TOMBSTONES LIE, an imagined memoir by Felicity McCall was my perfect read on Mother’s Day morning last Sunday. Lying in a beautiful guest house in Sligo town, I awoke early that morning. With the sun shining brightly through the window, and himself fast asleep, I decided to read a few pages of this lovely new work.
I’d brought the book along to make a start that weekend. I hadn’t planned on reading it all in one sitting; but that’s exactly what happened. I became intrigued with this line of women. Maybe it was Mother’s Day inspiration, but I was needing to know more from the very beginning.
TOMBSTONES LIE, an imagined memoir resulted from a small collection of four faded photographs of people who McCall believed had shaped her destiny. Two of them she had never known, except through what she found out was the dishonest narrative of family history. This was her starting point. Initially she set out to search for clues to her father’s paternity.
Then through a web of secrets, lies, half-truths and fantasy, McCall found not one, but two strong, flawed, independent, unmarried mothers, who had done everything they could, in a judgmental world, blighted by poverty and illness, to raise their beloved children and give them a name – it just wasn’t the name McCall was looking for.
Maggie and Jinny are the heroines of this work. They are lineage McCall knew about but never quite knew just how closely related they were. Her grandmother and her great-grandmother. We first meet Maggie and are told her story from the beginning. Maggie kept a secret throughout her entire life, and yet spent that life helping not only her immediate family but many around her. And unknown to everyone around her, her sister Jinny, McCalls grandmother, was her eldest daughter. A secret she was to take to the grave with her.
Maggies eldest daughter, Jinny, McCalls grandmother went on to live a life of sheer hardship but gave her all to loving her eldest son, McCalls father. We get an insight into the life she led from her pregnancy right through to her death.
McCall uses family narrative from her youth, research from every source possible and puts together what she imagines to be her family history. At no point does she attempt to cover up any of the issues or indeed, the hardships her fore-mothers endured. At all times she puts this to the fore. These strong, independent women fought hard lives and showed utter strength, determination and love, in the face of utter poverty.
McCall emphasizes at the beginning of this work in her disclaimer that: part of this narrative can be confirmed as factually accurate, drawn as it is from genealogical research through official sources. For much of the rest, I have drawn on anecdotal stories, photographs and imagination, but I believe it to be emotionally honest.
It’s emotional from beginning to end. You don’t have to be related to this lineage to shed a tear on reading. And you don’t have to be related to this lineage to respect those women. And you don’t have to be related to this lineage to feel utter pride in how they survived.
McCall has succeeded in finding out some truths about her father and his family. Truths which no doubt help shape her today. Truths which now allow those strong independent women, Maggie and Jinny, to have the truth finally put on their headstone. That way, they really do rest in peace.
As I finished the read just an hour after starting it, I closed the book and felt a real sense of pride myself. I didn’t know these women, and I didn’t know about them. But there was a real pride in knowing how they fought against all the odds and raised their children in a world where everything was against them.