To Prove My Blood: A Tale of Emigrations & the Afterlife

Praise, Comments, and Reviews:

To prove my blood: A tale of emigrations and the afterlife

In prose richer than most poetry, Philip Brady proves that to go forward you go back. To sneak up on easeful death, you go back to primeval Brooklyn, mythological Ireland, equatorial Africa, ancient Greece. There are no strightforward chronologies here; instead, Brady executes a strong of backward flips during which he repeatedly sings his own dirge. What a performance. What a bite out of life!”

— John Vernon, author of A Book of Reasons

At once lyrical and dissonant, seriously playful, tender and evoking pity, yet relentlessly tough… A Faulknerian-Irish myth of the quotidian.”

— John Wheatcroft, author of Catherine, Her Book

…in this enthralling autobiographical tale of rising to meet life’s challenges, Brady came of age facing the hardships of life while coming into contact with mafiosos, Jesuits, detectives, coal miners, New Age artists and others. A multifaceted and engagingly told life journey, To Prove My Blood is a literate, articulate, attention engaging, inherently interesting, and enthusiastically recommended read.

–Midwest Book Review (five-star recommendation)

“Emigrating backwards”: Journeys into Ulster Dreamtime and the Ur-Time of Brooklyn

–By Mary Burke, Keough Institute for Irish Studies, University of Notre Dame

Philip Brady’s To Prove My Blood: A Tale of Emigrations and the Afterlife is a memoir in prose and poetry of twentieth-century Irish-America centered on the passage from Northern Ireland to New York of the four McCann sisters, rendered in the voice of one of their sons. Brady, a poet and a current professor of English and Creative Writing at Youngstown State University, was born and raised in New York City, and has taught at University College Cork, Ireland, and at the University of Lubumbashi as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He is also the editor of a volume of critical essays devoted to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and a Joycean influence is evident in the work’s attempt to render life histories through the capricious filters of dream, memory, and drug-addled recall.

–Reviewed by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 1973–74; Ethiopia 1974–75)

QUITE AN ARRAY OF FAMILY at the Brady house, and a favorite was Aunt Mary. “I had the toast, y’know,” Mary’d sing. “The rye toast at Meyer’s Deli. The bread’s gorgeous.” The McCanns had come from Ulster in 1922. Mary is a strong presence in the family even when she moves down the road to the nursing home. “In the afternoons she taps her foot softly on her wheelchair’s pad, as if warming to an ante-deluvial reel,” still casting her memories over the family. MORE

To Pove My Blood: A Tale of Emigrations and the Afterlife

PROLOGUE: Arachne

Arachne starts with Ovid and finishes with me. — Michael Longley

Who would have thought, in 1960, when my brother’s birth cramped our row house, expelling Aunt Mary back to Brooklyn, that a fat slice of the century later hers would be the last penny the McCanns would spend? Brooklyn should have made a quick end to her, but she flourished. At the age of sixty-one, Mary Martin began a career as a cleaning lady at the Borough Hall Board of Education, clanking through plaster labyrinths, shouldering fire doors, palming ashtrays, and single-handedly reviving the myth of an era when every brownstone boasted its Irish maid.

“Hey, Mary,” the suits would tease, as she flicked her dust mop through olive cubicles, “You’re doing a great job there. Rubbing like you’re going to conjure a genie.” “Show me the bottle, Gorgeous,” she’d rattle back. “It would take that baldy fella to clean your dirt.” She had them on a string — the psychologists and specialists, the social workers and the Ph.D.s. Everyone turned to her for proof that a primeval Brooklyn still shadowed.

And in September 1966, when my brother toddled off to St. Kevin’s first-grade, even my mother turned to Mary. Alone all day, my mother felt our six rooms shrink to the size of bouillon cubes. The rut she dug to drain off entropy — a wash, a sweat with Jack LaLane, a smoke with tea — soon sludged with livid waste. She tippled, she waked her girlhood, and finally, her nerves stretched until she had to scream or flee.

