THE LEGACY OF AIDAN MCMANUS

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  The book begins in Dublin at the turn-of-the-century with the courtship and marriage of Sheila O’Reilly and Ian McManus. They decide to emigrate to America and settle in a NYC tenement. Sheila becomes a maid in the wealthy home of Evelyn and Thomas Burrows who have experienced a terrible tragedy and left Evelyn a recluse. Though only a maid, Sheila befriends Evelyn and helps draw her out and back into the world. Sheila gives birth to Nora, the first of their many children and leaves to raise her family, but remains friends with Evelyn and their relationship is intertwined throughout their lives. Nora’s story is one of her own love and tragedy and the story continues with her son, Aidan, through his life and tells the story of his own loves, triumphs and tragedies. Aidan is the main character as he begins and ends his live that is woven through his friends and family.


 

CHAPTER ONE

       Dublin was a bustling seaport in 1879, the year Sheila O’Reilly was born. She was the first girl for Mick and Mary O’Reilly. Prior to her, there were six boys who would give her no end of grief as her protective, older brothers. They carried her home from church when she was just a tot and fought her battles 

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as she got older. No matter how hard she tried to stand up for herself, one of the O’Reilly boys always stepped in to do battle for her. Being raised with no women around except her poor, exhausted mother, Sheila grew up more of a tomboy than not, so there were always battles to be fought. 

Ah, but she was a pretty little thing with long, fire-red curls winding down her back. Her mother had a devil of a time containing them in any respectable manner. And try as she might, she could never keep the dirt off her face or the scabs off her knees.

What ever was to be done with her little Sheila? her mother often thought. There’ll never be a decent suitor coming to call, no matter how angelic a face she had. Sheila would more likely wrestle him to the ground if he dared bring flowers around to court her.

No one could have been more surprised when Ian McManus came to call. Mary O’Reilly opened the door and there he stood, all six feet two inches of him. Towering over Mary and Mick as well, he ducked his head down so as not to hit it on the door jamb. Only one of Sheila’s brothers were as tall, but not nearly as broad in the shoulders or as pleasing to the 

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eyes.

“May I speak to you sir?” Ian said to Mick.

“Sit yourself down, laddie,” Mick said to the very nervous young man.

Squirming in his seat, Ian asked if he might be coming to court Mick’s only daughter. Knowing how protective the O’Reilly boys were, he looked around the small, well-worn parlour to see them lining the walls with their arms crossed and jaws set. He knew they could pummel him, just for the very thought of it. But alas, he was smitten with the pretty, little Sheila and it was no use trying to forget her.

The first he had seen of her was at the harvest festival. Her clear, deep-blue eyes shone like the sapphires in a king’s crown. Her hair was like the sunlit, summer wheat, wildly blowing in the wind. He could only imagine running his hands through the wild, red tangles, taming it into submission. 

As the pipes started to play and he asked her to dance, he found himself

surrounded by eight strapping, young men.

“And just what are yer intentions, me good man?” asked one of the formidable group,

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in his thick Irish brogue.

“Patrick O’Reilly, you get away from this 

poor lad. You’re enough to scare the bark off a tree,” Sheila said as she shoved past Patrick to take hold of Ian’s moist hand.

Ian could only marvel at the spunk of her. She was such a tiny thing to have all that fire within her — little did he know just how much fire. 

As they danced the eve into darkness, he could feel eight pairs of eyes boring into his back. He knew he best not be taking any liberties with the fair Miss O’Reilly, if he valued his life. Only a fool would risk a peck on the cheek of this beauty.

Now here he was, sitting in the parlour with those same eight pairs of eyes fixed only on him. Mick O’Reilly had no cause to worry about his Sheila’s heart, because there was a fearsome sentry guarding it.

Just then, Sheila blew into the room like a windstorm. All heads turned to look in her direction. She was wearing a plain, yellow cotton dress that would make most young lasses fade from view, but Sheila would be radiant in rags.

Ian rose from his seat and in doing so, 

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knocked over his chair.  Sheila burst into an 

enchanted laugh as the color in Ian’s face 

turned crimson.

