by Mary Jean Port • My grandmother grew up in Saint Paul, poor and Irish. A McDermott, she was the youngest of the six children, and the only girl. Some say that she was spoiled. I have tried over the years to learn more about her, but she is a hard one to pin down.
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There is no name on my grandmother’s birth record; she is referred to as Marian Irene McDermott on her baptismal certificate. When she was six years old, her parents told the census takers that their daughter’s name was Mary I. When she was eleven, they told them it was Irene M. People called her Irene, that much I know, but I’d like to think Mary really was her first name, not her middle name. I’d like us to be, at least in that way, aligned. When I was a child, I was told that I was named after her, this person I’d never met. She died long before I was born.
My grandmother was short, and she had the dark hair and eyes and contrasting ivory skin of certain Irish beauties. Her birthday was March 19, but there are conflicting records of her birth year. Her death certificate and gravestone say she was born in 1898, but her birth and baptismal certificates and marriage license application say she was born in 1899. I take that to be the accurate year. She arrived at the turn of the century, welcomed by a family grieving the loss of eight-year-old Michael, their brother and son, who had died just three months before.
Her father, Thomas B. McDermott, an Irish American, worked as a teamster—that is, he drove a team of horses delivering goods. Her mother, Mary McGrath McDermott, an Irish immigrant, was a housewife. I have two addresses for the McDermotts. They lived at 218 Commercial Street when Irene was six. From the census records, I can pick out the names of children around her age who lived down the block: James Moffitt, Francis and Barbara Freeman, Agnes Madden, and Margaret Soles. I imagine these children were Irene’s playmates.
The second address I have is 617 E. Third Street. In 1909, while living there, Emmet, Irene’s brother, just older than she, died of polio.
I know nothing about the courtship between Adolph Port and Irene, only that in 1919, when Adolph came back from fighting in France in World War I, he lived with his parents for a time at 615 E. Third Street, next door to the McDermotts. The following year, he, a divorced Lutheran, married Irene, a Catholic, and in protest her parents and brothers more or less disowned her.
The McDermotts went to St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Eighth Street. The parish still exists. The actual church where the McDermotts worshipped is gone, but a new one was built in its place. During a lonely time, back in the mid-1990s, near the end of a long estrangement from my own parents, brothers, and sisters, I went to mass at St. Mary’s on Christmas Eve. I especially enjoyed singing the more somber carols that night; my voice sounded better than it ever had. The church’s high ceiling allows sound to rise and swell in what I believe are called overtones.
My whole heart was in it. Tears streamed down my face. I sang, for Irene, who died in childbirth when she was just thirty-six, for her husband, Adolph, and the eight children she left behind, for my father, who was only five when his mother died, and for me, too, for what I had never had, and for what I had lost.
At the end of the mass, a woman seated in front of me turned and said sternly, “You have a good voice. Use it.” This startled me. I am a writer, and my grandmother had long been my muse. I was piecing together parts of her story while I worked to tell my own. Conjuring Irene McDermott would give me my writer’s voice. And somehow this stranger knew.
Write to 3109 W. 50th St. #292, Minneapolis, MN 55410, if you know anything about Irene or her family.