In 2004, I published a book (Author House) entitled “The Nana in the Chair and the Tales She Told.” It was an anecdotal biography of my Irish grandmother, Mary Dunne Ware (1860-1957). She lived with us in the house on Temple Street from 1939 until her death. She was a Seanachi, an Irish story teller, and she kept tabs on her grandchildren (Mary, Leo, George, & Edward in the immediate household, plus the Beauvais and the Wares, our cousins, who were frequent visitors) by telling stories. She was blind, and confined to her chair, but her stories were entertaining, tailored to events in our own lives, and they all had a little moral thrown in for good measure.
My book was intended as a salute to Nana. It was published as a Print-on-Demand, limited distribution, family book. Surprise! It sold a few thousand copies and attracted some attention in Ireland, where it was favorably reviewed in “Ireland of the Welcomes,” Ireland’s largest magazine, “The Irish Emigrant,” and taken into the County Kerry Cultural Center (Nana was from the village of Finuge, Lixnaw in County Kerry). It was even mentioned in the Irish Dial, or Parliament, by a member and former resident of Lixnaw. He was amused by this book about his home village writen by an American who had never been there. He wrote: “How American! When they don’t know much about a subject, they write a book about it.” I liked that. He invited me to Ireland for a presentation at the Country Kerry Cultural Center. That didn’t happen for health reasons, but it was quite an honor.
The book attracted a little following and I did numerous talk shows, book clubs, schools, church, historical, and fraternal meetings, and it was quite exciting. The Boston Herald serialized a few stories in their Newspapers in Education program, published in papers around the country, and they even ended up in an El Paso, Texas newspaper, where they were translated into Spanish.
This attracted the attention of Red Roof, a commercial publisher. They bought the rights and wanted an expanded edition with a new cover and a new title. In return they promised support, advertising, a book tour, interviews, the whole works. I did it, and in 2006, “Irish Tales, a Collection of Tales by Mary Dunne Ware of Fitchburg” was published. Then, the economy tanked, and Red Roof went belly up. None of their commitments were honored. They did publish a first run of new editions, which I have.
In 2011, I was contacted by a third publisher who is interested in trying again. We’re still talking but there is nothing specific on the table. One of my requirements is that we go back to the original cover (which was a picture I took of Nana in 1956 as she sat in her chair. The new edition showed a generic rural Irish scene), and the original “Nana in the Chair” title.
In the meanwhile, I have gone forward writing speeches, essays, other memoirs, and even another Nana story or two along the way. The following is my most recent effort. It has never before been published. It is another of Nana’s tales, often based on her knowledge of Irish folklore, and tailored by her into something special for her grandchildren. It is again set in our home on Temple Street in West Fitchburg, MA during the 1940’s. I hope you enjoy it. Comments are welcome.
Draft: 19 August 2012: Nana, The Shadow, and the Calico Cat:
Sunday afternoons could be long and slow in the white house on Temple Street during the 1940’s. There were still many Blue Laws in place that forbade open stores, or shops, or even fun in general.
My father said it was far worse in his day. He once played baseball on the church field (“The Flat”) around 1912, and a busybody neighbor woman summoned the police (there was a police substation down next to the Hose 2 fire station at the foot of Church Hill). The coppers duly arrived, copied down the boys’ names, and gravely warned them not to break the Sunday Law again in this way or, “There will be consequences.”
By the 1940’s, an enlightened authority allowed afternoon sports, the movie theaters were open, and of course, there were always Sunday afternoon church services. I was an altar boy who lived just down the hill from Sacred Heart Church, and dreaded the frequent Sunday calls to my mother from the parish priest who needed an altar boy for the 4 pm Benediction. There was only one answer my mother ever gave: “Yes, Father, he’ll be right there.” This decision did not in any way involve the principle participant (e.g. me).
In any case, I was out before 5:00 pm, and could easily make it home for the 5 to 6 pm radio shows. Sunday was Mystery Theater day and included such classics as “The House of Mystery,” “Jack, Doc, and Reggie,” and the most famous of them all: “The Shadow.”
If I may digress: The Shadow, the invisible crime fighter who can cloud men’s minds so that they cannot see him, had such an influence on me that in later years I sought out recordings of the show that I could play in my car. I have the complete series on cassettes and CD’s.
Once I was driving to Maine, playing an exciting and engrossing chapter of “The Shadow.” The Shadow, in his alternate identity as Lamont Cranston, was driving to the scene of a puzzling crime with his friend, Margo Lane (Margo was, I heard, the sister of Lois Lane who never figured out that Clark Kent was really Superman without his glasses, and just speaking in a deeper voice. I never thought Lois was all that bright.).
But Margo was bright, and she saved The Shadow’s tail many times. So there they were, on their way to another crime scene in Lamont’s souped-up roadster, when The Shadow’s cell phone rang. I thought: “That’s brilliant. The Shadow has a cell phone; another technology first for this 1940’s crime fighter.”