“Excuse me, sir,” Ian mumbled to Mick as he turned the chair upright.

“Well, now, this is a fine thing,” Sheila said. “And just what shenanigans are going on

here?”

“Says he’s wantin’ to court you, Sheila Eileen O’Reilly,” said Michael, Jr., the oldest O’Reilly brother.

“Is that right, now?” she said.

Ian felt his whole body moist with the heat of a thousand faerie fires. His knees trembled and his voice had all but disappeared.

“Yes, me darlin.’ He’s here to ask and it’s me to decide,” Mick said.

You to decide?” she shrieked.

“Well, I am the father, you know, me fine girl.”  

“Yes, and I’m the one he’s askin,’ so I’m thinkin’ it’s me who’ll do the decidin’!”

“Well, there you have it, Ian. No use askin’ me to begin with. Our girl knows her own mind and sets about getting it her way. You might as well know that right from the start,” Mick said as he shook his head.

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And her way it was.

After the banns and the courting, they were married in the little, stone church, filled to capacity, with the entire O’Reilly and McManus clan in attendance. 

Mary O’Reilly had given Sheila the Irish lace wedding gown that she herself had been married in. Ian could barely move as he saw his dear Sheila walk down the aisle looking like an angel from above. She took the breath right out of him.

The celebration was high-spirited and lively with boisterous singing and dancing at Murphy’s pub afterwards. The drinks were on the house, so there were many, regrettable hangovers in the morning. But it was, after all, a great day for the O’Reillys and McManuses. 

Ian and Sheila snuck out early, although no one would have noticed they were gone, to do their own celebrating at the little cottage  Ian inherited from his Da when he took sick and died the year before. 

He carried her across the threshold as his beloved wife, and beloved she would be, until his very last day, on this God’s green earth.

Ian’s Ma had passed away many years

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before when he was just a young boy, and it was his Da who raised him. Ian knew his Da would have been happy with his choice for a bride and pleased they would be living in the cottage he raised his son in.

And now it was Ian’s turn to raise a family of his own with his pretty new wife, Sheila McManus.

They had been wed for just over a year when Ian received a letter from his cousin, William McManus. William had taken passage to America over ten years before and Ian would hear from him every now and again.

Before he met Sheila, Ian thought about traveling to America to join William, but once he was smitten, it was out of the question. 

She would never leave her family and her brothers certainly would never let her go, so he never mentioned it.

When William’s letter arrived, she sat at his side as he read it. 

“You never told me you were plannin’ a trip to America, Ian,” she said softly as she brushed a dark curl from his brow.

He loved the gentle way about her.  

“Oh, ‘twas a pipe dream long ago, now,” 

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 he said. 

“Couldn’t very well go draggin’ me new bride half-way ‘round the world, now could I?”

“And who said you’d be draggin’ me? And who said I wouldn’t be wantin’ to go, I’d like to know, Ian McManus?” 

She stood up and put her hands on her slim hips.

Just as he loved her gentle ways, he feared her hot-blooded temper. She could burn the skin right off a man with her words. And she could blacken a lad’s eye in an instant, if she had a mind to.   

“Sorry, me darlin’. I should’a known better. Would you be havin’ a mind to go to America, then?”

“Well…I’m not sayin’ I am and I’m not sayin’ I’m not. I’m just sayin’ it’s somethin’ to talk about, that’s all,” she said as she sat back down.

So when they told her family that they had decided to book passage, it was her who did the telling.

William and his wife Molly were at the dock to meet them, surrounded by three curly, red-headed youngsters who were unmistakably 

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theirs.

“Whoa, Ian! Over here!” 

William was waving his arms wildly, and screaming over the droves of people that were disembarking the gangplank.

Molly hugged Sheila and William shook Ian’s hand and then wrapped his arms around him.

“Welcome to America!” 

They were all crying as William led them off the dock to the trolley stop. William helped Sheila step onto the trolley as Molly and Ian helped the children.

Their names were Mary Katherine (called Katy), Megan, and little Willie. Sheila thought they were the most adorable little urchins she had ever seen. They climbed back and forth from her to their mother. Little Willie wriggled away from Molly’s grasp and without so much as word, her eyebrow rose menacingly; he scrambled back onto her lap.

