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••• The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories

Ma Maggie’s Legacy
• Reed Sterling
When my cousin Genny Burke heads out to work, I roam through the old family house as I did when under Ma Maggie’s watchful eye, knowing full well nothing is as it was except for the insubstantial forms that the uncertain mind fashions into numinous facades and peoples with vaguely recognizable shapes.

woman in rocking chair

Ghosts, of course, those psychological props born of a sense stimulated by something as inspiring as Déjà Vu Merlot or as mundane as burning toast. One such ghost from Ma Maggie’s reign is granduncle James. I see him now, an old man in black boots and crooked tie, squeaking when he walks and wheezing as he chides me about being backward.

“Keep one eye on this life, boyo,” he says to little Terry “and one on the life to come!” He gives me a sly look then turns to replace the key under the mantel clock resting on the sideboard.

“Yes, Uncle,” little Terry replies, fearful of confusing the life to come with tomorrow, or next week when he celebrates his fifth birthday. The ticking of the clock is loud, persistent, inexorable, and bigger than all of his breathing. It fills the room with uncertainty.

“Come, follow me, boyo!”

And the old man in a rumpled tweed jacket smelling of smoke, bacon grease, and booze leads the boy down the passageway. When the creaking stops, he stands little Terry before the battle scene that is so large it takes up half an interior wall in Ma Maggie’s parlour. Wheezing, his dentures clacking now and then as though for emphasis, he explains about the green uniforms in the painting and the shape of the hats, about the flags and colors, the bayonets and the beating of the drums, and then about a nation’s sorrow and the great cause that impelled valiant patriots to fight across rivers into eternity.

“All part of our history, boyo!” he concludes.

And when Uncle says that, little Terry’s heart fills with pride, and the fear fades that he felt looking at the horror on the faces of the fallen and those crushed under horses’ hooves on the near side of the river.

“Ma Maggie says you’ll soon become a soldier for Christ.”

Terry shrugs his shoulders. He looks into the old man’s face wanting only to please. He averts his eyes from the protruding nose-hair and concentrates on the scuff on the toes of the boots.

“Like your cousin Jimmy Burke. The missionary! In Africa!”

He straightens his tie and gives Terry a look that produces immediate guilt, and Terry, his eyes blurring with tears, attempts to grasp meanings beyond his ability to understand.

The old man mutters to himself. He reaches into his trouser pocket, pulls out a nickel, and, bearing his teeth, gives it to little Terry, now aware of a lump in his throat the size of a continent.

“Don’t be so green, boyo!”

I repair to the kitchen and fix myself another cup of coffee. Genny has left some breakfast fixings out on the counter, but I manage, distracted as I am with the spectral past, to turn bread into charcoal. I visualize Ma Maggie standing at the far end of the table, arms akimbo, displeased with me in my callow boyhood for having filled her kitchen with smoke. She pulls out a scapular of the Sacred Heart of Jesus from around her neck and kisses it with great devotion several times, filthy though it is, and bids me do the same. She then curses heathen boys who add to the sufferings of “our Lord and Saviour, Jasus Christ,” whereupon young Terry is sent into exile down in the parlour to contemplate a future free of indiscretion. “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” she shouts, “and, boy, we’re after making you a wise man!” But then there are Ma Maggie’s treats of taffy forged from forgiveness and refined sugar in a banged-up aluminum pot.

I see Ma Maggie most graphically in her chair by the coal stove, enveloped in an aura of mystery. The drooping of Ma Maggie’s head, the snorting, the rhythmic rise and fall of her apron, and rosary beads idle in her fingers do not always mean she sleeps. Patrick, an older brother thought to be precocious by more than just his parents, insists that when Ma Maggie closes her eyes, she sees into the future. She wears large glasses that capture all the light, and her big blue eyes, when open, she fixes on you — the better to see you with, as the story goes. Acknowledged oracle, she enjoys a reputation for unfailing prognostication, especially in regard to sensitive family issues of which you in your innocence may not be cognizant at all. In matters pertaining to the state of your immortal soul she is as insightful as she is insistent.

“And ’t would be of no surprise at all,” she announces to Terry’s father JB, “should our besotted Francis defect to Toronto with that Protestant tart of his!”

“Ah, Ma, the man’s happy where he is,” JB replies in his brother’s defence. But JB will have to heel when the defector does head west.

“The day will come,” Ma Maggie proclaims, “when young Margaret takes up her calling.” That day comes and, God’s will be done, another Burke daughter approaches the altar to become a bride of Christ. Or she foresees that wayward Sean heading off for longer than a fortnight; and before a sister’s dedication to the religious life can balance a brother’s delinquency, the Burkes’ favourite hellion is sentenced to six months at the Shawbridge Boys Farm for snatching purses on Mont-Royal Avenue. As for young Terry, Ma Maggie cultivates in him the knowledge of a future that extends well beyond her knowing exactly what he will be giving up for Lent, for he, too, must acknowledge his vocation and accept what she knows to be God’s will.

Had I today the notion to do a charcoal sketch of Ma Maggie. I’d set her in the old kitchen circa 1951, in her rocking chair plied with thin cushions, and idle in her fingers, pearl rosary beads lying in the shape of an asymmetrical heart. She wears a print dress and lavender apron blackened in spots with soot. Her eyes are closed, her breathing is regular, and her braided grey hair forms a halo at the back of her head. I am tempted to leave her in this peaceful pose, but there is a hell of a lot more to her than that.

