Saturday, March 15, 2014

St. Patrick's Day (Bittersweet Holiday)

I come from a large family that is of English, Irish and Scotch descent. We are the ultimate WASPs (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants), although a couple of my sisters have embraced the Catholic faith. I respect them very much for that and at one time took some workshops with a priest so I could become godfather to my darling niece, Molly, and my close friends’ son, Jacob.  Growing up we lived mostly in the suburbs, ate white Wonder bread, and on my part, because it was important to my father, spent a lot of time taking care of lawns.

I think it is interesting that many of us in my family married people who were in some part Irish.  My mother as a Redman; my older sister, Melissa, is now a Corcoran; my brother married a Norton.  I married a girl with the last name of Doyle.  We lost my mother when I was just nicking 25.  When my Dad remarried he wed a nice girl named Virginia Caine Murray.  When Ginger became a part of our family so did her two children, who then became my siblings.  I love them very much and have never used the word step-brother or step-sister.  They’re just my youngest sister and brother, the Murray kids. My father and his wife had a lot of grandchildren and they all have Irish, biblical or family names. There is Benjamin, Matthew, and Meredith Kelly; Molly, Becca, Patrick, and Emma; Madeline and McKenzie; Connor and Delaney; Michael, Charles, and Grace; and Hannah and William. Holidays are a lot of fun around our houses.  We trade the off where we will all get together.  We always celebrate Easter at my house and I look forward to it every year.

My father was always a big fan of Christmas but he also loved St. Patrick’s Day. We used to have parties at our house with all of the neighbors and our friends. After Mom died, Dad started a tradition where we would all take the day, and the next day, off work and congregate at the parade in the city. We would then camp out in some restaurant or bar with the intention of spending the entire day and night together. Eventually our family gathering turned into a big pub crawl that a lot of other people joined in on.  It got so large that we had to start reserving rooms and tables at places like Ireland’s, Andy’s Jazz Club, and Irish Eyes down on Lincoln Avenue. On one St. Pat’s Day, at Andy’s, my college roommate and high school friend, Jeff, the one who spent four years in the service in Korea and Japan,  stood up and made a very touching speech about his girlfriend, Kathleen.  He then pulled a box out his pocket and asked her to marry him.  That was a fun South Side wedding to stand up in. At the end of every night we did three things:  we went to visit my father’s friend, Mr. McMahon and his wife; we picked up my wife, Karen, who was always studying to get her Master’s degree, took her to a bar by our old apartment called The Duck Club, and then everyone who hadn’t gone home already had a final toast to our mother and slept on the floor at our place.  I loved getting up the next morning and finding my family and a bunch of friends there, sleeping happily and peacefully.

As we all got older, started our careers, bought houses and began raising children, the tradition winnowed off.  When Dad got sick it stopped completely.  My father passed almost four years ago, but still every year I, and I’m sure my siblings do too, celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a toast to our dad, the ringmaster of a very special circus.

When my wife and bought our first house, and started contemplating a family, we decided it was important to find a church home. We went and visited a lot of places and settled on one nearby close to Irving Park Road.  One of the reasons we liked it was that it was a beautiful building that had been there for many, many years. Its steeple and stained glass windows were gorgeous and inviting.  We also liked the pastor, Nicholas.  He is a very down-to-earth guy I used to talk to about philosophy and poetry. He shared my affection for T.S. Eliot. Mostly, we liked all of the people we met.  Some were older and had been a part of the congregation since they were baptized, got confirmed and married there.  They went through it all again with their kids, many of who still attended with their own children.  You got a sense that there were many life cycles in that church and that appealed to us. After we had been there a year I asked Nick what more I could be doing.  He said, “I’m glad you asked. I have two ideas. I would like you to serve on the church council and I would like you to chair the social committee.”  I said, “That sounds good. What is entailed in chairing the social committee?”  He answered, “We do two big events each year. Our congregation has a lot of Scandinavians so we do a St. Lucia’s potluck smorgasbord fundraiser right around Christmas and we do a big St. Patrick’s Day dinner.  We have lot of lapsed Irish-Catholics who go here, so it’s a large affair.”  I then asked him, “So, who else is on the committee?”  He smiled and said “Right now, it’s you. and then whoever else you can con into doing it.”

