Rose McConnell said to her husband, William, turning a ring around on her ringer, “I never look at this emerald without thinking how its color resembles Grandmother’s eyes. Look. There is a hint of blue in it, too. And it sparkles, just as Grandmother’s eyes sparkled when she was up to mischief or some kind of deviltry. But, I never meet anyone like Grandmother any more. She was a product of the nineteenth century, though she lived far into the twentieth. In fact, Grandmother was ageless. Look how the emerald shines, William! It seems to wink at me, as Grandmother used to wink. I used to admire it on her own finger. I’m glad she left it to me. Emerald as her eyes; emerald as her Irish homeland.”
William McConnell, who had met Grandmother only a few times, said, “Yes, she was ageless. She seems as much alive today as when I first saw her. Her name was yours, too, wasn’t it? Rose Mary. A beautiful name.”
Grandmother Rose Mary O’Driscoll was Irish, and the last child of a family of seventeen children, all of whom lived into their nineties and some into their hundreds. But she had been born in Scotland, not Ireland, for her family had moved to Scotland before she was born. They were shipbuilders on the Clyde, and Grandmother’s brothers, some of them, later engaged in whiskey or in railroads. But that was later. In the meantime, Rose Mary O’Driscoll was brought up in luxury in Scotland. She was her parents’ favorite child, the child of their old age. She was denied nothing whatsoever, and when she was a married woman (having married a Bruce Cullen, a Scots Irishman), she still denied nothing to herself. Discipline was a word Grandmother had never heard. All her brothers and sisters had had strenuous blue eyes, white skins, and the black thick hair of the true Irish, who have Spanish blood. They were also tall and morose. They were silent, but sometimes silently violent. Grandmother was unlike her older brothers and sisters. She was short, lively and gay. Her eyes were blue-green and glittering. Her hair was red, her nose large and Roman, her skin eternally freckled.
She also had tremendous style and flair and liveliness and wit, from the very earliest childhood. No one ever called her beautiful, not even her numerous lovers, which she took after her four sons were born. But she made up for her lack of beauty in liveliness, loud raucous laughter, jokes and utter devilment. She had a voice like a foghorn, hoarse and loud, which must have made her brothers and sisters wince, with their soft Irish voices. They adored her. They called her ‘our Rose’. They forgave her everything and they had a lot to forgive.
Rose Mary would tell her granddaughter, Rose Cullen, that when she was a child she had her home ‘under me thumb’ from her cradle. This continued throughout her life, until her last few years at the mercy of her grim sons, with their Covenanter consciences and their morality and their stiff repugnance at the slightest sign of frivolity and joy. Because they could never understand her, and because of their father, Bruce Cullen, whom they respected and feared, they came to consider their mother as evil. But Rose Mary was merely her usual shouting, laughing, hilarious and devilish self, as she had been all her life, and which, paradoxically, had first drawn her husband to her — he so dour and restrained and joyless, himself. (Her witchery over him was short-lived, unfortunately.) She was never a hypocrite. “Be yeself,” she would tell her granddaughter, Rose, her only granddaughter. “And the divil take the sober.” Sadly, her husband and her sons were all ‘sober’, something which she never forgave them.
All Rose Mary’s handsome sisters, with their deep blue eyes, snow-colored skins and black hair, were well married before their seventeenth birthdays. The brothers married well-dowered girls. But Rose Mary, having a hell of a good time among her legion of beaus in Barhead, declined marriage. She was seventeen, and unmarried; she was eighteen and her mother went to Mass every morning and made Novenas and wept. Then she was nineteen and her father went to see the Bishop, himself. What was wrong with his darlin’ colleen? The lads were mad for her, but Rose Mary was not mad for any particular lad; she simply loved them all. Besides, she was enjoying herself mightily. Dances. Walks. Teas. Receptions. The Bishop graciously accepted an invitation to dinner, remembering Mr. O’Driscoll’s fine dinners with pleasure, he who rarely had more than a few days’ supplies in his own larder. He talked with Rose Mary, in his grave and musical voice, and Rose Mary friskily said her heart was on no particular man as yet. Yes, my lord, she had passed her nineteenth birthday. But, she was patient. The Bishop looked into the dancing green eyes and thought of elves, and then reminded himself hastily that there were no elves.
