Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Blue Max Badge

I mentioned before that I have happy memories of Cobh and also much more vivid memories than I do of my life in Roundwood in Co. Wicklow. I think this is because I have blocked out some of that time as it was when I was first aware of things not being right.

We moved to Roundwood so my father could be closer to Dublin and the literary scene there and also so he could get to London more easily by plane instead of taking the ferry from Cork to Swansea. At this point in his career, he was very successful financially and so they bought a huge house. It is still there, situated about a mile or so from the village of Roundwood, on the road to Glendalough. It stuck out in those days and people in the village referred to it as 'the big yella house'. It was actually a sort of creamy white colour with three large gables and a balcony on the front, set in several acres of bushy grassland that my mother battled against for all the time she was there. For us it was an enormous change; living now in the countryside in a huge house with the whole countryside to play in. Again, my recollection is that my father was not there much.

He was very much there though in about 1965 I think it must have been, when he was the scriptwriter for The Blue Max, a film set in the 1st World War about the first German pilots. It starred James Mason, Ursula Andress and George Peppard and was about the class difficulties experienced by the George Peppard character. You can still see it on TV from time to time. It was all filmed on Calary bog not far from our house, where they built what we called 'The Wooden Village' for many years afterwards. In fact, every time we drove by, we would point it out and say 'There's the wooden village' as though it were the first time. I don't know why we did that but perhaps because it recalled the excitement of the time. I still look for where it was when I drive past now! It was a replica of a French town that was bombed in the war.

One day, a helicopter landed in our garden and it was John Guillermin, the film's director,coming to pay a visit. Another time, my sister, Patricia, got to meet George Peppard and came home with a brown bag full of peaches that he gave her. I have no idea why he gave her a bag of peaches but it was really exciting at the time!

On that film, each of the main people on it, the producer, director, scriptwriter, lead actors, cinematographer and some others, were given a small replica of the Blue Max badge, in silver, as a memento of their time on the film. When I was about 9 or 10 years old, because I was doing so well in school, my father gave me his Blue Max badge as a reward. It said 'Pour le Merite' on it ( curious for a badge that was for the first German air aces). I treasured it for many years until it disappeared from my room when I was about 15 years of age. At that time, we had a carpenter in the house who was splitting our larger bedrooms into smaller ones so we could each have our own room. My father always wrote at night time so he slept till about 1pm each day and so this workman could lounge around and do what he wanted while my father was asleep and we were at school. We came home one day and found him asleep on one of our beds. We tried to tell Daddy about it but he just dismissed our concerns. On top of the crooked wardrobes that never got their top coat of paint and the glue that seeped for years from the joins in the linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor, I believe he stole things. I am almost sure he stole my Blue Max Badge. The reason I am sure about this is that several years later, when I was about 19 or so, I was at a party somewhere in Wicklow and I ended up dancing and chatting with some guy who told me that he had a Blue Max Badge. I was very suspicious as I knew only about 7 were made for the key people on the film so I questioned him obliquely about it and it turned out that he also happened to know the sleepy carpenter! I did not feel I could say to him that it was my badge, at the time. Now, I wish I had confronted the situation as that was such a precious thing to me.

When I turned 40, I was having a beautiful ring made for myself in Bath, Somerset. I got to know the people who ran the jewelery shop quite well and one day I told one of them about my Blue Max Badge. It turned out that they specialised in finding unusual antique jewelery for people and so they found me a replica of the actual badge. It is almost impossible to get the real thing as there were so few made so a replica, of which there are also not many, was also quite precious. When it arrived at the jewelers and I opened the box, I was surprised to see how big it was compared to my original piece in silver. It was also in gold. I was delighted to have it again and kept it safe at home and took it out now and again. About 5 years later, when my gorgeous niece, Telche, was doing really well in school, I gave it to her for the same reasons my father give me his originally. I think it was only years later that she understood the significance of it. I hope she has it safe and passes it on to her child or someone she loves as much as I love her. Thus we can keep it as a family tradition as I never had children of my own.

A little bit of information on the badge itself:

Recipients of the Blue Max were required to wear the badge, which was a blue Maltese Cross with eagles between the arms, and the royal cipher and the words ‘Pour le Mérite’ on the cross, whenever in uniform.

