‘Come In and Rock the Baby’ was previously published in “Many Women Two Men, Stories & Poems”, Anthology. Pub: Dove Tale Press, Kitchener ON, 2001
“COME IN AND ROCK THE BABY”
When we visited Bridget in her later years, she would sit in her wheelchair, sometimes looking regal, other times dejected and disheveled. Her personality was as diverse as her appearance. Out of the blue, she could spew a phrase so malicious that it drained from you all anticipation of a lively and loving afternoon visit.
But my overwhelming memory is of her intelligence, quick sense of humour, raucous laughter and her handsome, commanding presence. Bridget had always been articulate and informed. She could talk easily on any subject and she knew how to keep a conversation lively and hilarious, often interjecting outrageous and intentionally argumentative opinion.
Bridget Duffy Peters was my mother-in-law. She died at age 86 in 1995.
Five years later, in February of 2000, my husband Gavin and I drove to his home town of Dundas to visit sprightly and wise Aunt Mary. Mary was Bridget’s sister and she had just turned ninety. Two other sisters, Teresa and Ita stopped in. Chatter erupted in earnest as the sisters each talked louder than the last. Marvelous mayhem.
That was when I heard the story of their family’s immigration, and the part my mother-in-law Bridget, played in their Atlantic Crossing.
Bridget was usually talking, laughing or arguing about one thing or another with her teenaged sisters Mary, Margaret and Rosaleen, but not today. Today would bring an end to the fear that had been a constant companion for two weeks.
Bridget Duffy, who turned ‘sweet sixteen’ three weeks before, was tall for her age and proud of her long shapely legs. She moved with sureness, giving the impression that she had important business to carry out. She drew attention with her large, pleasant face, wide, smiling mouth and bright eyes that didn’t miss a thing.
Bridget realized that, a month before, she could not even conceive of how far away Canada was, nor what a transatlantic voyage would entail.
“Troubles always come in threes,” Bridget said to no one in particular. “Except if you’re a Duffy!”
***** Down, Northern Ireland with nine of her ten children, ages seventeen to three. It was June 12, 1925 and they were traveling without their husband and father, Robert John, who went to Canada months before to find work and a home for the family. Before they were to leave, nineteen year old Bobby was injured when a tractor overturned, trapping his leg. So he remained behind to recuperate.
That was the first of the troubles.
For generations, the Irish Catholic Duffy clan lived in County Down, east of Belfast. Robert’s ancestors lived on the lyrically named farm, Ballynarry, or in Gaelic – Ballinarries. But Mary and Robert had their own 50 acre farm down the lane from Ballynarry on Black Causeway Road. It too had its own identity – Legnegopogue, Gaelic for Valley of the Little Horses but through the years it was Anglicized to Legnegoppack. Legnegoppack was a low, long, rambling stone house with dirt floor. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a scullery where they churned butter. Sleeping arrangements for ten children were simple. The babies slept with Mama and Papa and the rest slept together. Outside was a water well and an outhouse. They farmed wheat, oats, potatoes and flax.
Emigrations had been so numerous, so painful and final, that many families were having wakes for those moving to ‘America’. Mama would have none of that. However relatives dropped in every night before the departure. All the Duffys, Caseys and friends who were just like family, arrived to chat up memories and laugh and wish the family well. The tea kettle didn’t stop boiling for a month.
Every evening, without any clear announcement, everyone present dropped to the floor, in unison, to say the Rosary. One of the visiting uncles was given the honour of beginning. Nightly, the prayers lengthened until the trimmings, the personal prayers for family members, took longer than the obligatory Hail Marys of the decades.
The morning they were to leave, Uncle James and Uncle Mick came up from Dublin. They drove Mary and her children for the last time along Black Causeway Road. It was a narrow, winding path bordered by hedgerows. Bent old trees, planted perhaps when Papa Duffy was a boy, popped up through the hedges. Ivy wound up the trunks and dripped like icicles from the branches. The trees and ivy formed a canopy overhead which felt like magic. Even though she wasn’t superstitious, Bridget imagined leprechauns all around. The wharves at the port of Belfast had ropes as big as your leg, lying coiled on timbers surrounded by a bobbing forest of ships masts. The smell of fish blew in on the breeze. The cousins said farewell for the last time. Mama, holding the hands of the two youngest, three-year old Ita and five-year old Vince, boarded the tender followed by an ascending row of offspring. Their tender, a small vessel that carried passengers and supplies to a large ship, headed east across the Irish Sea toward England.
They were leaving everything and everyone familiar. The eldest Duffy child, Bobby, remained back in County Down because of an injury. Nana Casey was elderly and ill. Mary, the eldest daughter, (named after their mother) was eighteen and leaving behind her boyfriend, Frank McGee. The sadness was oppressive.
“We might never see Nana or Ballynarry and Drumroe, or the Cruck and Kilclief or the Ards, ever again.” Bridget remarked to her sisters, as the tender continued its passage through the English Channel and into the port of Southampton.
