“my father moved through dooms of love, through sames of am through haves of gives, singing each morning out of each night, my father moved through depths of height… griefs of joy…his flesh was flesh, his blood was blood… his anger was as right as rain…” e.e.cummings
Requiem skyre en partum (The man has died—the legend lives).
There’s a picture in a book on Canadian wildlife of a magnificent stag with a tangled crown of antlers and a pair of knowing, glass shiny eyes. The deer is at rest and presumably, at peace—with his surroundings and his life. It is autumn, and the blazing gold-bronze leaves provide a perfect backdrop and complement the stag’s dense, tawny coat. Creamy patches of white at his throat, eyes, and chest provide gentle contrast. I took this book from my father’s workshop—on a chilly spring day after my mother had decided it was time to sort and clear the vast jumble of accumulated treasures that defined, in part, who and what my father was.
This deer could be Bambi’s father—or my own. A deer just like this one is the totem that now represents my father’s spirit. It symbolizes attributes that composed this man, how he lived his life, and how he died, bursting from our lives, and onto the pages of legend, childhood memory, and mature reality. For after we die, what we were seems to become either a lie, a legacy for those we loved, or a legend that recites to others what we could have been.
I took the book back to my home in Virginia, and when I opened it to the page depicting the deer, I didn’t smell the primordial forest, filled with the heady intoxicants that announce the woods in autumn, nor did I detect a trace of printer’s ink or bookbinding glue. I smelled my father’s sawdust and pipe smoke filled workshop, and felt the raw anguish of loss all over again. And although my mother was alive and well, albeit suffering through her own relentless grief, for a few hours that day, I was an orphan—anchorless and alone; the sluice gate broke and a salt block’s worth of tears puddled the page.
It seems strange now to have felt so abandoned that day, more than six months after his death. But perhaps not. My parents, especially my father, had always kept us close—so close that as soon as I was able to leave home, at age 18 (the date was the 4th of July, Independence Day) I did. I climbed through my bedroom window and sprinted down the mountain. I ran from my parents, like the little gingerbread character, towards the adventures and misadventures that awaited me. But I always returned to the mountain, which for the last twenty-five years of his life, he called home.
I was the first to go and the oldest— “the example setter,” he called me. My brother, next in age, and youngest sister, ten years my junior, also left the family home, though in not so drastic a way as I had. They were kinder, smarter, and had hopefully learned from the many mistakes my parents and I made as we tried to understand how to properly raise one another. Only my middle sister remained on the mountain—enchanted, trapped, or simply glad to remain atop the not always perfect, picturesque mountain frame, which changes and ages, but doesn’t lose its wild beauty.
In one of my poems, I called my father the “sage of severed mountain.” In another, I referred to him as the “bane of my existence.” I know he can’t be described through a few carefully chosen words, but in my poetry, I continue to try. He was a man of action and quiet passion, who possessed an Early American contrarian heart, was generous to a fault, and had a wicked, dangerous temper—so hot it boiled his blood and froze us in our tracks. The one page eulogy I wrote, which my daughter stoically recited at his funeral, was a feeble attempt at resume—to summarize his accomplishments. He was not a man you could easily forget, yet he forgot, or refused to tell us much about his early life.
He was born under the sign of Leo, and there is a jingle about the zodiac I recall, from an early MAD magazine, which aptly describes the type of lion he was: “A Leo comes on with a roar/And when he’s through, he’ll roar some more/Should you cross him, have no fear/The welts will fade within a year.” I read it to him. We were all in the car on one of our many trips to points of interest. I ceaselessly asked him questions. He was a living, breathing encyclopedia with an informed answer for my most ridiculous queries. It was one of the few times I ever remember him turning red from sheer embarrassment. He didn’t yell that day; or whack me with his tree branch of an arm¾he simply told me to sit back and be quiet. My mother didn’t know whether to kiss or slap me; she alone understood the not so funny hilarity of the poem—and she had recently crossed him.