Notable recipients included Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the ‘Red Baron’and Erwin Rommel, the famed “Desert Fox” of WWII. The last living holder of the Pour le Mérite was novelist Ernst Jünger who died in 1998 and who, at the age of 23, was the youngest ever recipient as well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I Remember My Brother's Death

I am skipping forward many years at this point. When I was about 28 or so, I was in therapy in California, dealing with the fallout of my family dramas ( of which I will write in other posts). My therapist was a great woman called Anne Gildersleeve who had a huge impact on me and helped me make some sense of the traumas I had experienced. She suggested, at one point, that I try what was then a new form of therapy called EMDR ( Eye Movement Desensitization and Re-Processing). It had been developed for Vietnam Vets originally as it was discovered that it had a great effect on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was one of the very first non-veteran patients to experience it. My older sister, Javine, has since used it with enormous success in her psychotherapy practice, particularly with people who have been abused in some way.

The first time we used EMDR in my therapy, without going into all the details of how it works, I was able to remember things from before I was verbal; so from the time I was born to about 2 years of age. The remarkable thing with it was that I had visual memories that I could then put words to. On the second session, I remembered my brother's death. I later verified some of the details with my oldest sister as I was worried I had remembered things that had not actually happened.

My memory was of standing in my cot screaming crying, in a wet nappy. It was dark outside and there was a cold breeze from somewhere. My mother was holding a child in her arms whose skin was sort of grey and who was covered in dead leaves and with water dripping onto the ground. My mother was screaming and screaming, hysterical. I only remember that fragment but I remember also, very clearly, the terror I felt. I was obviously too small to understand what I was seeing but I know I was terrified at my mother's screams and knew something terrible was happening. With the therapy, I was able to put that experience into a place where I could handle it like a file that is replaced in it's proper place. It did help me to understand some of the anxiety I often felt but could never explain and, to this day, it colours my sense of abandonment. In that moment, as a very small child of only about 8 months, I 'knew' on some level that my mother had left me somehow. It has nothing to do with real abandonment ( which came later) but with the sense of security a child should feel with it's mother. It shook the core of my small being, making me aware of being alone in the world. I was not using verbal language at that point so I had no words to describe that later on and, in fact, was not aware of the experience until I had this therapy session. It put a picture and words to the feeling I had long held but had never understood.

I often think of children who are traumatized in wars or disasters or, indeed, abuse and how much damage can be done just by being witness to the terror of others but most particularly the terror of a mother or father. I think it does permanent damage to one's sense of security and trust. For me, being able to voice it and see it in this type of therapy helped enormously as I was able to make some sort of sense of it and can now write about it without having any ill effects.

I will never know really how my mother and father felt about that terrible death. I can only imagine it. It doesn't bear imagining. I know for sure that a lot of blame was thrown around and it put yet another nail into the coffin that was their marriage. My mother had a tendency to shut off her feelings (which I learned well from her) and so, to our small eyes and ears, it seemed like she had got over it. As an adult, I understood that she never had. How could she? The pain may have lessened but I am sure that whenever thoughts of her beloved son came up that she must have suffered greatly.

After his death, we stayed in Greystones, Co. Wicklow for six months as they did not want to be far away from his small grave. Eventually, we all went back to Cobh and my parents went on to have another daughter a little over a year later and then twin boys less than 2 years after that. One of those boys was also christened Dermot, which seems to me to be a legacy too heavy for a small child.

My father was buried with our first Dermot in 1992. It makes me so sad to see both their names on that gravestone.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Drowning of Dermot

I have mentioned a few times that my brother drowned. It has taken me years to really understand some of the impact this had on our family. And also to know more about how our family ticked. I wish I really could explain it all, as some of the way things happened may seem strange but will help shed light on how things worked.

My parents' first son, Dermot, was born in Cobh in 1956. As I write that I have, for the first time, imagined what he might have been like as an adult and somehow this has given me a flash of understanding of him as a person. What a strange feeling that is.

