I was attending a presentation by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Frank McCourt, discussing the ins and outs of writing a memoir. Frank McCourt won the prestigious award for his heart wrenching description of his impoverished life in Limerick, Ireland titled Angela’s Ashes.
I had received the book from my grandfather on the day of my grandmother’s funeral. I was wandering around their house, trying to find a memento of my grandmother that I could take with me to continue the closeness I always felt with her. Due to my love of reading, my grandfather suggested I take one of her many books. Next to her bedside was Angela’s Ashes and I knew in an instant that that was what I was meant to take with me. My grandmother’s parents were immigrants from Ireland and she had passed her love of her heritage onto me. What a fitting tribute to read a book about Ireland that was sitting next to her bed the day of her funeral. I devoured the book in a few days and, although the memoir was sad, shocking and inspirational all at the same time, I felt an even deeper connection to my grandmother and our Irish roots. I saw my grandmother’s sister a few weeks later and told her how touched I was to read the book; how it felt like my grandmother had left it specifically for me. She smiled, patted my hand and in a sweet voice she said “Honey she HATED that book”. She explained that the Irish do NOT talk about their secrets and the author had bared his family secrets for the whole world to read.
After the presentation about his experience writing his memoir, I waited in line for my chance to have my book signed. When I was finally in front of him I said “Mr. McCourt, I loved your book. My grandmother however hated it”. He looked up at me and said “She was Irish?” I nodded and he told me that that was the way of it; the Irish did not like him sharing his secrets.
It was in that moment that I realized the undertone of my heritage; I started to see things from a clearer perspective. Until then I never noticed how “undesirable” things were not discussed or how certain stories and rumors were neither confirmed nor denied. Things were often swept under the carpet and left there.
However years later I attended a recovery program to deal with my ex-husband’s alcohol addiction. In that program I witnessed people baring their souls to complete strangers week after week and I watched them leave each meeting lighter. I listened in awe but also with an uncomfortable feeling; a feeling of nakedness and exposure. Then I heard the saying that changed how I approached my situation:
“You’re only as sick as your secrets”
If I wanted to get better, I needed to be willing to share and unburden myself from the people, places and things that I instinctively wanted to sweep under the rug of my mind. Once I began to open up and share my story, I began to see why Frank McCourt was compelled to write his memoir; he was tired of being sick from his secrets.
As I write this blog I am aware of the irony that, it took someone else’s alcohol addiction to help me become healthier. I also know that my grandmother smiles from heaven every time she reads what I’ve written and she’s proud that I am passing along my openness to the next generation; my children will know what it means to be Irish AND talk about their deepest, darkest thoughts without judgment. Hopefully they in turn will pass along a love of their heritage and a willingness to stop the disease of secrets.