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Shortchanged: a biography

© 2003 Brenda Lee Renwick

She was born at her parents' home in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts on a blustery, frigid day.  Tiny, premature and with barely enough strength to squall her displeasure at such an untimely entrance, she earned only the comment, "She probably won't live, Eva," from her father, William.
Eva, as optimistic as she was naΓ―ve, named her unexpected child Irene Therese.  Eva hadn't known she was pregnant.  After almost ten years of waiting and hoping, she had finally concluded that she was barren.  When her stomach unaccountably began to swell, she thought she had a tumor.  It was one of her more sensible sisters, called to the "deathbed" of a frightened Eva, who told her she was in the process of becoming a mother.
Since she hadn't known she was pregnant, she didn't know how early the child had come.  It was 1925; the incubators and other miracles of modern medicine were as yet nonexistent. Irene was wrapped in flannel cloths and placed in a shoebox near the woodstove.  When she was hungry she was fed from an eyedropper, her tiny mouth being too small and weak to manage a full breast.   Against all odds, the child survived, though not unscathed.
The Canadian Nuns who taught her called her (in French) a blockhead.  She was 'slow.'  Her early birth and lack of medical treatment had caused her enough brain damage to classify her as mildly retarded.  She did learn to read and write, and was eventually able to earn her own living and care for herself and others.  What Irene lacked in intellect she more than made up for in temperament.  She was generous and loving, perhaps even to a fault.
When she was old enough to become a target for male attentions, she became pregnant 'out-of-wedlock.'  Still the sheltered daughter of a staunchly Catholic family, such a predicament was untenable.  It was 1949 and Irene was 24 years old.  By this time she had a twelve-year-old sister, Frances.  (Eva  had thought Frances was her 'change of life.') 
William insisted that the baby must be adopted out.  Irene, he said, was incapable of taking care of an infant; besides - she was unmarried.  What would the neighbors think?  What would the relatives think?  What would Father Duprey say? God forbid!
In the course of time, Irene's baby girl was born, and grandfather William bundled it off to Rhode Island.  Irene never saw her baby again, nor was she allowed to even mention it.
She remembered, though.  Every year, at the birthday, she would remember - silently of course.  And whenever she saw a mother out with her baby she would remember.  When her sister Frances married and began having babies she was constantly reminded.
The guilt that ate at her was complicated.  She knew that she was a terrible wicked sinner for having believed the promises of that long gone suitor.  She had given in and paid the price;  he had not shared so much as a penny of the cost or a moment of comfort for the grieving young mother.  But the very worst part was that she had allowed them to take away her baby.  She should have refused; she could have run away - but where?  And how?  Who was she to think that she could care of a precious little baby?  She was stupid.  She was a blockhead.  She knew nothing....And so the litany went, eating at her over the years, but silently.
About ten years after her little one had come and gone, she met a wonderful man.  Ralph Dailey was his name.  Her little niece adored him; her mother and sister both approved of him.  (Pere William had died two years after her baby was born.)
Ralph was 'normal.'  He had a good mind and liked to argue amicably with her brother-in-law Stanley.  And Ralph wanted to marry her.  Imagine that!  He knew of her limitations, but he saw her great warmth and loving nature  (only somewhat soured by grief and loss).  He wanted to take care of her, to protect her from the cruelty of the world.
They married, and Irene thought she had never been so happy.  Her happiness lasted six weeks, when they discovered that Ralph had terminal lung cancer.  He was dead within three months.
When 'son pere' died, she had felt so much guilt for the bitter resentment she felt toward him for taking her baby.  When Ralph died, she felt it must somehow be her fault.  She was so wicked and Ralph was so good that God had taken him away, rather than let him stay with sinful Irene.
After Ralph's death she moved back into the house on the lake with her mother Eva.  She stayed secluded in her room upstairs most of the time;  seeing no one, wanting to see no one.  Little changed over the next three years, then everything changed.
One of her nieces came to spend the night,  the youngest one - Audrey.  Brenda was in school now and could only come on the weekends.  Irene knew something was wrong when she heard the wailing of the child and nobody bothered to shush her.  She went downstairs to ask her mother why she let that child carry on so.....and saw her mother on the floor.  Eva was already dead when the ambulance arrived, probably had been before Irene came downstairs.
