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A Distinctively Irish Miracle

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P.G. Cuschieri - published on 04/24/14

My family's story of chance, sacrifice, loss, and faith - all forged long before I existed.

I don’t know who they are, but their fingerprints can be found somewhere along the double helix of my DNA. They are only two men. One if them is the man who rented the garage on Missouri Avenue in Southwest Detroit. The other, is the one who grieved. They are both a part of the story I grew up with. And though it was my grandmother’s story, it became my mother’s. And she shared it with my father and it became his as well. In turn, they passed it on to me and my siblings and now the story belongs to all of my family. And it all happened long ago. Before my mother and father were even born…

Although they had come from the same county back in Ireland, in fact, even the same small town, my maternal grandparents had never met. Both were from Castlemaine, County Kerry. But he was from Keel. She from Shanashill. And in my family’s history it would only make sense that they meet 3500 miles away from their home to fall in love.

My grandfather had been a soldier in the Irish Republican Army. And a wanted man too. In fact, one of the first stories I ever heard was about how he had avoided the Orangemen by hiding out in an abandoned house in the Kerry Countryside. On the eve before he escaped for America he hid in silence as the English closed in. And had it not been for a cloudy night, (Are there any other kind in Ireland?), he would‘ve been caught, too. Because while searching the pitch-black house, as my grandfather lay still on the floor, one of the Orangemen stepped on his coat. The next day, he took the first boat headed West. It was 1923. He was 24 years old.

My grandmother was the youngest of 16 children. She came to America in 1924, where her brother John helped her find work as a maid for the famed Pulitzer family. While working for the Pulitzers, my grandmother picked up many a trait that she passed along to my mother. Most notably, expensive taste. Though she came from nothing, my grandmother learned quickly how the upper crust of American society behaved. And she would use this knowledge when she had her own family.

Though they wouldn’t have money, my grandmother’s children would look and act like they did. Boys would be dressed and styled in a variation of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Girls would appear genteel and ladylike. And all would have the best table manners. But greater than passing the idea of “class” onto my mother’s family, was passing the virtues of her Roman Catholic faith.

There was no amount of stress that saying the rosary couldn’t alleviate. And there wasn’t a problem in the world that couldn’t be solved by making a novena; nine consecutive days of receiving the Eucharist. For my grandmother, this belief system was not merely a philosophy, but rather a way of life. This was a woman whose idea of profanity was yelling “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” Scones would be mixed over prayer. Soda bread was not crossed to help the dough rise, but to give praise. And there was nothing in the world lost that couldn’t be found after whispering an infant dear Jesus lost and found. My grandmother’s answer for everything was prayer. And if it didn’t work, more prayer. It was a very simple philosophy passed down from her mother and passed onto my own.

Though they had met at a dance sometime in the mid 1920’s, my grandparents did not marry until years later. According to the 15th census of the United States, my grandmother was still living in the Pulitzer’s servant house in Ladue, Missouri at the beginning of 1930. My grandfather, on the other hand, boarded with the Courtney family on Wabash in Detroit, listing “Irish Free State” as both his mother and father. The two married in the Spring of that year.

Shortly thereafter, they settled in Southwest Detroit, which at the time, was an Irish ghetto. All the streets off Grand River near the I-94 were mick. Many had come through Ellis Island but made the trek further West for the possibility of work in the auto industry. Others came through Halifax, Nova Scotia and crossed the border at Windsor. Like most ethnic minorities they gravitated towards one another. And soon enough, the streets of Loraine, Lawton, and Winslow were filled with families with names like Callahan, Foley and O’Malley. And in the rented house at 5700 Missouri, were the O’Dowds – Michael and Margaret, my grandparents.

In the beginning of their life together, things did not go well for my grandparents. The Great Depression had started. They were poor, uneducated immigrants. And they were Irish too.

But her faith would never waver. She would attend mass at St. Leo’s daily. She would pray the rosary. And she would be thankful for what they had. While my grandmother prayed, my grandfather fought. Every day he would walk to Miller Road where hundreds of other hungry men gathered. Then he would wait for a foreman to toss a couple of dozen work tokens into the crowd. Violence would erupt as men were pitted against one another, bludgeoning each other for the tokens which gave them a chance to feed themselves and their families for a day. And more often than not, my grandfather ended up with one. This would be the recipe for my family’s survival: fighting and prayer. It had always been the way of the Irish. Now it was the way of life for my family.

Soon enough, all the fighting and prayer was paying off, because in the mid 1930’s relief had come. The second New Deal was underway. And the mighty force of autoworkers in Detroit, (to which my grandfather belonged), had finally, successfully unionized (the U.A.W.). But it was at this time, that point, that when it looked like my family might turn the corner, a most devastating tragedy would strike. And for this tragedy, all the prayer and fighting in world could not save them.