* * *
The brand new White Star, RMS Aurania looked as big as a city to Bridget.
“It is one of the Cunard line.” people said as though that meant something.
The Duffys boarded June 13, 1925 and set sail to begin a new life. Bridget imagined there would be one large, open sleeping area on board, but, in fact, there were clean staterooms with bunks for four to six people. By the first evening, Mama couldn’t eat. She wanted only tea and brought that up. She became so weak she couldn’t even stand up. Miss West, the English stewardess, said she had seen a lot of seasickness but Mama really had it bad.
Mama becoming ill was the second thing that went wrong.
There was a playroom on the third class deck. Adults could not go up to that next level, to the next class, but the children could. So they banded together and went up on the elevator. It was a bright place filled with things the Duffy children had never seen before. Eight year old Teresa loved the big rocking horse. She raced to the playroom early each morning to be the first at her favourite toy and hogged it without remorse. But, Bridget thought, Mary and I can’t go up often. We have to take turns staying with Mama.
“The playroom is crawling with kids, all sorts, all languages,” Mary whispered with a sneer. Mary was the shorter of the two, with a small head of straight brown hair pinned back. She had twinkling eyes, a bubbly laugh and a ferocious temper. She hated the entire trip.
“There is nothing but sea and sky, sea and sky,” she complained over and over.
One day, Miss West called, “Come quickly. An iceberg!”
It seemed large but, even so, she said it was probably twenty miles away. Up close, it would have looked like a mountain towering over the ship. On another day they saw a seagull.
Mary grumbled, “Big deal!” But Bridget knew it meant they were getting closer to land.
Then Ita, the baby, became fussy. So Mary and Bridget had to take care of her and Mama.
* * *
On June 21, eight days after leaving Southampton, the Aurania cruised up the St. Lawrence River into the port of Montreal, Quebec. But none of the passengers could disembark until the next day. They all felt like cattle, being examined, separated and practically tagged. Some of the other passengers were from unfamiliar lands such as Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland and the Duffy children figured they were luckier because at least they spoke English.
Mama became confused from being sick for so long, so Mary took care of her purse to safeguard the important papers. There were two islands where the ships could land … Sept Isle or Gros Isle. On Gros Isle, the sick and dying were taken from the ship.
And that was when the third bad thing happened.
Three year old Ita flared up with mumps. Stunned, the Duffys had to disembark onto Gross Isle.
“That was why she was so fussy on the ship.” Bridget said to Mary.
Nurses examined everyone again. One of them told Mama that Mike, Teresa and Bridget had to stay two weeks in quarantine with Ita. That was because they had never had mumps, so they might also be contagious.
That was the fourth bad thing …
And number five came right on top of it!
Mama sat down and explained that she had to go on ahead to Dundas, in Ontario, without her four quarantined children.
“I will be taking Mary, Margaret, Jim, Rosaleen and little Vincent,” Mama said.
Mary Duffy did not have enough money to stay in Montreal for two weeks. She had only enough for the train tickets for all her family, so she had to leave the others behind. She attempted to reassure the children that they would be well taken care of by the nurses. She gave Bridget the train tickets for her, and her three younger siblings, Mike, Theresa and Ita.
“Bridget, I know in my heart you are smart and you are dependable,” Mama said. “You will manage just fine.”
Bridget remembered when she had not been very dependable back in Legnegopogue. She had loved playing with her skipping rope. But, invariably, Mama would interrupt her fun by calling, “Bridget, come in and rock the baby.”
Bridget recalled, “I was always so angry at having to stop skipping that I’d say to myself, I’ll rock that baby all right! And I did. ROCK ROCK ROCK! I used to jump on the cradle and rock the bejeebers out of it.”
And Bridget remembered when Teresa was little, Mama would say, “Take the baby for a walk.” She would push the buggy to the top of the knoll, give it a hearty shove which sent it, baby and all, rolling unaccompanied down the rocky road where it veered off into the bushes.
These recollections made Bridget feel guilty. Mama trusted her. She felt nervous but gradually began to think that she really could do this. Teresa was nine, with dark curls, flawless Celtic skin, cupid lips and blue eyes that looked repeatedly to her big sister for reassurance. Bridget could tell Teresa was counting on her.
Continuing to assess her situation Bridget considered that her pudgy brother, Michael, with his thick, dark hair and freckles was nearly fifteen, so he would be a help. He is strong, so he can carry Ita, she thought. Their three-year old sister, Ita, was a sweetie with short blond curls.
With what must have been an unbearable ache in her heart, Mama hugged the four children. “God love you over and over,” she said with each hug. Then she walked away.
Bridget stood as tall as she could. She couldn’t speak because of the lump in her throat. The other children were crying and yelling, “Mama!”
* * *
The four children were alone in the quarantine ward of the hospital.
They were there for two weeks. Many other immigrants were stranded, too. Bridget began talking to some of them, because that is what Duffys do. Talk. Gradually, over the next couple of days, it began to feel like a community. Bridget felt a little safer, despite being lonely for Mama and the rest.