A new problem arose after the funeral masses had been arranged and seen to. Half the house belonged to Frances, and Frances - with her growing brood - needed it.  She and Stanley were living in a one bedroom trailer on his brother's land, all four of them squashed into that small space and another baby on the way.
After much wrangling and arguing, a compromise was finally reached.  Frances would buy Irene's half of the house; Irene would get a job and an apartment and live on her own for the first her life. Angry and resentful at being forced out of her childhood home, she later began to realize what a blessing in disguise it was.  No one had ever believed in her before.  Her mother and father,  aware of her intellectual deficiencies had  over-protected her; they had never required or expected anything of her and had also run nearly every aspect of her life.  Now she was free to make her own decisions and she found that she could.  She got a job as a housekeeper at one of Worcester's hospitals; she rented an apartment on Lincoln Street, and she was independent.  Maybe she didn't make a lot of money but she did have a little nest egg put aside from the sale of her part of the house.  Her needs were small,  and the only thing she had to spend her money on were her nieces.
At least once a month Irene would arrive via bus at the house on the lake on Saturday morning and ask Brenda and Audrey where they wanted to go or what they wanted to do. When they were dressed they would wave to their mother and walk out to the bus stop with 'Auntie I'.  Their Saturdays usually included a movie, lunch at Auntie's favorite Chinese restaurant,  a short visit with one of Auntie's friends,  a browse through a store or two - sometimes even a toy store where they would get to pick out something (not too expensive). 
When they were tired and thinking about heading home they would spend some time in the park behind City Hall, eating popcorn and peanuts they bought from the old sidewalk vendor and feeding part of their greasy little bags to the pigeons and squirrels.  Brenda was fascinated by the tiny flame inside the glass enclosure of the pushcart that enabled the old man to pop the kernels and melt the butter.
Later, when there were too many children in the house on the lake to take them all out on a Saturday Auntie would arrive with a bag full of goodies and spend the day with them  The most popular treat she brought them was a 'bouquet' of chocolate lollipops from the Hebert Candy Shop on Main Street.
In the summer of 1967,  Irene showed up at her sister's house with a boyfriend.  Leo was not 'normal' - he was severely retarded, his speech was almost incomprehensible.  He had little need for a wife, but a great need for a nursemaid.  Her sister warned her, but Irene wanted this relationship.  She needed to be needed so she married Leo.
Leo had a job, but Irene would have to go down to the bus stop with him every morning to make sure he got on the right bus as he was incapable of reading.  Perhaps it was the frustration of being incompetent in a busy and impatient world that caused Leo to become belligerent, and the longer he lived with Irene the more belligerent he became.  Perhaps he sensed his dependence on her and resented it.  Whatever the reasons,  Irene was very unhappy.
After a couple years of suffering Leo's mistreatment and her own inability to understand it as being other than somehow her fault, something snapped.  Provoked by some bizarre behavior, the need to put Irene in a home for adults was put to Frances.  'For her own sake and safety' she was told.
Irene eventually recovered from the breakdown she had, but it was decided that she was much better off where she was.  She made friends with the other residents of the home and lived a peaceful and contented life.  Leo and Frances visited her regularly.  Leo's visits were sometimes upsetting, but were allowed because Irene deeply wished it.  She was so distressed for his welfare that disallowing Leo's visits may have been more harmful.
Irene became a well-loved and respected member of the home.  In comparison to some of the other residents she was a genius.  She once persuaded a friend not to take her own life by drinking Ajax and confiscated the proposed poison for good measure.
Irene died peacefully and unexpectedly in February of 1990.  Those interviewed at the home said she had seemed fine that afternoon.  She had taken care of a few errands  (put her house in order?)  and then went to take a nap.  She never awoke.  No particular cause of death was ascertained other than 'it was just her time.'  Five and a half years later her sister Frances died of lung cancer at the age of 57.
The saddest part of this whole accounting is that two or three years later a woman from Rhode Island began to make inquiries into the identity and whereabouts of her birth mother.

This article was originally published in Chesapeake Style online magazine.


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