“Here we are then,” William said as he packed up his brood and helped them off the trolley. 

They were in front of the brick tenement they called home. Now it was home for the newly arrived McManuses, as well.

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Molly helped Sheila unpack the fine Irish linen she brought from home while William took Ian to the firehouse to inquire about a position.

After Ian had secured gainful employment, he and William went to celebrate with a pint at the pub. It was after midnight when their men-folk stumbled in through the door to meet their stern wives. One look at the pitiful sight of two drunken Irishmen, home from celebrating good fortune, and they just shook their heads.

“They’ll be feeling poorly enough in the mornin’ and won’t remember the scoldin’ I’d like to give tonight,” Molly said as she draped William’s arm around her neck and steered him to their room.

Sheila was shushing Ian who started to belt out a soulful Irish tune. She didn’t bother to undress him when his bulk landed on the bed. She just laid herself down next to her man, smiling at the thought of starting a new life in America.  

Their new beginning in this alien land was just as hard as they expected it to be. The strangeness of it all took some getting used

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to. In their tenement, and the tenements around them, lived all the Irish immigrants that sought a new life in New York City. 

On unbearably hot, summer nights when there was no cool breeze to blow through their bedroom windows, they all sat outside on the cool, concrete steps. They would sit around and talk about the struggles of trying to make a better life for themselves and reminisce about the family and homes they left behind.

Ian and Sheila lived with William and Molly until they could save up enough for a place of their own. The passage over had eaten up the tiny fortune they left home with. 

Ian started working as a firefighter with William, and Sheila found a job washing and ironing for Mrs. Burrows in that grand house uptown. After paying for their share of the household expenses, they put away the rest of their meager pay to get a place of their own.

Sheila was as hard a worker as Mrs. Burrows had ever seen. After taking the long trolley ride uptown in the oppressive heat, she would spend the day doing the washing and ironing, stopping only for a bit of lunch with the other household servants. When Maura Flanagan slipped on the wet marble entryway 

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and broke her ankle, Sheila gladly stepped in to take over as the upstairs maid. 

“Top o’ the mornin’ to you, ma’am,” she would say as she brought Evelyn Burrows her breakfast tray.

“And good morning to you, Sheila,” she would respond with a smile. 

She found Sheila to be a breath of fresh air in the tedious life she spent confined to her room. Her husband had long since stopped trying to persuade her to leave the protection of her sanctuary and rejoin the world. She knew she had given in, or rather given up, after Thomas, Jr. had been killed in a tragic accident five years ago, but her spirit had been broken, and try as she might, she couldn’t get it back.         She found herself looking forward to hearing Sheila’s voice in the morning. Her cheerful smile and charming Irish lilt in her morning greeting would lighten Evelyn’s heart just a little. Nothing, or no one had done that in a long time. 

“Tis a beauty of a morn,’ Mrs. Burrows,” Sheila said as she laid the silver breakfast tray on the fine, wooden table that was closest to the bed. 

She knew Mrs. Burrows would glance 

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at the grapefruit on the tray, nibble at the toast and then return to bed after Sheila had straightened out the bed sheets. 

Poor Mrs. Burrows, Sheila thought. So young and so troubled. She had heard the stories from the other servants as they sat around the kitchen table, eating bowls of soup and thick slices of homemade bread at the noon hour. Tommy Burrows was only five years old when he fell from the top step of the spiral staircase that led to the marble entryway below. Poor Maura Flanagan had broken her ankle on that marble floor; Tommy Burrows had lost his life. Evelyn Burrows was out at a charity luncheon when it happened. The nanny was discharged for allowing the boy to play at the top of the staircase, but Evelyn never stopped blaming herself for not being there, for not protecting her precious tow-headed little boy. Right after laying his little body to rest, Evelyn Burrows went home, changed into her bedclothes and went to bed. 

