My Three Muses…

I spent some time on YouTube a few nights ago, waxing nostalgic for the very early Sixties in England, when I was involved in the folk music revival, and one of the pieces I found was a recording by an old buddy who died more than thirty years ago. His name was Luke Kelly, and he fronted a traditional Irish group called The Dubliners, and on this recording he was singing a chorus that went, “Oh, dear me, How would it be, If I died an old maid in a garrett?”

“How indeed?” I thought, and wondered idly how many old maids had suffered that fate of a lonely and neglected death in previous centuries.

From there, though, once started, my thoughts drifted on to other meanings and nuances and shades of meaning, and more recent times.

The term, “old maid” has always had cruel overtones. The “old” infers an inability to produce children, and the “maid” part, in more strait-laced times, referred to the woman’s unmarried status, rather than her unspoilt chastity. The appellation says it all, and more. There is no need to name the contributing elements that led to the woman’s rejection; all the shame and bitterness, the condemnation and recriminations are there, in the name itself.

When I was a boy, though, fresh complexities had brought changes to such descriptions. “Old maid” had been replaced, in many but not all instances, by “maiden lady.” That’s a name that might make young people choke with disbelief today, but that reaction is a very new phenomenon.

When I was young, maiden ladies were a commonplace, and few of them would ever have seen a garrett. Times had changed. I had a maiden aunt, on my mother’s side of the family, and I seldom, if ever, thought about it.

No one in those post-WWII days would ever have thought to ask what a maiden aunt was, because they were, quite simply, a fact of life. Most people had at least one of them either living at home or nearby, and maiden ladies were a commonplace and unremarkable element of the society in which we lived, the enormous majority of them drawn from that generation of women whose lives were irreparably blighted by the cataclysmic loss of eligible men in the First World War.

When I was a boy, though, I was blessed by a trio of such ladies, all of them probably in their late 40s and early 50s, though to me they seemed ancient.

Some kids are natural mathematicians. Others are natural athletes and still others are born with an affinity for the sciences or for music. I seem to have been born with an intrinsic love of language, and I was immensely fortunate, from the age of eight until I was eleven, to have a series of devoted and inspiring teachers.

They were all “Misses”: Miss Callaghan, Miss Gibson and Miss Hughes, though with the unthinking and unintentional cruelty of children we called them Big Mary, Wee Betty and Big Aggie, respectively, but I am eternally grateful that they all delighted in the way I sucked up everything they taught me.

For three consecutive years, those women nurtured me deliberately and with great care and attention, evidently seeing things in me that no one in my family, including myself, would ever have thought to look for. I see it now, but for many years I had no inkling of the truth, which was that they passed me along from one to the other, in the order I defined above, as I completed their grades, and in the course of my time with each of them they went far out of their individual ways, and far beyond the requirements of the curriculum, to stimulate, foster and reward my curiosity.

They taught me to revere the wonder and the logical majesty of linguistic syntax and analysis, and of scansion and prosody, words seldom heard by elementary school students nowadays. They taught me to admire and appreciate, and eventually to love, the intricate ways in which language works; the manner in which all the various elements and pieces of the whole come together to create the magic of great stories and enthralling, visceral poetry.

It was a love I was never to lose, a gift that I continue to value more highly with every day that passes and with each great book I read.

I call them my three Muses nowadays. My love of language was deep-rooted before I was eleven, thanks to them. And syntax was my overriding passion. For the sheer fun of it, I would open a book at random—any book—and parse a paragraph or an entire page, identifying and defining the various structural properties and parts of speech in every phrase and sentence, and the various and variegated clauses of a compound-complex sentence would leap up off the page to demand my attention. They changed me from a callow, know-nothing boy into a writer.

Everyone should know old maids like my three Muses.