Though I began and finished a draft of this memoir the spring after my dad’s death, it’s taken nearly 2 decades to uncover his puzzles and secrets, how he fitted us together to form a cohesive picture, and why our interlocking pieces now form their own pictures. This is Chapter 1 of 6–we were six J’s–hooked together by a most extraordinary man.
Chapter 1: An Examined Life: 1890’s – 1960’s
“Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Fire,” a line from a Jerry Lee Lewis song.
Throughout history, great men have lived and died, many of whom were fathers, all of whom had fathers. We’re reminded of their achievements on numerous holidays—all but a few honor a man (President’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Father’s Day, Columbus Day…) These men fill history tomes, biography shelves, movie credit lists, and cemeteries.
Greatness was something my father never aspired to, yet achieved all the same. Great was his mind, talents, perseverance, and strength. Terrible was his temper, bigotry, lack of patience with inattention, and power over us. At different times in our lives, he certainly thought his offspring were great. And in light of recent politicians misusing the word, I realized great wasn’t the right word. Arete is a better word—formidable, recurring excellence—beyond reproach standards of quality. When many around him failed and refused to try again, my father set a bar he surpassed over and over. He encouraged us to do the same.
His wife of 47 years was elevated, in his eyes, beyond greatness. She was pretty, petite, and perky; she was also curvaceous and Madonna-like. My father drummed into us that we were always to respect her; we were never to use the “she” word. This was the woman who had suffered and sacrificed so her children would not have to. She was our mother; we loved her, but we didn’t like being told we HAD to respect her. In one of the many paradoxes that defined our family, my father was also terribly insulting and cruel to the woman he worshipped, and at times denigrated and diminished. She fought back and fueled raging bonfires. I had to know why this man of quality said one thing but did another—eventually I did learn why.
The relationship my father and I had was remarkable¾at the end, however the in between years appear in the landscape of my memory as a series of bizarre brush fires, spewing flames and phenomenal frustration, as well as sparkling fireworks of recurring joy. Only after having offspring myself did I realize there is no blueprint—we experiment. It’s a very tricky undertaking—mistakes are made. And I like what TX singer Kinky Friedman once said, “a happy childhood is the worst preparation for life.”
My father would probably not approve of the memory quilt I’m making of his life with this patchwork of words. Our discussion would have begun with me reminding him that the spectacular philosopher Socrates said an “unexamined life was not worth living.”
He might then have countered with “that doesn’t mean everyone gets to examine it,” and reminded me he was “no one special. Because we live in an age,” I can hear him say, “where everything is questioned and examined, we need a new ethic or rules regarding prying. That’s the mark of a civilized, evolved society.”
His life was important, and his ancestors were a strange lot—prideful, stubborn, fierce lover of earth, sky, and sea; defenders of the weak—refusing to bow in defeat. The Irish are enamored of beauty in all its forms, and the first to tear up when the soul is touch. Like Socrates, my father was in part devoted to inquiry and teaching. What he learned, he passed on—except for what happened to his family. My brother and I had to piece that together, and rely on unexpected sources.
To write the words ‘I love my father’ seem inadequate. He seldom said he loved us, instead he showed us. He wanted us to be independent and think for ourselves, though he didn’t immediately understand the way our generation reasoned. The story of Cap O’Rushes illustrates the dilemma. It’s the story of a king and his three daughters. He was aging and wanted to divide up his kingdom. He asked each daughter to tell him how vast their love was for him. The first daughter said she loved him “as she loved her life.” The second replied “better than all the world.” The third daughter likely saw these as platitudes. She thought for a moment and answered, “I love you as fresh meat loves salt.” That wasn’t what the proud king wanted to hear. She was ejected from the castle. Eventually, she found work in a kitchen and fell in love with a nobleman. On her wedding day, she told the cook to prepare all the food without any salt. Her father attended the wedding and upon tasting the bland food, realized the daughter that inventively compared her love for him to well-seasoned meat loved him best of all.
Cap O Rushes showed her father she could think for herself and didn’t need him in quite the same way as when she was a child. She didn’t need a fairy godmother either. She knew salt was more valuable than gold. The word salary comes from salt; Roman soldiers were once paid in salt and entire economies were based on salt production and trade. Shakespeare’s King Lear was another example of the battle of love and wills that raged between father and daughter. Unfortunately, Cordelia’s story ends tragically. It took many years beyond my childhood to reach an understanding with my father and have him acknowledge my independence.