Five years later, she was still there, only venturing out of her bed to sit at the small wooden table for her meager meals. She only picked at the food, sending the trays back, barely touched. Her once ample frame had 

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dwindled to a fragile ghost of a woman. Her frailty was something that disturbed her husband to distraction. Watching her tortured soul, day after day, was more than he could bear. Month after month, he tried to break through the wall of guilt she built around herself, but to no avail. He brought in doctor after doctor, friend after friend, but she just remained curled up in bed, crying. 

Eventually, he was forced to send her to a sanitarium where she remained for almost a year. He would visit her every Sunday, just sitting with her, holding her hand, and trying to bring her out of her shell. Finally, she was able to talk to him, just a little, and begged him to bring her home. It broke his heart to see her sitting alone in her room or on the sun porch. Her doctor said that he didn’t expect much more improvement, so she might as well convalesce in her own home, with her own things about her. Perhaps being home would  eventually bring her back to him.

So here she remained, in the spacious pink and white flowered bedroom, prisoner of her own guilt and pain.

Sheila pulled back the bed covers and tugged at the corners of the sheets. Then she 

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ran her hand across the bottom sheet to smooth out the wrinkles. As her hand lingered over the cool, luxurious cotton, she thought what it would be like to sleep in such a bed. The one she shared with Ian was half the size and covered in an old yellowing sheet, threadbare in spots. What luxury and opulence were contained within this room! The bed linens alone would pay for rent in the tenement for six months. But for all their wealth, there was no happiness, only pain. Sheila would not trade her life for Mrs. Burrows’ no matter how much finery she owned.

Sheila picked up the tray, noticing that almost all the grapefruit had been eaten and the toast as well. Hmmm…she thought, perhaps the missus is starting to see the light of day.

When Sheila closed the bedroom door behind her, Evelyn slipped back out of bed and walked to the window. The heavy, rose-colored brocade draperies had remained closed for these five years. Thomas tried to draw them back once and he quickly closed them when Evelyn shrieked in pain from the sudden burst of sharp sunlight that filled the room and 

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lit up her prison.

“No! no…” her voiced trailed off. At that moment, Thomas knew that her pain, more emotional than physical, was going to keep her heart locked away from him forever. So, resolved and heartbroken, he grieved the loss of both his son and his wife and buried himself in his work.

Evelyn gingerly fingered the velvet brocade as a single tear splashed on her cheek. Tommy…Tommy…she cried quietly into the velvety softness. I’m so sorry… and I miss you so…she sobbed. But for once the tears were not ones of agony, but ones of healing. She cried for what seemed like hours, though it was only minutes, an eternity in an instant. When at last she could catch her breath, she eased the draperies open just an inch or two, for the searing brightness had become foreign to her and stung her eyes. She sat down in the pink satin chair next to the window and little by little drew the draperies back until they were half open. Sheila knocked on her door with the luncheon tray.

Sheila gasped when she opened the door and entered the room that was bathed in light.

“Oh, pardon me ma’am,” she said. “I…

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I…”

“That’s all right,” Evelyn said with a gentle laugh. “I know.”

“Excuse me for taking liberties, ma’am, but ’tis a wonderful thing and ’tis so pleased I am to see you sittin’ there just as pretty as a picture,” Sheila said as she blushed at the spontaneity and candidness of her comments.

“Thank you, Sheila,” Evelyn said fondly. “I’m afraid I must be quite a sight,” she said as she brushed the hair back from her face. 

Sheila could tell that Mrs. Burrows had once been fair of face, as they would say in the old country, but the years of grief had taken its toll.

“Do you think, perhaps… perhaps…” her voice trailed off.

“What you’d be needin’, Mrs. Burrows, is a bit o’ pixie dust to put the color back in those cheeks. And I might be just the one to summon up the faeries to lend a hand.”

Sheila was so kind and endearing that all Evelyn could do was laugh, something that she had been unable to do for the five years since she’d lost her Tommy. Somehow, he didn’t feel lost to her anymore, just moved to a different place in her heart.

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“Well then, let me eat this wonderful lunch while you draw my bath, and we’ll let those faeries have their way with me.”

