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'My great-aunt Chrissy left home at fourteen to go join a convent. That was in 1954'

Ian Maleney writes about family, memory, and the stories we tell ourselves.

Ian Maleney

In this extract from his book of essays, Minor Monuments, Ian Maleney writes about his great-aunt Chrissy – who became a nun – and her relationship with her brother, his grandad John Joe. 

MY GREAT-AUNT Chrissy left home at fourteen to go join a convent. That was in 1954. The following year she went with her fellow initiates to America.

I’d always assumed that, being the youngest of eight children in a fairly poor family, she’d been forced to go. But when I asked her, she told me that she chose to leave, and that she found the idea of a nun’s life ‘adventuresome’.

Chrissy was an intelligent kid, and her mother – a forceful woman, with real ambitions for her children – had pushed her to skip some years in school. But she felt lost among older kids, studying things she was too young to fully understand. She said that she felt shame and guilt over her struggles in school, and she was looking for a way out. It was true, too, that there wasn’t much room for her at home.”‘I did not have a voice and learned early it was better to be seen than heard,” she said.

In the final years of his life, struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, the memory of Chrissy’s departure for America really tortured my grandfather, John Joe. He could not bear to be reminded of it, and would sometimes be moved to tears if it crossed his mind. Sixty years after the event, he could still clearly recall standing with Chrissy in the yard at the back of their house, holding her hands on the morning she was due to leave. He remembered that she was a little girl in a brown skirt. They stood at the back door. They embraced, she was driven away, and it was thirteen years before they saw each other again. “A lot of life happened during those years that I wasn’t privy to and was barely made aware of really,” Chrissy told me. “Everyone was so busy in their lives, raising children and marrying and all of that.”

This memory stayed with John Joe long after most others had disappeared. He would tell the story in snatches, and I only caught its outline. He must have thought about that day a lot in the intervening decades, and now he was replaying the scene over and over in his rapidly emptying mind. As his brain calcified and his other memories vanished, this story expanded to fill the newfound space. Each detail became magnified in front of him – where they had been standing, what was said, what happened next. He hovered over each of these points, reiterating them, binding them tighter to himself. John Joe could recall so little of his early life by then that this memory was a precious weapon in his battle against the void.

Shortly before John Joe was forced to give up driving, Chrissy came home for a visit. He brought her around in his jeep – to the bog, to the houses of old, mostly departed friends, and to the graveyard, to see their parents’ grave. Chrissie told me how proud John Joe was of the new gravestone he’d erected there, how important that marker was to him. There is a photo of them there, standing by the grave with their sister, Josie. When they got home, John Joe took Chrissy outside to the yard and, standing where they’d stood over half a century earlier, told her about the tender memory he’d been harbouring all that time, welling up at the effort of recounting it for her. Chrissy listened and did her best to lighten this burden he’d assumed: really it wasn’t such a big deal, it wasn’t his fault, and anyway it was all so far in the past, almost a whole lifetime ago.

Chrissy had stayed with the convent for twenty-one years, getting a college degree and teaching children. During that time, her life was practically pre-arranged. ‘You just went with the flow of things and the flow of life and rules and regulations and work and all of that – you just went with life as it was laid out,’ she said. Eventually, in her mid-thirties, she tired of the routine and left that world behind. She found new friends, and partners. It wasn’t easy to readjust to civilian life – she said that she was fifty before she felt like she’d grown up. ‘I felt like I fitted in my skin and felt like I was my own person.’ Work, she said, was very important to her. She earned herself a master’s degree in psychology, and spent forty years working as a mental health professional with deprived communities, prisoners, and war veterans.

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Chrissy never told John Joe that his memory was wrong. She didn’t tell him what she later told us: that all those precious details did not tally with how she remembered things; it couldn’t have happened that way. She couldn’t have been wearing a brown skirt. She wasn’t a little girl. In truth she had no memory of saying goodbye to him at all. ‘It didn’t make any sense to me in some ways because if he was saying I was a little girl in a brown skirt and came out to say goodbye to him, or to tell him that I was going to America, then why would you have let me go?’ she said. ‘But it was in his memory, for whatever reason. If there was a delusional quality to it, so it was. He may have been grieving a little bit about me going away so young, and maybe there should have been some intervention in the family. But I don’t know. We didn’t talk about deep things.’

There were surely differences in detail between John Joe’s memory of that day and what actually happened, but the most important alteration was in its significance. For Chrissy, it was just a minor point in a narrative that began before that day and continued long after. For John Joe, it became a painful, unforgettable division in his life. Every time he drew the memory out, he had to reconstruct it, to tell the story to himself again, re-inscribing it as some-thing he could remember, something he could rely on. But, like all memories, the details of this one shifted unnoticeably in the silence of its intervals, each recollection coming out altered in some small way until finally it was like a different memory altogether. John Joe had recalled his sister’s leaving so many times, and over such a long period, that it became mostly fiction. Chrissy no longer recognised that story. ‘We all see things not as they are, but as we are,’ she told me. ‘Sometimes it’s more about us than it is about the other.’ John Joe had never clocked that slow deviation, and so when most other memories had vacated his mind, a life’s worth of regret, love, and shame rested uneasily upon the delicate frame of this departure.

Minor Monuments is published by Tramp Press and out now.

About the author:

Ian Maleney

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