My Mother, a local hero

by Paula Halpin

My mother Josephine once used a letter opener to ward off an attack by a
mugger. This went down on a foggy November night in Dublin in the early 1960s.
According to Josephine’s account, she and her friend Kate Ryan had just left Our
Lady Help of Christians church where they had enjoyed a game of bingo. The
game was called with youthful enthusiasm by the curate Father Fennessy.

Number Eight: Heaven’s Gate.

As the women stepped into the mist caught in the yellow glow of the street lights,
they were suddenly aware of someone coming up fast behind them. An arm
reached around my mother and a hand tried to grab her purse. She held on
fiercely. The purse snapped open and she suddenly remembered there was a
silver letter opener at the bottom. With great presence of mind, she grabbed the
“weapon” and turning to face the mugger she pointed it at his chest. In the failing
light, it must have looked like a knife. She yelled something like “Don’t you dare.”
The man staggered away from her and fled into the night.

Before the thwarted purse snatching, the women would have been chatting away
as they headed home, shoulders hunched against the damp air. The usual
observations, speculations. Who was there? Who won the grand prize? Did you
notice that Maisie McCourt’s got her colour back after that big operation?
They might even have asked themselves if bingo was truly gambling. According to
the parish priest, gambling was a mortal sin —the worst kind. Every now and
then, he would give it the fire and brimstone treatment from the pulpit at Sunday
Mass. The hypocrisy of the church itself making money from the game and
enabling addictive behaviour seemed to have eluded the good father.

At that time, my mother might have felt guilt about the modest sums she
wagered at bingo. This was before her Catholic faith began to slip away. And she
would not have wanted the neighbours to be talking about her. She hated gossip.
Found it ugly and upsetting. She used to describe our community of row houses
and postage stamp yards as the “valley of the squinting windows.” This was the
title of a book she’s read about a village where people derived pleasure from
skulking behind net curtains to spy on their neighbours. The book was publicly
burned by some villagers who believed – correctly — that it was about them.

I remember a woman who lived opposite us having that same nosey compulsion.
This was before a person could satisfy their prurient inclinations by watching
shock TV. She would be spotted slowly rising up in her front window, as if she’d
been crawling across the floor to sidle up to the sill and peek out. We called her
the “Periscope.”

Josephine was at bingo that fateful night both to keep Kate company and to “get
out of the house.” We were always telling her she needed to get out of the house.
She might have preferred a more strategic game – poker or bridge. But so what?
A friend is a friend, she’d have said. I’ve long admired her loyalty to Kate, who
lived next door. The women supported and consoled each other through the
difficult mothering years.

My mother didn’t have many friends. She liked people well enough. But she was
awkward at small talk. She preferred her own company. She may have suffered
from an undiagnosed agoraphobia. She was happiest at home with her books and
her garden. Kate, a decade younger, was a bit frail and high strung. Liable to have
an “attack of the nerves” at any moment, she relied on my mother for advice on
caring for her brood of five. Josephine — herself a mother of seven and a veteran
of home births — even assisted the midwife when Kate’s two youngest were born
in Kate’s bedroom. “I can’t go through it without you, Josie,” I can imagine Kate wailing,
between contractions.

One night, years later, Kate’s son Tommy treated my mother to a gin and tonic in
our local pub. It was to thank her, he said, for helping to ensure his safe entry into
the world.

I remember as a small girl watching my mother in our back yard as she stood on
an upturned pail and chatted with Kate over the brick wall that separated our
houses. I imagine Kate who was also short, doing the same on her side. They
would be wearing scarves to cover the rollers they used to curl their hair in the
fashion of the day. One or other of them – sometimes both of them at the same
time — would have on a maternity smock they hoped would hide their pregnant
bellies. It had the opposite effect. The talk would be of children, of cake recipes,
of growing roses. It would have been punctuated by bursts of laughter.

The famous letter opener was inscribed “San Sebastian,” a resort town on the Bay
of Biscay in Spain’s Basque Country. It was a souvenir from a weekend trip that
Josephine and Kate had taken that summer. My mother had popped it into a purse
and had forgotten it was there until it showed up at precisely the right moment.
The side trip to Spain was my mother’s reward for having withstood the privations
of an earlier three-day pilgrimage to Lourdes in France. Lourdes was her gift to the
devout Kate.

It was the first time either woman had been on a plane. They’d never even owned
a passport. There was some minor consternation before the trip when Kate
shouted over the wall that she feared she’d never been born. When Josephine
had calmed her down, she learned that Kate could not find a birth certificate in
the city records. No official proof that she had ever lived. A quick phone call to our
local councillor somehow sorted that out.

The night of the “bingo attack” as it came to be known, Kate had come flying into
our sitting room, wild with excitement. We turned from the fire to hear her
tale: “Your Ma was so brave; you should have seen her. She was such a hero,” she
said. The mugger was a big lad and “was probably after money for drugs,” she
added, wanting to heighten the drama. Embarrassed by the praise, our mother
said, “Don’t exaggerate, Katie. It was nothing, really.”

When not many years later Kate died of a heart attack at age 49, my father told
me that my mother took to her bed for days and barely spoke.