Sheila’s heart was dancing a jig as the warm water ran over her hand into the enormous porcelain tub. What a wonder to see Mrs. Burrows out of bed, even if it was just in her own room. How pleased the mister would be to see her up and dressed in all her finery. 

She helped Evelyn into the tub. How delicate she was, her bones barely covered by her pale, white skin. Sheila helped her bathe and wash her hair. She was frail and needed help from the tub and to dry the bathwater off her fragile body. Sheila brought her a beautiful, pale-blue, silk dressing gown. As she slipped it on, Evelyn was filled with love and gratitude for this gentle creature with the spark of life in her. Sheila’s spark ignited a tiny flame in her. And now that flame flickered and grew in the light of day and had great promise to light her life back up again.

Sheila helped Evelyn pick out a soft green dress, with just a hint of lace at the neck and sleeves, to bring out the green in her eyes and not make her skin look paler than it already was. Then she did up her dark brown 

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hair that had lost its luster through the years of mourning. In her dressing table were things only a rich lady would have, to give color to her face and lips. Rouge, they called it. Evelyn picked out tiny pearl earrings that Thomas had given her when they were first married and a pearl choker to cover the lines that had started to form at her throat.                            

When they were done, Sheila stepped back to look at Evelyn.

“Ah, the pixies have outdone themselves today, they have.”

“Well, I needed their magic…and yours, Sheila,” Evelyn said as she brushed a tear from her eye.

“There’ll be none of that now, ma’am. The angels lookin’ down knew you needed a bit o’ the green. Brought it over meself, I did, right from where the leprechauns live.”

“Thank you, Sheila.” 

Evelyn knew she would never be able to repay her. There was no amount of money that could compensate Sheila for restoring her spirit. But somehow, she would try.

“What do you think himself will be thinkin’ when he comes home?”

“Himself?” Evelyn asked.

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“Mr. Burrows.”

“Oh, my goodness. I hadn’t even thought… I don’t know.”

“Well, we’ll be findin’ out soon enough,” Sheila said as she saw the hour on the ornate, gold clock on the mantle. 

He would be home any time now. He would rap gently on the door, come in and kiss his wife on the forehead and ask her how she was feeling. Then he would leave her alone for the rest of evening until he came back in to repeat the process. Sadly, he would leave her and retire to his own bedroom. 

It was the same thing every night and he had no reason to believe tonight would be any different.

“I’ll be leavin’ you then…”

“No! Don’t go, please. I don’t think I can do this. It’s been so long,” Evelyn said with panic in her voice.

Sheila knelt at Evelyn’s side and took her hand in hers. Taking liberties, she would call it. 

“He has a love for you, ma’am, that would make the angels weep,” she said gently. “I see it in his eyes every time he leaves this room. Give him this gift, ma’am.”

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  The softness in Sheila’s eyes touched Evelyn’s soul. 

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn said quietly. 

Sheila stood up and straightened her starched, white apron, took the lunch tray, and left the room. She passed Mr. Burrows on the staircase and said, “Evenin’ sir.” 

“Good evening,” he said wearily. 

He didn’t even know her name. She was just one of many servants that tended to his ghost of a wife. Sheila watched from the staircase as he opened the door to enter his wife’s room, and she smiled.

It was autumn and the leaves were turning a bright, burning crimson and a soft, amber gold. The air was crisp and cool and the sun was setting earlier in the late afternoon sky. Sheila and Ian loved to take a walk in the park on her Sunday afternoons off. 

It was on one of those walks that Sheila told Ian she was expecting a wee one.

“Oh, Sheila, me darlin,’” he said as he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her shiny, fiery-red curls.

“We’ll call him Timothy, after your own Da,” Sheila said.

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“Timothy Michael, after yours, as well,” he said, with a tear glistening in the corner of his eye.

Sheila knew for certain now, that she had chosen wisely. Ian was far more the gentle giant than the brawny man he appeared to be and he would make a fine, loving father for the brood she expected they would have.

Evelyn Burrows was ecstatic when Sheila shared the news with her. They had become fast friends after that fateful day that brought Evelyn back to life. 

Thomas Burrows would never forget the influence Sheila had on the wife he thought was lost to him, forever. He came to know her stubborn Irish pride when he attempted to reward her for her kind deed.

