Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Leaving Ireland; Choosing a Bride In India

The work produced in Lary Bloom's and Suzanne Levine's Class in Memoir, our Writing at the Mark Twain House offering over the past three springs, has been extraordinary, and members of the classes have been invited to post their work here. Today we post two pieces: "Roscommon 1841," a fictionalized memoir of student Audrey Eckert's ancestors about to leave Ireland for America; and "Time to Marry Off George," by Karen Devassy, about the ritual of bride-choosing in India.


by Audrey Eckert

They’ll not find a speck of dirt when they come nosin’ around after we’re gone, Mary muttered. She folded dried lavender into her best woolen blankets to keep the bugs out and placed them into her dowry chest with a sigh. Twenty-five years ago she came to this house as a bride and the work of decades made it a comfortable home. She finally had a rhythm to her days, an ease to her house-keeping and now Shamus said they had to leave, go to America. You can only take what will fit into your two dowry chests, he told her

At first, she fought him. He was a pinch penny who saved bits and scraps of money while it was clear that they needed to buy another cow. No cow, she said, and now this?  You want me to leave my friends?  Nora?  Kathleen?  They’ve stood by me through births and deaths. I’ll never leave, she stormed, NEVER. Why do you want to tear my heart from my chest?

Don’t you see, woman? Without restraint of proper government, the Brits will strip this land and gnaw on our bones.  You’ve seen crops fail eight of the last ten years, have you not? Did you not notice the winter of the big wind? You make me weary. I’ll walk myself to the village and fetch a copy of the Dublin Evening Post while you compose yourself. He slammed the door as he left.

Again and again they fought. Again and again they left the whole thing simmering on the back burner.

She’d always been proud that an educated man had chosen her for his wife. She placed his favorite chair near the fire and stacked his books on a table nearby. But his constant talk of taxes, political instability and British oppression made her smile. The man was book smart but what did he know about day to day living? There’s always some invader or other. Just take care of your own and don’t bother the authorities. Life goes on, she said, offer it up.

Then, last month, she saw the Reilly girl lurking near the shed. Come in the house, she called. The girl drew back into the shadows. Mary rolled up her sleeves and strode out into the yard. Nan Reilly, I said get in here this minute. Slowly, Nan obeyed.  Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what happened to you, child? Mary put her arms around the girl and half carried her to the warm kitchen. When did you last eat? Never mind. I just took a quick bread out of the oven and there’s milk left over from breakfast. Sit yourself down.

 After a fury of eating, Mary filled a basin with warm water and washed grime from the girl’s face and hands. Where are your parents, she asked. Oh Missus, since the landlord turned us out we’ve been livin’ up in the woods. We found a cave with a running brook nearby and Da goes out with the boys every day looking for food. They haven’t come back for a long time and I think they were killed in the Galway riots. There’s a whole tribe of us up there. I’m ashamed to say we’ve been eating moss and boiling tree bark for tea this whole week. I thank you for your kindness, Ma’am, but I must be going back.

You’ll not leave without a little basket for your Mother, Mary said. It isn’t much -- some potatoes, an egg and a shawl -- it’s old, but it’s still got some warmth to it. I’ll remember you in my prayers.

You do what you think is best, Missus, but I think God has forgotten Ireland.

James seldom raised his voice to Mary, but it felt grand to slam the door shut. Silent anger stiffened his joints as he rushed along the road to town. Then, Father John quietly fell in step beside him. You’ve had words with the woman of the house, have you?

Sometimes she’s the devil’s own invention, Father. I don’t understand her.

There’s three kinds of men who don’t understand the fair sex, Lad. There’s the young men, the old men and the middle aged. You’re not alone in your confusion. She’s a good woman when you think about it. She’s given you five strong children.  In this parish she’s loved and respected; I see her at Mass every day.

