Kathleen Zamboni McCormick

On July 26, St. Anne’s feast day, for as long as I can remember—though when I was younger, I did find it a bit tedious because I preferred to be out roller-skating early in the morning—Mother and I would go to Mass at St. Michael’s, our parish church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Definitely wrong side of the tracks. My Wellesley lace curtain Irish Aunt Alice and her daughter, Ali, were also attending Mass, never with us, needless to say, but rather at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the largest Roman Catholic church in New England, which luckily happened to be in Boston. So it was an easy drive for Alice in their white Mercury convertible with red leather seats. Mother couldn’t drive. Father didn’t approve. Plus he drove our old turquoise Chevy to work. So it was lucky we could walk to church. “A special event requires a special venue,” Alice’d proclaim every year while announcing, “The Cathedral is even grander that St. Patrick’s in New York.” I was instructed that we were giving praise in the highest to St. Anne, the Patron Saint of Conception, for single-handedly creating not just Ali and me, but the whole next generation of our family—every single one of my cousins and me. But, of course, Mother was particularly praying in gratitude to St. Anne for me.

Even today, I can hear both Mother and Aunt Alice telling the story of Ali’s and my miraculous conceptions over and over, extolling their pregnancies and our births with such whispered surprise and wonderment, as if it were the first any of us—and sometimes, indeed, they themselves—had heard the amazing story. From Mother, these stories usually came at bedtime. “And after two years of marriage without you (pause, sigh), I bought books with special prayers for fertility (whispered) from the Catholic store and discovered (gasp) that St. Anne, the Virgin Mary’s own mother (eyes raised heavenward in awe) was the Patron Saint of Conception (amazement to discover there was a Patron Saint of Conception and implication that Mother would be able to directly communicate with her). I started my June 26th vigils. Your father, of course, thought it was all B…I mean voodoo (with annoyance at Father). But St. Anne made me wait ten years (with annoyance at St. Anne) for you. But I never lost faith (smiling).” Mother nuzzled me, getting my neck and face a bit wet from her tears of joy. “You were worth waiting for.”

Aunt Alice typically preferred public settings for her miracle-of-conception stories, like Easter dinner in her newly built split-level home with wall-to-wall carpeting in varying pastel shades and where she was the primary narrator to a group of attentive listeners. “And suddenly (hands flung up, eyes opened wide) after five years of intercessions (with deliberation as well as awe, fingers intertwined as if in prayer), my knees nearly blistered (tearfully) from the amount of time I’d spend on them (disconsolately), St. Anne gave a blonde angel (breathlessly) from heaven itself (with incredulity) to be my very own girl (with sensational marvel and staring in astonishment at the phenomenon and spectacle of my cousin Ali).” She’d only occasionally let Mother chime in, and then usually with just a “Yes” in response to “Isn’t that right, Elda?”

The origins of the story go back years before when reportedly Mother and all my aunts were shocked that not a single one of them had gotten pregnant. Not Mother. Not her oldest sister, Anna. Not Mother’s middle sister, Aunt Maria. And not Father’s sister, whose name was not-to-be-mentioned; in our house according to Father, or at least not very often, Aunt Alice-in-Wonderland, Ali’s mother. And that was it—just four women in that whole generation of my parents’ family. All childless. No one was expecting children from Father’s brother, who didn’t make it in the priesthood. In response to the unwelcome possibility that they each were cursed with unfruitful wombs, all those women all those eons ago apparently made infinite intercessions to St. Anne. And eventually, so the story went, St. Anne finally got around to granting all their wishes.

In none of the occasions when the story was being told as completely celebratory and miraculous was there ever any mention made of the small number of us who were actually born or any suggestion that it was all a bit of a dud—I mean in comparison to what they each had prayed for to St. Anne. Because in three out of the four cases, St. Anne’s execution of her role of Patron Saint was a bit dodgy, giving only one child each to Alice, Anna, and Mother. And really all four because while Aunt Maria was given three children—which initially sounded like St. Anne was doing a better job hitting her targets, particularly for Catholics—those three proved to be more of a scourge than a blessing to Aunt Maria, a fact that may or may not have been revealed in the tellings of the story depending on which version was being chronicled and by whom. Although she was “blessed” with the three kids, her husband became violently abusive the very moment the first one began to cry. And since his drunken fists were not reserved exclusively for Maria—as the partly covered bruises on my cousin Peter hinted at one Christmas—St. Anne’s “gift” seemed a bit dubious. “If she’d had any common sense,” Mother would occasionally mutter, “and surely as a saint, she must have been all-seeing, she should clearly have continued her pattern of stopping at one child with Maria.”

