“The greatest part of the tragedy is that Ireland actually had plenty of food.” Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, p. 85.
You know Mama would kill me for saying this, but I really hate Peggy Mack. Mama has always said that hate reflects much more poorly on the hater than on the hatee. I can accept that it reflects poorly on me, but Peggy Mack drove me to this. She is just so icky. Damnation, I’m into words so I probably should come up with a much better descriptive word than icky. Peggy Mack is awful, abominable (not to be confused with abdominal), deplorable, and undeservedly brilliant. She’s the best speller in the history of the universe. And I will defy Mama giving me the stink eye to say that I truly hate her. Peggy Mack looks like the spawn of vampires, like she has never seen sunlight. Her pale skin is practically translucent. Her hair appears never to have been washed and it hangs over her gray eyes in greasy ringlets. She is at least 6 inches shorter than anyone else in our 7th grade class and she only speaks when absolutely necessary—like when she spells the word parsimonious or when Sister Patrick Joseph calls the roll. When called, Peggy Mack squeaks out a quiet little utterance that indicates she is in her assigned seat near the door, first row, first seat, as far away from the rest of us as Sister could have placed her. And she is the weirdest person I have ever known. Believe me—more than once I have been in the girls’ room and Peggy Mack has been in the stall next to me, sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth and quietly banging her head against the metal divider between the stalls. Sometimes she rocks while sitting at her desk, first seat, first row, near the door. But the bathroom is where the really serious rocking takes place. I worked my derriere off (derriere is a French word—I’ve learned to spell some foreign words too) to win the diocesan spelling bee. Sister Patrick Joseph kept a group of her star spellers after school for two months preparing for the spelling bee. Sorry to tell you that the wretched Peggy Mack was one of the stars. Sister relentlessly drilled us on words, including geographical words like rivers in Africa that I never heard of and medical words like the words for diseases I hope I never catch. When given a word to spell, Peggy Mack would look out the window and very quietly spell every word perfectly, just like someone was outside the window holding a sign with the word on it. Have I said that I hate Peggy Mack? On the day of the spelling bee I was humiliated by misspelling the word accommodate in the third round. The buzzer was louder than ever and I was sent back to my seat like some kind of moron. I know how to spell accommodate but I lost focus and left out an m. Peggy Mack came after me. She spelled it correctly of course and I thought I saw a hint of an evil grin on her wormy lips. She went on the win the spelling bee, took home a trophy that was nearly as big as she is, a bouquet of pink and red carnations, and a big fat Webster’s Dictionary. I was in a funk the whole way home and for days after the spelling bee. Mama got so frustrated with my behavior as a sore loser that she made me sit at the kitchen table and gave me one of her speeches. She told me that it was wrong for me to hate Peggy Mack, that the poor child had done nothing to deserve my scorn. She said I should have some empathy (I know how to spell that too) for Peggy Mack because she doesn’t fit in with the other kids at all. Mama explained that Peggy Mack’s family had moved here from Ireland just after she was born and she suspected that the scrawny, strange child with no friends and odd behavior was a victim of the potato famine in Ireland and that she had not developed normally. I didn’t know there was a potato famine in the late 1940s when Peggy Mack was born but Mama firmly believed that the “residual effects of starvation” had been passed down through many generations of Irish people. So just to prove Mama wrong I went to the library and looked up the Irish potato famine. Seems there was more than one famine, that many people left Ireland because they were starving. Just to prove that Peggy Mack was weird and came from some sort of dysfunctional (I can spell that too) heritage, I read part of the book to Mama: “The greatest part of the tragedy is that Ireland actually had plenty of food.”