But Father, she never hears my words. She has to see it with her own eyes or touch it with her own hands before she knows it’s real. She’s always on the move; she’s dusting, wiping scrubbing and never listening. NEVER. I try to teach her that she’ll learn more by listening than by talking. She doesn’t even hear THAT.

Man’s head is for learning and for God. Woman’s head is for man alone. That’s why they must cover their heads when they’re in the house of The Lord. You know that. Let me buy you a pint. We’ll talk for a while and you’ll go home to the earthly comforts of your woman. Take my advice. Don’t try to make her into something she’ll never be. Remember the saying “Is foulamh fual e teach gan bean.” It’s a cold house without a woman.

Between the roaring fire in the stove and a crowd of people, the pub was boiling hot. The two men took their drinks to a quiet corner, far from the fiddler. James leaned across the table. You understand what I’m saying, Father. When the Brits were fighting Napoleon, they bought everything our farms could produce. Since the end of the war, you can’t give away grain, cattle or pork, much less sell it; then, they mustered out 100,000 Irish soldiers without so much as a penny or a thank you. Now, we’ve got landless beggars prowling about. I fear for my family.

That’s not the whole of it, James. For generations, there was a need for spinners and weavers to work at home turning flax into good linen then came the wet-spinning machines. They built textile factories up north for the Protestants while our Catholic cottage workers starve.

Do you remember my friend Edmond Father? He’s gone to Boston. I got this letter from him last week. See this paragraph right here? “This delightful country gives me satisfaction”, he says.” All have more than enough to spare. If a man is willing to work, he will live happy.” I want to live happy, Father, any fool can see what is coming in this sorry land. We must leave.

Mary believed that poverty was a shameful thing, not to be shared in gossip. She never told a soul about her encounter with the Reilly girl. But the following day she made a fine evening meal for Himself.  As she predicted, a full belly set him free to rage against the world. Do you know what those sanctimonious Brits said, he yelled. If we give food to the poor, it will damage moral character. The Irish must learn to stand on their own, they said, not become dependent on charity. First they strip the land clean and then they preach morality? We have to leave this damnable place.

You are right, James Dolan, she said softly. Whither thou goest, I will go.