As the first son in our family, he was much treasured. In those days, sons were definitely what parents wanted most, no matter how much they adored their daughters. Dermot was the golden boy and photos of him that I have seen show him as a round cheeked, chubby, happy little boy. My older sister Javine would have been 12 when he was born, so a natural babysitter. Patricia was almost 1 in Feb 1956 when he was born ( god, imagine having another baby less than a year after the last one!). Agnes and I came in 1958 so we were 6 months old when Dermot died. I would imagine our birth somehow contributed to the whole nightmare as my mother was distracted and busy.

We had gone to visit distant cousins of my father in Bray, Co. Wicklow in late 1958, around November time. They had a hotel there. Later on, years later, we used to go there sometimes and I have very strong memories of the smell of the bar in the daytime when it was mostly empty and smelled of old, spilled beer and spirits. I am imagining some of what happened that night but I think it went something like this.

My father was in the bar with friends. He was a very sociable and charismatic person and people were always attracted to him. He was also a heavy drinker and I can imagine he was in there talking up a storm and having a great time. He would have been catching up with people he had not seen in a while as we were so far away in Cork and most of the people he knew, in the literary world, would have been in and around Dublin.

My mother put Dermot in bed in a room where J was also sleeping. Patricia was somewhere else I think but may also have been in the same room. She was 3 1/2 by then. Mum had taken Agnes and I off to feed us. The rooms were all on the ground floor and some of them had French doors. ( I could be making up that part as I have always pictured him opening the French doors into the garden).

One part of the story that may or may not be true is that my mother asked my father to keep an eye on Dermot as there was no cot to put him in and he could wander off and that my father was so busy socialising in the bar that he did not do as asked and paid no attention. In some ways, this would not surprise me as it would have been one more notch in the growing reasons why their relationship was doomed.

At some point in the evening ( it was a dark November night), Dermot got up and wandered out of the room and into the garden. Javine slept through that. I often wonder how she has felt all these years, as children of that age can really feel intense responsibility for things that were not their fault. Sometime later my mother came into their bedroom to check on them and found Dermot missing. A search was started and I can only imagine what that must have been like.

Years and years later, when I was in my mid 30s and in Dublin on a visit, I was staying with my twin and called a cab to take me to the airport. When I got in the taxi, the man was looking at me in the rear view mirror and it started to make me uncomfortable so I asked him why he was looking at me like that and he said " I noticed your name was Hanley. Are you by any chance related to Gerald Hanley, the writer?". I was surprised but not shocked by this question as Ireland is a small place and people seem to know each other in the weirdest situations. I told him I was his daughter and he let out a huge sigh. Somehow that sigh told me there was something big going to come out of his mouth next. "I was there the night your brother drowned", he said next. He proceeded to tell me how he had been 17 at the time and was there with his uncle or father and had been called to help search for Dermot. He heard my mother screaming in the garden and ran to her and helped her to get my brother's body out of the swimming pool.

It was a real shock and a weird sort of thrill to meet someone who had actually been there because my parents would never really speak about it except in a matter of fact terms that he had drowned and that was it. This man, whose name I have forgotten, told me the whole story on the way to the airport. When we got to the airport, he asked me if he could park up and buy me a drink. In those days, only 15 years ago now, you could park easily at Dublin Airport and there was a bar right inside the main door. He parked there and we had a Guinness together and he told me about how that experience had affected him forever after and he started to cry. I felt so bad for him. His whole life had been traumatised by his action of taking my poor dead brother out of the swimming pool that night. He did say though that meeting me and being able to talk about it to someone who was directly affected somehow helped him.

When I walked away to get the plane I felt a terrible wrench leaving him there with his sorrow. For, despite it being my brother, I did not have really first hand experience of it. That said, I had had a very strange experience in therapy a few years before this, about Dermot and the night he drowned.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Memories of Cobh

Although the time I spent in Cobh was short ( we moved when I was 6 1/2) my memories of it are very clear. I remember it as the time before I experienced pain or sadness ( that I remember ). I did have a memory from that time of the night my brother drowned but that came much later when I was in therapy. Prior to that experience, I only remember being happy in Cobh.