But – I didn’t remember The Shadow having a cell phone. In fact, at that time, I wouldn’t have known what a cell phone was; and in any case, why didn’t he acknowledge the ring and answer the fool phone? Then, I realized: It was my cell phone that was ringing. By the time I pulled to the side of the road, got it out and figured out how to answer it again, I had lost the call.
And I thought Lois Lane was not all that bright.
This particular Sunday evening, the local radio station, WEIM, had pre-empted “The Shadow” for some political discourse by Mayor George W. Stanton, a friend of my father’s. Mayor Stanton was a good man, but, for those who heard it, none of the local political speeches stayed in anyone’s memory a tenth as long as did “The Shadow.” I went into Nana’s room (Nana was my 85 year old, blind, Irish Grandmother), and bemoaned my fate: I had to serve at church twice that day, the priest never tipped me, and now my favorite radio shows were cancelled. Where was the Lord when I needed Him?
Nana smiled and said that there are some mysteries that we cannot understand but must accept, and that one day we would “know all.” It wasn’t really an acceptable answer, but I knew it was the best answer I was going to get, and I was intrigued by her next statement: “I can tell ye an Irish mystery story, if ye like.”
I knew Nana was a Seanachi, an Irish story teller. She had her own versions of many tales from Irish folklore which she fashioned from those old stories, her own experiences, and her own wit. I immediately agreed, pulled the platform rocker closer to her chair, and the mystery tale went something like this:
WHEN I WAS A GIRL in Lixnuge, in the County of Kerry, about 1870 or so, there was an old farmer named Nicholas who lived alone in his little roadside thatched cottage on the road coming to the outskirts of Lixnuge.
He was a good man, and hospitable to strangers. One fall evening, much like today, he answered a knock at his door to find a stranger standing there, hat in hand. “Excuse me, sir,” said the Traveler, “but I lost my way this afternoon, and it is getting too dark to finish my journey tonight. May I have the hospitality of your barn until the morning?”
“Not my barn, but my home,” said Nicholas. “We’ll have tea, bread, and cheese for our supper, and then I’ll fix ye a lovely straw mat close to the warm stove, and ye can be on your way in the morning.”
The Traveler was enchanted with the offer. “Ye are kind,” he said, as he entered the humble but clean farm cottage. He offered a slight bow, and the usual visitor’s prayer, ‘God bless all here.’
The two had a great time that night, talking their stories and telling their tales into the late hours. Just then, the Traveler saw a third life enter the room. It was the farmer’s cat. Noting the tri-color markings, he said: “Ye have a Calico Cat.”.
“I do indeed,” said the farmer, and why does that amaze ye?”
“Because,” answered the Traveler, “I had an adventure this day that involved a message for a Calico Cat.”
“Pray, tell me of your adventure,” said Nicholas the farmer, as the Calico Cat curled up in his lap.
“I was on the road to Lixnaw, a half day’s walk from here,” the Traveler began, “when I came to a shady glen with a cool mountain brook, running through it. I thought it was a good time to take a mid-day break, drink my fill of the cool, clear water, and sit in the shade of a large, old, oak tree. I fell asleep.
“I was shortly awakened by the sound of a little drum, beating a somber anthem, and coming toward me in the glen. Not knowing what is was, I hid behind a tree and saw the approach of an orderly parade of cats, as in a pageant. I immediately recognized it as a funeral procession. I was both curious and wary, so I drew back into the bushes and watched.
“Two by two they came, in perfect step if you can believe it, along with a somber drummer, and at last, a caravan drawn by four cats and bearing the body of a regal looking cat, whom I first thought was sleeping. He was partly covered with a purple cloth and on his chest rested a small golden crown. It took several minutes for them to process by me, and then came a finale to the funeral party: An older, elegant black cat, who looked very kind and wise, drawn on a little carriage by his cat attendants. He bade them stop, and facing the brush where I was hiding, he said this: “I know ye are there, Traveler. When ye see the Calico Cat, give him this message. He gave me a few words of message, and then he bade the caravan go on. They did, and within another minute or two’s time, they were gone.”
“Surely,” said Nicholas the farmer, “that is the most amazing tale I have ever heard. And what was the wise cat’s message; can ye share it with me?”
“I will share it indeed,” said the Traveler. “The old one said: ‘When ye see the Calico Cat, tell him that Themistocles has died.’”
And before either of them could say another word, the Calico Cat jumped up on the table and cried: “Themistocles has died? That means I am King of the Cats!”
And with that, he leaped to the stove top and from there, shot up the warm chimney to the roof, where he jumped off into the woods, never to be seen again.”
AND THAT,” Nana concluded, “was the gist of the whole tale; the farmer and the Traveler wondered how the story came to be, and how it ended, for the rest of their days.
“Now, what do ye think happened?
“The End. Did ye like that story?”
Copyright The Jokesmith, 2012