Despite visiting my grandparents regularly on holidays,
and my grandfather coming to live with us,
after my grandmothers death,
I never really knew them.
I never asked the right questions,
or showed any interest in who they were,
or what sort of life they had lived.
What I would give to be able to turn back time.
Sadly I only remember them as old.
My lack of knowing,
was highlighted a number of years ago,
when my daughter did an English project.
As part of it she “interviewed” my Mum.
They spoke about her time as a child in Donegal,
growing up with her brothers and sisters,
going to school,
and meeting my Dad.
I had always known that one of my mothers older sisters,
had died of Tuberculosis,
at the age of 14 years.
I can remember thinking about her,
when I was a young teenager.
“Aileen” was her name.
In Ireland in the 1940s,
tuberculosis was raging.
Most families lost relatives.
Many lived in sanatoriums for years.
Most never came home.
I knew Aileen had died at home.
I remember the story my mum told me,
of how they could not take the coffin down the winding stairs,
so instead they removed the window,
and lowered it down.
I remember sleeping in that bedroom,
and imagining their grief.
However as my mum spoke with my daughter,
I learned the real story behind her illness,
and a lot about my grandparents.
Many of you reading this,
will remember the hysterical reaction,
when AIDS was first reported.
People believed you could catch it,
just by shaking hands,
or drinking out of the same cup.
Anyone who had AIDS,
was shunned, shut away, left to die.
Families too were treated as viruses.
The same reaction was true,
to discovering a member of your family had TB.
There was no treatment, no antibiotics, no cure.
mother, father or child,
was removed from the family.
They went to a sanitorium,
most knowing they would never return.
Except my grandparents said “No!”.
On discovering the awful truth about Aileens cough,
they refused to allow anyone take their little girl away.
They knew she could not get better,
and there was a significant risk to themselves,
but they made the decision,
to nurse her at home.
For six weeks the upstairs bedroom was her home.
There were four other children in the house,
who were not allowed to enter.
They spoke to her through the door.
At six years of age,
my mother told of sneaking in as often as she could,
unaware of the dangers,
as this was her favourite sister.
On one occasion she remembered,
that they had four kittens.
My Granny opened the door and let the kittens in.
A while later they came out,
with little ribbons put on them by Aileen.
Whilst this tragedy was going on,
my grandparents were isolated.
People were afraid to visit.
My mum told how the school teacher,
used to cross the road to avoid them,
if ever he saw them coming.
For six weeks they nursed Aileen.
According to my mum,
my grandparents spent a lot of time,
in the room with her.
After she died,
my mum was afraid to go to sleep,
in case the angels returned for her!
I had never heard this side of the story before,
and it made me think.
What strong characters my grandparents were.
To go against society.
To keep their young daughter with them,
knowing the danger to themselves,
and their family.
I wondered what I would have done.
Would I have gone against medical opinion?
Then I see my own mother,
and I recognize so much of that determination,
and strength of character,
shown by my grandparents.
I remember a difficult time in my own life,
and the comments from friends,
“you are so strong”.
And I wonder.
We are all more than just ourselves.
We have inherited so much,
going back generations.
Not just how we look,
but our character, humor, strengths and personalities.
I might not have known my grandparents,
in the true sense,
but they live within me.
As I hope does a little bit of Aileen,
and my other relatives,
and of course my Dad.