When I was seven years old, my brother (age 4) and I were spanked for poking holes in the porch screen. My brother got hit first, on the butt. His two layers of clothing absorbed much my father’s very firm smack. He wailed as if he’d been thumped a dozen times, on his bare butt, with a wet strip of rawhide. I assumed the position next, and was so relieved to have barely felt the sting of his massive paw that I put my hands on my hips, looked directly at him, and said “that hardly hurt at all.” So I had to assume the position again. This time, I too was wailing when he finished. Still he asked if I wanted “more,” as if the pain he could inflict was a commodity, an extra helping of smashed potatoes, or a lump of sour candy. I got the point; and from that point on, it seems I was always getting into trouble and being smacked; both the intensity of pain and frequency of occurrences escalated as I aged and tested the limits of my parent’s endurance.
The battle of wills and my fight for independence had begun. My hands were figuratively tied behind my back; my mouth had already proven itself a traitor to my cause. I had no real weapons, except for my mind. I was not cute, petite, or adorable like my sisters, nor was I my father’s male heir. I had freckles, long, fine hair that tangled easily, and knock knees. But I had inherited my father’s stubbornness, plus a healthy measure of my own sense of justice, injustice, and the way things oughta be. I would study the enemy and bide my time. One day, I would “get even” with the man who erroneously stated that “hurting me hurt him more.”
Ironic, in that I had reached the ‘age of reason,’ but found no reason for constantly being the target my father aimed at and hit with unerring accuracy. Nor did I learn from an earlier experience at age three. I’d grabbed something I wasn’t supposed to in a store. My father looked sternly at me and said, “Remind me to punish you when we get home.” That day, the house on Holland Street was filled with relatives—there was a celebration—probably a birthday or anniversary. With grown ups milling around, I walked over to my father, tugged on his shirt and reminded him he was gonna punish me when he got home. I didn’t understand why all the adults were laughing, including my father. Dutifully, he placed me over his knee and lightly patted my butt. Then he set me back on the floor, and I ran to the kitchen to beg a cookie. In ensuing years, sometimes I forgot how much he admired that kind of brave honesty.
As I write this, I feel a bit like the student assigned to do a report about great men, while being torn between not knowing where to begin or with whom, and the unfairness of having to write only about men. Women have played an equal, if not a larger role, in defining greatness. My self- assigned task is to write about just one man—one sandy haired, sea green eyed, six foot tall man. It’s difficult, for while in a school report I write about what others put down in words about Teddy Roosevelt, Genghis Khan, or Michael Collins—I must write from memory about perceptions, events, and deeds I witnessed firsthand, or learned about eavesdropping or probing festering or unhealed scars of other’s psyches. I must get it right.
My father would have recommended I begin this story logically, and not skip around like a silly monkey swinging from one branch of a topic to another tree of inquiry. However, since he’s been gone, the world has become an infinity of reflecting mirrors rushing past me. The man I bounced my ideas off is isn’t there to interpret or provide clarity, and so I swing, and grasp, and refuse to let go.
I wonder if the world needs another memoir of a relatively obscure, very private person? He held multiple patents, was a master craftsman, and right before he died, an article about several of his 17 intricate art knifes appeared in Knifes International magazine. He was an aerial, mechanical, and electrical engineer, and the owner of a business that made environmental chambers for the Government and another that used caustic chemical to strip furniture. He helped design US zipcode system mail processing machines and an early Farecard ticket subway machine. He skipped grades in high school, attended colleges, built two houses, and could fix almost anything. Those details don’t begin to explain why my father was a person of enormous worth.
My brother, a genealogy genius, has done copious research on our family tree, and with the help of ancestry sites, road trips, interviews, and searches in digital newspaper archives, we amassed family trees and branches that trace back to the late 1700s. We wonder who will assume the title tracer of our tales, keeper of those lost and found once we’re gone? We’ve learned our ancestors were fighters and survivors, cattle thieves and pious priests, thinkers and drinkers, gymnasts, weavers, tailors, and rakes. Who will continue the tales and document our exploits?
My grandparents were born in the 1890s, less than a decade before Queen Victoria died, ending a 64 year reign. A faster than a speeding bullet 20th century dawned. By 1910 there were about &m people in the US (per the census), and the average salary was $13 a week. President McKinley was shot and killed in 1901 and a woman invented windshield wipers in 1903. Worldwide, 30,000+ died in 1902 when Mount Pelee erupted in Martinque. Over 10,000 were killed by a typhoon in China. In 1908, an earthquake and tsunami killed 70,000 people in and around Sicily. There were revolts in Mexico and a revolution in Russia—and a war like no other, precipitated by a royal assassination. American homes were modernized via electricity, indoor toilets and bathtubs, and inventions that were advertised as time saving marvels: washing machines, typewriters, radios, automobiles, mass produced clothing, and telephones.
