Biff America column: A beauty that never fades
Ryan Summerlin August 29, 2014
I was in my late teens before I learned my grandmother was unattractive.
Of course, I knew she wasn’t a beauty as an elderly woman. But I still was going under the illusion that, in her day, my grandmother, Bridget Sheeley, was a babe. I was fed this misinformation by her second husband, my step-grandfather, Frank McLaughlin.
Many years later, I saw the only old photo ever taken of my grandmother as a teen. It featured a dowdy-looking young gal, well less than 5 feet tall, with thick glasses and buck teeth.
“Your grandmother was a great beauty in her day, lots of men wanted to date her but she picked me,” Frank would say. I do remember thinking at the time that Frank was one lucky guy to get a fox like my grand-mum, because he himself was no bag of jewels.
At about 5 feet, 7 inches, Frank had stooped shoulders, a nose that lay to the side, bug eyes and a lantern jaw. A life of manual labor and shoveling coal had ravaged his body, but the genetic gifts of a good attitude and a strong heart kept him alive into his 90s.
Bridget Sheeley came to America at the age of 12. Her mother died a few years before that and her dad placed her in an orphanage and left for America. Bridget’s dad remarried and seemed to be in no hurry to send for his daughter. She arrived in America cold and seasick and headed to the south shore of Boston to be reunited with her dad.
She stood on the doorstep while her new stepmother looked her up and down before she was let into the apartment. What followed was a hard life where my grandmother was little more than a nanny and scullery maid in her father’s home. There were stories of Bridget not being treated nearly as well as her younger step-siblings. Years later, we were told by neighbors of Bridget often being seen pulling a sled loaded with coal through the deep snow while the family waited at home.
It was little wonder that as a teen and factory worker, barely 20, she was vulnerable to the charms of John O’Malley, a brick layer and first-generation American. John was handsome and established. He was also surly, spoiled by his mother and his eight sisters and had a drinking problem.
When there were many other prospects, why John married Bridget is anybody’s guess, but there is one possible explanation that my grandmother never admitted to.
After the wedding, John would periodically vanish for weeks, leaving Bridget to fend for herself, then reappear to impregnate her before leaving again. Three children followed.
During John’s absences he would write his mother and sisters, who kept his location from his wife. One day, John left and never returned.
Bridget was alone, working full time with three children. It wasn’t too long before her in-laws pressured her to surrender custody of the children to them.
‘DO YOU REMEMBER ME?’
For the next 13 years, Bridget lived alone, worked a tedious job and would see her children on weekends. One day a man knocked on her door. He was stooped, yet confidant, with a beatific smile. He was a man who had a crush on my grandmother when they were teens before she cast her lot with O’Malley.
He stood on her door step and said, “Do you remember me, Bridgey?”
“Of course I do, Franky.”
He asked her if she wanted to go for a ride in his old car. They didn’t stop driving until they got to Maine, had lunch and turned around. Driving to Maine just to go to lunch? Bridget felt like royalty.
Frank and Bridget were married for over 50 years. Social Security and a meager savings allowed them the luxury a modest apartment and groceries. I remember Frank giving me a card for my 16th birthday with $5 in it and knowing, even then, it was a great deal of money to them.
Frank used to tell stories about shoveling coal on trains, his old cars and how many miles he was able to drive them. He loved to brag how beautiful my grandmother was and how lucky he was to have her. I found his stories boring and would try to avoid them and him. I would give anything now to hear some more of them.
After Frank died, my grandmother moved in with us. By then I was a little older and wiser and much more curious about how I came to be and the people who caused my blessed life to be possible. At that time, I had enough background to know my grandmother had a very difficult life before Frank swept her off her feet. But to hear her tell it, her life was near perfect.
She would retell the story of that first lunch in Maine and the many trips thereafter. She would brag about Frank’s driving skills, work ethic and the fact that, after marrying him, she was never “in want.” She also said, “Frank was such a handsome man.”
Bridget and Frank taught me that your life is only as wonderful or grim as you perceive it to be. And that love is not blind. In fact, true love has X-ray vision allowing you to look past the surface of a face and body into the soul of a lover. That beauty does not fade with time.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.