One day the doctor said Ita was better and there was no longer danger of Mike, Teresa, or Bridget succumbing to the mumps. Bridget felt ambivalent; happy that they were able to leave but fearful of embarking on the their journey alone.
A government man took the children to the train station in Montreal and helped them board. This was the first train they had ever seen. It would take them to Toronto, then Dundas.
He gave them money for the trip, saying, “It will be enough to buy your supper tonight and your breakfast and lunch tomorrow, if you are careful.”
Safe in their seats, the rocking of the train helped the children relax. They loved the rhythmic clickety clack of wheels on tracks, steel on steel. It was like a lullaby. Soon, a man who worked for the railroad, a black man with a red cap and a kind face, stopped by their seats to collect their tickets. They sat silently, watching him move along the narrow, swaying aisle. That was the first time they had ever seen a Negro.
Once it was dark, Michael lowered the thick window-coverings, but lifted off the sill just enough to peek out. Sometimes, when the train passed a town, there would be a few lights twinkling. They curled together, two by two and slept on facing seats. The next morning, the train slowed as it pulled into Union Station.
Then the next bad thing happened.
Not as bad as the others, but it was scary nonetheless. They had to wait three hours all by themselves, for the train to Dundas.
To the four youngsters, Union Station was cavernous, with ceilings higher than the big churches at home. Crowds of people were milling about, scurrying in every direction. Others were sitting and reading or napping on wooden benches. The children searched for washrooms. Cautiously peeking through the huge arches to the toilets, Bridget looked around in wonder.
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” she said. “Everything is marble. The walls and the floor are all white and clean, even with so many people using them.”
In the station restaurant, they ordered toast and milk. When it was time to leave, they approached one of the many Red Caps that were easy to spot in the crowds of people. One helped them board the right train.
“It will take about two hours to get to Dundas,” he said, helping Teresa, Bridget up the steps, then Michael, who was carrying Ita.
Bridget felt grateful to Michael for his calm and quiet strength the past two weeks.
“I’ll always love him for that. He’s the dependable one,” she thought.
* * *
In the middle of the afternoon, they arrived in the town that was to be their new home. Bridget gathered their belongings and climbed down from the train with her three younger siblings. They proceeded in a cautious cluster into the train station.
The station was one room of wall-to-wall high windows surrounded by wide wooden frames. A small, fair-haired young man, not much older than herself, stood at a closed-in counter. He wore his CNR uniform with pride. Later, Bridget learned that CNR was for Canadian National Railway. Bridget approached him to ask directions to Bullock’s Corners.
“Just go up the mountain road,” he said, pointing to his right.
The band of four children proceeded out the front door and onto the boardwalk, hoping that they would be able to find their way.
Bridget looked behind her and, in her thick Irish brogue, called, “Are ye coming?”
Michael carried Ita, asleep in his arms. Teresa held tightly to Bridget’s hand and the children set out tentatively but with inbred stoicism. No one had come to meet them, because no one knew when they would arrive. Bridget trudged up the steep, narrow dirt road, her jaw clenched to hold back tears. She would not cry.
She willed one foot to move ahead of the other and looked about. On her right, the mountain, so close it nearly touched the arm of her old wool coat, was densely covered in bushes the colour of new summer green. Then she turned her head to the left and gazed over the valley below. A few houses nestled together as if commiserating. Another time, she might be able to enjoy the view, but not now. She had never set foot in this town nor on this road until this afternoon. She had not even set foot in this country until two weeks before.
She continued up the side of Dundas mountain, her three younger siblings in tow, joined like tired, brave puppets. Over the past two weeks the four never bickered. They had often been afraid, but more afraid to show it. They had bolstered each other and become one unit.
Near the top of the mountain, Bridget saw a boy on a bike, and again asked directions to Bullock’s Corners.
He continued peddling and yelled, “Across the footbridge and through the green.”
“Sure and those are helpful directions! Holy Mother help us find our home soon. I’ll never again believe anyone who says ‘Bad luck comes in threes’. Comes in sixes, is more like it!” Bridget grumbled.
Trying to give her older sister encouragement, and to keep her own fears at bay, Teresa looked up with big eyes and a sweet smile.
With an Irish lilt in her voice, she said, “You’re a smart cookie, Bridie. You’ll find it.”
The encouragement worked, for Bridget, who had been uncharacteristically quiet since they left the little railroad station in the town, looked down at Teresa, then back at Mike and Ita. She began to chatter animatedly, about their time aboard ship, what their new home would be like and about seeing Mama and Papa again! With renewed vigor and a bounce in their step, the children continued to the top of the mountain road.
Secretly, Bridget felt proud and grown up. She had not let Mama down. They were all fine. She knew that, good luck or bad, she would be all right here in Dundas.
“Aren’t we Irish used to troubles, anyhow?” she laughed.
She knew that soon, with Mary, Margaret and Rosaleen at her side, the eldest Duffy sisters would let everyone know they had arrived.