My father was the youngest of three children born to Frank and Anna in the 1920s. My dad was close to his mother, but estranged from his mercurial father. American music was evolving brass bands in New Orleans, blues in the South, and Celtic Appalachian ballads in the Blue Ridge. Freud wrote Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 and the earth quaked in San Francisco in 1904. In 1901 Marconi received radio signals from NY and Detroit began producing cars. But there was still slave labor and wages, with people working 6-7 days for 12 hour stretches, with no benefits. There were 1000s of desperate immigrants—some were immortalized by wobbly silent films that hinted at the rising frenzy that would materialize in the 20th century in the form of world wars, puritan tirades, revolts, greed, glitz, and migrations from rural areas to towns and cities.
Irish myths, which I’ve immersed myself in after hearing tales from my grandad, described the coming of Partholans, Nemeds, fierce Fomorians, Firbolgs, Tuatha De Danann, and Mileasians. Much later came Vikings and Scythians, and somewhere inbetween perhaps even Sumerians and Egyptians. The Romans left the Irish alone; they described us as primitive heathens with Druid sorcerers. Family members have taken DNA spit tests that indicate we’re indeed of Irish Celtic and Viking stock. My ancestors came to America to have a better life, but brought the old ways with them. I have a picture from the 1920s of aunts or cousins wearing dark colored peaked hats, which make me wonder—where were their broomsticks? Or perhaps they were going to a costume party?
What I know about my dad’s early years and his interactions with aunts, cousins, and grandparents barely fills a thimble, and contains traces of truth and bits of baffling facts. He and my mother were born in the mid 1920’s in the Commonwealth State of Pennsylvania. My brother and I were also born there. My father lived in his home state for the first 19 years of his life. Upon an early high school graduation, he worked at Baldwin’s Locomotives as a machinist and attended college (Penn State and University of Delaware). His yearbook caption says: “a man among men, one whom women desire.” Hmmm! He played football for four years, and track & field. He was an Air Raid Warden in 11th and 12th grade, and enlisted in the Army in 1945. He circled the globe, was shot down twice, and fought in multiple Asiatic-Pacific theatres. Although his discharge papers state he was recommended for ‘further training and advancement,’ he didn’t reenlist. My brother and I asked endless questions about his Army exploits; he said very little. And yet, we have albums of pictures of our smiling father, his Army buddies, and the many aircraft he maintained.
The box of pictures we have of his first 20 years of life fill in some gaps and raise many questions. We know he liked jelly candies and chocolate covered coconut bars. He occasionally played card games, but had little patience for board games like Monopoly and Scrabble. He did well in sports, but had issues at school with teachers and bullies. He and his mother shared a love of dogs and also kept rabbits and chickens in pens in the back yard. He earned money picking apples, mowing lawns, and shoveling snow. Old articles in the Chester Times tell us he was a crime tipster—writing or phoning in news of fires, robberies, and suspicious activity. The object of this was to win a generous cash prize.
The decade he graduated high school must have been incredibly stressful. We went from the verge of war to actual war after Pearl Harbor was attacked. On the other side of the country, we set off an atomic chain reaction and interred legal, born in American citizens with a Japanese heritage. Later that decade, DNA breakthroughs would be made; Nazi atrocities were discovered, though not soon enough. We smuggled Nazi scientists out of Germany and gave them powerful positions building next gen modern weapons and stealth craft. We nuked two Japanese cities and the world scrambled to form the United Nations and other organizations to monitor and punish some war crimes. My grandpop Frank isn’t listed on the 1920 census and my grams rented out rooms in her house—and gave birth to their first child. Their first son was born in 1922. By 1923, my grandpop is a VP at a local fire house. Prohibition kicks in; we’re not sure how our Irish relatives dealt with it. We suspect the men simply joined private clubs or became bootleggers for Danny O’Leary or other bosses. The Philly area, along with Chicago and NY City were never really dry. This city of 2M people had over 15,000 speakeasies, brew pubs, and saloons.
My father never touched a drop of alcohol his entire life. He says it was due to the overdrinking indulged in by his relatives and friends. A Dougherty relative on his mom’s side of the family, dubbed ‘the Baron,’ was a big fight promoter. He owned a hotel with one of the longest bars in the country. My dad and I didn’t agree on spirits of any kind, though later in life, my dad made sweet, fortified wines using local fruit, and lots of trial and error patience. A Frenchman (a former husband) taught me how to enjoy and be discerning about hard liquor and wine, though he himself wasn’t discerning. In my 20s and 30s, I held several part-time jobs as a bartender and sommelier, and for a thesis paper, created a survey of alcohol, adding recipes and anecdotes from my world travels.
