Years ago we gave to a family friend, an middle-aged Irishwoman who never read much of anything, a copy of Angela’s Ashes. We hoped her feeling for her heritage would lead her to appreciate the gift, but did not expect her to read it. But when next we saw her she had read it clean through and cheerfully recounted stories from it as if they were gossip about people she had known.
Angela’s Ashes was written by Frank McCourt — who died this weekend of melanoma at the age of 78 — about his childhood in Limerick, where his family repatriated not long after he was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and that childhood was grim. But it is not really a grim book, as it finds humor and warmth even among the details of poverty, as when the children, about to be taken to apply for charity, are instructed by their mother “for once in our lives not to wash our faces, don’t comb our hair, dress in any old rag. She tells me to give my sore eyes a good rub and make them as red as I can for the worse you look at the Dispensary the more pity you get… she complains that Malachy Michael and Alphie look too healthy and you’d wonder why on this day of days they couldn’t have their usual scabby knees…” The breathlessly natural telling helps, too.
McCourt did make it back to New York where he taught public school and wrote short pieces occasionally, including for the Voice, before completing Angela’s Ashes at the age of 66 and finding therewith a Pulitzer Prize and fame. He also wrote the memoirs ‘Tis and Teacher Man, made documentaries about his family, and performed with his brother Malachy the theatrical reminiscence A Couple of Blackguards. Photo (cc) torre.elena.