Thursday Book Feature: Re-blog–Philomena

With St. Patrick’s Day just around the corner, here’s a gripping tale of an Irish woman forced to give up her child at birth who attempts to find him later. When I read this book and saw the movie years ago, it made an impression on me, so much so that I blogged about it several times. Again, here’s my extended review of the book and movie.

***

In 1952, you’re a teen-aged girl in Ireland. After a romantic encounter with a man you meet at a fair, you become pregnant. In shame, your family sends you away to a convent.

It’s a breech birth. The nuns have little or no medical training. Other women and children have died during childbirth there and are buried in unmarked graves nearby. The mother superior believes that the pain of childbirth is God’s punishment for carnal sin so no drugs are administered. In agony, as the nun removes the baby with forceps, you beg her not to “let them put him in the ground.” Miraculously, you give birth to a healthy baby boy. Thus begins the story of Philomena, a book I’ve read and a movie I’ve seen.

Martin Sixsmith, the author of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, (2009) and Philomena, with Dame Judi Dench, (2013) is a British author, Russian scholar, BBC presenter, and former advisor to the government in the United Kingdom. He has written about Russian history, the scandal surrounding the adoption of Irish children by American parents, and other current events. Besides two books about Philomena Lee, the Irish mother forced to give up her child for adoption, his other work includes Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, (2012) and Spin. (2005) In his writing, he has also focused on political communication in government. To read more about him, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Sixsmith.

In Philomena, after a short introduction by Dame Judi Dench, the actress who portrayed her in the movie, Martin Sixsmith starts by describing the details of the birth of Philomena’s son Anthony and their lives afterward in the convent. Philomena and other girls who had babies out of wedlock were virtual prisoners at the convent for four years, working to pay off the cost of their care, so to speak. She worked in the laundry seven days a week and by night, she and the other girls sewed clothes for their children who stayed in the convent until they were adopted. The mothers were allowed daily contact with their children and naturally, they developed close bonds.

Sixsmith also touches on the sale of Irish children to American families by the Catholic Church. He describes how some Irish government officials tried to block such adoptions but were thwarted by the Catholic Church. In 1955, Philomena was forced to sign papers giving Anthony up for adoption, and he was taken to the U.S. to live with a family in Missouri. Mary, a little girl at the convent about the same age who developed a close friendship with Anthony, was also taken by the same family who didn’t want to separate the children.

The remainder of Martin Sixsmith’s book is devoted primarily to Anthony’s story. The family who adopted him and Mary changed his name to Michael, and Sixsmith describes his life growing up in Missouri and Iowa. The friendship between Michael and Mary grew stronger in America, and in later years, Mary was the only one in the family who supported him. All through his life, Michael wondered about his natural mother. His adoptive parents, who knew the truth, thought it better to tell him that his mother abandoned him.

Sixsmith explains how Michael first realized he was gay as a teen-ager. A priest at Notre Dame University told Michael that homosexuality is a sin and encouraged him to purge himself of his desires. Michael tried but found himself becoming more and more involved in such activities.

In the 1970’s after graduating from Notre Dame and receiving a law degree from George Washington University, Michael worked for the National Republican Committee in D.C. and eventually became the chief counsel for the White House. Sixsmith pinpoints the irony of a gay man working for the Republican Party during the Reagan and Bush eras when homosexuality was considered taboo and Republicans blocked funding for AIDS research. This, combined with feelings of abandonment Michael harbored from his childhood, caused mood swings and bouts of drinking and engaging in sadomasochistic activities. Most of his relationships didn’t last long.

In the 1970’s Michael and Mary made a trip to Ireland in an attempt to find their mothers but were told by the nuns at the convent that they had no records. In the 1990’s, after Michael developed AIDS, he made a second trip to Ireland with his partner, Pete Nelson, and was told that records from the 1950’s were destroyed in a fire. They later learned at the bed and breakfast where they were staying that the nuns deliberately set the fire because of an investigation into the Catholic Church’s practice of selling Irish children to American families for adoption. Michael died a year or so later, never knowing about his mother. At his request, he was buried at the convent in Ireland where he was born.

