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A timeless tale of true love

Jeffrey Bergeron

Bridgett Sheely’s plight was no better or worse than many of her kind and station. She suffered life’s challenges with a good-natured resolve while delighting in the occasional comforts her 90 years on earth provided. When I would misbehave as a young boy, she’d say in a faint Irish brogue: “You’re my grandchild and I love you, but you have a bit of the ‘divil’ in ya.” In 1891 she was born in Ireland – poor, ugly, with bad feet and an affable disposition. She came to America alone at the age of 13. Bridgett described her boat trip as being three weeks of a “bad head and sick stomach.” Though to most immigrants America was thought of as the land of opportunity, Bridgett would have been just as delighted to be anywhere not floating. She told me many years later; “I would have run down the gangplank just as fast if the Devil himself was on the dock holding a sign reading WELCOME TO HELL.” America wasn’t exactly Hell for the teenage immigrant, but it wasn’t the refuge she had hoped for. For the poor and ignorant back then, life in this country was hard and heartless; it still is. John O’Malley could have been Bridgett’s savior. He was a bricklayer, born in America, handsome, and by comparison, well off. He was Bridgett’s first date, first lover and first husband. He gave her three children, a broken heart and abandoned her; she had no notion where he went and she never saw him again. After he left, she spent the next several months trying to keep her children fed and clothed. The four of them lived in a tiny apartment with little heat and no running water. When the oldest daughter, my mother, came down with pneumonia, Bridgett turned, in desperation to the parents of the man who abandoned her. They agreed to take in the children, but not their mother; Bridgett gave up her kids to keep them warm.She got a job in a factory and was only allowed to visit her children on weekends. Bridget’s second husband, Frank McLaughlin, told me on his 80th birthday. “The day I married your grandmother was the best day in my life.” Frank shoveled coal for a living. His first wife was an epileptic who kept her condition from him until their wedding night. Her malady was passed to their only child who began having seizures in infancy. The epilepsy eventually caused brain damage in both mother and son. The only good luck was that both child and parent were institutionalized at almost the same time, freeing Frank up to work double shifts at the foundry.A lifetime of manual labor had bent Frank’s spine and turned his hands into claws. Though his body was ravaged, he managed to hang onto most of his teeth, and he wasn’t afraid to use them to smile. Three days after his wife died – in what was then called an “insane asylum” – Frank went looking for Bridgett. He’d met her once, 12 years before, at a carnival. She was walking down the midway with a girlfriend. He had seen both girls around the neighborhood. Frank offered to buy them some cotton candy. Bridgett was not impressed. She told him, “Go home and put on a clean shirt.” She didn’t see Frank again for over a decade, but he never forgot her. When Frank showed up on Bridgett’s doorstep, he didn’t knock. Rather he stood in front of an opened window until she glanced out. “Do you remember me Bridgy?” he asked. That was the start of a great love affair. Whether for love or lack of options, Bridgett and Frank courted, fell in love and married. They were both in their 40s and remained devoted to each other for almost a half century. Both of them were devout Catholics, but they could not marry in the church. Though Bridget’s first husband had not been seen for over 10 years, there was no proof of his death. In the eyes of the church, Bridget was still married. For Catholics, being married outside of the church was shameful. They continued to attend Mass and make their monthly confessions but they couldn’t receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. As atonement, they said a rosary (a 40-minute series of prayers) every night after supper. Once Frank and Bridget found love they made up for lost time. They seemed to cling to each other with an almost frantic affection. Stunted in stature, Bridgett slightly less than five feet, Frank just over, they looked to be made for each other. When they’d walk down the street holding hands, they at first appeared to be two unattractive children wearing work clothes. But to those who knew them, they were a living reminder of love’s power over circumstance. I have friends who have accomplished great feats. They have climbed the near un-climbable, skied the unimaginable and pushed themselves past all reasonable limits. I know others who are self-made successes. From humble beginnings, through vision and hard work, they have acquired great wealth. I admire those achievements but they pale when compared to finding love and happiness in a cruel world.Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of “Biff America” can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA radio, and read in several mountain publications. He can be reached at biffbreck@yahoo.comVail, Colorado


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