Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bloomsday Meets Father's Day: Very Special Year for the Das

Bloomsday—June 16, the date on which the whole of James Joyce's Ulysses is set—and Father's Day intersect every decade or so, making it a special day of remembering and honoring those Irish dads out there, which would include my clan: Grandpa, Dad, and bro.

Grandpa O'Neill:
He would come to visit our house in Massapequa in the summer fairly often. We had a lovely backyard patio where we would sit together before dinner during the stillest part of the day, early evening. The sun had gone done a bit and it was cool but the breezes had stopped (memorialized by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer as “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening"). He would inevitably look out on the grounds and say, “This is the best time to put down fertilizer.”

Grandpa didn’t have an easy life. A second generation Brooklyn Irish, he had to leave school after the 6th grade to work to help support the family. He got a job in the mailroom of Con Edison, when the Irish ruled it straight out, and he worked there for 50 years. He had an excellent memory, and it allowed him to advance unhindered by his lack of formal education.

That his sons went to college and got advanced degrees---a lawyer and a CPA—was an enormous accomplishment, something which my dad always thought he didn't entirely appreciate, it was so beyond his experience. Grandpa was absolutely no saint—few Irishmen are—but that doesn’t diminish the sweat and pain and heartache of raising 5 children through the Depression and World War II and all that followed, along with a first son who died a tragic death in infancy, and a foster child who was taken away by the agency to go to a richer family even as he was trying to adopt her.

And so I found it poignant that in his last years, he was freed to worry about the best time to use the “spreader” to put down Scots Turf Builder, sitting on his son’s patio.

Dad O'Neill: I’ve written about his untimely death and my discovery of his teen bonding with the French language. He has been gone for so long that I don't have any more memories of his actual presence, which I guess is what happens.

I love this picture of him at the family farm in Merrick, Long Island. My grandmother had tired of Brooklyn and thought she wanted life in the country, and so they went. (They didn't stay long.) I think dad looks like a James Cagney tot here, or the character Peck's bad boy. He may be dressed in shorts, but don't cross him, 'cos he'll punch you.

So today my memory is of one of his catchphrases.

When there was a situation that happened that he didn't agree with, he would say, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” in the most sardonic way. Yes, Dad invoked the opening lines of Keats’s Endymion as social comment. (And see, he didn't hold being English against Keats.) He was a very special man. Also no saint.

Bro O'Neill: A dad himself. I imagine he tried to correct mistakes that our dad made with us. And I imagine he's made a slew of new ones with his own kids. So goes the cycle of life.

(Updated post from 2010).