By Karen Devassy
In 1973, shortly after my husband Davis, our three children and I arrived for our second visit to India, discussion among his Indian family members turned to the fact that Davis had not been present for any weddings of the four out of five of his siblings who had married. The cost of travel halfway around the world for a family of five had precluded frequent visits to Kerala, his home state. Everyone in his family quickly agreed that now was the time to marry off George, Davis’ youngest brother. Not only was George -- at twenty-seven years old -- well into the marrying age but our visit made the timing ideal.
 So Davis, a couple of his brothers and a few cousins and uncles drove together to consult the local marriage broker.  His job was to inform families in surrounding towns whose daughters were in her late teens or early twenties that George, the youngest son of the Thattil family in Peringottukara, was ready to marry. Only families in our socioeconomic group who could provide a decent sum of money for a dowry -- and, of course, were Catholic -- would be notified and if interested would send proposals through the broker. Too high a dowry could signal a problem with the young woman. For instance, since our Indian family members had comparatively light skin, it would be important for the bride not to be too dark. 
I wasn’t privy to how many proposals arrived. but I do know that five or six were taken seriously. Families with any scandal, such as business failures, mental illness or “love marriages” such as Davis’ and mine, were given extra scrutiny, perhaps even denied consideration. Since George had completed college our family would want a bride with at least a high school degree or some college work.
Once the initial culling process had taken place the same male relatives who had contacted the marriage broker undertook visits to homes of potential brides. My husband’s older brother, Paul, who like most men in Davis’ family spoke English, took me aside and said, “Even though you are a woman we would like you to join us. It will be a new experience for you and the families we visit will enjoy meeting an American.”  Neither George nor his parents were included in this part of the process, though my father-in-law and mother-in-law certainly participated in the vibrant discussions following each trip.
We would all cram ourselves into a couple of small cars and the driver would whiz along the single lane roads as if he were “playing chicken” with oncoming vehicles.  Horns were used constantly to challenge the truck or car hurtling toward us or just to scare pedestrians off the tarmac. The homes we visited, like our family’s, were large with lovely gardens. A few men and a few women from the bride’s family hastened out to meet us. Their men were dressed like ours in long, clean, starched white wraparounds and Western-style shirts. The older women wore all white wraparounds and blouses with gold embroidered scarves and the middle-aged or younger women wore colored dressy saris. After mutual bowing and greetings of, “Namaste” we moved into the parlor for some small talk. About fifteen minutes later we were taken into the dining room where   a feast of sweet delicacies was set. Tea or coffee, already dosed with milk and sugar, were offered.
 After an hour of conversation between the families to assess if they were compatible,  the young bride-applicant, always shy and nervous, would appear from behind a curtain dressed in a brightly colored gold-embossed sari with exquisite makeup on her face  and gold  jewelry around her wrists, ankles and neck.  The gold displayed would become part of her dowry. She would be asked a few questions to assure she was acceptable in presentation and without physical limitations.
“How far did you study in school?”
“What activities do you enjoy?”
            Upon arriving home the men, over coconut toddy, a strong alcoholic drink, would discuss the pros and cons of the aspirant. My mother-in-law and sisters-in-law would join the conversation from the sidelines. Dark complexion, excessive height or noticeable communication problems would decrease her eligibility. George was allowed a short visit with three women whom the family had declared acceptable and his input was valued. After one of the visits George, whose English was not as good as his brothers’, said to me, “I talk to girl but she is too thin.” I answered, “Oh, George, don’t worry about that. After she had has had a child or two she will gain some weight.”
            “But I don’t like her face.”
            “My goodness, now that’s more important, George. If you don’t like her face you must tell your brothers you don’t want to marry her.” And he did tell them.
            After a lovely young woman named Theresa was chosen, several  older female relatives  who had overheard that Theresa was about George’s height expressed concerns that she might be too tall. To sort out this dilemma a kinsman was sent to Theresa’s home to measure her. Although she was a tad taller than George it was decided that her positive qualities outweighed this disadvantage.
            Because Davis and I and our family would be there for just three more weeks wedding preparations began immediately and in earnest. A huge pavilion was constructed in the front of the house with bamboo and reeds. Locally famous cooks appeared on the compound, squatting beside boiling cauldrons of sweets -- such as halwa, burrfi and laddu -- and, as the date for the wedding drew near, meat and vegetable curries. At that time my Indian family, despite being well off, did not have refrigeration. Extra servants were hired to clean the home and property. The family women, including me, went shopping in the nearby town of Trichur for saris with the same gold embroidery design but differing colors.  Mine was a royal blue. The children of the family got matching outfits.
 Day by day the hallways of the family home became inhabited with elderly widowed “aunties” who had come from distant towns for the celebration. They all wore white shirts and wraparounds as other older women but their earlobes had huge holes — two to three inches -- held open with large gold rings. They each had a straw mat on the floor for sitting and sleeping.  A number of them lined up in the corridor outside our bedroom and I had to step around them to go to the bathroom or shower room. They eagerly awaited my every appearance and lavished me with toothless grins and “Namaste” bows.
The wedding Mass itself was held across the street in a simple Catholic church which my father-in-law had donated years before (along with a girls’ school). I don’t remember exactly how many people attended the wedding; there was not a huge number and my mother-in-law, as was the custom, was not among them.  Her job was to coordinate the festivities under the canopy.  Five hundred people including family, friends and townspeople enjoyed food, music and chatter for many hours at our home.  After an hour or two the bride and groom and wedding party drove to Theresa’s home for a similar spree with people important to her family.
            George and Theresa fell in love after their wedding and produced three sons, Vinish, Ronish and Surish.