At the end of the book, Martin Sixsmith devotes a couple of chapters to Philomena after Anthony was taken from her in 1955. I would like to have read more about her, but she may not have wanted her life revealed in such detail. After Anthony left the convent, bound for the U.S., the nuns sent Philomena to work at a school for boys in England, and she eventually became a nurse. She married twice and had several children and grandchildren. She made frequent trips to the convent in Ireland to inquire about her son but was rebuffed by the nuns every time. She kept the secret of Anthony’s birth from her family for fifty years.

After she finally broke down and told them, her daughter introduced her to Sixsmith, and the three of them visited the convent in Ireland. By this time, there were different nuns with more liberal views, and through other channels, they were able to learn of Anthony’s life in America and that he passed away and was buried at the convent.

I liked Martin Sixsmith’s style of writing this book. Besides giving us a journalistic rundown of all the events and when they happened, he takes us into the lives of the main characters, telling us what they were feeling and thinking. The book was written like fiction, and I was compelled to keep reading to the end.

On the other hand, the movie doesn’t tell the whole story and uses some artistic license. After Sixsmith meets Philomena’s daughter at a party, he is introduced to her mother, and the two of them travel to Ireland to inquire about Anthony. The nuns tell them their records from the 1950’s were destroyed in a fire and show Philomena the contract she signed, giving Anthony up for adoption that stated she agreed not to try to contact him. Sixsmith later learns from locals in a pub that the nuns started the fire.

The search for Anthony takes Martin and Philomena to Washington, D.C. where they learn of his life and passing. After talking with Mary and Pete Nelson, they learn of Michael’s burial at the convent in Ireland. Upon their return, Martin becomes confrontational with one of the nuns and Philomena finds her son’s grave and says goodbye. I enjoyed the performances of Dame Judi Dench and the other actors, but the movie left a lot to be desired, compared to the book.

According to Sixsmith, Michael requested that “Danny Boy” be sung at his funeral in Washington, D.C. before he was taken to Ireland for burial. This is a song I’ve sung many times in the fifteen years I worked as a music therapist in a nursing home. I can’t think of a better way to end this post. Please click below to hear me sing the song one more time.

***

Abbie Johnson Taylor
We Shall Overcome
How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems
My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds
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***

Mother’s Secret

Sister Earnest came into our lives, unexpected. We weren’t Catholic. In the fall of 1985, Mother was teaching English and communications at Sheridan College in Wyoming, and the nun was one of her students. She was part of a contemplative Benedictine monastery located about fifteen miles south of town near Big Horn where people could retreat to meditate and swim in their pool.

At Christmas that year, while I was home on break from the University of Montana in Billings where I was doing graduate work in music therapy, Mother made a startling announcement. We were walking in the park on Christmas Day. Dad and my younger brother Andy were off somewhere so it was just her and me. Because of my limited vision, I held her arm, as she guided me along the snowy road while the sun shone overhead. “I’m moving out,” she said.

“What?”

“There’s a house I can rent about a mile from the monastery. It’s on the Walters Ranch property, and there’s a swimming pool which I could use. I’ll probably move there in January.”

Shocked but intrigued, I said, “Okay, it sounds like you’ll be settled there by the time I come home for summer vacation. I can’t wait to try out the pool.”

“Actually, there won’t be room for you and Andy. The house only has one bedroom. There’s a utility room, but it has a washer and dryer and not much space.”

My heart sank. Then I thought of something else. “What about Clancy and the cats?” Clancy was our Irish setter, or to be more precise, Dad’s dog.

“Andy can feed the animals, and I’ll show him how to run the washer and dryer and dishwasher so he can do all that.”

