Survival Till Seventeen

During the first year of my life, I lay in the cradle and mumbled innumerable sounds into which it was impossible to read any meanings.

At the age of one, I began experimenting with the syllables of the English language, and six months later spoke my first sentence. My parents were startled to discover that one of the words contained in it was “Damn!” — an expletive picked up — so my parents hasten to assure me — from a tramp who came begging at our door and was invited in for coffee.

Although such a precocious display of profanity might well have induced my parents to believe that I was destined to become a desperado, they had the unique consolation of remembering that I had been born into this world free from the guilt of original sin. This extraordinary privilege came as a result of my having been baptized some hours before birth at a moment when it seemed certain that the price of my life was to have been my mother’s death.

Among the very few papers in my possession which might be honored with the dignity of being called “notes” is the certificate of my birth, a copy of which I secured some years ago from the Registry of Births in my native city. It is such a decisive, laconic, frightening document, that I have often stared at it with something of the feeling one might have if he could tip-toe into his own nursery and find himself asleep in his own crib. The document remarks, concerning an existence which is indubitably mine:

N ame of C hild : Leonard Edward Feeney

Date of Birth : Feb. 15, 1897

S ex : Male

C olor : White

Place of Birth : 118 Adams Street, Lynn, Mass.

Father’s Name : Thomas Butler Feeney

Mother’s Maiden Name : Delia Agnes Leonard

It was the original intention of my parents to give me no middle name, but by a combination of my father’s and my mother’s family names, to make my own a happy union of the two. The Edward was thrown in at Baptism in honor of my Uncle Edward, who was my sponsor, but was thrown out later after we had satisfied him with this courtesy.

When I went to school I came to believe that Leonard derived from the Latin words: leonis ardor, meaning “fierceness of a lion,” and I was wont to boast of this signification. Some years later, however, I met an Italian priest in Florence named Leonardo, and he told me that our name is taken straightforwardly from the Latin: leo and nardus, meaning “lion and spikenard,” and rendered freely as “strength and fragrance” or “strength and healing.” However gracefully he put it, I was not pleased with the new translation. I preferred being “a wild lion” to being a “sweet lion,” and wish I had been left under my original illusion.

This same queer feeling of an identity retroactively experienced by looking at a birth certificate, was also mine a few years ago when I was examining an old family album, and came upon a picture of a small boy named Leonard, snapped at the age of ten, on his front lawn, by way of exhibiting how dressed-up he looked in a new Easter suit and hat. I felt impelled at the time to commemorate my emotion (one of the oddest human experience has to offer) by penciling a few lines under the picture which ran as follows:

So that’s me, taken on the lawn,

At ten,

In my new Sunday hat!

Good Lord, have I been going on

Since then,

And was I that?

But let us go back again to my infancy for a few more hurried observations.

My mother was eighteen when she married, and I am her oldest child. She is now in her sixties, and by way of describing her — if now, a fortiori then — I can only repeat what an astute observer said of her in my hearing not long ago: “She is like a little doll!”

My mother claims that my father was her first and only beau, and I believe her. My father disavows this, maintaining with great emphasis that when he married my mother, she had in her keeping a letter written her by another suitor and inscribed to her “in his own blood.” My mother says it was not “in his own blood” but “in red ink.” My father insists it was not “in red ink” but “in his own blood.” And thus they argue back and forth, and have been doing so since I first met them. My father seems inordinately proud of the fact that he was able to wrest the hand of my mother from the clutches of such a gory rival. My mother, on the other hand, grows indignant at the accusation of having been associated in any way with such a Bluebeard. At all events, whatever pigment stained the precious paper, it has since been either destroyed or lost (“destroyed” says my father, “lost” says my mother), and so historians will be left forever in the dark concerning this sanguinary phase of my parental past.

One romantic experience of my mother’s before marriage, she herself will admit. One would need to know first hand my mother’s radiant innocence — an innocence uniquely possessed by immigrant girls who are at once Catholic and Irish — to appreciate both the charm of the following story, and the guilelessness which induces my mother to tell it.

“One day,” says my mother, “when I was seventeen, I was riding in the train from Boston to Lynn. A young man came in and sat beside me. He was quite handsome, and handsomely dressed. He had the most elegant manners. He was a traveling salesman. We talked all the way from Boston to Lynn. When we were about to leave the train, he invited me to take dinner with him at one of the hotels. I was tempted to accept the invitation, because he was the soul of courtesy. But something inside me grew frightened, and something my mother once told me as a child kept saying ‘Don’t!’ So I said ‘No!’ and I didn’t.” . . . Then there is a pause, and my mother looks at you sharply with her challenging gray eyes and says, half reflectively, half in interrogation, “Wasn’t I the coward?”