“You’ll not be insultin’ me like that, sir, thinkin’ I helped Mrs. Burrows for this,” she said indignantly, as she pressed the money back into his hand.

“No, no, Sheila, of course not. I didn’t mean to insult you. Please forgive me,” he begged.

“There’s no forgivin’ to be done, sir. ‘Twas me own pleasure to be helpin.’”

Thomas Burrows just shook his head 

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and stared after her as she turned on her heel and left his study. What a wonder she is, he thought. He knew that he would someday find a way to repay her for giving him back his wife.

Now with Sheila’s good news, he found that way.

The very next morning there was a fine, black carriage waiting to take her uptown to the grand home and it would return her safely that evening. Sheila knew it was of no use to refuse, so she resigned herself to accept the kindness. As she climbed into the handsome rig with its seats all covered with the finest, plush, red velvet, she thought how the angels had blessed her in this new land. Her neighbors leaned out their windows to watch as the carriage rode away with their very own Sheila.

Every day after that, the shiny, black carriage would whisk her away uptown where she would be more of a companion than a maid to Evelyn Burrows. Sheila often felt that she was taking money that she hadn’t earned because she wasn’t scrubbing floors or washing windows. The most strenuous things she would do were to run a bath for Mrs. Burrows or lay out a dress for their morning walks. 

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Sheila knew that she had been Mrs. 

Burrows’s first link back to the real world and away from the grief that held her captive for so many unhappy years. And for that reason, Sheila knew they would never be just madam and her maid.

Sheila felt a knot in her stomach the day she told Mrs. Burrows that she was expecting. She was afraid it would bring back the old memories of little Tommy and rekindle the grief, but if it did, Evelyn never let it show. She showered Sheila with the love and attention her own mother would have, if she had been back home in Ireland.

As the time drew near for the birth of Sheila’s baby, Evelyn had Thomas bring down the pram that she pushed her Tommy in when he was first born.

“Are you sure, sweetheart?” Thomas asked with great concern, knowing the bittersweet pain she would be feeling.

“Yes, Thomas. It’s time that these things are put to good use and I can’t think of anyone who needs them more than our Sheila,” Evelyn said softly with moist eyes.

“Oh, my darling,” he said as he wrapped his arms around his precious wife. 

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Her dark, chestnut hair brushed his cheek and he could feel her heart beating against his chest. 

“I love you so, Evelyn,” he whispered. She looked up into his loving, dark brown eyes and kissed him gently.

“We will need to buy another pram,” she said.

“Another? Why would Sheila need two?” he asked.

“She only needs the one. We will need the second,” she smiled warmly.

It took a few seconds for him to understand, and then he hugged her so tightly she could barely breathe. She didn’t mind. His touch had become very precious to her. Before  Sheila, they hadn’t touched for many lonely years.

Sheila gasped as they presented her with the beautiful, shiny black pram.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” she cried, knowing it was their own wee Tommy’s.

“Oh, but you must,” Mr. Burrows smiled broadly. “You see, we decided to buy a white one for this new baby,” he said as he gently laid a hand on his wife’s belly.

“You don’t be meanin’ it! Truly?” 

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Sheila squealed. 

“Yes,” Evelyn said with tears streaming down her face.

Oh, what a glorious day it was! Her own Mrs. Burrows, with child. It was a miracle — truly a gift from the faeries. 

There was much laughter, hugging, and crying. Tea and cakes were served in the parlour, Sheila sitting with them, pretty as you please, just like one of their fine guests.

When it came time for Sheila’s confinement, Evelyn was heartbroken that she insisted on remaining in their small, tenement flat. They tried to persuade her to stay with them so a fine doctor could attend to the birth, but Sheila stood her ground.

“There’s no need for your worryin.’ Us O’Reilly women are a strong lot and so are our wee ones.”               

  And so, Nora Anne McManus came into the world on a bright and sunny summer day in the year 1898, with her father beaming proudly as he held his tiny baby daughter in his powerful, yet gentle arms.    

 


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Author

Judith Sessler

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