Mother was even known to say that Anna’s only child, Mikey, was absolutely the most obnoxious person she’d ever met—“conceited and so cruel to his mother.” So “What was the saint thinking there?” became another subject for repeated speculation. “You assume it’s understood,” Mother would be close to tears every time the story went down this negative path, “that when one prayed for a child, it’s recognized that one expects a nice one. But Mikey? A hellion from the day he was born.”

I was initiated into the family saga of “all these” (or “these few,” depending on your point of view and the particular tone of the telling) miraculous conceptions well before I knew what a conception was, except that Mary had an Immaculate one. I didn’t understand what had taken place then either, except to say that all Catholics in the universe, not just a few women in my family, gave thanks for it, and that Mary was given just the one child as well.

When a story is told to you so often and with quite different emphases, you naturally lose sight of what exact details were revealed in which particular one, but I admit that I was often unsettled by the contradictory nature of Mother’s own attitude during her renditions of the entire affair. On the one hand, St. Anne was praised in the highest for giving my mother the miracle of me, her “perfect daughter.” (Positive for Mother, but pretty negative for me. Trying—or being forced—to live up to the standards of a “miracle” was no picnic, let me tell you.)

But no sooner was St. Anne eulogized than she was scorned. Mother’s voice, while telling the whole extraordinary story, frequently and unpredictably at some stage developed quite an edge to it. “Not at all to take away from the marvel of having you, my dearest Bridget, but I’d wanted and prayed for four children—two girls and two boys.” She’d pause, then unfortunately out would come “Your father hadn’t.” His lack of aspirations for a large family was often mentioned and then immediately dismissed as utterly irrelevant because Father wasn’t part of the family female intercessors. Anyway, bottom line: Father’s reluctance for her to conceive many children most definitely played no part in their only having one child since he didn’t pray one way or another to keep Mother a mere step away from barrenness. It was never quite clear whether Father believed in all these St. Anne miracles in the first place, but I have to give him credit for going along with it for Mother’s sake, even though he’d frequently drop in comments like, “You’d think they’d have a more efficient filing system in whatever office building in heaven that St. Anne of yours works.” What Father thought didn’t really matter though because all the women seemed to agree that their husbands had nothing to do with it.

No, inevitably the blame lay fully on St. Anne because, as Mother peevishly grumbled at these moments of theological and existential crisis, “Saints have minds of their own and work on their personal agendas and peculiar timetables, so you’d better get used to it. We’ve all had to.” I wasn’t, at the time I first heard the story, asking any saints for anything, but I do recall making a mental note to confine my prayers to the Virgin Mary, whom I’d found to be quite reliable, particularly in the area of roller skates. When I lost my roller skate key for three days, Mary found it and placed it in my underwear drawer. When I prayed to her for a new pair of metal clip-on roller skates for my eighth birthday since my plastic ones were too small and I was falling all over the place, not to mention creating permanent scabs on my knees, once again she delivered. Since Father talked about there being offices in heaven and I was too young to be sure if he was actually joking, I recall wondering if Mary in fact did have an efficient secretary like Uncle Paul’s, whom he was always praising at family gatherings, especially when he’d had a few, evoking looks of strong disapproval from Aunt Alice and furtive nods of knowingness among the other aunts. Then Mother’s voice would once again be filled with joy. “It was the miracle St. Anne had performed, which was a complete blessing for me and for Alice, despite being somewhat of a mixed bag for my two sisters, that brings us annually to celebrate and worship her on her feast day.”