This is my mother, pro and con.

Genealogy is a fascinating pursuit, and I have often wanted to investigate mine for the sake of studying certain unexplainable traits in my nature. On my mother’s side our roots are easily retraceable. We are, through her, of the O’Briens of County Clare, Irish pure and undefiled, possessed of the quiet gentleness of the West Coast folk, and with as reasonable a claim as any to have descended from Brian Boru, County Clare’s great warrior and king. On my father’s side our ancestry is more difficult to review.

My father, who is often mistaken for an Italian, is a mixture of Irish ingrained with Spanish. This latter strain would account for his swarthy complexion and terribly dark eyes, eyes that scrutinize you as though you dwelt in a dungeon. He has been fairly copied in looks by each of his four children, since none of us resembles my mother. But it has often struck me that there is little of the authentic Latin in my father’s temperament, or in ours. We possess the Latin excitability, but not the Latin repose. We gesticulate precisely and close to the body, never in the expansive full-flung fashion of Southern Europe. We are sensitive without being quarrelsome, and our impetuosity, which is unpredictable, is interspersed with sudden bursts of caution. It is one of the strongest hunches of my life that what passes in us for Spanish blood is really something too fantastic to mention. Our modal quality of thought is different from all our kindred, and our Celtic lightheartedness is chastened, and sometimes completely shut off, by bursts of mysterious and exotic loneliness, occasionally verging on despair.

A mathematician standing in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were being banished, and endeavoring at the time to quote the odds against our chances for existence, would be driven into a problem in differential calculus containing so many numerical symbols and such a vast procession of zeros, that all the forests of the world would scarcely supply him with paper sufficient on which to make the estimate. He would give us up as a bad job and say that it was mathematically certain that none of us should ever be.

And yet, we are! We are by reason of a million romances that came out correctly. In each generation there were the necessary infants who invariably survived the wars, the plagues, the famines and the pestilences of history, matured to the age of courtship, were mellowed with the enticements of love, and became the acceptable bridegrooms and consenting brides requisite for prolonging the pattern of the human race to the point where we took on. Some years ago I attempted to express this profundity in a verse, which ran as follows:

When I said Mass at Christmas

And candles were aglow,

I saw a white old woman,

Two thousand years ago:

My very great grandmother,

Who spun me flesh and bone,

Who felt my lingers aching

In the atoms of her own,

In whom my eyes were shining,

However far away,

When Christ was in His cradle

And it was Christmas Day!

This verse, executed, as I supposed, in a moment of high seriousness, was accepted by most of my critics as a piece of whimsy; for I have suffered under the curse of being considered a whimsical poet, and have been laughed at when I thought to make others cry.

Be that as it may, it is with extreme seriousness that I contemplate a certain summer evening years ago, in a little cottage by the sea, overlooking the rocks on the North Shore of Massachusetts, just at the point where King’s Beach in Lynn is separated from Fisherman’s Beach in Swampscott, where my mother in a light blue dress and a summer hat disporting a streamer, was invited to “spend the evening” with some friends. By a lightning-like stroke of timing on the part of the Providence of God, it happened that my father was there too, airing his Irish idiom, flashing his Spanish eyes. It need not be said that my existence hung by a thread on every item of that meeting: on the fact that my mother chose to be there instead of elsewhere; on the fact that the conveyance brought her early and not late; on the detail of her seeming more attractively dressed for the summer evening than any of the other young ladies. My existence likewise depended on the avoidance of anything that might have kept my father away, such as a rash from poison ivy, or the throbbing of a sore tooth.

It was a pleasant gathering, so I am told, and everybody enjoyed everybody else’s company, particularly my father my mother’s. There was the gaiety and song appropriate to a group of merry exiles dwelling in a Puritan stronghold by the beaches of the North Shore. There was ginger ale for the girls, which makes them giggle, and beer for the young men, which makes them bothersome. My mother in her light blue dress and delicate manners easily prevailed, and my father was taken captive by the little steamer dangling from her hat.