I was an adventurous child. There are photos of my twin and I in the pram with me strapped in because I was always trying to get out, while Agnes sits there, docile, not in the least bit interested in what was happening outside the confines of the pram. I remember the feeling of wanting to know what was going on and wanting to see it all. I also started to walk at 9 months, which is a nightmare for a mother with only one child to deal with, but with 5 so young and two older children, it must have been really hard to know what to do with me. I do know that my mother used to tether me on a string to the leg of the kitchen table, to stop me from wandering off and getting into trouble. I would imagine that having lost a son not long before to drowning made her even more cautious. I remember feeling constrained by this rope that held me there and it may have been what set me up for a lifetime of hating constraint of any kind. I can't bear to be pinned down or captured where I cannot move. It is my worst nightmare to be tied up or to feel like I cannot move. This also translates into mental freedom. I don't like to feel caged in a relationship and have ended many a new one due to feeling this constraint.

I loved living by the sea and I believe that if you are born by the sea you always long for it. I loved going down to the harbour with my older sister to buy fish on Fridays and going to Cuskinny, the local beach. It was there, when I was about three that I was tossed over by a wave when I was stuck in a rubber ring and inhaled a lot of sea water. To this day I have an aversion to getting water up my nose and a mortal terror of falling into water. It was not helped by my brother's drowning and the probably anxiety that I picked up from the other family members when we were close to water. In any case, despite the fact that I adore to be by water, love boats etc, I am terrified of falling in and have never dived into water. I am a terrible swimmer because of this fear and one of my dreams is to learn how to swim properly and to get over my phobia. I have to always tell people who don't know me well not to mess around with me near water as I might drown them in my panic.

I went back to Cobh recently and was amazed by how colourful it now is compared to when we were kids. See the video above for the brightly painted houses close to the harbour. When I was a child, the houses were unpainted and everything was greyish. The Celtic Tiger at least brought colour to the nation!

Early Memories

I was born in Cobh, in Co.Cork Ireland. It's main claim to fame is that it was the last port of call for the Titanic before it headed out into the Atlantic. Cobh is a small town built on a steep hill and is dominated by St. Colman's Cathedral with its towering spire and beautiful bell-ringing. It is one of the few churches or cathedrals where they make fantastic music with the bells. When I was a child there, the head organist and bellringer was a man called Staff Gebreuwers, a Dutch man. It was such a part of our days there that I have missed it whenever I hear church bells that ring normally. St. Colman's was donated by the US as a tribute to all the Irish Immigrants who left from Cobh for America during the famine years in the mid 1800s. I was baptised there along with my twin sister. Being in that great cathedral has left me with a real appreciation of cathedrals and I tend to go into the main cathedral of any new city I am in, time permitting, to light a candle for my family. I love the smell of candle wax and polish and the quiet calm of being in a catherdral. I am not a practising Catholic and have not been since I was 13 years old but I do love some of the ritual of the church.

My mother, at the point when I start remembering things at about 3 years of age, had 5 children under the age of 4. Two sets of twins and one in the middle. Agnes, my twin and I, were born in 1958, our sister Louisa in 1960 and our twin brothers in late 1961. I was 3 1/2 when they were born. She used to put the boys it the baby carriage, the old fashioned kind that was pretty huge; place a board on the front where she put my twin and I and then put our sister in between somehow and she used to push us all down the hill to the main town and the back up the steep hill again. My mother is one of the physically strongest women I have ever met. Needless to say, she attracted a lot of attention with all these twins in the pram and also because she was a foreigner.

In those days in Ireland, there were not many foreigners living in the country. Most people were leaving Ireland to find work in the UK or the US so it was rare to meet people from other countries. This gave her an exotic edge and, thanks to her warmth and friendliness, she was accepted and admired in many ways. I remember her telling us that Una and I had won a beautiful baby contest and how proud she was. I think there was some hero worship of my mother from the local woman as she seemed so different and interesting. I remember this more when I was older and we were living in Roundwood. The women in the Irish Countrywomen's Association to which she belonged, used to hang on her every word. At that point, I was old enough to understand it for what it was and I did not like the sort of preening she used to do in their presence. I suppose it is human nature in some people to feel superior when people treat like that.

