Broken Angel: Tony Birch’s Lessons from his Grandmother

Tony Birch visits his grandmother’s grave and reflects on the lessons she taught him: that unless we provide our families and each other adequately with the basics of life – food, warmth and shelter – everything else is worthless. And that unless we provide the basics equally across society, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Image: Broken angel

I walked to the cemetery today with my dog, Ella. She’s 11 years old, has a bad hip and prefers her bed to a good walk. We were off to visit my grandmother’s grave. She died in 1996, at the age of 88. She’d led a full life, as they say. Born of Cape Barren Island, in the Bass Strait, between Victoria and the island of Tasmania, my grandmother was sent to an orphanage on the Tasmanian mainland as a baby. At the age of 12 she jumped ship across the strait to Victoria. She married twice, had seven children and did Al Jolson impersonations when she was drunk.

She is buried with her husband, my grandfather, Patrick Corcoran. An Irish Catholic, he was a hard-working man who came home from work one afternoon in 1953, walked into the bathroom, cut his own throat and bled to death. Also buried in the grave is my uncle, Michael Anthony Corcoran, who was murdered in 1963, when he was only 18. I never met my grandfather, of course, but I clearly remember Michael. He was happy, cheeky and my grandmother’s baby.

At the cemetery I let Ella sniff around the tombstones as I tended the family plot. I weeded, changed the murky water in the vases and replaced the worn-out plastic flowers with newer ones that blew across the cemetery grounds, separated from the graves they’d been originally placed on. Many years ago I filled a jar with the stones, shells and beach glass I’d collected from around the world; from a river in Scotland, a beach in Chile and the streets of New York. I filled the jar with water, sealed it and placed it on the grave. Today I emptied the jar, cleaned it and replaced the water.

I sat on the grave and thought about them, my family – down there. I know that my grandfather cared for his family. And he was a very protective man. No one knows why he took his own life, but my mother believes that he was afraid that he could never care for his children enough. I’m not sure what that means. When I think of my own children – there are five of them – I’m never sure if I worry over them too much or if I don’t worry enough. I sometimes think it is my job to save them – an understandable but ludicrous proposition.

Is any of this relevant to the issue of climate change? I think it is. My grandmother lived her life in hardship. Her daily concern was finding enough food to feed her family; to walk the inner city streets during winter, pushing a pram in search of firewood to keep the house warm. We were close when I was growing up. She taught me that unless we provide our families and each other adequately with the basics of life – food, warmth and shelter – everything else is worthless. Further, if we did not provide the basics equally across society, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Alma Corcoran was no Marxist economist or political activist. She’d hardly been to school and was a direct and unromantic woman. But she knew a lot about excess – and hated it. Whenever she was travelling well, when the cupboard was full and the fridge was stacked, she would open her front door and invite her neighbours in for a special meal. She taught me that it is not my job to save anybody, let alone my children. She also taught me that I am only a small part of a greater whole.

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