I was able to con two other people who I had met on Sundays to work with me.  One was Big John, a man of German and Ecuadorian descent, whose kid was our babysitter when my oldest was born.  The other was JoAnn, a single mom and interesting woman who still styled her hair in a flip, just like Mary Tyler Moore in the late sixties and early seventies.  Together we all did real good job of planning parties, getting people in the church to help us and come out, and the three of us became very close.  As our St. Patrick’s Day event got bigger and bigger, JoAnn took care of all the corporate and family donations for the auction and the ticket sales; John made sure all the logistics of food and tables were in order, and that we had really cool Irish music on the sound system we set up in the church basement.   My job was to manage all of the details, market the event, and be a face.  I had to emcee the event.  Each year, after the event was over, John, JoAnn and I would go into the administrative office, count the money we had received and make sure the books were in order.  It usually got pretty late in the night.  JoAnn drank wine coolers and worked on an adding machine. John and I drank what was left of the beer, did what she told us to do, and generally made her crazy. When we were done we would have someone pick us up and drive us home. We spent St. Patrick’s weekend like that together for many years.

When Karen and I had our kids we named the young children of John and JoAnn as third godparents to our kids along with some of our siblings.  After we moved to the suburbs John and JoAnn’s families all came to visit us for Saint Patrick’s Day and Easter.  Other times we would just get together in the city or the suburbs.  One day I came home on the train from where I worked in the city and after I changed clothes, Karen gave me a beer, and told me that John had died of a sudden heart attack.  Not long after his funeral, where his wife, Bernie, asked me to do the eulogy, we found out that JoAnn was dying of cancer.  I was pretty entrenched in my career then and I would say to Karen, who visited her a lot, “I’ll go see JoAnn when I can.” I never did. The last time I saw JoAnn was at her wake.   Her daughter asked me to go with her to the casket and pray. I did and kissed JoAnn’s lifeless face, still so beautiful.

That night I went outside and sat on the steps of the funeral home to cry. A woman, named Stephanie, came and sat next to me. She offered me a cigarette. I took it. Stephanie is a philosophy professor at DePaul.   She rubbed my back while we smoked and talked.  She said, “T.S. death is fucking ugly and fucking brutal, but it is a fact of life. I know you have lost a lot of people and you’ll remember them forever, but you also need to think about who and what has not left you yet; all the good things in your life. You need to think about the things that make you happy, and where your passions lie. Do your friends proud. That’s what they’d want.”  I probably wouldn’t have listened to her like I did but she is someone I like and respect; she is someone who is intelligent and knows a lot about the world. Stephanie always could be coarse at times, but she, in her direct way, always said things that made a lot of sense to me.  Besides that, she was also our pastor’s wife, so she already had a degree of credibility with me.

While there are a lot of things I think about on any St. Patrick’s weekend, there are two things I think about the most.   One is that it is anniversary of the day, now three years ago, that I was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and our lives all changed. I hate that it was on St. Patrick’s Day but I don’t control these things.  The way I look at it, I’m still alive; I’m enjoying and embracing life, I’m opening new doors all the time, so a date is really just a date, but you have to be angry that it is a day like this.  Still, it is not one to be marked in sadness, but one to be marked in joy.

St. Patrick’s Day is also the anniversary of the night that I took a young, pretty, and smart girl I had declared my love for on our first real date to eat corned beef and cabbage at Murphy’s in Champaign. We later went to meet friends at O’Malley’s and she held my hand; occasionally kissed me. It was the first time we went public in letting people know that we were no longer just best friends. I guess I must’ve done OK on that first date because she has stood by my side ever since, and still does. That was 29 years ago.  It was the best St. Paddy’s Day ever and what I think about most on this holiday when it rolls around.

Tomorrow night for Sunday dinner my family will make a traditional Irish meal for our children and whoever stops by. Later on, I will light some candles for the ones that have gone home before me and the ones I treasure now.  I will send messages to my siblings and I will drink a toast to my father.  I also imagine I will have a little beer, because as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Beer is evidence that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Blessings to you all, whoever you are, and wherever you may be, for a wonderful St. Patrick’s weekend and day.  May you have many good memories. I know you will. T.S.