I’m speculating, but I think my father was born as he died—curious, slightly bewildered, and a little awed. He was the last child born to parents of Irish descent. My mother was also a last child, born to parents of Welsh descent. I was neither there at his birth or his death, arriving twenty-six years too late for the first event, and a telling two hours too late for his sudden, final departure. I don’t know whether he was literally ripped from his mother’s womb, as I was, coming out breech birth—a leg and an arm, or whether he was her easiest birth. I do know, from what my mother told me, that death took him by surprise, and that he probably “expired” that warm, September afternoon, at the foot of the long, winding driveway in front of the house he’d built, on the mountain he loved. Dying became the last thing he did well.
His mother died the year my parent’s were married, their engagement shortened by her death. I know of her only through the few pictures and anecdotes our relatives shared with us. According to my mother, it was my father who found his mother inside their home, lying on the floor, dead from a cerebral hemorrhage and heart attack at age 59. But I may have the details wrong¾it may have been my father’s brother, my uncle Francis, who discovered his mother’s body, while my grandfather lay upstairs in one of many drunken stupors. There was talk among my relatives that my grandmother died of a saddened heart and worn to the ‘width of a quill’ body. In many pictures, she looks every year of her age. That perhaps is what happens to fragile people—they slowly disintegrate—wearing their distress as an outer threadbare garment. It seldom provides sufficient protection.
My grandfather was an Irish cliché—he drank, he fought, he drank, he gambled, he bragged he did, and indeed could—lift more weight than any two men combined of similar size, and carried an anger within him heavier than anything he could ever conceive of lifting. When young, my father retrieved this mean drunk from bars, this ire filled son of Erin who wanted to take on the world when he went on a “toot.” But to his grandchildren, he was Gramps, a kind, generous, white haired old man, with a twinkle in his eyes, and a pocket full of loose change destined for our grubby hands. There was an Irish lilt in his voice, though I’ve been told I imagined it.
I was brought home to the same house that dad and his brother and sister had grown up in, the same house where abuse was as normal as fish on Friday—the same house where perhaps a bit of my father’s magnificent spirit had been wounded or tragically altered. My brother, a chubby, rosy faced baby, with a powerful pair of lungs, also called the house on Holland Street home his first few years. I did not ogle over my new sibling at first; I saw him as an annoyance, an unwanted responsibility, and a threat.
We moved away—to California—when I was about 3 1/2 years old, but I still recall the modest Pennsylvania row house, and the neighborhood where I spent a few formative years. On a cloudy, wet, or wintry day, it was just plain ugly. On a sunny, balmy day, it was passable—even interesting. You could usually catch the ethnic cooking smells—garlic and tomato, cooked cabbage, grease and spice rich kielbasa, or the sweet aroma of baking or cooling fruit pies. But these lovely smells had to compete with the acrid byproducts produced by nearby oil refineries, traffic exhaust, and other heavy industrial outputs.
Busy sounds also defined the street. On the worst day, mothers screamed, fathers shouted and cursed, children cried, dogs howled, cats hissed, horns blared, and the nearby factories, schools, and churches all helped raise the noise to a nearly unbearable level. But on one of those clear, squeaky clean days, the ice cream truck tinkled cheerily, children squealed delightedly, and our mother’s voice was melodious, soothing, and indulgent.
My father’s boyhood on this same street must have been much different. The sounds from industry were building sounds—hammers, drills, deep manly voices. There was an ice truck, instead of an ice cream truck in those have not—do it yourself years. A Polish family lived four or five doors up the street, and Italian, Greek, and Irish families lived down and across the street, so the cooking smells then were probably similar to the ones I’d enjoyed. The trees were more numerous—the air fresher, and the small lawns more vibrant. Most families had pets. My grandmother owned a whippet, and had also adopted a greyhound, which made sense, since both mistress and dog were sleek and well groomed.