Stunned, I slipped on a patch of ice and nearly fell. After steadying me, Mother said, “I have a right to be selfish.” I didn’t know what to say.

We finished our walk in silence. After returning home, I rushed upstairs to my room and found Howard, our tiger-striped cat, stretched out on my bed. As I did many times when I was a child, I flopped down next to her, buried my face in her fur, and let the tears flow. She purred as if to say, “There, there, it’ll be all right.”

In January, I returned to school and tried not to think about Mother moving out, leaving Dad, Andy, Clancy, and the cats to fend for themselves. It wasn’t too hard not to dwell on our dysfunctional family since my studies took a lot of my attention.

About a month later, Mother called. “Your dad is moving out. He found an apartment, and he’ll take Clancy.” I was relieved that Andy and the cats would still be in good hands. I wasn’t as attached to Clancy but knew Dad would take good care of him.

Soon after that, Mother came to visit and brought Sister Earnest. I hadn’t met her before. Although I couldn’t put my finger on it, I thought she was weird. She said, “Why don’t I rub your feet? Massage is my specialty.”

I took her up on the offer, not knowing what else to say or do. It felt pretty good, but for some reason, I didn’t sleep well that night.

I compared notes with Dad later when he came with Clancy. He said, “Yeah, you’re right. There is something strange about her.”

During the following summer, Mother spent more and more time with Sister Earnest. She stayed overnight at the monastery once in a while, and I was often invited to play my guitar and sing for their religious programs and swim in their pool. I liked the other nuns, and the pool was great.

Mother seemed to be a different person around Sister Earnest. It was as if the nun brought out something in her that nobody else could, but I didn’t know what. I felt uncomfortable when I was around them both or when Mother talked to her on the phone for long periods of time.

“Her original name was Jackie,” Mother said. “She used to be a nurse.” That didn’t help.

Sister Earnest also spent nights at the house with Mother, sometimes when I was home on breaks. The following Christmas, she took over the decorating of the house and wouldn’t let me or Andy help Mother with the tree. She was overbearing and often patronizing, and I was nervous around her. When she ate Christmas dinner with me, Andy, Dad, Mother, and Grandma, she insisted on saying grace before the meal. This was something we never did, and I could tell everyone besides Mother was just as uncomfortable as I was.

One night, Mother and Sister Earnest had been in the study where the nun slept when she stayed with us. After they left to start dinner, I passed the study on my way downstairs and noticed the sofa bed already unfolded and the sheets in tangles. I felt sick to my stomach but told myself this couldn’t be. Nuns didn’t have sex with women or anyone else. She was just giving Mother a massage, right?

In the fall of 1987, I moved to Fargo, North Dakota, where I completed a six-month music therapy internship. As luck would have it, next door to the nursing home where I worked was a convent. Although they weren’t the same order as Sister Earnest’s, she contacted them, hoping I could perhaps live in a cottage on their premises. No such accommodations were available so I rented an apartment instead.

I was invited to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the convent. One nun brought me a care package containing pop, canned goods, and other non-perishable items sent by Sister Earnest and invited me to a Christmas concert. Another often asked me to play my guitar and sing for religious activities she conducted at the nursing home.

Sister Earnest was hoping I would stay in Fargo after my internship ended and get a job. Mother suggested as much. At first, I liked the idea, but by April of 1988, I’d had enough of that town, the brutal winter, my bank that wouldn’t cash a check from Mother because of limited funds, and my internship supervisor who, from January on, made my life miserable.

Despite the D grade I received in my internship, I was eventually able to become registered as a music therapist, but that didn’t make finding a job any easier since the profession was little known back then. For the next six months, I lived at home. Andy was in college by that time so it was just me, Mother, and often Sister Earnest. I had lunch with Dad and helped him with the business occasionally, but I spent most of my time sending out resumes and filing job applications with little success. Mother and Sister Earnest did their thing, and I was often left to my own devices.