Though not really a beer drinker, I do like a Guinness as dark as tar. During one debate with my dad, I explained the theory Cheer’s Cliff Claven told Norm regarding the efficacy of alcohol. He said “a herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest one. When the herd is hunted, it’s the slowest, weakest ones that are killed first. Natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the herd improves by the regular killing of its weakest members. Similarly, the human brain can only operate as fast as the slowest brain cells. Excessive intake of alcohol kills some brain cells. But it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. Therefore, regular consumption of beer eliminates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster, more efficient machine. That’s why you always feel smarter after a few beers…” I almost heard a chuckle.
The year my dad enlisted in the Army (Air Corps), there was a coal shortage causing some plants to go to a four day work week. The local Chester paper ran stories on the conflict in Burma, reported a grandmother beat her granddaughter to death, and that 12 Japanese cities were being warned they were next to be bombed by us. My dad’s older brother had enlisted in 1942 and was a Warrant Officer. Several of their uncles died during the war years, one in Burma in 1944, another locally after a year long illness. That uncle had also worked at Baldwin’s, and may have helped get my father a job as a machinist. Chester residents were told to save household fat so the war machine could make glycerin-explosives and scrap metal drives were held—also to support the war effort.
Computers as large as houses debuted in 1945 and quietly we formed the National Security Agency and other covet agencies. Truman desegregated the military and the new word on the lips of the political controllers was ‘commie.’ In the ‘holy’ lands, seemingly worthless landscape was being reallocated and parchments dubbed dead sea scrolls were found. Israel was formed and multiple countries fought over Berlin. People gained faster access to local and world news (at least a sanitized, improvised version) with the introduction of the TV and transistor radios; and mass media upped their game. The word commie became more real in 1948 when China went red officially. And Russia announced they too had the A bomb.
My early years were much different geographically and culturally. We moved many times, and I started most school years in new environments. I listened to the Beatles, knew the words of Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl by heart, and frugged, twisted, shimmied, locomotived, and Freddied my way up and down the east coast. My parents listened to Bing, Sinatra, Como, and Patty Page, and my dad did his best to interest me in classical music, jazz, and Mitch Miller. The birth control pill was introduced in the 60s; we elected the first catholic president; and Rachael Carson warned us about our damaged planet via a book called The Silent Spring.
On a Girl Scout retreat I attended, instead of camping outdoors, everyone huddled round a small TV to hear news about the assassination of President Kennedy and death of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jacob Leon Rubenstein (aka Jack Ruby). Civil rights debates got heated and I marched in solidarity of fellow Americans and in protest of the war in Viet Nam. Meanwhile, I recorded small pieces of my father’s history in notebooks, and my brother and I asked more questions while we all watched old westerns and war movies, or Bob Rosses The Joy of Painting.
Both my dad and I were born during pagan seasonal solstice celebrations—he on Lamas and I on Imbolc. I capitalized on this fact; he ignored it, and tried to insist I do the same. The simple occasion of my birth, the significance of the date, and what I chose to make of the fact were ingredients that helped earn me some off-color labels: black sheep, heathen, atheist, and oh yes, jackass. The beliefs we didn’t share also led to one particularly unpleasant confrontation.
It was my first (but not last) introduction to his tools of terror: a willow stick, an orange plastic jump rope, a large hand, a leather belt… Too many times I tasted his enormous fury, and the reality of literally not being able to sit on my posterior without wincing. In looking back, I think it was inevitable, and it was worth it. For at the end of that battle we both realized something important—I was an individual, more than just my parent’s child; I had my own ideas. I could be ridden, but I would always buck; and it would not be so easy to break me.
My brother was the catalyst for that battle. He and I were home alone. We talked about cowboys versus Indians and what we wanted for Christmas, and then about religion and gods. In frank sincerity, I told him I didn’t understand why I had to go to church since I didn’t believe in the deity’s they talked about. It all just seemed like more fairy tales. When my parents returned from a visit next door, my brother was jumping up and down—like one of those monkey’s that plagued Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. He pointed at me and yelled “she doesn’t believe in god.” I didn’t deny it. I knew I was in for it, entirely alone, and facing not just physical punishment, but ostracization from family and friends. And though I didn’t know it then, that sibling betrayal of trust was the beginning of an alienation that would last until my father’s death.
