Chapter teasers: From time to time I will post 'chunks' of chapters from my book "Father Father", a work of autobiographical fiction.
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Chapter 15 WITH THE HELP OF GOD AND A FEW COPS posted April 3, 2019
When up against a difficult situation that she nonetheless tackled with determination, Mother used to intone with a resigned voice that she would get it done with “the help of god and a few cops.” The original expression, taken from a World War II book, called for the help of “God and a Few Marines.” How it got to be cops instead of marines, I can’t say. It could have been Mother’s personalized spin on it’; perhaps finding a few cops seemed more realistic and helpful to her than finding a few marines.
On the two hour drive home from Dad’s funeral, Max asked me more than once with annoyance “Why are you still crying?” “Pull yourself together.” It struck me as disdain. My grief, raw and unmasked, annoyed him. I didn’t try to understand his lack of compassion. Instead, my thoughts overflowed like an eager liquid of memories filling in the dry spots of my present reality. Graveside images of the day and flashes backward to the man who’d answered “Whaaat-y?” in a sing-song way every time I called “Dad-dy” as a youngster.
From my earliest memories of rides on his bouncing foot, “Toots, you’re getting too heavy”, I’d advanced through life as he patiently (most of the time) taught me skills I needed for the basic tenets of life. How to tie my shoes, tell time, swim, ride a two wheeler... “keep going, keep going, keep going, I gotcha”; drive a car... “that rear view mirror is there for a reason Toots”; use basic tools... “measure twice, cut once.” He’d been there for all the big moments, and lots of little ones. He’d never let me down. That statement, simple as it is, is not easily, or truthfully, applied to many of our loved ones.
I already knew that Max was not the person I could count on for support. Others would do that, I supposed, lean on their mates at a time like this. But Max could never fill that role. Like that sensation of when the hand behind you, on your maiden ride without the training wheels on your bicycle, suddenly lifts away, I sensed the true enormity of being alone. Unlike solitude, which I rely on for bringing me back to me, being alone when you’re with someone else is a soul cruncher. I had grown to know that feeling all too well.
Dad had embodied stability for me, accepted me as I was. He had integrity, a trait I respected a great deal, and wished I’d gotten the chance to tell him that I did. Doesn’t love parse itself down to respect? We cannot love without respect. Strip the respect away, and we are left with a different essence altogether. Like removing the feathers from a down jacket; it may look the same, but it is useless for warmth. Perhaps one has a memory of warmth, or perhaps one held out too long with hope for a spark of warmth, but it was not to be.
IT’S A GREAT DAY FOR THE IRISH Chapter 3 excerpt
Oh, I woke me up this morning and I heard a joyful song
From the throats of happy Irishmen, a hundred thousand strong
Sure it was the Hibernian Brigade
Lining up for to start the big parade
It's a great day for the Irish, it's a great day for fair
The sidewalks of New York are thick with Blarney
For shure you'd think New York was Old Killarney!
Loud music, with my Mother singing along, breaks my sleep with a smile. The Judy Garland record makes a faint crackling sound as it spins around on the hi-fi in the dining room. Today is St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th and I’m off from school because Monsignor O’Dwyer declares it a holiday. Mother will watch the parade on television from start to finish. Now her next favorite, Dear Old Donegal, drops down from the stack, Mother sings along, with a hint of sadness.
The rest of the stack will play, then she’ll lift them up and play them over again. H-A-R-R-I-G-A-N; Who put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder; Sure it’s the Same Old Shillelagh Me Father Brought from Ireland, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary; and I Had a Hat when I Came In, which is my favorite because I know most of the words.
I go to the kitchen where Mother is forming the Irish soda bread into a big round loaf. Her short black hair is done up in pin curls, flat spirals pressed around the top and the sides of her head and held with metal clips. I’ve watched her make them. She concentrates hard, twirling the curl tightly, her lips forming a strange shape.
“Good Morning Glory!” she says brightly as she pats the bread with her hands. She brushes the loaves with milk, using a paper napkin dipped into a small saucer of milk, saying “that makes the loaf crusty on the outside” and then tells me to put small chunks of butter on top of the loaf. Flour and sticky dough lay in clumps on the enamel table, next to the box of raisins, bowls and spoons. Mother eases the bread into the buttered cast iron pan that has no handle and puts it into the oven. She goes into the dining room and pulls the table out from against the wall, then gets the leaf from the hall closet. Holidays and an occasional birthday, usually Uncle John’s, are celebrated in the dining room. And, of course, today, March 17th, the Wearin’ of the Green, which is Mother’s favorite holiday.
