Gael Teaghlac–My Irish family. I breathed life in their genealogy. Gave them a voice to speak of their pain, their deeds and neglects. How some lived to become their own victim while others gave of themselves with their love and sacrifices. I loved them all—both good and bad(well, almost all) These are their stories. A few as seen from the eyes of a skinny ten year old.
I dedicate this page to old Joe O”Brien, better known as Pop, my grandfather. Besides little friends, little kids need big friends…or at least one. Pop was that one when I had none. Don’t tell me he was a looser, a lush, a lousy husband, a rotten father, a man child, a part time hustler—he was my Pop. I loved the sight of him.
For Sure, a Man Born of Ireland is no Foreigner
Half grandfather and half big kid, he stepped down from the 19th Street trolley car, and watched as it continued on it’s way over the arched steel bridge that led to the Phillies’ ball park. With a cautious look in both directions, he crossed the street. Unlike in his previous life, as a father, he always brought a pocket full of happiness: a silver coin or two; bubble gum by way of baseball cards; a nickel harmonica that made noise; and that brown bag––a camouflaged for his daily quarts of contentment. He tucked it in the folds of his arms like a running back afraid to fumble. Oblivious that it was the cause of his fumbled life.
At age seven, I waited with loving enthusiasm. The closer he got the more dapper he looked: Light blue seersucker suit with a white starched shirt; dark blue bow tie; a hat balanced on his head like a straw crown; shoes the color of the crown. A proud-floating walk was preceded by the tapping of a black umbrella, rain or shine. For those that knew him, he was a picture of outer quality that tailored the inner failings. An old soldier who survived both the victim of birth as well as the temptations of life. Although, as a young boy, I couldn’t see that deeply, to me, he was the perfect Pop. That’s what I called him, a combination dad and grandfather –– definitely more the dad that was missing from my life.
Forget the booze, his center city clothes, and the failings, and you have a kid, just like me. If you saw a picture of him at my age, you’d think twins––Fifty-three years between deliveries. And that’s the reason for the visit. Here with his twin he could enjoy the reliving of his youth, one that long ago rejected manhood. Pop was sure of three things that could do no wrong: the Catholic church; his country and his Irish heritage. He never saw any reason to question them any more than he ever thought to question himself.
I pictured him wearing red, white, and blue underwear with a green shamrock and a holy scapula around his neck. It was as if he was one of the chosen few who had hit the jackpot as a human being. And it gave him good reason to be a little smug about the rest of humanity including the colored, the Jews, the Protestants, and most of all, foreigners—-even though he was slapped on the rear end in County Cork. The ones that couldn’t quite speak English annoyed him the most. It was beyond his understanding why someone who lived in this, his adopted country, couldn’t speak its language as well as he did.
He was gentlemanly about his prejudices, in part out of necessity for being a part time salesman selling to the, ‘NonIrishCatholic Americans,’ who he had a bit of sorrow for knowing they’d never get to meet St. Peter. That, at best, they’d end up in limbo, looking up at the chosen few. The thought could give a man great comfort in his later years; actually make him joyful … if he was sucking on a quart of Ortlieb’s.
I ran down the street to greet him.
He bent down to allow a kiss on his cheek. The kiss was mandatory but not reciprocal. Kids kiss, men do not.
Pop was in good spirits on this early, after church, Sunday afternoon where he had traveled for a little relaxation, and hopefully an evening meal. He considered both my mom and our landlady exceptional cooks. He never came empty handed, besides the beer of course. Usually, he’d bring something from Horn and Hardnat’s bakery, as if that was his contribution to a Sabbath meal.
“Jimmy, per chance, what would you be having for dinner?”
“Roast beef. We’re eating with Mrs. McNichols, and Bob.”
“Ah, yes, the landlady, Liz, and her friend. A good cook. Bad grammar.”
“She’s Scottish, Pop.”
“And protestant,” he mumbled.