Under the sign of Leo the Lion, my dad roared through his early years. We were told he was constantly getting in trouble and being punished—by his father, the nuns at the parochial school, and by neighborhood bullies. He was neither a bully, hoodlum, or disrespectful student or son. He was a bright, curious child, bored with lessons he already knew, confined inside a small, wiry body that hadn’t yet reached its six foot, 200+ pound potential. He yearned for what most of us yearn for at age twelve, fourteen, sixteen—that enigmatic, not quite attainable sense of selfhood.
In some families, the youngest child is called the baby, even after adulthood. While he/she often escapes mistakes made with older siblings, the baby gets hand me downs, and is sometimes ignored and regarded as less adept. At least that’s how it seemed in our family. Despite her full time job, two red haired children, and a house outside Las Vegas, my petite youngest sister is still called the baby. My dad called both my sisters and my mother “babe.” He knew better than to use the term on his feminist oldest daughter. Sometimes this word was treated as a term of endearment, often however, it was the “mouth pistol” that fired the shot that began the next battle in the ceaseless wars that raged in our home. War is not always a bad thing, if real bullets aren’t used, truces are occasionally declared, and no one side wins an unfair number of times. If only that were true…
In my father’s family, no one thought of him as the baby. They called him the runt of the litter. His childhood was sandwiched between the end of the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression. There’s that word great again. He witnessed a stock market crash and the changing winds of fortune. He marveled at technological advances—from automobiles, airplanes, and electrical toasters—to radio news, sports, and political commentary and affordable silver screen entertainment. Women shortened their skirt length and hair and got to vote, but were told who to vote for. His mom had been a suffragette and joined prohibition rallies.
His brother was a lettered athlete, whose formative years were marked by good grades, ample food, regular paychecks from my grandfather’s plumbing business, praise from his older sister, and occasional nudges from the old man. My uncle’s patience was duly noted—for putting up with his ornery, younger, thorn in the side brother. They didn’t bond through the adversities they face. They were somewhat baffled by each other¾somewhat at odds. These brothers, born six years apart, had different dreams and goals, different methods for dealing with pain and pressure, and different ideas about the work ethic. I’ve often wondered what led these brothers down separate roads? My uncle graduated college, married an amazing and educated woman, and had three children. But in the 60s, my uncle abandoned his job and family, forged his wife’s name on mortgage papers, got some money and went on the lam. He died in Florida in 1967. That’s another story.
Dad’s sister, I’m told, was a devout, dutiful daughter. She seemed determined to achieve her own version of greatness. She was spoiled and indulged, and whatever excess affection she did have, she passed on to outside admirers, to the denizens of the church, and to her community. Her dreams took her in a different direction, one with elitist ambitions. She wanted more, a great deal more. She seems to have achieved that—a lovely home filled with antiques, beach houses in New Jersey, and a daughter that did as she was told—at least until she was in her 20s.
My father was an inconvenience. When my grandfather was ‘in his cups’ he would accuse his youngest son of being the product of a dalliance between his mother and the man who owned the local grocery store. During a drunken rage or at the beginning of one of many two week “toots,” his cruel words reverberated through a dozen row houses on Holland Street. The accusation was repeated enough times to shake my father’s fiber and soul stuffing, though my dad resembles both his parents. He and his mother had to pull my grandfather out of saloons and march him home. Ugly words, far nastier than any of the menacing pink elephants my grandfather fought whenever he dried out, were hurled too often. It drove an unmovable wedge between them, which no Archimedean lever could budge. It may even be much worse. The day my grams died, my grandfather was passed out in an upstairs bedroom. She lay on the floor on the main level, bleeding.
My father failed one grade, then skipped two grades, and graduated from high school one year before his peers. His mind was a lightning rod. Ideas that struck it absorbed his entire being, and remained in fertile ground until retrieved and put to practical use. He enrolled in college, which he paid for himself with the money he’d earned working at a local gas station, as an apprentice machinist, and a paperboy. But he wasn’t able to complete his education—war and military duty called. In later years, lack of a completed degree kept the kite of his mind from soaring into some clear, open places. Instead, he had to learn to navigate around fraternal boys clubs and networks, corporate power lines, and other formidable obstacles.
In 1945, my father traveled round the world as an Avionics Engineer, and saw ‘horrible action’ in the tail end machinations of World War II and the beginnings of the Korean offensive. That, in my opinion, is a good word for war in general—it’s offensive, mind shattering, and disrespectful of life, albeit in the “great” scheme of things it may be necessary. War is good for reminding us how great peace is.
