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The otherness that burdened my mother

Eileen Feely, second from the left, immigrated from Ireland at six years old.
  • Eileen Feely, second from the left, immigrated from Ireland at six years old.

My mother first stepped foot in America in 1957 at the age of six. She was porcelain-skinned and freckle-faced with a shock of curly red hair. My grandfather waited on the tarmac as his family exited the plane. This was their first reunion in over a year. His wife and six children stayed behind in Ireland while he secured a job and an apartment in New York City. My mother has a vivid memory of running off the plane and jumping into her father’s lanky arms. I imagine that moment like a movie scene. They exit the plane, regal like the Kennedy family, my grandmother, Jackie-esque, my two uncles, Jerry and Mícheál, in leisure suits, and my aunts, Esther, Anna, Rosaleen, and my mother Eileen, in delicate dresses. More likely than not, they looked more like foreigners than American royalty.

In Ireland, they lived in Bearna, a Gaeltacht village where all the families spoke Gaelic. My mother once got lost for hours in a cornfield walking home from the neighbor’s house. New York was a new world. The family settled into an apartment in Manhattan on 103rd and Broadway, tucked between the Hudson River and Central Park.

“It smelled different. The food tasted strange, and they forced me to wear shorts like the boys,” mom recalls of those early days.

My uncle Patrick was born in New York City and became the first American in the family. His birthday falls on St. Patrick’s Day, so his birthplace is often overlooked. They didn’t have much, a fact my grandfather was acutely aware of. He compensated by making sure his seven children were well-dressed and well-educated.

Growing up, Mom often felt like an outsider. “We stuck out. In New York we were seen as immigrants. When we went to Ireland, we weren’t like them, either. They called us ‘Yanks,’” she remembers.

That feeling of otherness followed my mother into adulthood. She married my dad, an Irishman from Glencar. They moved to Chicago and immersed themselves in the Irish ex-patriot community. Dad’s buddies and their wives were indifferent toward my mother. “They saw me as Seamus’s American wife. They never considered me Irish because I had grown up here,” she recalls.

In the early ’80s, my parents bought a split-level in a Chicago suburb. The other mothers in our neighborhood were painstakingly suburban. Mom was different. Because of that, so were her children. Growing up, I felt the same sort of otherness that burdened my mother.

My mom performed the normal motherly tasks—tucked me in, sang, and read books, but not in the same fashion that other mothers did. Our bedtime stories were not of the Dr. Seuss variety. When I was ten, mom stopped, mid-sentence, while reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in order to put the word condom into context for me; the definition of which I would later share with my fourth-grade class. Mom thought it was important to expose the realities of the world to my brother, sister, and me. She did not sugarcoat and often overshared. It gave us a raw perspective on the world that most children were shielded from.

Mom did a lot of other things that my friends’ mothers didn’t. She pulled me out of school on whims to spend the day at the Art Institute, to attend a Dukakis rally downtown, to go shopping on Michigan Avenue, or to see plays at the Chicago Theatre.

My mother had the habit of striking up conversations with everyone. We would be in an elevator or on the train and complete strangers would spill their guts to her. People feel at ease in her presence. As a kid, I listened as the Bosnian refugee women who worked in the cafeteria at mom’s office described in detail the genocide that occurred in their homeland. I also listened when the nurse at my pediatric office told my mom about her abusive upbringing. I learned to stay perfectly still and silent so these strangers would forget I was there. Sometimes, upon noticing me, they would stop talking. I wanted to collect their life stories just like my mother did.

Now, as an adult, I find myself striking up conversations with strangers at the mall or on the bleachers of my kids’ sporting events. My daughter, the youngest of my three children, feigns boredom, but I know she’s playing the same invisible game I once did. She has inherited our otherness. I hope she sees it as a badge instead of a burden.

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