Last updated on April 2nd, 2019 at 07:37 pm

“Brigid, sweet, let’s go,” my mother yelled from the front room. “It’s time to visit your maimeó!”

“No, Mamaí,” I whined as I walked through our tiny kitchen. “Maimeó doesn’t even look at me. She just sits and stares at dirt!”

“You do not have a choice, you leanbh trioblóideach!” Mother growled as she grabbed my ear and pulled me out the door. My younger sister, Sheila, giggled behind me, and I turned my head slightly and stuck out my tongue at her.

We walked down the hallway outside of our apartment and down the seven long flights of stairs. Once we reached the bottom floor, we walked out into the gloomy day, where the Manhattan streets were packed with trolleys, cars and a carriage or two, and men crammed the sidewalks, with a few women and girls tossed in. Some of the men wore suits and bowler or boater hats, and some of the women and girls wore dresses and cloche hats, but mostly everyone wore rags and aprons on their cold, dirty bodies. My sister, mother and I were part of those people.

It was October 1929, and the Great Depression was starting. The next year, those few nicely dressed people would be covered in rags like the rest of us, and the already rag-dressed people would not even have the small apartments they owned. At nine years old, my mother no longer protected me from the horrifying side of New York, let alone the world. She figured it was high time I found out. Every morning, before I ate a piece of stale bread, one egg and a small glass of milk, I would run downstairs and across the street, and buy a newspaper for a dime. As money ran low, I started only buying it once a week on Monday. I would read about crimes, sports, et cetera. But Sheila wasn’t allowed to read the newspaper, except for the cartoons, which she would crack up so much over that the little milk she was given came squirting out her nose. Mother would spank her whenever she did that.

Mamaí,” I said, “Did you know that there were five robberies yesterday in New York?” I had just read that from the newspaper that morning.

“Really?” Mother said, barely paying attention.

Sea, yes! And a man was shot during one. Right in the—”

“Brigid! What did I tell you about speaking of those things in front of your deirfiúr? She is only six and a half!” Mother turned her head to me and scolded me, and Sheila giggled again, not even paying attention to what Mother had said about her. Then Mother looked back in front of her and her face softened. “We are here.” We all looked up at the extremely tall apartment building Grandma lived in. It was twenty stories… and Grandma lived at the very top.

Mamaí, can you carry me up?” Sheila asked our mother. Mother nodded and squatted down so Sheila could climb on her back. I rolled my eyes at how babyish she was, but, secretly, I wanted to be carried up, too. We started walking to the building, me behind Mother and Sheila, but then I was stopped by a gang of four tall boys in clothes too small for them and no shoes on their feet. Their faces had a little dirt on them, and they wore newsboy hats.

“Hey, looky at this little girl we got he-yuh,” the shortest one said in a Brooklyn accent.

“Back off, I need to go,” I replied, my knees shaking a little.

“We gots ourselves one of ‘em Irish here, boys,” said the tallest one, hearing the twang to my voice.

“Hey! Leave my girl alone, you hear? Us Irish have a way of dealing with their problems, and it ain’t no pot of gold. Scram, ye hear?” Mother said. She had strengthened her accent. The boys walked away, cursing at my mother. Then we continued walking on. Things like that happened every day. But it was hard to get used to.

“One floor. Two. Three. Four. Five…” the three of us counted as we climbed the steep steps. Finally, we reached the top floor. Grandma’s apartment was the very last one, at the end of the hall. Mother put Sheila down, and we walked to the door. Mother knocked, even though she knew Grandma wouldn’t answer. She rarely moved. The only times she ever moved was to go to the bathroom or to the kitchen for water. Sheila opened the door for all of us and we walked in. The place smelled like cinnamon and banana, both of which Grandma loved.

Maimeó!” Mother said. But there was no need to call. We all knew exactly where she would be. And we saw her there, sitting on a chair on her balcony, watching a pot of wet dirt. None of us knew why, except that, when she was a little girl, she had planted a seed in that pot, and nothing had ever grown.

“Why didn’t Maimeó just throw it out then, Mamaí?” I had asked my mother several times. Her answer was always that she didn’t know.

Sheila and I stayed in the front parlour while Mother went to the balcony to greet Grandma. “Maimeó? It’s Alana. Sheila and Brigid are here, too.”

Grandma made a murmur in response. Mother sighed and went to the kitchen to make Grandma some lunch.

Sheila and I ambled over to the balcony. We stood there and watched Grandma watching the dirt.

Finally, I gathered up the courage to ask Grandma a question: “Maimeó? Why do you watch dirt all day?” As soon as I asked that, Mother shot a glare at me. Suddenly, Grandma turned her head towards me and blinked, finally realizing I was standing there. Sheila and I jumped. Then Grandma smiled at me.

“Brigid, come here,” she said.

Mother, hearing her voice, laughed, “That is the longest sentence you have said in a long time, Maimeó!”

Grandma chuckled, “Well, I think Brigid here ought to know. You too, Sheila. And you, sweetheart.” Sheila, Mother and I went over to Grandma. Then she said, “When I was a little girl, actually, your age, Brigid, my father was very ill. When he was on his death bed, he gave me a pot, some dirt and two little seeds. He said to me ‘Nola, plant these seeds. One day, they’ll grow into a magnificent tree! It may take a while. But, never give up on this tree. Never give up on hope.’ So, I planted it, and watered it, and waited for it to grow. I even named it: Hope.”

“But… nothing’s happened,” I said.

Grandma grinned, “That is so. But, stóirin, I must never lose hope. Since Hope never gives up on me to water and feed her, I, in turn, will never give up on her.”

“But, Maimeó, you were not always like this,” Mother said.

“No, Alana, it was only when your athair died. I had no one to seek comfort from, not even you…except Hope here. She and I nurture one another.”

Maimeó, you have us here, now,” Mother comforted her.

“Oh, dear, do not worry about me,” said Grandma, stroking Mother’s hair. “This is not because I’m sad or lonely. It’s because I need to remind myself not to lose hope.”

“What if…what if it never grows, Maimeó?” I said. “Will you give up hope then?”

Grandma hugged me tight, saying, “Never, Brigid. Never.”

So, Grandma devoted the rest of her life to Hope. Grandma left the not-yet-grown tree to me after she died. She told me to nurture Hope just as she did. I watered her and fed her, and watched the pot of dirt with fascination. It’s amazing what it represented to her. And, it turns out, Hope helped me as well. In the years to come, my mother lost her job as a cleaning lady, we were about to lose the apartment, we had little food and Sheila even got tuberculosis. But, I kept on growing Hope… so that I would never lose her.

image: white flower growing via Shutterstock