It’s a perfect Spring Sunday in Arizona- the breeze prancing through my open window, making my bedroom curtains dance. It’s a slow, steady afternoon and I vacillated between getting outdoors into the sunshine and curling up in bed with a cup of tea, my book and my writing (obviously the latter has won). There will be more sunshine to soak up yet.
Today is International Women’s Day. I’m not really sure what that means- it seems social media decides for us lately when to celebrate our daughters, sons, puppies, tacos, and now, International Women. But I’ll take any reason to celebrate being a woman- especially one of the multicultural background I enjoy, and the strong women who raised me.
My mother was born and raised in Seoul, Korea- the youngest daughter of a Korean mother and Filipino father. Her early life was marked by privilege- exquisite dresses, porcelain dolls, ballet and piano lessons. Servants and nannies aided her mother in caring for her, and her older brother and sister while her father’s work as an electrical engineer for the U.S. Navy often took him out of the country for weeks at a time. English was her first language – the common one between my grandparents- and she attended a private international school where her peers were the children of foreign ambassadors.
Everything changed for my mother in ninth grade- when my grandfather disappeared in the Korean war, and her mother, a widowed mother of three, faced sudden and abject poverty. With the grace provided by school officials (originally founded by Presbyterian Missionaries in the early 1900’s), my mother was able to finish high school on scholarship, where her brilliant mind, hard work, and dedication earned her the honor of Valedictorian of her graduating class.
Afterwards, she immigrated to the United States for a full-ride engineering scholarship to a college in Trenton, New Jersey- one of only four women in the program in the late seventies. This was, of course, before she met, fell in love, and ran away with my long-haired, nonconformist, Irish-American, father. And before her schizophrenia had presented.
In addition to my mother’s subtle strength, the greatest grit of woman backbone marking my life is my Auntie. Born in Ireland, the eldest of three, she took the care and keeping of my wild-ling father- and later his Korean wife and three small children (my siblings and I)- as her personal mission. In addition to raising her own two daughters, my aunt fought year over year to keep us all together. Family comes first, she taught us.
Tragedy was a familiar companion to my aunt and father. Their beloved mother, cornerstone of the O’Brien-O’Shea clan, died suddenly and devastatingly of ovarian cancer at forty-two, when my father was only nine. The vicissitudes of fortune following this event and forever impacting my family’s history are long and complicated- a tale better illustrated by my father. Throughout my childhood he labored through his memoir, “Twelve Bottles of Scotch”, an ode to his stern and unyielding father.
I recovered the first 100 pages of his memoir last year, and wanted to share the depiction he reserved for his sister in the worn, typewritten pages, now over twenty years old. It’s the perfect picture of tenacity and steadfastness that my aunt’s presence has served in our lives.
Excerpt from “Twelve Bottles of Scotch” by William Desmond O’Brien:
After my poor mother was carried screaming out the front door of her dream house that my father had bought for her barely a year before, and never came back, the house tottered and fell down around my sister’s ears.
She was fifteen years old at the time and it took her three years and the energy of a Jewish Resistance Fighter to crawl out from under the rubble with a suitcase in one hand and an engagement ring on a finger of the other.
No gladiator ever fought as hard as my sister did. No matador had more courage than she-standing before the bull of my father with my brother and myself behind her wide, protective back. She would remind me of one of those Indians that went into battle with an oath not to run and would stake themselves to the ground before the enemy, determined to win or die on that spot.
In the ancient laws of Ireland, before Christianity came along to enlighten us all, women were given exact and equal status with men in all matters civil and spiritual. This was due to women like my sister.
When Julius Caesar retreated from his campaign in Britannia after smashing armies all over Europe he met his first Gaelic women. These were no dainty, aromatic creatures strumming harps. Nor were they like Cleopatra that came rolling naked out of a Persian rug to land as his feet at age sixteen.
They were naked all right but covered in tattoos and they came hurtling out of the Highland fogs adorned with helmets, broadswords and ten-foot spears that they used to skewer his dumbstruck legions. They chopped heads off, hacked Tribunes to pieces and washed their feminine hands in their enemies’ steaming guts.
The bloodcurdling war cries of Celtic women haunted Caesar every step back to his villas in Rome. Strip my sister’s 20th Century attire, peel away the good Catholic education and the manners of the princess to the manor born and you will find the heart of a Gaelic Warrioress beating in her chest.
My father is befuddled by my sister. He shakes his head over her and ponders her with a platonic wonder. My sister has never lost a single inch of ground in her territorial battles with my father. His oldest child and only daughter confounds him and the reason why escapes his insight only because it is too obvious. In my sister my father met his match.”
It is a sorrow that a little brother, who wrote so admiringly about his sister, could become a villain before his death. But it happens often- the men we love can turn on us, betray us, fail at every turn.
And yet women’s courage demands we look death in the eye before we are done raising our children. It’s standing up to our alcoholic fathers or drug-addicted brothers. It’s leaving abusive marriages, raising children in foreign countries without a penny to our names. It’s demanding a mortgage approval, when the bank has said “No”, it’s speaking out against your abuser when the whole country jeers and calls you a liar. It’s waking up night after heavy night to care for the babies who need to be comforted, and feeding hungry mouths when our own stomachs rumble. It’s living in fear and terror and finding protection in our own quiet ways.
And so it goes, that women keep strong backs and outstretched arms to catch each other when we fall. It’s the community of women, offering up encouragement when all seems lost.
I think it’s the secret to our strength.
Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.