Rose Mary loved music of any kind, though she did not care for female singers, not even Jenny Lind. “A screecher,” she once told her granddaughter. “It’s the ears she would tear from your head.” Rose Mary, herself, sang like a parrot, a bird to which she was devoted all her life, huge birds like vultures, colored wildly and always giving the impression, to little Rose, of awaiting the exact moment when they could snatch out a small girl’s eyes. But Rose Mary loved the singer, and not the song, which soon became distressingly evident shortly after the Bishop’s visit.
Rose Mary was delighted by pantomimes, public dances, theatres, concerts, and other crowded gatherings, no matter who made up the crowds. There she would glitter in her Paris gowns, her sequinned gloves, her plumes (fastened to her bright red hair with brilliantes), her velvet or furred cloaks, her jewels. There she would soon begin to be her natural self, and eyes would be directed to the box which she occupied with her parents, and ears would be listening to her ribald remarks, her hoarse and hooting laughter, the rattle of her bracelets. She seemed always to be in movement, restless, exciting, shining. Her audacious grin would glow upon the young men in the stalls below, and they would be dazzled by the tiny and vivacious girl above them and her winks and her wicked fannings. Her long and fiery curls lay on her small and freckled bare shoulders. If she had a very childish bosom still, it was lighted up with the gems inherited from female ancestors. She had a seventeen-inch waist, garlanded with a belt of turquoises and topazes, set in flexible gold. Her bustles were gathered up with diamond pins. She may have had no beauty, but she had style and fascination in spite of a small and freckled face, a large grinning mouth full of flashing white teeth, a pointed chin with a deep cleft, and a very big nose with coarse nostrils. She had no need of beauty; she scintillated.
She met her fate, as it was called then, while she attended a certain concert with her parents when she was within hailing distance of twenty. The featured singer was a lad all of eighteen, tall, handsome, brooding, with pale and chiseled features, quiet blue eyes, an incipient mustache the color of pure gold, broad and impressive shoulders, and a stern mouth full of Scots melancholy. His voice was beautiful and strong. He sang the ballads of both Scotland and Ireland, and the audience wept, including Rose Mary, the cynic. She had never cared a fig for such ballads before, but she was now suddenly lost in the eyes of a Scots lad and heard nothing but his voice. Rose Mary was deeply and instantly in love for the first, if not the last, time in her life.
She was never quite explicit to anyone as to how she contrived to meet the lad, who was Bruce Raymond Cullen. But contrive she did, under the very noses of her parents. She also met him on other occasions. “He was mad for me from the beginning,” she would tell her granddaughter, “and he a Scots Presbyterian and I a Catholic. We ran off to Gretna Green, and were married within a month.” But not in the presence of a priest. The lad may have been mad for Rose Mary, but he “wouldna hae a priest,” he made it clear. So Rose Mary had him without the priest, a fact which when revealed to her parents caused them impotent agony. Nor would there be a second marriage. Rose Mary was infatuated, and she was to remain infatuated for all of five years, during which time her four sons were born. Then the infatuation ended as abruptly as it had begun, and Bruce was rarely seen at home any longer. He continued his concert work and died when his oldest son was ten years old, and if Rose Mary mourned him it was not evident.