In January of 1989, Sister Earnest left the Benedictine order and moved to California. I half expected Mother to follow her, but she didn’t. Instead, she suggested I find an apartment since I had enough in savings, and I could get by for a while with the money I received from Social Security every month. I was only too happy to move out. At that time, I was offered a volunteer position at a nursing home in Sheridan. In March, I was hired as an activities assistant.

Although my parents separated and eventually divorced, they got along a lot better than they did when they were married, especially after Sister Earnest left. Mother traveled to California frequently to visit her, and the former nun came to Sheridan once in a while. A couple of years after I moved out, our family house was sold, and Mother moved first to a townhouse in Sheridan and then a cabin in Story, , a small town twenty miles away at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains. Andy was married by this time and living in Colorado.

One day while Dad and I were visiting Mother in Story, she said, “Earnest keeps asking me to return things she gave me, and now, she wants to come and live with me. I don’t think I can take any more of this.” I was relieved that Mother had finally come to her senses.

Years later, Mother was diagnosed with cancer. When she became weak as a result of chemotherapy and malnourishment, Dad moved to the little house in Story to care for her for six months before she passed away unexpectedly in December of 1999. In November of 2012, after my husband’s funeral, Dad, perhaps a little drunk, said, “Your mother wanted a divorce because she was in love with Sister Earnest.”

***

This was published in the spring/summer issue of Magnets and Ladders. Names were changed to protect privacy.

***

Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

 

One More Review: Gustus Dei

Gustus Dei by Monica Byrne. Copyright 2015 && 2016.

 

This short story was published in two literary journals over the past year and is now available as a free download in various formats here. I ran across it on Twitter last night. Since I’m not sure how long it’ll be available, I decided to post this now instead of with next month’s reviews.

The story’s time and location aren’t clear, but because of the lack of modern conveniences and the mention of native Americans, I’m assuming it’s in North America during the 18th or 19th century. A novice nun in a convent grapples with the idea that everything is corrupt and the necessity of being pure at all times. Parts of the story, including the ending, are surreal.

Although my family’s not Catholic, I’ve always been interested in the religion. I was in awe of my friend next door who went to a parochial school and called her teacher Sister. When as a teen-ager, I took an interest in attending a Catholic college in Kansas, miles away from my home in Wyoming, my father said, “Oh, you want to be a nun. Well, if you enter a convent, you’ll have to give up Dr. Pepper.”

I did not want to be a nun, but that didn’t stop me from being interested in them. The turn of events in this story fascinated me, and I wish I knew the significance of the title. I’m assuming it’s Latin but couldn’t find a definition. To learn more about Monica Byrne and her work, click here.

***

Abbie J. Taylor 010Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

Front Book Cover - We Shall OvercomeWe Shall Overcome

Cover: How to Build a Better Mousetrap by Abbie Johnson TaylorHow to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

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Philomena

In 1952, you’re a teen-aged girl in Ireland. After a romantic encounter with a man you meet at a fair, you become pregnant. In shame, your family sends you away to a convent.

It’s a breech birth. The nuns have little or no medical training. Other women and children have died during childbirth there and are buried in unmarked graves nearby. The mother superior believes that the pain of childbirth is God’s punishment for carnal sin so no drugs are administered. In agony, as the nun removes the baby with forceps, you beg her not to “let them put him in the ground.” Miraculously, you give birth to a healthy baby boy. Thus begins the story of Philomena, a book I’ve read and a movie I’ve seen.

Martin Sixsmith, the author of The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, (2009) and Philomena, with Dame Judi Dench, (2013) is a British author, Russian scholar, BBC presenter, and former advisor to the government in the United Kingdom. He has written about Russian history, the scandal surrounding the adoption of Irish children by American parents, and other current events. Besides two books about Philomena Lee, the Irish mother forced to give up her child for adoption, his other work includes Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, (2012) and Spin. (2005) In his writing, he has also focused on political communication in government. To read more about him, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Sixsmith .