There was a short courtship, a sudden proposal, and a very simple marriage. Everything happened precisely at the right time, just as it had been accurately happening all through the ages A. D. and B. C., back through the eras of the dripping hourglass, back through the clockless centuries of the caveman, back to the early pages of Genesis and the first meeting of a maid and a man. Even my conception occurred exactly at the time when God had planned it. The child arriving in our home at any other season or year which was not the winter of 1897 would have been my brother or my sister, not myself. And what chronicle he or she would care to write concerning the same parents, or what tribute pay them for an existence not mine, must be left in the realm of the sheerly metaphysical.

I am not a child psychologist, nor indeed a psychologist of any kind, but I should like to offer some of the experiences of my early childhood for clinical examination by those capable of appraising such things scientifically.

It is my belief that in those years of a child’s life which antecede the use of reason, when his mind is slumbering in a world of sensations and playthings, there are definite moments when the intellect leaps forward, so to speak, ahead of its cue, takes in some situation by swift intuition or insight, makes a judgment — and then returns to dawdle on in its haze of simple apprehensions. I can recall three such experiences happening to me before the age of six.

The first occurred when I was four, and was brought into the parlor to see my grandmother lying in her coffin. Frankly, I did not know I had a grandmother at all until I found her dead. Then, for one brief instant of reasoned consciousness, which I can recapture now as vividly as when it first occurred, I looked at the lifeless form of my grandmother and said to myself, if not in the maturity of these words, at least with the absolute clarity of this idea: “Oh! So there is death attached to this business of life! And this is the way we all end!” . . . An hour later, my grandmother, living or dead, had infinitely less interest for me than a shadow dancing on the wall of my playroom, or a rubber ball rolling elusively across the floor.

My second experience with the use of reason in an embryo stage (my mother declares I was five at the time) was when I heard a woman say to my mother concerning another woman who was suffering from asthma, that she was drinking kerosene oil for a cure! Upon hearing this, I paused long enough to wrinkle my brow and soliloquize: “This is a queer world I have gotten into!”; and then went back to the loggerheadedness of my normal development, paying no further attention to what my mother and the other woman had to say to each other.

The last incident of this kind, in which I executed a premature judgment with a definite awareness of mind, occurred, according to my best calculations, in the summer of the year in which I was six years old, and brings back to me my mother’s voice calling through the kitchen window . . . calling across the fields, over the hedges, through the trees . . . calling desperately to whatever place I was lost in and could not be found . . . calling in the poignancy of a beautiful tone over-pitched in its anxiety . . . calling with the uncertain tremor that is attached to the airing of one’s private shame to the other open windows of the neighborhood, behind which halting housewives listen suspiciously and are anxious, in their jungle maternity, to gather little trickles of evidence that will establish flaws in their neighbors’ children and magnify virtues in their own . . . calling once, twice, a half a dozen times, into the indefinite spaces of the hot noon hours . . . calling plaintively with a combined crescendo of fatigue and alarm which the light vocal powers of a slender girl are not strong enough to support in an appropriate key:

“Len . . . errrrrrd! If you don’t come in now for dinner, you won’t get any pudding!”

The voice — or its echo — at last reached me. I stood where I was and listened. And something in my mind snapped, and awoke. And for the first time, standing in a field at the age of six, in one, wild, rapturous act of reasoned reflection, I knew that I had a mother! I knew that she was young, and was beautiful, and was my own. I knew that it was her business — and had been hitherto, though I had not consciously noticed it — to feed me, clothe me, and spend her life in my service. I knew that she worked too hard. I knew that she hated to call through the open window in this fashion and to make herself conspicuous for the open gossip of the street, for she had great pride. I also knew, with a startling realization, hitherto unappreciated, that we were poor. Pudding was only a piece of stale cake with sauce on it, yet this was to be my reward or punishment. Pudding for the poor!

These were the apocalypses of my early childhood.

  • May I ask a question? Is the vagabond’s wife a convert from Judaism? If so, why does she seem to be leaving Massachusetts all alone? Or is Fr. Feeney imagining how she left her homeland? But in either case, why does she seem to be headed south-east? Thank you for any help or answers.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. It’s painful to be reminded, once again, of how unutterably poor was my (public school) education. At least I know that now. It’s a miracle I ever found my way to the Church, considering the massive odds against that happening. I suppose every conversion is a miracle. The one thing I had in my favor was an awareness of how miserable I was, and the willingness to change to find some degree of happiness.