Reflection #5: Why “Angela’s Ashes”?

A memoir is most often defined as a personal account of one’s life and experiences; which made me wonder why Frank McCourt chose to title his memoir Angela’s Ashes, after his mother. After reading it, my opinion is that the reason is because his mother gave him his life and did everything she could to help him survive it, even if it meant more sacrifice on her part. She overcame all of her personal turmoil in the hopes that her children would live a better a life than she did.

Angela’s life was difficult from the start. After completing her education in the ninth grade, she tried many different jobs, but couldn’t keep any of them, so her mother labeled her “pure useless” and sent her to America. Not long after she came to New York, she met alcoholic Malachy McCourt and they had a one-night stand which resulted in her pregnancy with Frank. The two were forced to get married and soon she had a family to take care of, and no money to do so with her husband drinking all of it. She would walk into bars with four little boys in tow, looking for her husband so that her children wouldn’t starve, and would rarely find him.

Then she lost her baby girl Margaret weeks after her birth, and the doctor took the lifeless baby away from her before she could even say goodbye. The devastation consumed her, leading her cousins to write her mother about the situation, and it wasn’t long before the entire McCourt clan was on a ship to Ireland with another baby on the way. Once they arrived in Limerick, their financial situation didn’t improve, and Malachy didn’t stop drinking his wages, whenever he had a job. Angela was ashamed to be indebted to her family members, especially her mother, and to accept charity from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, as well as sign up for the dole when her husband couldn’t keep a job. There were times when she would shame her husband by taking the dole money right as it was placed in his hands so that he wouldn’t spend it on alcohol.

Despite all her efforts, Angela lost her twin boys, Oliver and Eugene, one right after the other. Overcome with grief, she couldn’t bear to stay in the house where she lost her babies so the McCourts moved to another home where they had to share their lavatory with the whole lane. When Christmas arrived she was ashamed that people knew that all they could afford to eat was a pig’s head, but she tried to make the holiday festive in spite of their shame and other troubles. Even though they could barely afford to eat, Angela was determined that her children would learn skills in and out of school. She took Frank to a dance class, tried to get him approved to be an altar boy, and made an effort to get him into secondary school. She always tried to give him his best shot, even when they were turned down as a result of their class.

Sick or healthy, Angela made sure that her children got the care they needed, disregarding her own health and pride. When her husband went to fight for England and sent no money home to provide for his family, she begged at the Dispensary, where only the most desperate beg. She would take in strangers less fortunate than herself for a cup of tea and whatever she could spare, although it was very little. After getting kicked out of their house for destroying a wall and not paying the rent, she slept with her cousin and did chores around his house so that she could live there with her children. She did all of this while putting on a brave face, one occasionally streaked with tears. She lost her youth too soon, a fact I realized when McCourt writes of her saying “Oh, no, Michael, ‘tisn’t Frankie I’m crying about. ’Tis Dennis Clohessy and the dancing nights at the Wembley Hall and the fish and chips after.”

I can plainly see why McCourt chose to title his memoir Angela’s Ashes. His mother went through so much to ensure that he and his siblings had a brighter future with great opportunities, and she succeeded. After all, this memoir did end up on the bestseller list.

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