They were all in Liz’s dinning room having coffee, sweet rowie cookies, and scone. From the kitchen I could smell her famous Dundee cake––the favorite of us seventeen kids that lived under her roof.
“Hey, Mom, look, Pop’s here,” I said with loving enthusiasm––like best friend.
“Hello, Joe.” Mom said with a painful grin. She looked like she was nailed to her chair, and the nails were driven from the bottom up.
“Mary, Liz, Bob, good day to you.” Pop said with a too generous smile.
“Would you have a wee bit of coffee with us Joseph?”
“I brought some cold brew, thank you, Liz.”
“Better idea than hot stuff on a hot day.” Bob said.
“Then join me, Robert. I prefer not to drink alone.”
Liz and mom glanced at each other.
Pop must have realized he made a mistake with the two chefs, and tried to rectify it. “I … I didn’t mean to exclude you lovely ladies,” he said.
“Oh?” My mother said with raised eyebrows.
Pop looked like he got the message. “I mean, I prefer not to drink alone.”
“Alone, Joseph?” Liz had a combative grin.
Pop cleared his throat, “I mean with another man … beer talk, you know.”
“Beer talk, Joseph?
“Aye, and what might that be?”
“Things that don’t interest women.”
“Oh, and what might they be, Joseph?” Liz, giddy eyed, looked like she’d caught a five foot ten inch dapper fish.
Pop’s lower lip looked like it was hooked, and couldn’t talk.
Bob took the bottles from the bag, and said, “Hmm, one Schmidt, and an Ortlieb’s.”
“His best friends,” mom said.
As Bob filled Pop’s glass, he gave him a no, no frown like a warning.
Pop took a slow taste, and smacked his lips.
“Well?” Liz said eyeing pop. She sounded like my teacher, Sister Rose when she wanted an answer I wasn’t gifted to give.”
“What?” is all he said, and took another taste. Then, he looked around like Liz was a fly, and he was looking for a fly squatter.
“About us women, Joseph.”
Mom and Liz had this smile like they were planning something sneaky.
“Women don’t think like us men, that’s all,” pop said as he lit a cigarette.
Bob also lit one like he was on pop’s side.
“Aye, beer talk, it is?” Liz’s lips were pinched together as she nodded like she was filled with revenge. “Here’s a dollar, she said to Bob. Getcha self to the Beer Garden, and bring back a few quarts of Yuengling will ya Luv?” She paused, with sly grin, “Tis my favorite.” We guys are gonna have us some beer talk.”
Pop looked like he was lost in a dark cave with a Scottish bear.
At this point, I think I’d better explain: You see mom and Liz became good friends because they both were emigrants, loved kids, and President Roosevelt. Plus they liked an extra spoon full of chitchat with their coffee. They knew a lot of things from reading books, and newspapers, and all. Mom was really proud about being Spanish, just as Liz was happy being Scottish. But poor Pop must have never thought about it. I mean, I’m only a kid, and I did. Oh, and another thing, Liz gets really sad sometimes because she lost both her husband and son. Mom called it depression, and said it’s why Liz has an apartment house with lots of people. Everyone likes her, even when she kids them. Liz is a real kidder.
Bob returned, and filled all the glasses with foamy heads Mine was the best with Hire’s root beer.
“Okay, now lads,” Liz said, her eyes looking kinda jokeful, “let’s play a game. Pretend Mary and I are one of the boys, we’ll suck down the brew, and bull shit about men things, now whataya say to that?” Liz laughed out loud like she’d been drinking for two days, non-stop. She gave mom a shove with her elbow and winked. Mom almost fell out of her chair. I could tell mom felt uncomfortable, as did Bob, probably because they didn’t know where this was leading. I don’t think Liz was sure herself. It looked to me, like she was picking on pop to forget her sadness. Poor pop.
I’ll tell you more when I think about the rest of it, and put it into proper words the way Sister Rose is trying to get into my noggin.