 

I was eleven, used to the phone calls my mother made to Brooklyn nightly since Mary’d been packed off, how she’d climb the stairs, sit cross-legged on the bed and light a cigarette, cradling the receiver in the crook of her neck. Sometimes I’d trail after her, badgering about school or toys, while Mary’s voice, amped by Ma Bell, poured into her other ear.

 

“I had the toast, y’know,” she’d sing. “The rye toast, at the Meyer’s Deli. The bread’s gorgeous. There’s a new man at the counter. A new Jewish man, with the quiff and the funny hat, y’know. At the counter. A terrible hum coming off his greatcoat, Pet, like mousy cheese!” “That’s nice, Mary, and did you shop today?” “Not a bit of it. Well, I was at the Woolworth’s, y’know, on Grand Street, with the dollar sign. ’Tis dear, Pet, the Woolworth’s is, disgraceful, shag the coupons, and Pet, you can’t tell boys from girls with the nests of hair…”

 

But one night, my mother broke through, wrangled the old woman from her litany of chores and toast, and stirred a memory of childhood when Mary had fed and washed her baby sister, her Pet, twenty years her junior. How, I don’t know. But whatever prayer she uttered, it was heard, and it set Mary spinning her one plot: to save her sister by bringing her back to Brooklyn.

 

“A rare thing, a quare talent altogether,” Mary hummed, fiddling her brush over the braided yarmulke of Dr. Rosenshein. “It’s in the fingers, you see, Doctor. She’s always had it.”

 

Her wenned hands fluttered in another world, inches from his beard. “Why, she taps letters the way Paderewski plays piano. And a smile like my Pet’s! She’d be the best secretary in the world.”

 

And so Anne Brady, née McCann, youngest of four girls ferried from Ulster in 1922, dubbed “Pet” in the ur-time of Brooklyn, followed her eldest sister on their youthward journey over the Kosciusko Bridge. She made a great success (her smile demonstrating the required teeth) and was appointed clerk at Borough Hall, where her touted fingers dipped into the pork barrel her sister had pried open.

 

But it didn’t stop there. One evening at the dinner table a month after my mother started her new job, my father announced that he’d been fingered for something big. He was leaving the Police Force to be top bird for a new Fingerprint Security System at 110 Livingstone Street in the Brooklyn Borough Hall Board of Education. He winked at his stunned fiefdom, swiping his martini over the meatloaf. The matter was being considered. It was being handled personally by a nabob at the Board of Ed., a gentleman by the name of Dr. Joel S. Rosenshein.

 

Did my father trace his apotheosis to Aunt Mary? Did he suspect that returning her to Brooklyn from her seat in the parlor wingback of 53-28 194th Street, Flushing, precipitated a kind of continental drifting, leading inexorably toward me, toward what I’m left with now, in Ohio, childless, the rain lashing outside and a great bare oak rising from the earth in a frozen rage of limbs?

 

It was his job to trace, but anyone sheathed in flesh for very long begins to sense that some clues need to be processed by a special organ, an internal reality filter stuck in there somewhere between chakras, and in my father this organ was as tough as a boxing glove and strong enough to metabolize whole fifths of lethal facts.

 

But for all his fantasies, his swagger, his limericks, and his garlanded swivel chair in the Borough Hall Board of Education, it’s not him, and not his wife, and none of the litter of Eumenides begotten to Ulster and spirited west by Francis and Sarah McCann, but only the eldest, Mary Martin, who’s survived.

 

She’s still here, living in a nursing home down the street from me, eking the last few moments from the century whose first light spawned her. And though she’s dwindled to a nerveless thing, shriven of memory, in the afternoons she taps her foot softly on her wheelchair’s pad, as if warming to an antediluvian reel.

 

And though the four McCann girls propagated diligently with their share of the navvies, lollards, cops, and narrowbacks of Irish Brooklyn, mine is the only shadow clinging to the last quicksilver of a breathing dream. I’m the only one enwebbed in myth, craving to spin and also to break free, to make and to make up. And what is it I would spin or break? What’s flesh anyway, especially to me, whose office is to watch its arachnid shriveling? Maybe it’s death I have to spin out of myself — out of my fear, my craving. Maybe these words offer the only hope for Mary Martin née McCann to start the long swim back through time.

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