Uncle John will arrive around lunchtime, probably bringing special gifts, like the china vase he brought last year for Mother that has little shamrocks on it and came all the way from Ireland. And maybe something in a brown bag for Highballs. For dinner there will be corned beef and cabbage, with bits of bacon in it, and boiled potatoes, and lots of mustard. The bright green cardboard Irish hats will be brought out. The tall top hat is for Uncle John and the round shiny green one for mother. Daddy never wears an Irish hat.
This afternoon, Mother will walk to the bakery to buy a St. Patty’s Day cake, chocolate with a little green paper flag on a toothpick that says Erin go Bragh, which means Ireland Forever, and green frosting swirling around the edges. Mother loves a special cake for every occasion. Last month, we had two special cakes; one that looked like a log cabin for Lincoln’s birthday and the fluffy mocha cake with the cherries on top and the little hatchet, for George Washington’s birthday. We never get tired of bakery cakes. My favorite is the one we get for Halloween, which has little metal surprises inside the cake that look like the pieces in the Clue game.
Special beer glasses, tall and shapely, are set on the table and even a tiny glass stein for me, and a slightly bigger one for Monica. We are allowed to have a sip of beer on the occasion. It makes me burp and feel grown up. Before dinner, Mother changes out of her flowered house dress and puts on her bright green wool dress, with the wide belt. She has earrings that she wears only on this day. They are gold shamrocks with tiny emeralds and pearls. She has a pin to match, and a bracelet. Her lipstick is bright red, and nothing will shake her good mood today. She seems alive with electricity, her green eyes snapping greener above the green dress.
Later that night, Uncle John finished cleaning up his plate and declared “That was a grand feast, Margaret, thank you”. Mother smiled, looking pleased. He wiped his wide mouth firmly, put his napkin down and said “I have a story for you girls.” His long face is reddish and his eyes look bluer tonight. He has on a white shirt, sleeves rolled up. His wrist watch is large and round and buried in the black hairs on his wrist. Monica and I look at each other. This could be good. Some of his stories make us laugh so hard. Once, milk came out of Monica’s nose, and we were both so overcome we had to cross our legs till we got to the bathroom. She had to let me go first, because I’m younger. But sometimes the stories are long, and hard to follow, and we have to pay close attention, or Mother gives us the kick under the table and the raised eyebrow. Daddy picks up his glass and looks over at us.
Uncle John begins. “A man goes into a pet shop in Ireland. He’s looking to buy a pet that will be a good friend and companion to him. ”What’s the man’s name?” I ask. Mother gives me the raised eyebrow and the glare, but Uncle John says quickly “Mr. Gilhooley, now listen, don’t interrupt.” Daddy lights up a cigarette, looks around for an ashtray.
“So, the pet shop salesman shows him a beautiful little blue, green, and orange bird. He tells the man “This type of bird is called a Rarey” and he says the bird might learn to talk, but it will take time. The man, Mr. Gilhooley, Uncle John says in my direction, takes the bird home and he does turn out to be a good companion. The Rarey doesn’t seem to want to talk, but Mr. Gilhooley is patient and he believes that sooner or later, the Rarey will learn, so he talks to him all the time, like he would to a friend. He feeds and talks to the bird, but as the weeks go by, the bird keeps growing and growing...and growing and he has to keep buying a bigger cage for the Rarey. After the third cage, Mr. Gilhooley begins to worry. He is a poor man and works hard and now he is spending more and more money to feed the bird, and he keeps outgrowing his cages. Finally, he says to the Rarey “I’m sorry, truly I am, little friend, but I can’t keep you anymore. I can’t afford to feed you.” So he goes back to the pet store to return the bird, but the owner won’t take him back. What was the man to do?
Mr. Gilhooley lived near the seashore. One morning he put the bird into his wheelbarrow and went down the path to the sea. The bird e looked at the man in a puzzled way. “Don’t you be looking at me like that,” Gilhooley said, “I have no choice”. He got to the edge of the cliff, overlooking the sea, and he started to tip the barrow, getting ready to dump the bird below. The bird leaned over to look down at the sea. As Mr. Gilhooley tipped the wheelbarrow slowly, the Rarey looked mournfully back at him and said “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary!
Mother bellows a loud kind of screeching scream, which is how she starts a big laugh, and slaps the table and keeps laughing, holding her napkin up to her mouth. Uncle John is laughing the most. His eyes start to water and he has to wipe them. His shoulders shake up and down. Daddy puts out his cigarette and lights another one and smiles over at me. Monica and I have a good laugh too, but not as big as Mother and Uncle John, who take a while to wind down and heave big sighs like you do after a big laugh. But I feel bad for the Rarey, so I start asking questions.