The cousin I really wanted to love and have a great relationship with and whom Mother never chastised St. Anne about was Ali, the daughter of Aunt Alice, Father’s not-to-be-mentioned sister, the cousin who went to Mass with her mother in parallel to me every June 26th. She was only a couple of years older than I was and had all the right clothes and mannerisms. I didn’t actually know what Ali thought of me, but looking back on the differences in our financial status and given the way Father resented his sister, probably not much. Still, Aunt Alice was always pointing out how Ali and I were the “last two Flahertys,” which made us seem really important, even if, and actually especially because, we were only children. Ali and I were “the end of the line.” Because we were both girls, Alice was assuming our last name would die out when we got married. Luckily times changed before I married, and I hope it gives Alice no cause to turn in her grave that this particular last Flaherty, though married more than once, still retains her maiden name today.

At those storytelling times when Mother had many bones to pick with the panoply of saints with whom she was in fairly frequent communication, having Ali and me not only be girls but also the end of the line simply provided another example of how St. Anne didn’t really fulfill her part of the bargain particularly well. Father certainly said often enough that if he and Mother were only going to have one child, he’d have much preferred a boy. So I did eventually come to see what Mother meant when she said that saints have wills of their own.

Aunt Alice, however, who was so pleased when Mother finally told me about the miraculous nature of all of our births, suggested that this “last line” business meant Ali and I were destined to become really close. Alice was always going on that she and my mother needed to be grateful in the extreme that St. Anne helped both of them to have us. “St. Anne personally chose girls for us, Elda, not boys. So those girls have to love and cherish each other with all the depth of emotion that you and I love and cherish them,” Alice would say, usually after a second or third glass of wine at one of her dinners, which, unfortunately, were almost the only times Ali and I saw each other. I loved the idea, but nothing ever seemed to come of it. Aunts, as well as saints, I was discovering, didn’t necessarily fully deliver on their promises.

Still, in what would be my final disastrous attempt, I tried to connect with Ali based on our being “the last two Flahertys” by having Mother buy us matching bracelets. Ali and I both possessed the tiny “Flaherty wrists,” which Aunt Alice frequently commented on because small wrists were, according to her, “a sign of good breeding.” So when a jewelry store Alice had recommended to us had a huge sale on a thin gold chain bracelet with a cultured pearl on it, Mother decided to buy me one for my birthday. Turned out that the really inexpensive children’s size managed to fit me, so I asked Mother if we could buy a second one for Ali. She reluctantly agreed.

Mother held a formal family dinner for my tenth birthday in the dining room in August—unusual because the dining room was the hottest, most airless room in our apartment and because my parents normally had my birthday parties outside on the picnic table. All of my aunts were there and Ali. I was wearing my birthday bracelet and decided to give Ali hers. I was crushed that Alice showed much more interest in the “unbirthday present” than Ali, who rather reluctantly stuck out her arm for Aunt Alice to clasp it on and didn’t even thank Mother or me for it. I’d thought it would be such a fun surprise to get a present yourself at someone else’s birthday party.

Disappointed, I started in about how Ali and I were miracle babies, then, looking at my aunts, quickly added, “like all of our family’s generation are.” Ali stuck her nose up, which I found quite unsettling, so I raised my fervor and my pitch. I really wanted to reach her. “But Ali and I are particularly special because we’re ‘the last two Flahertys.’” I continued my disquisition, basically repeating everything Alice had ever said about Ali and me, hoping Ali would warm to the subject and to me. “We’re ‘the end of the line’ and we have so much in common because of it, particularly our Flaherty wrists,” and I held up my left arm with the bracelet on, expecting Ali to do the same, but Aunt Alice had to pull Ali’s arm up while she rolled her eyes. “Aunt Alice says we have to love and cherish each other,” I said directly to Ali, “because the Flaherty name dies out with us.” Suddenly Aunt Maria, who had thick makeup over a fading black eye and had been quiet the whole time, burst out that she “couldn’t stand it anymore.” “Stop this ‘last Flaherty’ nonsense, Bridget! Surely you’ve been told that Ali was adopted,” and with that, she glared at Alice and walked out of the room.

Adopted? Not conceived by St. Anne! No! I still remember that I wanted to scream at Aunt Maria. Then I realized I didn’t care if it was true. I’d love Ali just as much whether we were flesh and blood relatives or not. But what about Ali? Surely she didn’t know. For a moment I even thought maybe Aunt Alice wasn’t aware of the adoption because she was so convinced Ali and I were the last two Flahertys.