In their brief life together, my grandparents had been accustomed to hardships. In fact, by 1935, they had already lost two of their children by sickness. Both Lawrence and Mary Margaret died of intestinal obstruction. And my grandmother’s brother, James, a policeman in East St. Louis, was shot and killed during an altercation at a bar. But what happened in the Fall of 1936 was far more devastating. Death didn’t come calling for one of their sickly newborns or a distant relative. It came calling for their eldest child. Their angel. Their pride and joy, Cecilia.

Cecelia O’Dowd was 5 years old in 1936 and possessed that beautiful, classically Irish look that would later be featured in brochures promoting tourism back to Ireland. She had big blue eyes like her momma, porcelain skin and jet-black hair. The Detroit News of that year would describe Cecelia as a “five year old wide-eyed wonder.” My grandparents had two other children at the time. Future Detroit homicide cop Teddy was four years old. And future priest Jackie was 17 months. Both shared the family’s good looks. But it was the precocious Cecelia that stole everyone’s heart.

It was a lousy day that Saturday in October. That type of day that came along all too often with Michigan autumns. Grey on grey; always on the verge of raining but never quite. But on this Saturday, Cecilia couldn’t have been happier. For the day was Halloween. And she knew that later in the evening she was going to get dressed up, hold her father’s hand with brother Teddy, and go begging. She may have been young, but she was old enough to know that between her, Teddy, and Jackie, the three of them could fill up a pillow case with candy.

My grandfather was in the front room most of the day. It was his day off and he would enjoy it listening to the radio and reading about the Detroit Lions who would play on Sunday. Baby Jackie was playing on the floor next to him while my grandmother was in the kitchen. A pot of Red Rose tea was on the stove; soda bread in the oven. My grandmother had already gotten the candy that they would give out that night. Nothing cheap either. No Fizzies or Black Jack or Beecher Buttermints. This was a woman who worked for the Pulitzers, remember. She would give out the best candy. It was a new bar called Fifth Avenue, invented by William Luden, the same man who invented candy cough drops. Guaranteed, they would be best on the block.

Cecilia passed the day playing hide and seek with brother Teddy and roller skating with some of the Foley children from down the street. But while she played that day, she couldn’t help but hear the intermittent noise that came roaring out of the garage behind her house. In fact, it was so loud that all the kids on Missouri Street heard it. Often times they gathered about the door of the garage to see what was inside. But each time they gathered, they were sent away by the man working there.

The man who was working there rented the garage behind my grandparents house at 5708 Missouri. He was a mechanic and licensed pilot who used the garage as a storage area for his aviation hobby. His latest project was restoration of an open-seated Moth-type plane he had purchased the year before. It was a small airplane with a steel-tube fuselage and wooden wings. On that particular Saturday, he had been working on the plane’s single-engine propeller. And after months of tinkering, it finally seemed to be working. Whenever he started the engine the propeller would mightily whir, sending a tremendous buzz resounding through the neighborhood. The man had noticed all the children gathered outside the garage the noise attracted. And several times he sent them away. But towards the end of the day, he noticed Cecilia standing there. And she was by herself too. And though he wasn’t real fond of children, everybody liked Cecilia. He was no different. He saw no harm in opening the door just for her. Even though the engine was running.

Nobody knows exactly what happened next. It was only explained that there had been an accident. Apparently, in all her excitement, when Cecelia had rushed into the garage, she did not see the propeller. It was whirring at such a speed it was invisible to the child. She ran directly into the blade.

My Aunt Cecilia died in my grandmother’s arms on the way to Providence Hospital.

Though Cecelia’s death had deeply affected both my grandparents, for my grandmother, it was a cataclysm; a seismic shift of her faith and hope and destiny. My grandmother wasn’t just a devout woman dedicated to my grandfather and her children. She had been the family’s matriarch. With her unyielding faith she had been the rudder that guided my family through difficult times. And she proved more than resilient as she had lost before.

But Cecelia was not lost. She was taken. There was a difference. It was something she called Irish Justice. This was a Celtic version of Karma – only more extreme. You didn’t get what you deserved, you got what you deserved in spades. Rewards were supposed to come to the good and just — and punishment to the wicked. Life was sometimes murky. Bad things sometimes happened to good people. She knew this. But how could she explain Cecelia? How could she explain the first of her children to be born on American soil to be snatched away? And how could she explain the feeling of her baby girl’s life leaving her as she pleaded to God for it to stay?

She couldn’t. And so she stopped everything that she had been doing. She stopped praying. Consequently, my grandfather stopped fighting. And together, they almost stopped living. Though they kept what was left of the family close, they didn’t talk much because there was nothing to say. No one ever mentioned anything about the picture of the little girl that hung above the mantle. It would be kept a family secret; buried along with the little girl at Holy Sepulcher. While my grandmother herself became buried in something else: emptiness. My grandmother began to go through the motions of motherhood and marriage. She would rarely leave the house. And her days of daily mass and rosaries ended. Everything that my grandmother had been, had ended. And not with anger or rage or grief. Just emptiness; an emptiness that nothing could fill. Not even time.