“Could the Rarey swim? Was the man sad? Why couldn’t he find someplace else for the Rarey to go?” While Mother and Uncle John are wiping their eyes, not answering me, Daddy shakes his head, looks at me and says “It’s a joke Toots, don’t worry about the Rarey. It’s a story.”
This poem, a tribute to my Dad, appears at the beginning of Chapter 4, "Shining Shoes and Hula Hoops
Comes a time
like a freight train
I seek a newspaper
to polish shoes
like he did
those hurried school mornings
Looking down at my feet
ensconced in scuffed oxfords
navy blue, color of my life
his firm jaw working
above a starched white collar
“Take them off, they need a shine”
At the table he spreads a sheet of the
Journal American, completed puzzle face up
fishes out the small round can of Kiwi polish
from under the kitchen sink,
the shiny, scented rag, the worn brush
stained brown and black and blue
I wait in stocking feet
Meticulously he applies the paste,
rubs and rubs, brushes and buffs
“Here”, handing them to me
his voice softened
My cold feet slip quickly into place
I feel the insides still warm from his hands.
posted January 31, 2019
excerpted from Chapter 12 "Silver Bullet and a Hand of Fate"
It was one o’clock in the morning and I was driving home from the city to rural New Jersey when a red warning light popped up on the dashboard of the Silver Bullet. Echo Lake Road is a remote stretch of uphill country road with no street lights, no houses, and dense woodlands on both sides. There were no cars on the road at that hour. The headlights began to dim. I was terrified. I’d met Marilyn the twin (we always referred to them as that) for lunch. We hadn’t seen each other in years and we'd had a lot to catch up on.
Now, the red light glared at me, warning of an imminent break down. My headlights went out entirely, the road was hard to see, black all around me, but I kept my eye on the yellow line as I drove carefully. The ’62 Buick Le Sabre had belonged to Uncle John. Mother kept it after he died; I think she needed to have something of his to remember, but Dad complained about paying insurance on two cars, and she never drove it anyway. It was too big for her, her foot barely reached the pedal, and she didn’t do much driving. I needed a car, so they gave it to me.
"Please God", I prayed, "if I can get beyond this road, to Maple Road where there are houses to walk to, I can make a call for help.” How could I knock on someone’s door at one o’ clock in the morning? I’d have to. I was more scared about walking the dark empty road, but at least I’d only be four miles from home at that point.
As I started the steady climb up Echo Lake Road, I continued to mutter my bungled versions of prayers. I was a little rusty on the format, but still I hoped He’d be listening. “Please, please God, get me home, please get me home.”
Suddenly and undeniably, I felt a hand rest upon on my shoulder. It was a consoling, light touch, but as real as any physical hand I’d ever felt upon my shoulder. It had an immediate comforting effect. I didn’t turn, but I wasn’t frightened. I knew that I was alone in the car, but the touch of a hand remained on my shoulder for several seconds, maybe a minute, as I drove carefully up the black road, my eyes riveted on the yellow line, trying not to steal a glance at the menacing red light on the dashboard.
I knew I would get home safely, the hand on my shoulder had melted my fear.
This is a close match to the Silver Bullet, minus the Babe in the photo.
posted November 4, 2018
excerpted from Chapter 5 "Scapulars and Ejaculations"
When I was a kid, I chose a holy water font from a religious articles catalogue. My father attached it to the door frame of my bedroom that I shared with Monica. I blessed myself with the sign of the cross coming and going for a period of time. A foot and a half tall statue of the Blessed Mother stood on top of the chest of drawers. My missal, received at confirmation from Uncle John, sat on the dresser between uses, stuffed with holy cards that I collected from trading with friends during boring sermons at Mass when the nuns weren’t looking or at funeral homes where I was taken to what seemed an endless number of wakes of women Mother knew from the parish. There seemed to be a great number of them dying. I constantly complained “why do I have to go? I never even saw this woman alive?” “You go to show your respect, now button your lip and get your coat” In our dining room, a statue of the Sacred Heart oversaw all our holiday meals from where it sat on top of Dad’s chest of drawers, housed there because it didn’t fit in Mother and Dad’s bedroom. I never thought about the religious memorabilia that surrounded me in my childhood home as odd, but I took none of it with me when I moved out at twenty and married John, my first husband. I stopped going to mass then too.