But, of course, Aunt Alice would obviously have been the first to know whether or not she had a baby. Close to tears, I looked at Ali, who wasn’t flustered in the least, just quietly getting out of her chair, standing poised, and touching her mother’s arm to indicate she wanted to leave. She knew. I could see in an instant that Ali and I would never be close, whether we were blood relatives or not. Even if we both had small wrists. Even if we were the end of the line. Which we weren’t. I was. Just me. I was the last Flaherty. All on my own.

After everyone quickly left, Mother took my hand. “I’ve never hidden anything but this from you. Alice first asked me to keep it a secret when my pregnancy with you started to show. She hadn’t really been bothered that people knew Ali was adopted until then. But she got it into her head that if you grew up believing that you and Ali were cousins, it would somehow help make it true.” Mother shook her head. “Poor Alice, she never seems to know what in her life is actually real.”

“Why defend her?” I yelled. “She always treats you like crap. You should hate her, like Dad does.”

Mother gave Father a look. “Help me.” He shook his head.

“So, I’ve been lied to for the past ten years?” I cried.

Mother’s lips trembled. “If only you could’ve seen Alice then. I can still hear her pleading with me. And it got much worse after you were born. And you were a girl.”

Even though it was so hot, I started feeling shivery. “No wonder Dad calls her Alice-in-Wonderland. But why did it matter so much to Alice?”

Mother looked at Father and took a deep breath. “Honey, you’re a Catholic child in the eyes of God. You understand the importance of faith and unwavering belief, right?”

“You know I do, even when God and the saints let me down.”

“Well,” said Mother, almost silently now, “that’s often what miracles are, Bridget. Maybe it’s believers that make them true. Or make them seem true. And beliefs can change a person. Change their world.” She shredded a birthday napkin in her lap.

“No!” I shouted. “A miracle is true. And beliefs are real, not lies or tricks!”

“Look,” Mother’s voice wavered, “I believe St. Anne helped me get pregnant. Your father and I had nearly given up hope. We think that having you was a miracle.” She smiled lovingly.

Father finally looked at me, his expression uncharacteristically gentle. “Even if Ali was your flesh and blood, you’ve got to see the two of you would never get along. You don’t just develop friendships because you want them. If you’ve learned anything tonight from poor old Alice-in-Wonderland, with her ‘last two Flahertys’ BS, I hope you learned that.”

I never, in fact, got to know any of my cousins well—the ones on Mother’s side being too low class, according to Father, and Ali being too snooty, and…well, everything else. What kind of family did we actually have if we hardly ever interacted? While St. Anne may have been the Patron Saint of Conception, she certainly washed her hands of anything to do with family solidarity. And as for me, I followed in the tradition of having one, but ended up with three, two of whom were a gift of my second marriage. St. Anne had nothing to do with it. One cousin had none, one had one, another had two, but one had six (six!) to fully break the almost-barren curse and the relationship with St. Anne. The final cousin with the bruises found he couldn’t make it in life, just like the uncle who couldn’t make it in the priesthood. Except worse. Much worse. St. Anne didn’t show herself on the day of his funeral, even though all the remaining cousins were there. Despite my usual lack of belief, there are days when I still blame St. Anne for his loss, when I still blame her for the multiple layers of deceit on which my family seemed to rest. But she’s totally off the hook when it comes to Ali.

Kathleen’s writing has been published in Green Hills Literary Lantern, South Carolina Review, Witness, phoebe, Kestrel, Superstition Review, Italian Americana, The Rambler, Rock & Sling, Northwest Review, Lullwater Review, Willow Review, Zone 3, Poemmemoirstory, Fugue, The Dirty Goat, Tiny Lights, Paterson Literary Review, Crack The Spine, Sweet Tree Review, Calyx, and many others. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including the 2016 Foreword Reviews Gold Medal in Humor, for her novel Dodging Satan. She has participated in many writing conferences and served as keynote speaker at a number of meetings, including the 2009 International Conference on Reading and Writing in Malmö, Sweden, and the 2015 University of Florida Writing Program Conference. She has a PhD in English from the University of Connecticut, was on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, and is currently Professor of Literature and Writing at Purchase College, SUNY.