My mother’s parents lived two doors away. Granddad and Nana O’Neill lived at 185 Pickering Street (pictured as it is today on the right with my home at 189 Pickering Street partially seen on the far left of the photo). Their house wasn’t really larger than any others but it stood out as one of the few detached homes on a street of semi-detached houses.
As the first and eldest of her grandchildren, the sun rose and set on me – or so I’ve been told was Nana’s way of seeing the world. Gertrude Ellen O’Neill (nee Foley) was almost 57 years of age when she became a grandmother for the first time. By the time she was in her early 60’s, she was experiencing health problems caused by diabetes and a poor heart. She was unable to climb the stairs to the bedrooms and bathroom, necessitating the installation of a bed in what otherwise would have been the dining room. A heavy wooden commode stood nearby should she need it.
The living room, located immediately to the right as you entered the house, was decorated in vintage 1940’s – a heavy, green and as I recall scratchy fabric ‘chesterfield’ or sofa lined the area beneath the front window, its matching chair version – Granddad’s chair – not far away. The latest technology, a large black and white television completed the furnishings.
Due to her inability to go upstairs, I was often sent to retrieve articles that my grandmother needed. But I was a reluctant errand boy for the stairs were dark, creaky and, at the top of the staircase perched on the wall as if looking down on those who dared the journey, was the largest, ugliest, most grotesque crucifix ever to adorn an Irish Catholic home. My mother’s younger brother, William ‘Bill’ O’Neill to this day loves to recount the time when he was still living at home and I had been sent on one of Nana’s errands to fetch something upstairs. My strategy as a child was to befriend the crucifix by making small talk, apparently hoping through this that no harm would befall me. Uncle Bill was having a bath, the bathtub being located on the other side of the wall holding the crucifix.
As I ascended the stairs that fateful day, I began my befriending conversation with “Hi God. How are you?” Uncle Bill, on hearing this and apparently unable to control himself, took on the role of ‘God.’ “I’m fine. How are you?” he boomed from the bathtub. I don’t recall my feet actually touching any of the stairs on my way down and I’m told that Nana gave proper what for to Uncle Bill for scaring her grandson. But never again did I go up those stairs!