In Philomena, after a short introduction by Dame Judi Dench, the actress who portrayed her in the movie, Martin Sixsmith starts by describing the details of the birth of Philomena’s son Anthony and their lives afterward in the convent. Philomena and other girls who had babies out of wedlock were virtual prisoners at the convent for four years, working to pay off the cost of their care, so to speak. She worked in the laundry seven days a week and by night, she and the other girls sewed clothes for their children who stayed in the convent until they were adopted. The mothers were allowed daily contact with their children and naturally, they developed close bonds.

Sixsmith also touches on the sale of Irish children to American families by the Catholic Church. He describes how some Irish government officials tried to block such adoptions but were thwarted by the Catholic Church. In 1955, Philomena was forced to sign papers giving Anthony up for adoption, and he was taken to the U.S. to live with a family in Missouri. Mary, a little girl at the convent about the same age who developed a close friendship with Anthony, was also taken by the same family who didn’t want to separate the children.

The remainder of Martin Sixsmith’s book is devoted primarily to Anthony’s story. The family who adopted him and Mary changed his name to Michael, and Sixsmith describes his life growing up in Missouri and Iowa. The friendship between Michael and Mary grew stronger in America, and in later years, Mary was the only one in the family who supported him. All through his life, Michael wondered about his natural mother. His adoptive parents, who knew the truth, thought it better to tell him that his mother abandoned him.

Sixsmith explains how Michael first realized he was gay as a teen-ager. A priest at Notre Dame University told Michael that homosexuality is a sin and encouraged him to purge himself of his desires. Michael tried but found himself becoming more and more involved in such activities.

In the 1970’s after graduating from Notre Dame and receiving a law degree from George Washington University, Michael worked for the National Republican Committee in D.C. and eventually became the chief counsel for the White House. Sixsmith pinpoints the irony of a gay man working for the Republican Party during the Reagan and Bush eras when homosexuality was considered taboo and Republicans blocked funding for AIDS research. This, combined with feelings of abandonment Michael harbored from his childhood, caused mood swings and bouts of drinking and engaging in sadomasochistic activities. Most of his relationships didn’t last long.

In the 1970’s Michael and Mary made a trip to Ireland in an attempt to find their mothers but were told by the nuns at the convent that they had no records. In the 1990’s, after Michael developed AIDS, he made a second trip to Ireland with his partner, Pete Nelson, and was told that records from the 1950’s were destroyed in a fire. They later learned at the bed and breakfast where they were staying that the nuns deliberately set the fire because of an investigation into the Catholic Church’s practice of selling Irish children to American families for adoption. Michael died a year or so later, never knowing about his mother. At his request, he was buried at the convent in Ireland where he was born.

At the end of the book, Martin Sixsmith devotes a couple of chapters to Philomena after Anthony was taken from her in 1955. I would like to have read more about her, but she may not have wanted her life revealed in such detail. After Anthony left the convent, bound for the U.S., the nuns sent Philomena to work at a school for boys in England, and she eventually became a nurse. She married twice and had several children and grandchildren. She made frequent trips to the convent in Ireland to inquire about her son but was rebuffed by the nuns every time. She kept the secret of Anthony’s birth from her family for fifty years.

After she finally broke down and told them, her daughter introduced her to Sixsmith, and the three of them visited the convent in Ireland. By this time, there were different nuns with more liberal views, and through other channels, they were able to learn of Anthony’s life in America and that he passed away and was buried at the convent.

I liked Martin Sixsmith’s style of writing this book. Besides giving us a journalistic rundown of all the events and when they happened, he takes us into the lives of the main characters, telling us what they were feeling and thinking. The book was written like fiction, and I was compelled to keep reading to the end.