His erratic school records mirrored his home life. From about the time he was eight until he joined the service, he watched incredulously, with growing anger as his father’s drinking binges escalated, and his plumbing business suffered. His mother’s health and spirit deteriorated, and his family became the poster model for dysfunctionality. People were on edge, having experienced Prohibition, economic disasters, and a second world war. My father was told not to want, not to beg, to make do, and be grateful for what he had. He did, he was, though it wasn’t enough.
In ancient times, after child sacrifices were outlawed, a scapegoat was typically offered to the gods. Similarly, someone had to be blamed for my grandfather’s out of control drinking, for losing his plumbing business, for my grandmother’s high blood pressure, my aunt’s excessive indulgences, my uncle’s brooding moodiness. I know what it feels like to be picked on because you’re different. But I was never continually told I was bad, useless, or vile—I received scorching tastes of my dad’s ire when he thought it necessary. I also had allies and role models I could study; and most important, I had my world of books and an ability to tell tales that had better outcomes than mine.
The stigma of being called runt and worthless bastard hung over my father like a crude, leaden cartoon bubble. I think it made him doubt himself. He had a few weaknesses too¾a nasty temper, a streak of chauvinism, a fear of objectively exploring reasons behind many rules, and one of the failing the Greeks often wrote about¾hubris¾obstinate pride. Remarkably, his stubborn spirit, inherited from both sides of the family, wouldn’t allow this doubter to be a quitter. Throughout his life, when he couldn’t do something, he studied it from multiple angles, until he could do it—better than anyone else. Then he moved on, returning only to those arts and skills that held new challenges.
He must have loved his mother a great deal, and I hope she was a trusted ally; for he surely needed one. I’ve been told I resemble her, or did, when I was younger. My grandmother had a keen business sense. She bought AT&T and RCA stock and made other savvy investments. She ran the office for her husband’s plumbing business, attended political meetings, and loved to host gatherings at her home. But something made her fragile—something or someone broke her. She died suddenly at age 59—was it genetics, stress, or something else?
My middle sister was born fragile, with a cleft palate, which required three operations before the age of 5 to repair it, and speech therapy for the first five of her elementary school years. She broke her arm; it took a long time to heal, and developed a heart murmur. At age 17, she was in a car accident and received a serious head injury. She began having convulsions, severe headaches, and bouts of weakness. She had to take anti-convulsive medication and carefully monitor her health. She’s the one who remained behind on the mountain after we left.
My youngest sister and I don’t see each other often. She moved to Nevada decades ago, and adjusted well to the intense, arid heat and glow of neon. For many years she had a beautiful garden of roses, the oldest known cultivated flower. It’s the symbol of love, indulgence, and intoxication. My gardens have also are full of rosebushes, planted wherever there is sufficient sunshine.
Roses are associated with the goddess Venus, with Bacchus, and with extravagance. Cleopatra is alleged to have ordered a fragrant carpet of rose petals strewn from the ship docks to her palace to welcome her Roman lover. In Islam, the rose is celebrated as a symbol of perfection. Catholic’s forbid an association between Mary and roses, choosing instead the lily to represent the virgin mother—there’s an interesting oxymoron. Millions of rose petals, however, were used by monks and nuns to make—rosaries.
In Roman mythology, the rose was created by the goddess Chloris, who found the lifeless form of a nymph in the woods and turned her body into a flower. She asked Aphrodite and (Dionysus) Bacchus to give the flower beauty and a sweet scent. It became a group effort. Zephyrus, the West Wind, and Chloris’ mate, blew away the gray clouds, and Apollo shone his bright beam on the flower. They crowned their creation “queen of flowers.”
Roses are well suited to my youngest sister, who shares with me a similar lust for life, for things fermented, and for riotous beauty in art and nature. When I visited her, I looked for a variety called the Peace Rose among hers. I couldn’t locate it in the East. The Peace Rose was introduced between World Wars I and II by a French rose breeder who feared for the delicate rose he and his family had cultivated. They sent cuttings to Germany, Italy, and the United States.
I looked for this type of rose because my youngest sister was the family peacemaker. It was fitting this rose should thrive there. But it wasn’t among her fragrant beauties, and she reminded me that after she and my father had a serious fight in the late eighties, she knew no peace. I didn’t judge her; I hadn’t been there. I never fully realized how deeply their fight affected her, or how regretful she was for not standing up to her husband.