posted September 2018
excerpted from chapter 10, "A Pink Rose"
Mother died when I was twenty five. No one could have convinced me at the time that it was a life changing event. Not that anyone tried. We were a family well used to secrets, adept at keeping our emotions to ourselves. I didn’t absorb it as a loss. The distance between us, measured not merely by the miles I’d intentionally put between us, was wide and rutted. I was angry at her, had been for years. In my youth and my ignorance about the disease of alcoholism, I believed she chose whiskey over her family. That left me feeling unimportant and abandoned. I’d never identified with the “on the wagon”, “off the wagon” metaphor. For me, it was a steep cliff; one had to hang on or call for a leg up. Or one decided to slowly, (or quickly) make the rapid descent, splaying rocks and gravel and gaining momentum, losing control along the way, but always with an eye for the perceived solace in the bottomless chasm, the sharp decline. We, her daughters, her grandchildren, were the misplaced gravel, the small, meaningless stones crazily ricocheting to the sides as she dropped, oblivious to the pain she caused, or unable to halt the trajectory. Her descent had far reaching consequences.
posted November 30, 2018
excerpted from Chapter 8 "Rock Path"
Two Van Gogh prints hung on knotty pine living room walls in the small cabin. No one knew who Van Gogh was, but when Mother took the framed prints down, the dark squares on the paneling were revealed. “Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” and “The Langlois Bridge at Arles” went back on the walls. They remained in their places, one over the small couch and the other over a space heater, hidden when the porch door was open, for the next thirty years until the house was sold. Mother said that the Ricardos, who’d sold us the house, must have been strange people to have those odd paintings. As a child I believed that Lucy and Desi had lived there in those same small rooms, until Monica, in her four year older wisdom, set me straight.
Years later, when we emptied the house after it sold, we found several other Van Gogh prints rolled up in the crawl space above Uncle John’s room. We had rarely been in his room, so small it held only a twin bed, a chest of drawers and a maple chair with a brown plaid cushion. The shadowy room smelled of cigarettes and flannel shirts and man sweat. When one of my nephews climbed up into the trap door in the ceiling that day, I had a clear memory of walking in from the porch one day, as a kid, to find Mother standing in his bedroom doorway talking with Uncle John. He stood there in white jockey shorts. Quickly, he’d muttered escuse me, and closed the door. I’d never seen a man in his underwear, not even Dad, but I knew from the laundry hanging on the line that Dad wore the underwear that looked like floppy shorts.
posted June 2018
excerpted from chapter 1, "Mind your Manners"
That day we drove to the rectory in Jamaica, and I had to wear Sunday clothes, usually only worn to Mass. Mother dressed up as well, humming as she put on her navy blue wool suit and pumps; looking intently in the mirror as she clipped on pearl earrings, encircled in gold. She told me as she buttoned up my coat and clasped the hat strap under my chin, “Now listen to me little one, I expect you to be on your best behavior today. Mind your manners, no interrupting, and bite your tongue if you don’t understand something.”
Lunch at the rectory was the three of us, seated at a long, dark wood table. Uncle John joked and talked, making my mother laugh. He wore his white shirt with the collar tucked under, and kept the ashtray close by his plate, with his cigarette smoldering. A maid came into the room and introduced herself as Rose. She had dark red hair, a color I’d never seen before, and blue eyes and a kind, musical way of speaking that mother called a brogue. She would serve us lunch. I didn’t know that happened except in restaurants. While Mother and Uncle John talked, I looked around at the shiny, polished furniture and the splendid glasses and china that sparkled in a large glass fronted piece of furniture, something we didn’t have, nor did anyone that we knew, even my Aunt Monica, who was Mother’s sister and who, Mother said, was more ‘well off’ than we were, whatever that meant.
Rose brought in the lunch. Pink oval shaped meat lay on a platter, encircled with hard boiled eggs and lettuce leaves. There was a basket of small, soft rolls. The pink meat didn’t look familiar; kind of like ham, but not ham. “What is it?” I asked my mother. “Tongue” she said, giving me the look. “I’m not eating it” I declared, clamping my mouth shut. Rose, passing in front of the lace curtains, about to leave the room, turned to say softly “Sure it’s a hard thing for a child to get used to. I’ll be bringing in some soup and she can have that with a roll.” Mother gave me the “you’ll be hearing about this later Missy” look but Uncle John kind of chuckled.
We went there only that one time. I thought that life in a rectory was pretty easy for priests, with everything taken care of for them. They didn’t have to work like Daddy did, they only had to walk over to the church on Sunday, say Mass, give out the communion wafers, and mumble prayers. Their meals were cooked and served, their rooms cleaned, and they got to live in a big fancy house that smelled like polish and lemons and clean clothes. They drove big cars and went on vacations. Except for eating tongue, it seemed like a pretty good life.