Across the city, there was another person feeling emptiness. He was the father of a two year old boy, who on November 16, just weeks after Cecelia’s accident, had been hit and killed with a stray bullet. Just as Cecelia’s accident had made the front page of the news, so too did the accidental shooting of this boy. And so too had it begun to destroy a family. My grandmother read about this and it reinforced her suffering; there was pain everywhere.  

Months after Cecelia’s accident, my grandmother had become more removed than ever. She had begun to completely separate herself from my grandfather and her children. She would keep odd hours, sleeping much of the day and staying up all night. And on those rare occasions when she left the house, it was only to wander, taking a random street car to wherever. She would often find herself on a park bench anywhere in the city, sitting alone, lost in thought. Sometimes she would be out all night.

In the middle of the Winter after Cecelia’s death, my grandmother could sense that she was at a crossroad. She could feel herself slipping to the point of no return. So on one particular night, she left the house as had become habit, but this time walked to her parish of St. Leo’s. She had summoned the remaining sliver of her faith that if she could just talk to a parish priest that maybe he could give her something. Some inspiration. Some sign. Some hope that she was not alone. She was not asking for anything more. She just wanted a hint that there was a God and that he knew of her troubles. If she was just given something, seed to water, a pebble to build upon, she could begin to pick up the pieces of her life and tend to her family. She knew they needed her, but she needed a reason to go on. And so she knocked on the rectory door. And she spoke to a parish priest.

She was given nothing.

My grandmother left St. Leo’s and took the first streetcar she could find. And she stayed on it until it ended. Afterwards, she shuffled off with strangers and began to wander the city. She went in no particular direction. She just wandered aimlessly. And she did this deep into the night. So deep that even the saloons had closed and the streets had emptied. After hours and hours of wandering, my grandmother finally settled. It was frigid and dark and quiet. And she found herself under a street lamp where a lone park bench awaited. My grandmother sat. And then she began to weep.

Later that night, as my grandmother mourned, a man sat next to her. At first he was silent. He did nothing as my grandmother wept next to him. But after a moment, he decided to turn to her.

“Why are you crying?” He asked.

My grandmother spoke.

“Do you remember that little girl in the paper who was hit by the airplane propeller?” She asked through tears.

He did. It had been front page news.

“That was my daughter,” she said.

The man said nothing at first. But he seemed to understand.

“Do you remember that little boy who was shot and killed?” He asked.

She did. It too had been front page news.

“That was my son,” he said.

And the two wept together.

The Irish have always known that faith is a strange thing. It doesn’t seem to be around when it’s needed the most. So you just keep going. And hope that someday it comes back. Faith came back to my grandmother that cold winter’s night on a nameless street somewhere in the city. And with it came the fighting and praying and living. My grandparents would have two other children. Future Detroit armed robbery policeman Michael would soon be born. And after that, my future mother Margaret Theresa.

The man who rented the garage never apologized for what happened on that Halloween. The only time they spoke after the accident, he did however, make an offering. He asked if he could do anything for them. My grandmother took the invitation. Some time prior to the accident a local photographer had come by and taken Cecelia’s picture as a means to promote his business. But my grandparents couldn’t afford the photo and so it sat in the studio. My grandmother asked if Mr. Campbell could pay for it so the family would have a keepsake of their child.

The man refused. He said that he couldn’t offer any financial help because the accident wasn’t his fault. That was the last they ever spoke. Years later it was said that the man died in a crash, flying one of his planes.

Irish justice.

Eventually, my grandparents paid for the photo of Cecelia and the picture has become our family’s Mona Lisa: a beautiful portrait of the young girl sitting; big blue eyes; rosy cheeks; half smile. My mother grew up with the photo hanging above their family’s mantle. And when she married my father, she hung the same picture over our own mantle. Years ago, my mother passed the picture to my oldest sister, who has hung it in her house for her four children to look at. Cecelia and her story have now grown up with three families.

I don’t know what ever became of the man who mourned. Perhaps there is a picture of son on one of his grandchildren’s mantles. And perhaps he has shared his version of this story with his family.

I have heard the story of Cecelia for almost my entire life. In fact, my Uncle Jack, Cecelia’s brother, who later became a priest, has used her story in countless homilies. But it’s taken me an entire life to understand. For me, Cecelia is the most important link in the chain of my own destiny. A chain that includes the magic of chance, the sum of sacrifice, the pain of loss and the poetry of faith; all forged long before I existed.

Born in Detroit, P.G. Cuschieri is a writer who lives and works in Los Angeles. He is a grateful brother, uncle, friend and a proud Roman Catholic. He can be found on twitter @pgcuschieri.

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