The scent of roses is said to calm domestic strife, and darker shades tend to have richer scents, as do old fashioned varieties. In my grandmother’s back yard on Holland Street, roses once climbed upwards on rickety wooden trellises. Whatever sadness my grandmother felt—from May to September she had her fragrant roses. She cared for them as if they were dear friends; and their purity, their soft elegance was a constant.
Dad once told me his mother made him rose petal candy. He had no idea how she made it, but I looked up a recipe: rose petals are dipped in whipped egg whites, then in a boiled sugar and vanilla mixture, laid flat and allowed to dry. I can imagine him reforming the petals into a new, improved spun sugar blooms and dissolving the concoction on his tongue. I also believe the scent of roses was painful to dad. There were no rose bushes in his gardens, so I couldn’t share with him what I learned about a roses care and feeding. They like a bit of Epson salt, plenty of sun and water, and a squirt of diluted Neems Oil if there’s a bug problem. They like to be praised.
My aunt claimed to have traced my grandmother’s family back to royalty—back to no less than persecuted, conspicuously Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. But’s it’s laughable how many 1000s of people make the same claim. Then again, if we are related, perhaps my grandmother’s thinned, high pressured, Irish blue blood wasn’t capable of enduring or matching my grandfather’s rough, lusty, humble Irish blood. I’m not keen about being related to old royalty —to flea bagged, sometimes half witted, incestuous, uncompassionate people who bore the titles lord, lady, duchess, duke, sir, gentry . . . and kept the dark ages around too long.
My brother and I are tracing our ancestry—we’re stuck in the late 1700s. He has an interesting theory. It contains a pinch of eastern mysticism, a dash of UFO what ifism, and a dollop of plain, common sense (of which I seemed to have received the smallest portion of in our family). He suggests we choose the body and family we want to be born into, to resolve questions and bad karma, and move up the evolutionary ladder. It’s theoretically possible, he adds, that in any one lifetime, different entities also share our life forms, minds, and souls, and influence decisions we make. Some are driven out, some depart upon a pre-determined cue. That might explain many of the mysteries that have confounded science, doctors, parapsychologists, and the “inquiring minds” that want to solve life’s most profound puzzles. Similar sentiments have been proposed by Shirley MacLane, J. Redfield (Celestine Prophecy), Theosophist’s, and other truth (and sensation) seekers.
Knowing who our immediate and ancestral family are/were is valuable in helping us solve questions such as: What are we here for? What do others have to teach us? What do we need to overcome in order to continue our evolutionary process? I suspect all people we come in contact with, those that help, those that hurt, and those that leave us indifferent teach us more about ourselves—if we pay careful attention.
Dad and I had many fascinating talks about subjects that danced near, but never onto the translucently buffed reincarnation floor of memory. I proposed that since we know so little about our brains—or about quantum mechanics, the chaos theory, or even electricity, (in comparison to what we know about our little finger), it’s feasible our intelligence, our souls, never really expire. Our essence may be an imperceptible form of energy encoded with past memories of not just all the lifetimes we’ve lived, but perhaps the lifetimes of all human beings connected to us. Tapping into such a database would certainly be more than my brain could absorb, which must be why no one has yet been able to prove it exists, let alone take a dizzy, virtual reality spin onto a database the size of—eternity. This theory isn’t new. What is new is more and more traditional type people are taking this idea seriously.
When my father described how tough it was growing up during the 1920-40’s and under the conditions he did, we laughed; we thought he was joking. We were mischievous, but not wicked children. We tattled on each other, or tried to pass our guilt up or down the ladder of rank, but we were never mean spirited. Even in our maddest, vilest rage, we never wished each other harm. But it was not unusual for my dad to hear mean words from siblings and cousins. We’d squirm when he told us a few of the things they’d done to him, and then he’d remind us to be kind. We’d coerce him into telling instead about his boyhood adventures, his flaunting of authority, his attempts to capture a bit of happiness.
I called one of my favorite stories “The Lion, the Glitch, and the Wardrobe,” a paraphrase of one of the Chronicles of Narnia book titles. My father, a Leo, was about twelve years old, and he’d hooked parochial school (or had been sent home); he hid under his bed until the coast was clear. He’d been warned not to touch any of the guns in the house, and forbidden to fool with his brother’s newest rifle. And yet in the warning, he detected a subtle dare from his older brother. Nor would his father or brother volunteer to take him shooting, or show him how to load or fire a rifle. So on that day, with an equally high boredom and curiosity level, he dragged the heavy gun from his brother’s closet, and sat on the edge of the bed admiring, polishing, and inspecting the cold, shiny weapon. This was not a gun; it was an icon that represented old glory and patriotism, John Wayne, Daniel Boone, and other matinee and storybook idols.
