Life's struggles for 6-year-olds have always included the task of enlisting adults in their games. In the fall of 1945, my friends and I wanted desperately to play football. Our recruiting efforts were seriously impeded by the fact that many fathers had been caught up in a different draft and were off helping some mysterious uncle. Of course that left the mothers, but the thought of chasing or being chased by your mother was, for us, altogether too close to the circumstances of everyday life.
Still, in our desperate quest for some leadership on the gridiron, we knew it would have been sheer foolishness to rule out the entire female population. And so it was that, on Roosevelt Avenue in the north end of Waterville, Maine, we found a woman who was willing and able to play football. It neither mattered nor impressed us that she was 92 years old.
Margaret Ferriter Abbott—we called her Abby—was born in 1853 in County Kerry, Ireland. She had come to the United States at the age of 18. Ulysses S. Grant was President. My friends and I didn't get to know her until about 70 years later. She was, I still recall, a woman of considerable passion—for storytelling, salt water and holy water, for anything Irish and, to our constant delight, the game of football.
We descended upon her with some regularity. To be sure, her molasses cookies were part of the attraction, but even more appealing were the stories that she told in what was to us a curious rolling brogue. We often caught her thumbing through her black wooden rosary beads and would watch in pretended patience as she worked her way to the crucifix. Finally, animated by waves of her hands and gales of laughter, the stories would begin. The best were first-person accounts of events that were, by that time, already in the history books. Even the reruns were terrific. She was a big, handsome woman with broad features and an infectious smile. Blue eyes glistened behind spectacles which sat upon two round cheeks and a generous nose. Her uncommonly large ears were too often the subject of my impolite gaping.
Her passion for water came from the Irish connection. It is unlikely that anyone ever made better or more liberal use of holy water. She kept a considerable supply, quite willingly provided by the local priest at nearby Sacred Heart Church. If we didn't feel well, we got a sprinkle. Every scratch or bruise—and there were plenty—got a sacred rubbing. On hot summer days when thunderstorms approached, we would rush to her house, retreat to the dark living room and be suitably protected by Abby's splashes of holy water. There we sat, so many small, damp lightning rods, as she petitioned the Lord to keep us from harm.
Abby's penchant for salt water was satisfied by our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. My family made frequent trips to nearby Belfast, Maine, and my brother and I would unfailingly smuggle home a pop bottle filled from the tide. Upon receipt of our gift, Abby would solemnly remind us that the contents had "washed the shores of dear old Ireland," and then, to our everlasting astonishment, she would drink it!
Not only did she occasionally taste Ireland, but every once in a while Abby would also take a look at it. This amazing feat required an excursion to a hillside half a mile away. Sometimes she would take me. Her large hand would engulf mine, and we would help each other trudge through the fields, her billowing petticoats and flapping skirt often cutting off my view. When, huffing and puffing, we at last reached the right spot, she would point the tip of her cane directly at an old red barn on the hillside. "Over there," she would say positively, "is Ireland." Geography was not my long suit. On tiptoes, squinting and leaning from side to side, it always took some time before I could see Ireland, too.
Best of all, Abby played football. And she was enthusiastic. She would grab her wooden cane and, with the help of half a dozen of us jumping around her skirts, it usually took the whole crowd an eternity of five minutes to move the 50 feet from the front porch to the playing field on her side lawn.
She actually knew very little about the fine points of the game. We didn't know much either, and that shared shortcoming left us free to make up our own rules. To be frank, when you played football with Abby, some generous concessions were necessary. Considering her age, she was still pretty fast over short distances, and although her knees and feet were bad, she did have good hands, especially when it came to controlling her cane.
Teams were invariably made up of Abby, plus one, against the rest of us. The object was to get past her and the lone roving defender and onto the cement sidewalk in front of the house. She and her teammate of the day played defense. The rest were delighted to be on perpetual offense. It was all rough-and-tumble, play-action stuff, trying to reach the sidewalk without getting tackled by Abby's teammate or whacked by her cane. It wasn't easy. The lawn on which we played was narrow, and Abby had good reach.