In a picture I have, both my grandmother and her dog wear a resigned, yet yearning look. I’ve seen a similar plaintive look on my father’s face, but he was never resigned. That is, if he was, during the last few years of his life, as my brother has maintained, I must have looked away, and refused to acknowledge any expression that could be labeled weak or surrendering.
That was all a long time ago. Most of the people who could fill in the blanks about my father’s life on Holland Street have, like him, passed on. Luckily, old photos, memories and scraps of history intertwined in my father’s life offer its own commentary.
When I write a short story or an article for work, I prepare by doing extensive research, consult my copious notes¾as well as photos, drawings, and diagrams; in short, I use all materials at hand. For this job, this labor of love and angst, I’m working without a harness, parachute, or bullet-proof vest. My memories and thoughts both confound and comfort me. My father wrote no autobiography, while I, not yet 50, have written two “her-stories.” Reasons for writing about myself are numerous—pride, confusion, desire, a brazen attempt to control my life’s unfolding, and a burning curiosity to understand the person that resides within me.
My father didn’t leave a single quote or epitaph about himself. Perhaps his humility wouldn’t allow it; perhaps he thought there was nothing much to say, or that the great works he left behind: patents; white papers; museum quality knives; doweled, dove tailed, hand rubbed furniture; paintings; houses he built, children he raised, horses he breed, land he cleared—would suffice as proof he had once lived.
I also wrote his “death notice.” I dislike the term “obituary,” which in definition is supposed to represent “a short account of the significant aspects of a person’s life.” While it’s generally true that it’s difficult to see the shape of a life until it’s over, an obituary sorts out personal details, and retains only a few highlights about ones accomplishments and significant work. An obituary signals an end, and is really a false accounting—for it’s our fallibilities and flaws, our Theodore Roosevelt like “stumbles and failures” that really define who we are. Those things that round and complete us are excluded from an obituary, and from the headstones in cemeteries. Truth and what remains of a person after his or her death—the lies and the legend—are expressed in intangible remembrances.
My father never stopped telling me I was responsible, as much as he was, for protecting and watching over our family. Of course, he told these same words to my brother and sisters, yet he truly meant we were all responsible for each other, bound by blood, shared physical features, and deep emotional ties. I think we were more bound by the intense, nearly ‘undissolvable’ glue he smeared us with continually. It was a glue composed of essence of dad and mom, a glue containing one part each: tragedy, genius, madness, contradiction, originality, anger, compassion, love, logic, and cleverness; pinches of Irish blarney, fairy and ancestral dust; and a splash of fortitude. A glue, which, since his death, has loosened and crumbled. No one else, it seems, was given or taught the recipe.
The very private man who was there at my beginning has been “reinterpreted,” translated into another language and dimension. Those who knew and loved him gathered together after he died, arriving from the deep south, the west coast, and the city of his birth in Pennsylvania. We met on the mountain in Maryland that he’d retreated to. They laid him to rest—but I did not, I can’t.
I struggled over how much information I should disclose about his life, my own, and those we are related to. (I started to say ‘I agonized over how much to say,’ but changed the word to struggle. My husband, a complex son of Tennessee told me I’d never agonized or worried over anything. He’s wrong; however, struggle is a better word.) I decided I’d tell as much as was necessary to get the story right. I feel compelled to let the world know who he was, what an impact he had on our lives, and how paradoxically diminished and enriched I am by having been his oldest child. If anyone is still speaking to me when I finish this, after they have read this memoir, this sometimes tribute, sometimes diatribe to a most mercurial, extraordinary man, I’ll be immensely pleased.
This is what I know—or think I know (as my father would remind me) about him, about the rest of my family, and about myself. I won’t start the first chapter by speaking of the overused analogy of the Russian nesting dolls in comparison to my family. Besides, now he is gone, I—we are outside him. I hope this ‘outsidedness’ lends me the wide angle lens perspective I need to do justice to his memory. I’ll begin by using a word he would never have used when referring to himself.
This is 6 part memoir, stay tuned…
Jo Hannigan, Sterling, Virginia, September, 1997