I don’t remember whether the “gun was loaded,” or whether my father found some bullets and loaded it himself, but the natural progression of events, after examining a weapon, is to aim and fire. Which he did—right into his brother’s wardrobe. The bullet tore a neat, round hole through the mid or upper right portions of most of his brother’s clothes and continued through the walls. The shot, many said, was heard round the neighborhood. A few people thought someone had been killed. What with the hot blood and passions that coursed through the veins of the inhabitants, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.
The bullet lodged in the wall of the bathroom, and remained there. My father, a brave young man and admirer of George Washington’s cherry tree honesty, could not, would not tell a lie. His arm bore a nasty bruise where the gun had butted against him. He was severely punished, and had to reimburse his brother for some of his damaged clothes, but he never lost his fascination for guns, or lacked appreciation of their power.
His father did buy him his first gun at age 16, and later that same year, during deer season, he shot his first deer. From its strong, slender legs, he made a lamp for his mother in shop class. Knowing this, I’m amazed my mother complained when I made her a necklace from uncooked macaroni for her birthday.
My father only chuckled when I drew a hideous design of a Christmas tree on a handkerchief I gave him as a holiday gift. He never used it. When we cleared out his dresser, I found the handkerchief, perfectly preserved, along with the note I’d written him that Christmas of 1957. It said: Der Dad: Tish is for yu. Lov—and then I wrote what looks like “J3.” That doesn’t surprise me.
We were the six J’s, all our first names began with that letter. “J” is the tenth letter of the alphabet, occurring not quite half way through. I think my father gave us all “J” names because he knew the “J” shape is a hook.
Throughout my life I’ve experimented with names and titles. In first grade, I changed my name to BeBee, a name I think I’d gotten from one of my mother’s soap opera characters, and spelled it in my own, illogical way. My brother for a time called me DeeDee. To this very day, I am like my dad, a terrible speller. Is it phonetics or genetics? Luckily, there is spellcheck.
My brother once made a wonderful coat of arms, dubbed “Six J Ranch,” which showcased our house and the land on the mountain in Maryland that eventually became a severed place, a slightly haunted landscape where civil war ghosts felt more at home than I did. We aren’t six J’s any more. Paradoxically, we are less and more now.
In his thirties, after buying a number of adequate guns, my dad realized one of his dreams and made his own rifle. First there were several prototype models. He forged the steel and blued the barrel, carved the stock from a raw block of wood, fitted all the pieces, and hand worked both a fancy scroll design and the profile of a noble stag into the rifle’s face—or whatever you call the two sides that rest closest to your cheek. It was a beautiful work of art, well balanced, tastefully inlayed, fitted with a quality scope, and designed to be used comfortably by a person of my father’s approximate size and stature.
With this gun, at age 17, my brother shot and killed his first deer. He and my dad skinned the deer and ate its meat (I took a taste, but no more than that). The head was taken to a taxidermist and later mounted on the wall in our family room. Its gaze fixed on the brown glass eyes of the deer my father had shot decades earlier.
The art of taxidermy was one of the few skills my father never tried to master or learn about. In fact, I think he deeply regretted killing those deer. On his land on that mountain in Maryland he posted “No Hunting” signs. When my father built and moved into what was to be his last home, he relegated the deer heads to his workshop; they soon became covered with dust and infusions of pipe tobacco, paint, and other chemical odors. Spiders wove lacy nets in the antlers, and the glass shiny eyes clouded over. I took one of the deer heads from his workshop, cleaned it up, and hung it over my fireplace. Its all-knowing eyes stare right at me as I type these words.
Neither my sisters, mother, nor I ever killed, nor wanted to kill a deer. At age 18, my intrepid daughter shot and killed her first deer. Her boyfriend helped her ‘harvest’ its meat; he also killed his allotted quota of deer that year. Out West, and in parts of the Midwest I’m told, deer are a major inconvenience, decimating crops and grazing areas. To restore order, about 60 per cent of the deer population are allowed to be killed. In many cases, their meat isn’t used. It’s left to rot in the woods and fields where the deer breathed its last. Five thousand years of civilization, yet humans are still unnecessarily cruel, ruthless, thoughtless, creatures.
It will take far more examination than what I’ve done in these pages to understand the complex humans that compose our family. I know I let my father down many times by failing to examine a subject in more depth, by offering school girl answers to questions that required deep reflective thought, by disobeying his commands. While I didn’t participate in the deer killing rite my father, brother, and daughter had, I did, at age 6, kill two pheasants with a car. But that’s another story.