On the other hand, the movie doesn’t tell the whole story and uses some artistic license. After Sixsmith meets Philomena’s daughter at a party, he is introduced to her mother, and the two of them travel to Ireland to inquire about Anthony. The nuns tell them their records from the 1950’s were destroyed in a fire and show Philomena the contract she signed, giving Anthony up for adoption that stated she agreed not to try to contact him. Sixsmith later learns from locals in a pub that the nuns started the fire.

The search for Anthony takes Martin and Philomena to Washington, D.C. where they learn of his life and passing. After talking with Mary and Pete Nelson, they learn of Michael’s burial at the convent in Ireland. Upon their return, Martin becomes confrontational with one of the nuns and Philomena finds her son’s grave and says goodbye. I enjoyed the performances of Dame Judi Dench and the other actors, but the movie left a lot to be desired, compared to the book.

According to Sixsmith, Michael requested that “Danny Boy” be sung at his funeral in Washington, D.C. before he was taken to Ireland for burial. This is a song I’ve sung many times in the fifteen years I worked as a music therapist in a nursing home. I can’t think of a better way to end this post. Please click on the link below to hear me sing the song one more time.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/15213189/danny%20boy.mp3

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

Pre-order That’s Life Today!

What If…

Thanks to Writing Life Stories for inspiring this. Have you ever wondered what would have happened if you did something different in life, gone to a different college, married a different spouse? When I was a senior in high school in 1980, one of the many representatives from the various colleges who visited the counseling center was a nun from St. Mary’s College. My family wasn’t Catholic, but I knew people who were and found some of their religious practices fascinating so I took an interest in this particular institution of higher learning.

My parents teased me, saying I wanted to be a nun. Another relative told me that there was a federal penitentiary in Levenworth, and I could bake cookies for the inmates. I liked the idea that St. Mary’s College was only for girls because I didn’t have much luck with boys and figured I could do without them. For some reason however, I decided to stay here in Wyoming and go to Sheridan College for the first two years of my education after high school.

What if I had gone to St. Mary’s College in Levenworth, Kansas? After studying Greek, Latin, and other subjects they required, would I have decided to take up the monastic life after all? Instead of playing my guitar and singing for elderly nursing home residents as I did for fifteen years, would I be providing spiritual guidance to residents at the Levenworth prison? Like Sister Helen Prejean who wrote Dead Man Walking, would I be working with death row inmates, playing my guitar and singing as they breathed their last after being injected with lethal drugs? As a nun, I wouldn’t have met and married my late husband Bill, would I?

In 1984 while Bill was living in Glendale, California, I visited Los Angeles with my family in order to attend my uncle’s wedding. Bill later told me that I wasn’t too far from where he lived. What if our paths crossed then instead of twenty years later? With the nineteen-year age difference, would he have found me as attractive back then as he did in 2004? Would we have married after meeting in 1984 and had twenty good years before he suffered the strokes that paralyzed his left side?

At first, I didn’t consider a career in writing. My mother did most of my writing assignments for me when I was in high school and during the first two years of my college education. I could have easily typed my own papers, but when I did that, after proofreading them, she immediately rewrote them. When I asked why she didn’t like the way I wrote them, she said, “What if I have ideas.”

What if I had stood up to her, said, “Mother, this is my paper. What if I like the way I wrote it, and when I go to college, what if I major in English and get and MFA in creative writing.” If I actually followed through, would I now be a best-selling author? Would I have met and married Bill?

One thing I wanted to be when I grew up was a singer. What if instead of going to college and becoming a registered music therapist, I left home and somehow found my way to New York or Los Angeles? Would I now be a superstar with dozens of CDs on the best-seller list, traveling all over the country with a myriad of buses and trucks carrying people and equipment? Instead of playing the piano and singing for elderly nursing home residents, would I be singing with a band in crowded amphitheaters? Would I have met and married Bill or would he have been just another fan waiting in line for me to autograph his CDs?

It’s hard to say what the future would have held in store for us if we’d done things differently but fun to speculate, don’t you think?

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver