THE IRISH IN ME (Part 3)
Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s day! Time for you to see what it was really like to live with an Irish drunk.
During our childhood, my mother, Alberta LeGendre, spent a lot of time keeping her 2 daughters far away from the Irish part of our heritage (with the exception of Aunt Mary).
Mom picked up bits and pieces about his childhood over their 4 decades of marriage, but he rarely volunteered to divulge anything. A few years after Robert Dempsey Jr. passed away, Mary Dempsey willingly provided the grizzly details of their childhood that her oldest brother was reluctant to divulge.
What I write below is almost word-for-word from my mother’s memoirs. This is her interview with Aunt Mary was written on November 11, 1989.
If you’re interested in parts 1 and 2 you can find them at:
Mary Ellen Curry Dempsey: Died in Boston, Mass., during the 1918 flu epidemic, leaving four children: Three boys and one girl. Thee oldest eight years old and the youngest two years old. (My memory regarding my mother, and the events prior to her death are blank.)
My aunts often mentioned about the time when my father returned home one night with a woman hanging on his arm. My mother beat the woman over the head with the heal of a shoe as she ran her out of the house.
After mother died, we were shoved from relative to relative. We were very unruly and punished a lot. I remember how all four of us children were locked in an underground cellar. No lights and pitch dark with large rats running all over the place. All four of us panicked each time we had to go into the cellar. My fear and the torture of being in the cellar developed into claustrophobia which has remained with me throughout my entire life.
(I am still trying to outgrow the fear of sudden scares such as; people putting sheets over their heads, suddenly jumping out from no-where, sudden screams, and darkness.)
The authorities received so many complaints about us, that we were put in the care of the Catholic Church in Boston. The church sent us to the St. Joseph Orphanage in Cincinnati, Ohio, where we remained for four years.
The most vivid memory I have of the orphanage is the cruelty of the nuns – although there were other incidents just as bad: Their favorite punishment, it seemed to me, was to tie strings round my thumbs and hang my arms high above my head by the hours, trying to make me say that, “I was sorry” for something I had done. I refused to say I was sorry because I was not sorry.
1923: Our father regained custody of us. We were placed on a train in Cincinnati and sent to Jacksonville, Florida.
Our father met us at the railroad station and drove us to Lake Worth, Fl. In an automobile. A very exciting adventure for all of us. It was the first automobile we had ever ridden in – or I remember seeing. We lived in Lake Worth for years.
My grandmother North (Maternal grandmother) was there to help my father raise us children. She was his common-law wife.
(“Grandma North”), was related to Louis XVI of France. She received legal papers from France regarding property she had inherited. She never accepted the inheritance because it would have cost more to go to France than the property was worth.)
My father had the personalities of two entirely different people:
During the week when working, he was the nicest person you could ever hope to meet; but from Friday night to Sunday night he was very demanding and one of the meanest persons alive. He was a “madman”, fueled with nothing but bootleg whiskey. Often, he would come home and run us all out of the house with a butcher knife and lock the doors. We would have to stay outside all night, regardless of the weather.
Other times, we watched him get drunk and go outside and pull the bark off of the trees with his fingernails. He would break his fingers, tear his fingernails off, and mutilated his hands. This went on for many, many years.
I couldn’t understand why my father would shiver and shake so bad every time he took a swallow of whiskey; and I once asked him why he drank.
His reply, “To forget my troubles.”
I replied, “Why do you do it? Your troubles will always be there waiting for you in the morning.”
The Dempsey family relatives, in the Lake Worth area, would go camping along the seashore during the weekends.
The children enjoyed their time fishing, swimming, and playing in the water.
The men drank bootleg whiskey.
The women cleaned and cooked fish for their meals.
By Sunday night, Robert Sr. (our father) would be so drunk he couldn’t stand up. Nevertheless, he would drive us all home. Scared to death, as he weaved the car in and out between the line of large trees along the side of the road. (Other times our father was so drunk, he had to be picked up and put in the car.)
Bob learned to drive in self-defense; thereby assuming the responsibility of the family’s safety while traveling.
Many a night, we children waited outside, in the car, under a gas light, studying our lessons or reading while our father was in an “illegal bar” drinking bootleg whiskey.
We didn’t know what bedsheets and pillowcases were. All of us children wet the bed. Each night we threw a blanket over the bed to keep the maggots off of us; and each morning we had to hang the blankets out to air and dry so we could use them again that night.
Our clothes were all hand-me-downs that were given to us by aunts and cousins. Each day we would go to school without our lunches and have to beg other children to share their lunches with us.
I had a “hot head”. If anyone said anything to me that I didn’t like or thought they were making fun of me, I would fight them with words and fists. I was expelled from school many, many times.
During the summer, when work was scarce in Florida, my father piled us all in the car, with our few belongings, and headed north. He would stop along the way looking for work as a brick or block layer.
(He was regarded as being one of the finest bricklayers in the country.)
There were times when we had no place to stay, we would go and camp in the Okefenokee Swamp. The wild animals were screaming and howling in the background. We circled around our camp fire and kept it burning all night to keep the animals from bothering us while we slept.
One time in Palatka, Florida, there were twelve of us; our family, an uncle, aunt and their children – traveling in two automobiles. The only place we could find to stay, while our father and his brother went out looking for work, was an old empty haunted house.
While we were sitting around eating, my cousin Jackie let out a scream, we looked around but saw nothing. We asked her what she had seen? As she looked over our shoulders, she said there was a man with no head. All we could hear was a slight noise like someone scraping paper off the floor, but nothing was there. My grandmother picked up a big butcher knife and started searching through the rooms. The rest of us followed close behind – like a mother duck and all of her little ducklings – in single file.
We stayed there that night and left early the next morning.
Another adventure was in Kentucky. On the outskirts of a large town:
We found a cave, where we cooked and slept for several days, while the men were looking for work, which was scarce at that time. After they found work, and received their first paycheck, we found a house and lived in it as long as the work lasted.
The jobs generally lasted anywhere from one day to several weeks, occasionally a month.
Upon the completion of each job, everyone was ready to move on again.
There were times when the jobs were few and far between, and we would move on until we ran out of gas.
It was my job to stand in the middle of the dusty road, flag down cars, and ask the drivers if they could spare a little gas. Generally the occupants of each car would siphon a little gas from their tanks so we could get to the next town.
(Gas stations were unheard of at that time. Usually there was only one gas pump in the town; and it was mounted on the sidewalk, in front of the auto dealer’s showroom, on the main street of town. The cars owners would drive up to the curbside of the sidewalk to have the tanks in their vehicles filled with gasoline.)
Other times, we had no money and I had to flag down a dozen or more cars before we had enough gas to continue on to another town.
In order to have food, my baby brother Jack and I would go from house to house begging for food. We would always go back to the car with plenty of food for all – bread, sausage, milk, vegetables, etc.
About 1926: Our father had a job waiting for him in the next town. My brother Bob was the family chauffeur as we traveled from place to place in our open air, canvas top, “Tin Lizzy”. We had stopped and spent the night at an open space along the road. The next morning we got up early and started out again.
About an hour later, Bob either dozed off or turned around to look at something and drove off the road. The axle broke and the car turned upside down penning us all underneath – with the exception of Jack.
We landed in a deep ditch on the side of the road. Each thought the others were all dead. I heard a noise or movement and I started screaming.
Our father dug himself out from under the car with his bare hands. With super strength, he picked up one side of the car and turned it right side up. My brother Bob started to cry. He thought that he had been cut; but in reality he had been scalded by the hot water from the radiator.
Jack was thrown out of the car and was standing in deep grass, sound asleep with a puppy in his arms. (The puppy was one of a litter of pups born that morning.)
The mother dog had her back injured. I massaged and rubbed her until she could get on her feet and nurse her babies.
The car was towed in to the next town where our father was going to work. We found a rooming house and stayed there until the job was completed.
We all took care of each other – a system we used for many years during our travels from one place to another.
1927: My brother Edward was so stubborn and hard-headed, that no one could control him. I remember one time, when he was about twelve years old, he started smoking. Our father warned Edward that if he didn’t stop smoking, he was going to get a beating.
When he didn’t stop, our father beat him and then stretched Edward out under the bed; tying a wrist to each leg post at the head of the bed, and his feet were each tied to a leg post at the foot of the bed.
It did no good. After so many hours our father gave up. In fact, beating Edward wouldn’t make him cry. Edward was always being knocked around because of his stubbornness.
Edward and I were so much alike that we couldn’t get along at all. We were continually fighting.
I remember a time when I got Edward up on a dresser and shoved him off, breaking Edward’s arm.
Another instance: We were fighting in an upstairs bedroom. Edward backed against a window and I pushed him through it. Edward’s arm was badly cut, and he carried those scars to his grave.
Another time: We were battling and I ran him on the bed. We were both standing upright on the bed and I buried my teeth into his shoulder, like a bulldog. Edward started screaming for help. Grandma North tried to get me off of him but I wouldn’t let go. She studied for a moment and left. Returning with a bucket of water. She knew that the only way she could get me to let go was to throw the bucket of water on me. Head and all. When the cold water hit me, I opened my mouth and Edward was gone.
My grandmother would get very mad at some of the things I would do. One day she threw me on the ground and straddled me and said, “One day you are going to cause me to have a heart attack.”
It made me feel bad to think I was putting so much stress on her, and that she would say that to me. I prayed to God that it would never happen. Years later (1939) she did die from a heart attack, but I wasn’t there.
1927 Mobile, Alabama: Our father was looking for work. The only place he could find for us to stay was the empty second floor of a huge poultry processing plant.
The rats were larger than cats and had chewed large semi-circle holes at the bottom of the doors. Father devised a plan to get all the rats in one room. It worked all right, but he was trapped on a table in the center of the room and the rats were after him. One of the rats ran across my neck and shoulders.
We left early the next morning.