No one had ever accused Rose Mary O’Driscoll Cullen of being a patient lass, and so she took upon herself the proper bringing up of her sons — whom she had found dull and uninspiring almost from their birth — impatiently. They all reminded her of her husband, of whom she had become unbearably weary long before he died. Now that there was no scandalous husband on the premises, involved in a marriage they considered invalid, the parents of Rose Mary came to her assistance, bewailing her dire circumstances. They were hardly poverty-stricken even from the point of view of modern days, for Rose Mary had inherited two thousand pounds a year at her twenty-first birthday from her maternal grandfather, and Bruce Cullen had made quite a bit of money, himself, on his concert tours of the British Isles, and had made even more money among the sentimental Scots and Irish immigrants in America. It is true that Rose Mary had spent most of the fine money on her own small person, and was adding to her store of jewelry, and that her house — now in Glasgow — was modest and not in a fashionable neighborhood. But she and her children were scarcely starving, though the besotted O’Driscolls felt they were. So they established a fund for Rose Mary, and the equally besotted brothers and sisters added to it. (It is of no consequence, of course, that Rose Mary did not tell her parents that her husband had left her considerable money.) Rose Mary was humbly grateful and affectionate to her kin for all they had done for her; they missed that green and mocking sparkle in her eye. As she wanted, more than anything else, to get her lads from under her feet, she immediately sent them to public (private) schools far from Glasgow. She then took a grand tour of the Continent to renew old and fascinated acquaintances, and there was an interlude with an Italian gentleman of family of which no one in the Isles had ever heard, nor did they ever know. Satisfied, surfeited, and full of the lust for life, she returned to the Isles, lived in London for a while, then became interested in increasing her fortune through investments. As she was restless, she moved from city to city as time went on, establishing fine homes, then selling them at a sound profit.
Her sons married fairly well, but Rose Mary was not interested either in them or their wives or their subsequent children. She did declare, however, that she had always wanted a daughter, and when one of the sons, the third, did produce a daughter Rose Mary was in temporary raptures, invested the child in her own christening robe, and named her after herself. The child, Rose Mary Cullen, had Grandmother’s own hair, greenish-hazel eyes and general features, but unfortunately she had also inherited her Grandfather Cullen’s sober and dogged personality. So Grandmother lost interest, if she still retained a random affection for her namesake. She remembered the child on her birthday and at Christmas, but saw her infrequently until the little one was about four years old. Grandmother was then living in Leeds in a very fine house indeed, in the very center of a block of houses she was renovating and restoring for later profitable sale.
So it was that little Rose Cullen found herself every winter for considerable periods in Grandmother’s house, whenever her parents had their prolonged and bitter rows. She never quite discovered what the rows were about, and never really cared, for she was a child of silences and solitudes. She accepted life with deep and passionate interest, but it was not a personal interest. She almost welcomed the rows so that she could go to Grandmother’s at Leeds, where the house was filled with beguiling treasures, a parrot or two to be teased and observed from a safe distance, an air of luxury, and, always, Grandma’s vivid if not affectionate presence and Grandma’s strange and exotic guests. Besides, Grandma had a cook of an expansive nature whom little Rose found very comforting, and who could be relied upon for dainties from Grandma’s table and bonbons and glazed chestnuts and candied ginger and exquisite tartlets. And Grandma’s gardens, even in winter, were mysterious with mist and silence and wild birds and rooks, and, above all, there were no wrangling parents.
Rose often said to her husband, William McConnell, “I remember a time at Grandma’s in 1904. (She always insisted I call her Grandmother, however; it seemed to her less aged than ‘Grandma’, and much less dull and suety.) I remember . . .”
Her first memory of Leeds, England, and Grandmother Rose Mary O’Driscoll Cullen’s house, was when she was just under four years of age and a row had blown up at home. Her parents packed a bag for her, put her on a train by herself, and returned home to do unrestrained battle.
Grandmother’s carriage and coachman met her, silently, at the station in Leeds, and in silence they drove to Grandmother’s house. Rose recalled that first lonely occasion very sharply. The dun-colored streets were awash with cold and sooty rain; water splashed on the roof of the carriage. Lights drifted by as they passed lonely houses, and the air was full of the stench of coal gas, wet leather and wool, and smoke. The horse clopped along on the cobblestones. The darkness came down heavily and the carriage lurched from side to side. Rose’s hands were numbed with cold, even in their gloves. She listened to the boom of the wind against the carriage, the far wailing of it as it rushed westwards. She was not frightened, nor even lonely, for she was accustomed to loneliness. Carriages passed, their lanterns lit. Once one of those new and rowdy motorcars charged around the carriage, startling the horse, and causing the coachman to curse and threaten with his whip. The gutters chattered; the stones of the street glistened in lamplight. But Rose was excited; she was on her first visit to Grandmother’s and to the mysterious world in which that legendary figure lived.
