A Memory of Molly
I first met Molly Howe in the home of Felicia Lamport in Cambridge. She had just turned ninety, or ninety-one, and we fell in love with each other at first sight.. Every time I came to Cambridge afterwards, I would go up to her place on Memorial Drive and later the rest home on Mount Auburn Street and sit at her feet and listen to her stories.
Though administratively speaking Molly was completely Bostonian - who else of your acquaintances has successively married men named Quincy Howe and Faneuil Adams? - her stories were never of Boston, she never mentioned the Poets Theater which she had helped run for so many years. She wanted to tell stories of Ireland.
Like how she came to her grandmother's house one day after school during the troubles, and on the front steps she found a blood-caked shoe with a blood-caked human foot inside it. And she brought it in with her, and Granny seized it and firmly spoke:"I have said it once and I have said it again and I will say it again now, I will never tolerate any IRA blackguard setting foot inside my house." And she threw the shoe out back into the street where it belonged,.
This war the grandmother who raised roses and loved them and called each of one of them by its official name, and one afternoon fluttered a garden party by suddenly shouting out as she leaned down to peer at some of her new blooms,. "I should never have put General Foyle in the same bed with Madame Ravollie."
Once, when Molly was sixteen and rehearsing for her role as the Faery Child in a school performance of Yeats's The Land of Heart's Desire, she was invited to tea at Maude Gonne's house, where Yeats himself would also be a guest He thought she looked the part perfectly, and was delighted to have the opportunity of showing her how a Faery Child should "run up out of the wind,.her face pale as water before dawn" to make her elfin entrance on stage. He walked back to the door, turned slowly around, and came prancing forward, with his eyes in the stars, and swinging his arms, and he knocked over a large vase of flowers which fell on a tea tray breaking two cups and destroying a chocolate cake. "Willie Willie," wailed Maud Gonne, "You can't move without breaking things." "Maud," replied the poet, "I do not, like you, break hearts."
One afternoon she was at home with her mother when in came Mr. Beckett, who lived up the road from the Mannings [Molly was born Mary Manning, and that is the name under which she published her collection of Irish stories called The Last Chronicles of Ballyfungus which some canny publisher might do well to reissue], came calling and asked Mrs Manning if she would go riding with him in his Packard automobile.
She said Yes, and she took little Molly by the hand and they followed Mr. Beckett out to his car. Mr. and Mrs.Manning too their places on the front seat, little Molly lolled in the capacious back seat, and they took off at a steady authoritative speed maneuvering through the winding streets of Dublin. .
Dublin was not then the minimetropolis it is today, there were very few automobiles on the streets, and certainly no other Packards, the streets were neither well paved not well patrolled, and it took a long time, a long time in utter silence, for Mr.Beckett to thread his way through all the disorderly mass of horse and foot traffic, through the city center, and then over the Liffey and round a circuitous route through the northern suburbs. And all in utter silence save for the gentle throbbing of the Packard motor, a silence which grew deeper and blacker with each turn of direction and each frightened horse and each hooting pedestrian. Till at last they came to a halt in front of an imposing house with a monumental gate and pillars and balconies and a lawn and an orchard and a garden, and Mr. Beckett. sitting upright and clutching his wheel as he had through the whole voyage, said in a measured mournful voice, "My heart lies buried in that house." "Mine too," said Mrs. Manning quietly. Then silence again. Mr. Beckett shifted his gears, and the car started again, and they drove back the way they had come, all the way back to the Manning home without another word being spoken..
For - as was later grudgingly explained to the persistently questioning child --this great house was the home of a Mister Sullivan, a prominent citizen of Dublin. He had a beautiful daughter, and Mr. Beckett in the first flush of his youth was deeply in love with her, and she with him. And he had a handsome son, and Mrs. Manning-to-be was deeply in love with that son, and he with her.
But the Sullivans were Catholics, and marriage with Catholics was of course out of the question for people brought up in respectable families of the Protestant Ascendancy.
There is no record of Mr. Beckett's son Samuel ever being taken in the Packard on such a sad ceremonial voyage to the Sullivan home. But he and Molly were great friends as they grew up together in Dublin, and she must have told him the story, and some of the heavy brooding silence of the Packard may well have nestled in the little boy's soul, to come out half a life time later in the works of the Nobel laureate.
Perhaps the memories go back even further than childhood.
Samuel Beckett is the only person I have known who claimed to have retained memories of life in his mother's womb. He intimated that it was rather an unpleasant place.
I am not sure of the chronology, but it is tempting to speculate that one of these memories goes back to a moment when the pregnant Mrs. Beckett was attending a performance of a one-act play by Lord Dunsany, a very prolific and popular (and by current standards hopelessly mediocre) writer of the early years of the twentieth century.
The play was called Glittering Gates, and it was staged by the Abbey Theater in 1908. Samuel Beckett was born in 1905, but of course Mrs. Beckett may have seen an earlier tryout, or even read the play in manuscript. At all events, the action of the play is set in a desolate place where a couple of desolate creatures, two cockney burglars, drift on to the stage to talk and wait and talk and wait in front of heaven's gates, which they have been led to believe will open to let them in. From the top of the gates there descend periodically bottles of beer, but no other material or spiritual sustenance. They grow increasingly frustrated and despondent as they prattle drearily on while the gates remain as still and silent as ever. Then suddenly there is a sharp grinding noise as the gates begin to open and the two wretched men rush toward them to see what lies beyond. What they see is, in the words of the play's next-to-the-last stage direction, "empty night and stars, to the accompaniment of mocking laughter". Then come two concluding lines of dialogue::
Bill: Stars! Bloomin' great stars! There ain't no heaven, Jim.
Jim: That's very like them. Yes, they'd do that.
If this connection can be established, do we not have a seed, which with others provided by the Buster Keaton and the Laurel and Hardy movies, flowered into the inalienably absurd credo of the hero, if that is the word, of Beckett's novel, L'Innommable: "Nothing to communicate, no way of communicating, must communicate" not to speak of providing the plot for the play which summed up the world in 1950, Waiting for Godot?.
Molly wrote once to Sam from Boston that, counting out the months on her fingers, it seemed distinctly possible that he was the father of one of her three daughters. The daughters, learning about this in later life, were much intrigued with the idea that one of them might bear the blood of the greatest playwright of the day, and debated which of them was the lucky one. There was no way of solving the debate until the development of DNA testing, and when they produced the necessary blood samples, it turned out that they were all identical, all Howes.
I asked Molly once what had been Sam's response to her bulletin.
Stoical, she said. He said that he would have to work studiously to improve his techniques of contraception.
©2005 Robert Wernick