Saturday, January 28, 2017

Excerpt from "The Rail" -- The strange days of childhood when the world goes tilt. . .

"JANUARY, FEBRUARY, AND MARCH cluster as the oddest months of the year, especially for children in elementary school. After the past couple of months, tantalizingly salted with Halloween, two major holiday celebrations and nearly a ten-day break from school, there is little to get excited about at the turn of the New Year and therefore time simply drags on. Even with the two days off in honor of the birthdays of Presidents Lincoln and Washington it was a span of time offering little excitement and even less reprieve. The winter was waning, yet spring had not arrived; it was cold and barren, like a Venus Paradise Paint-By-Numbers Coloring Set where one is forced to only use the black, brown, and gray pencils for every scene. There was little cheer to be found and when my father died in February, I couldn’t find any at all.
"In the days and weeks after my mother matter-of-factly informed Peggy and me of my father’s death there was simply no conversation at all in our house, nothing uttered about how he died, how anyone felt about his death – or his life – or any talk of a funeral. Instead, my mother went into her own private mourning, the other family members would whisper to each other until Peggy or I came near, and my sister and I were left to make of it what we could as kids, eight and seven year olds respectively. For the rest of the family it appeared that nothing of significance even occurred. Years later when I was 12, in a moment when my mother was fondly recalling my father as the love of her life, I was able to piece together the story of my father’s death. Further, unbeknownst to Peggy and me at the time, I was also to discover anguished secrets that his departure revealed which, unsurprisingly, covered me, my mother and sister with another coat of shame and disgust in the eyes of our extended family.
"It was after closing time when my father trudged home from his favorite bar that February night. It was cold, the sidewalks of the Inwood Park neighborhood lined with mounds of recently shoveled snow, the concrete icy in places. As he walked unsteadily back to his one-room flophouse on 207th Street and 10th Avenue, jacket collar upturned against the cold, his heart seized up, as if the fist of God was squeezing the life out of it. The shock and pain felled him immediately; he clutched his chest, in too much agony to call out. Yet it was not to be a quick and merciful passing for my father. Like every other step of his life this, too, was going to be without ease or grace. No, instead of dying quickly from his heart attack, my father lay on a frigid street in Manhattan and awaited the banshee’s call and her arrival. As the coroner explained to my mother when she went to identify his body, my father did not die of heart failure, he actually froze to death over a number of hours. Whether he could not call out for help, or whether no one was on the street at that time of night, or whether passersby only saw another Irish drunk and simply walked on by, is impossible to know.
"My father was 59 when he died, and in those accumulated years he had seen his native Ireland convulsed in rebellion and civil war in a bid for nationhood, had immigrated to America, had worked the longshore, and had fathered my sister and me. He had sung me and Peggy to sleep in his native Irish language; he had saved Jimmy Bradley and had become my hero. Finally, he had stood by and allowed us to be taken to the Bronx, causing my love for him to become occluded with confusion, disappointment, and anger. Even those sporadic times before his death, when my mother would take Peggy and me to see him at his one-room walk-up – complete with hotplate, noir-ish flashing neon sign outside the window, and sounds from the Broadway elevated train overhead – I felt the distance between him and me. Even when we all went for a picnic in nearby Inwood Park or for a hamburger in a diner on Dyckman Street, the air was fraught with awkwardness and tentativeness that none of us ever seemed able to overcome.
"I don’t recall my father ever offering me any father-to-son wisdom. He did take me to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium once, the summer before he died where, in my ache to finally be with him, I watched him more than I watched the game. He also showed me the wonders of the Horn & Hardart’s automat in downtown Manhattan, where all kinds of prepared food dishes peered out from behind little glass windows. In his own way he tried to be a father to me, but his world had so narrowed to him and the bottle that there was little left to share and little energy left to imagine anything different. Whenever we were together as a family, he seemed genuinely happy to see me and Peggy, though his tenderness was tinged with a forlorn melancholy, as if by looking at us he could see just how far he had fallen in his life. As the silences inevitably grew during our periodic outings, threatening to reveal the deeper wounds that no one had the wherewithal to honestly set eyes on, my father would resort to singing Irish lullabies. His was a voice so soothing and heartfelt that it would produce tears in anyone close enough to hear. As a result of these songs, sung in his native tongue, I inwardly and secretly grabbed on to my legacy of Irishness as another bulwark with which to defend myself against the denigration I experienced at home in the Bronx. It was a flailing effort to shore up my shaky self-esteem, to bolster my sense of being somebody worthwhile. It was the one gift that my father gave me that I eagerly accepted and endlessly cherished" ("The Rail," Chapter Eight, "Daddy, I Hardly Knew You").

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