I don't remember my father being around a lot when we were in Cobh but I do remember standing on the top of the hill and waving to him on the bridge of the ferry to England, where he stood with a white hankie so we could see him. He would be away for weeks and weeks and then arrive home laden down with gifts from whichever exotic place he had just been. One of the most memorable returns was when he arrived with records ( as in for a record player) of the Beatrix Potter stories with lots of songs interspersed with the stories. The excitement of that was enormous and, to this day, most of us remember all the words to those songs. Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin and Mrs. Tiggywinkle became a huge part of our childhoods.

I have a theory that the books and movies you see when you are under 10 years of age, have a huge affect on your preferences later on in life, in many areas of life not just what you might like to read or see. For example, I learned a lot about not being naughty from Squirrel Nutkin and remember being fascinated that he dared to be so cheeky to his elders. In my house, you did not answer your parents back and it seemed surprising to me that you could. It did not make me suddenly try to be naughty but it always stuck with me, the idea that some people could be and get away with it. Poor Nutkin lost his tail from his naughtiness but this somehow seemed a badge of honour not disgrace. Another example of this is that I saw a lot of American Western movies as a child and was always terrified and fascinated when the Indians would capture white people and tie them to posts and threaten them with torture. There was something very sexual about it, especially in one movie I remember where they tied a woman to a stake and her blouse was very decollete. Although I did not realise it at that time, those images stuck in my memory and created a template for how men treat women.

On a lighter note, I did always relate to the Indians and not the cowboys and was also in love with Hiawatha when I was 3 and my father gave me an illustrated book about him when he was a teenager. I became obsessed with him and wanted to be Minnehaha and even had an Indian Squaw outfit that I wore to the point where it was filthy and could not be prised out of my possession to be washed. One of the most abiding memories I have that traumatised me in ways that were to haunt me later, was when we were finally leaving Cobh to move to Co. Wicklow and the big black car was standing there waiting for us to pile into it and my mother, no doubt harassed and exhausted, ripped my dirty panda bear and my Indian Squaw dress out of my arms and announced that 'We are not taking those filthy things with us' and dumped them in the bin. I cried all the way to Wicklow. I never had a stuffed animal again as I created a 'story' that they were stupid. Years later, a close friend gave me a stuffed bear for my 30th birthday as she was so upset by this story.

For me it was the first time I got the idea that my mother did not love me unconditionally and it was the start of the abandonment issues that were to get so much worse later on.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Where do I start?

I have been hearing for years that I should write a book about my family so here goes. I have no idea where to start really. Maybe in the order that I discovered it? ( I have changed everyone's names so they won't get upset with me!)

When I was 18 years old, my oldest sister, who is nearly 14 years older than me, took my twin sister, Agnes, and myself our for dinner with her husband, Dennis. This was Dublin, 1976. May to be precise. They took us to The King Sitric, a fantastic fish restaurant in Howth, Co. Dublin which is still going strong. It was our first time being taken to a really fancy place and I chose Lobster Thermidor and we had some red wine. I was not used to drinking at all in those days and had a violent reaction to all the alcohol and ended up throwing up so violently that I had broken blood vessels around my eyes that looked like hickies. That evening, we also went to see some friends of my sister's husband and the wife told Dennis that night that she was dying of cancer and I remember Dennis crying his eyes out in the car afterwards and my surprise to see a man in complete turmoil with tears streaming down his face. My sister comforted him and we all went home in a state of deep depression. It turned out that the woman had lied about the whole thing and I remember the surprise at the lie and how anyone could do something so despicable. Now, of course, I understand that she must have had a personality disorder. At the time, the overriding feeling I had was that men actually had feelings like women and what a shock that was to me.

Sometime either before of after that ( it must have been after on reflection as now we were 18 and allowed to hear this news) my sister and her husband took us to a meal in a restaurant near Grafton Street and told us the news that we had two half brothers and a half sister. I still remember the moment of hearing this and the sudden understanding of why there was a 10 and a half year age gap between my oldest sister and the next in line, Patricia.

Out came the story. My father had left my mother when my oldest sister was about 3 and had married someone else and had two children with that woman and then come back to my mother. That's it in a nutshell but the actual details of it and the fallout of this episode had long and deep affects on all our lives. In essence, this is the story of that.

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