confined to bed where she continued to rule the roost. A few bangs on the bedroom floor would alert one of us kids to her need for a cup of tea or ciggies off the van – no, she really didn’t quit, puffing right to the last few days of her life.
The last time she was up and dressed was in the picture at the top of this blog. Andrew was making his annual visit and he said Mass in the house for family, friends and neighbours. Her pride, joy and love in her children was never more evident than on occasions like this.
Outwardly, there was nothing remarkable about Lizzie Condon. But hers was a genuinely remarkable life – reunited with the son she thought of and prayed for every day, the son whose overwhelming love for her absolved her of the awful guilt she carried for giving him up.
I loved her as my Nana. I still miss her. And I will always be proud of her as a survivor who finally got the happy ending she deserved.
Elizabeth Condon née Donlevy
March 31, 1906 – July 27, 1977