In a tableau, I would attempt to activate her nervous energy as much as possible, and position myself on the periphery of the scene. And so, the sink has been cleared of all the pots and plates and wooden spoons, but the table, I notice, has not yet been set. A wall clock ticks close to a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A teapot rests on the counter top, and next to it a cup. The kettle hisses fitfully on the far right corner of the stove. Then she’s about it. I watch her crank the grates, sift through the embers, and, with a small shovel that she will let no others use, scoop out the ashes. These she drops into a pail, a small dust cloud rising about her. She will commission me to scatter the ashes as an abrasive against icy surfaces, the sidewalk, the stairs, the galleries front and back, and especially the catwalk out to the coal shed above the lane. She wipes her glasses with the hem of her dress. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror above the warming oven, she works a loose strand of hair behind an ear. The mirror, I notice, is loosing its lustre. She pulls the kettle into the hot spot on the stove. Not once does she look my way.

Were I to delve more deeply into her raison d’etre, I would draw upon the insights of Carl Jung. Had he called on central casting in the staging of his theory of archetypes, Ma Maggie would have claimed the role of leading lady, leading lady and then some. Anima, shadow, or whatever, hers is a pantheon of possibilities — mother supreme in flowered shifts, matriarch manipulating family allegiances, panoplied sorceress cooking up sweetness, priestess of metaphysical certainty, and wizened crone, wise maybe, put capable of scaring the shit out of small children and not just in their dreams. And yet, in daylight appearances she seems to be the quintessential Irish émigré raising a family and working towards a better life in the new world. In her case, however, that better life is the afterlife and found only in the world to come. Saving souls, hers foremost among them, is a way of life for her, an avocation she embraces without hesitation. When someone falls prey to a sneeze, a divine invocation immediately falls from her lips. Ma Maggie’s blessing is heartfelt: she actually believes her holy ejaculation, like all ritual utterances, protects against Satanic seizure, and she describes in apocalyptic language that a contemporary Albrecht Dürer might fashion into startling images how, without God’s blessing, a soul might be lost. And a soul might be lost quite innocently.   

Intent on exploring a realm he is absolutely forbidden to enter, little Terry wanders into Ma Maggie’s bedroom when she is occupied at the stove frying crusty brown bread in bacon fat. Ma Maggie immediately discovers him coughing in her closet, his heart pounding and ears throbbing at the first sound of her footfalls in the passageway. More significantly, he has terrified himself by looking too long at a large tapestry of the crucifixion hanging on the wall at the side of her bed. Ma Maggie drags him back to the kitchen, disobedient imp that he is, and stands him in front of the stove. He hears the clanking of the cast-iron plates as she shoves the lifter with deft movements into their notches, then the clatter of these two plates on the top of the stove. He becomes immediately aware of the fire she releases and, with the influx of air, the flames flying up out of the box.

“Do you see, boyo?”

Even now the boy sees.

“Do you understand, boyo?” And the boy, cringing and fighting for breath, and trying to escape her clutches, squeals yes.

Even now, I feel her fingers pinching the flesh of my arm. I feel the heat. I smell the fat in the frying pan, and the smoking bread as it begins to crackle. I feel the sting of scalding grease on my cheek and more on the hand that I raise to my face. But mostly I feel hot globules of guilt. 

In times of tranquil soul-soothing, however, Ma Maggie extrapolates upon themes in the New Testament to the delight of grandchildren left in her care, tykes content to have their innocent questions answered while sucking on chips of homespun toffee and chunks of sugary gingerbread. And yet, she disapproves of all her grandchildren, and how they are being raised. She does not really appreciate the accomplishments of JB or her other sons either, or return the respect, if not the love, of her daughters-in-law. Although he does not always understand his mother’s behaviour, young Terry sympathizes with her always having to defend herself when Ma Maggie accuses her of leniency or indifference when it comes to matters of strict adherence, like not eating meat on Friday under pain of mortal sin, that being a grave threat to one’s immortal soul and punishable in hell for all eternity, before 1966, that is, but not necessarily after.

Ma Maggie died in 1976 at age 94, of natural causes. I returned to Montreal for the funeral. The most enduring impression resulting from looking into the open casket and studying her death mask was this: her face did not appear to be a wrinkle world of mimicry and discoloration; nor was it the face of ecstasy on someone who had arrived at long last at heaven’s door. I couldn’t help summoning up the reflections of the impressionable kid that I was when taking on the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh. Even now, I’d have to defer, or pretend to, in order to avoid her wrath were I, by a prolonged stretch of the imagination, to meet her in the hereafter. On the other hand, the reunion that inevitably followed her wake evolved into a grand family get-together, pulling in relatives from hither and yon, the last of its kind for the Burkes.

Memory: acts of the mind aligning imagination, exaggeration, and artifice. You grasp today what eluded you yesterday and call it truth, though in the process you certainly do fabricate, falsify, or lie absolutely. As I poke about, I recall with some amusement the analogy Genny provided me with last night regarding my present quest: memory, accurately recalled where possible or artificially enhanced where necessary, is like a Green Screen: just don’t wear that colour while indulging in the past or you’ll disappear into background.

© Reed Stirling April 2017

Reed Stirling lives in Cowichan Bay, BC, and writes when not painting landscapes, or travelling, or taking coffee at Zoë’s, a local café where physics and metaphysics clash daily. Work has appeared in The Nashwaak Review, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, The Valley Voice, Senior Living, Out Of The Warm Land II and III, Fickle Muses, PaperPlates, Green Silk Journal, Ascent Aspirations, StepAway Magazine, The Fieldstone Review, Fictuary, The Danforth Review, and Hackwriters Magazine.

Montgomery, Magalee and the Magi
• Reed Sterling
A young moon, and old moon, a full moon—I could not make it out, but moonlight fell through veils of cloud hanging over Zambeliou Street. Revellers in other parts of the Old Port were yet at their fireworks. Thus, the sounds of stars falling, worlds colliding, ideologies and idols carving up the moon

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