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Summer Books

Dreaming dreams in the Irish Bronx


By Maureen Waters
Syracuse University Press, 224 pages, $24.95


The world is awash in too many memoirs. All praise for this one. If you grew up in an ethnic Catholic urban setting, say Detroit, or Chicago or New York -- especially New York -- Crossing Highbridge will stir up both tears and laughter. And if you’re Irish Catholic, it’s like looking in a mirror.

Memoirs fall into two camps. The therapeutic memoir (feeling better through telling secrets or telling people off) is quite popular in contemporary America. The self is at the center. And there’s the historical memoir. The self is the lens that reveals the story of a people, a culture and a certain period of time. Crossing Highbridge -- Highbridge is a section of the Bronx -- falls somewhere between the two.

Maureen Waters began this tale of Irish America after her youngest son, at age 33, died from a combination of drugs and alcohol. An accidental death, declared the coroner. This child, Brian, began to drift away in his teens, and he just kept drifting. He’d turn up every once in awhile, full of charm, sparking hope in his mother. In her need to fathom what went wrong, Waters writes the story of her immigrant family who settled in the “Irish Bronx.” With her younger sister she grew up surrounded by aunts from “the other side,” frequent, welcome and indulgent visitors to the Waters household. “They listened to our stories, applauded our triumphs, sympathized with our woes,” she writes, and they were seldom constrained by conventional notions of politeness -- an interesting array of personalities.

Her parents, central to the narrative, carried to the Bronx personal experiences of the Irish revolution and the civil war that followed, experiences that continued to influence the little family in the fourth floor walk-up.

The father in this tale is the hard working, patient, understanding parent, the author’s greatest influence, she says. Her relationship with her mother, Agnes, is much more ambiguous. Agnes is described as a born combatant, touchy, manipulative, possessive and willful. But she is also a “doting, benevolent mother in my early years -- hospitable, mild-mannered and lovely in her velvet cloche hats. … She taught us to look at sunsets, stars, lake water.” When the little girls evolve into teenagers, the tensions begin, as it has frequently been between mothers and daughters during tumultuous adolescence. But the ambiguity and ambivalence in this relationship continue until the tale trails off, unhelped by the therapeutic writing.

Life in the Irish Bronx was not just about family, it was also about neighborhood, parish and the parochial school staffed by Sisters of Mercy, Irish in origin, who appear in these pages as kindly, supportive and imaginative. “The nuns greeted the seasons with Celtic abandon. Their emblems were of the Earth, the changing colors reflected in our drawings. At each turn of the year, holy day or holiday, there was a lifting of the heart, a celebration.” The pastor, too, “the only regular male visitor,” is described as a true paterfamilias, who never embarrassed anyone, and who was a safe bet in confession -- never assigning more than three Hail Marys for a penance.

One of the more telling lines in this narrative is the author’s assessment of the particular “genius of the Sisters of Mercy,” namely, to convince each girl of her immense spiritual value. “Whatever our prospects as women -- and I was only beginning to understand the implications here -- we were all important in God’s eye.” Quite a tribute, really. Of course, there was Sister Monica who is perceived as demented and amiable at the same time, an echo perhaps of the author’s uncertain relationship with her mother.

Catholic high school is more of the same, but with a cast of Dominican sisters, and a lay teacher who expands the students’ horizons beyond the Bronx. Sister Helena is gentle, diminutive, patient and generous with her time, and inspires the class with her vision of Europe. Miss Melville, a member of the Catholic Worker movement, taught her history students to debate big issues: just war, moral use of the atom bomb, capital punishment. She also encouraged the young scholars to read Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain, bringing theology and history into an exciting dialogue. Now, this is the stuff of true learning.

Given all of this, it is puzzling to read the book jacket’s description of Waters’ upbringing as walling her off from the 20th century. Almost as puzzling is the reason given on the jacket for her early departure from a Catholic college in Maryland for a secular one in Manhattan -- namely, brutal treatment at the hands of the nuns who ran the college. A highly restrictive atmosphere, surely. Cultural disconnects -- the order was French -- obviously. The omnipresence of the nuns, whose home, after all, is the college -- yes. Signs of neuroses? Yes again. But brutal? That is not the word used by the author (one can almost hear the grinding of a blurb-writer’s axe), so don’t expect a tabloid exposé.

Waters meets her first husband (non-Irish, non-Catholic and alcoholic) at Hunter College and marries him in haste. After seven years of marital turmoil, she has the sense and courage to leave him, for her children’s sake as well as her own. It is the divorce that propels her out of the church, not an unusual occurrence, I might add. Her story of single motherhood, with the unrelenting stress of balancing work (in her case teaching) and child care is a testament to her inner strength and perseverance. It made me think of her mother’s unyielding determination. Family strains run deep, and perhaps forever.

Waters is at her best when she takes us into the world of childhood and adolescence, an era’s Catholic schools and its subculture of family and neighborhood. Granted that memory can be tricky, yet her young voice comes through as clear and authentic. Trips to the seashore, the excitement of building a house in the woods, the rituals of home and church -- it was all so familiar.

I grew up in a similar Irish environment, although in the Borough of Queens, which my husband assures me does not have the brio of the Bronx. Still, I just tweak the details a bit and there I am, on Highbridge, playing games and dreaming dreams.

Maureen Waters’ tale of Irish America is a reminder of how rich and alive it all was, even when tragedy was waiting around the corner.

Dolores Leckey is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she is working on a book, While Shepherds Kept Watch: Stories, Memoirs and Meditations -- American Catholic Leaders, 1975-2000.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001