The house was very large and lighted at almost every window, and there was a reflection of red and flickering firelight on draperies not yet drawn. The building had a little portico with about four white, round wooden pillars and a broad fan of brick steps leading to the door from the street. The coachman, with a sour look, opened the carriage door for Rose. Then he was moved to some kindness for the forlorn little girl. He swung her up in his arms with a hearty word, and his rough chin and check scraped her face. He carried her up the steps and said cheerily, “There you be, little miss,” put her down, banged the knocker, and returned to the carriage for her luggage. In the meantime a smart, uniformed maid stood on the threshold, staring without favor. “A kid in the house,” she mumbled, and pulled Rose inside smartly. “Behave yourself, and no trouble,” she warned. Grandmother was entertaining at dinner, and there was no time for any greeting. The unfriendly maid pushed Rose irritably up an immense stairway of white wood and velvet carpeting, and then into a long hall filled with closed doors. A lamp burned at its farther end, the light enclosed in a crimson globe. The maid opened the door of a small and arctic bedroom, and lit a candle. Rose saw the big bed with its canopy, its horsehair chairs, its little green slipper love seat, its empty fireplace, its Brussels rug, its blue velvet draperies looped back over fine lace curtains.
“Have you had your tea?” asked the maid, threateningly.
Rose shook her head. The maid sighed. “And now I’ve got to get a kid’s tea,” she grumbled. “Very well, you. Sit there and be quiet,” and she lifted the child and set her down with a thump on a giant rocking chair whose horsehair chafed her thighs immediately. “Not a word out of you,” the maid warned, and slammed the door after her. Rose was suddenly very tired, yawned and drowsed, the chair swaying under her. She came awake to see the maid angrily lighting a small fire. There was a tray on the table of sandwiches, tea, cream, sugar, pound cake, a hot scone or two, and jam. Rose was hungry at once, climbed down from the chair, stood at the table and began to devour the food. The fire caught; the wind thundered in the chimney; the windows rattled. It was a cold night.
The maid scrubbed her with coolish water in a large bowl afterwards, sneered at her flannel nightgown which boasted no lace or embroidered buttons, and thumped her into the icy bed. “Where’s Grandmother?” Rose asked.
“Better things to do than to bother with the likes of you,” said the maid. “Go to sleep. The chamber’s under the bed, and mind you use it properly.”
Rose did not sleep for a long time. She watched the small fire on the hearth, and listened to its brisk crackling. She listened to the wind pounding at the windows, shouting in the chimney, growling in the eaves. The rain sounded like a cataract. She was at Grandmother’s, in Leeds, the first of many visits, which were not welcomed. But she had already learned that there is little welcome for anyone in the world, and so was not disturbed. She said her prayers tranquilly enough, praying dutifully for dear Papa and Mama and all the Poor. God, she was certain, was standing right there beside the bed. She had known much about Him since she had been hardly two years old, long before anyone had ever spoken His Name to her. Rose turned her head on the sweetly scented bolster, and there, over the fireplace, stood a crucifix, the first she had ever seen. It was very large, and the Body of the Christ appeared made of dark gold. Rose had never as yet heard of Him, fully, but all at once she was filled with understanding. She fell asleep as if under the blessing of a sleepless Guardian.
That was all Rose ever remembered of the first of the many visits to Grandmother’s house in Leeds. It seemed to her that those visits never ended all the rest of her life, and she returned to the memory of them as one returns to an old cathedral of one’s deepest memories — though Grandmother’s house was hardly a cathedral.
Rose was going on five on her next visit, and it was this visit that impressed itself forever on her memory, as the beginning of her friendship with Grandmother’s holy men. They were the only holy creatures ever to enter Grandmother’s houses, until the end of her life.