1928: It was my 16th birthday and I was planning on going to a dance that night. I had just finished frying my last pan of tripe when the pan caught fire.
Our father had a method, he had used many times, of quickly swinging the pan in a circle to put out a fire. I couldn’t do it.
He grabbed the pan, not knowing that it was full of grease; and when he swung the pan, the hot grease landed on my head. The injury was treated with Campho-Phenique and alcohol – which was murder.
1929: St. Louis, Missouri: My father went to work laying bricks. My grandmother and I rented a building where we could live in the back and converted the front into a “second-hand” furniture store.
At that time, St. Louis was noted for its gangsters and was called “Little Chicago”. My brother Edward joined one of the gangs. One day he came in the furniture store and told our father not to let me go out at night by myself, or in the daytime, without someone with me. He had heard the rumor that several of the gang members had become attracted to me and he was afraid of what might happen.
Bob didn’t drink, but liked to be around people and watch their actions. Edward got into an argument with a gang member in a bar.
Edward shot the gangman and shoved the gun into Bob’s hand as he (Edward) ran out the door. Cops questioned Bob, who was holding the gun, but didn’t arrest him because there were too many witnesses who verified the fact that Bob had nothing to do with the shooting.
Edward and Jack were constantly picking fights. Bob was always in the middle, trying to keep them out of trouble – consequently, Bob would get the blame for trouble he never caused.
I cried many a night because we were always traveling and making new friends. Only to leave them soon afterwards. I swore to myself that I was going to marry the first man who asked me to marry him.
1930: I was eighteen years old when I went to visit my Aunt Lula in Hamilton, Ohio. There I met John (Jack) Henry Ziegler, a brother of my aunts husband.
Rather than to return to my father’s home in Florida and its alcoholic environment, I married Jack Ziegler to get away from home. (We were married October 21, 1930; and had been married for fifty-six years when he died July 9, 1986.)
1932: We had been living with Jack Ziegler’s family for a couple of years, when I had a falling out with them.
We left Hamilton with just enough money for gas. No food. Soon after leaving Jack’s mother’s house, we had car trouble. The lights would not work and we had to drive in the dark without any lights. I nursed Johnny for four days without any food – as we headed towards St. Louis where my father and brothers were.
We arrived in St. Louis, Missouri at the toll bridge with no money. My baby Johnny was sick. I begged the toll-keeper to let us go across and I would send him the money later – when we got to where my father lived.
When we arrived at my father’s house, they were not any better off than we were. They had no food.
We began making our routine rounds of the restaurants at closing time, and the owners would give us all the food they were going to throw out.
It was the dead of winter and snow was on the ground. We each took buckets and walked the railroad tracks picking up bits and pieces of coal that had fallen from the train engines, until we had enough to take home and warm the apartment.
I came down with pleurisy and spent three weeks in a charity hospital.
1933: My husband’s family found out about the conditions in which we were living. One day we opened the apartment door and were surprised to see them standing in front of us. They wanted us to go back to Hamilton with them.
We returned to Hamilton and the two families brought a house together. My huband’s mother, sister, and brother lived downstairs. Jack and I and our baby Johnny lived upstairs. Our sons Robert and Paul Ziegler were born there. We stayed there 15 years.
Jack was a construction helper; and I worked as a waitress.
1945 March: Robert Louis Dempsey, Sr. died in Miami, Florida, from Acute Gastritis.
1947 June: We moved to Miami, Florida, where we lived from 1947 to 1970. Housing was scarce when we arrived. We bought a 27 foot travel trailer and parked it in a trailer park. It was our home for the five of us (husband/wife/3 boys) from 1947 to 1954.
1954: We moved into our first house, at 3065 NW 81st Terrace, Miami, Florida.
1970: We sold the Miami home and moved to Naples, Florida, and built a home on a five acre tract of land we had purchased. Later we sold 2 ½ acres to our son Paul Ziegler. He moved his family and mobile home down from Georgia. We lived in Naples for ten years.
1972: I had my first heart attack (I weighted 188 lbs)
1980: We sold the Naples home and moved to Douglas, Georgia.
1980: Heart Failure
1983: Heart Failure
1986: July 9, Jack Ziegler passed away. July 21, I had open-heart surgery.
1989: I have a kidney that should be removed, but an operation is impossible because of my heart – which only half is functioning.
TO END MY AUNT’S STORY, she once said, “Aunt Bill and I were so much alike that all she had to do was open her mouth and I was ready to fight.”
Aunt Mary was a colorful character with so many great stories to tell about working as a bar maid and waitress. She could hold her own in a fight with any man.
She once told me that when she was in the orphanage, one of the punishments she endured was to be forced to kneel on the sharp side of a ruler until she apologized. She said she never, never gave them the satisfaction of an apology.
From what I remember, Aunt Mary’s husband had Alzheimer’s and she cared for him, changed his diapers, and endured the strain of it for 8 years before he died. I have no doubt that it exacerbated her heart problems.
My father passed away when his heart stopped in his sleep. It was quite peaceful.