An Irish lullaby

(St. Patrick’s Day, 2012)

I was watching Going My Way on TCM for the first time in ages a couple nights ago. It’s about as Irish as it gets…Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. It so reminds me of my mom’s side, my grandfather, the whole bit. We were raised on that side. My pop was German, raised fiercely Lutheran and German speaking. Kein englisch in diesem Haus.  Immer deutsch. Even though that house was in Flint, Michigan. Catholics were verboten, too. The Thirty Years War was still being fought in those days in some places. Every German Lutheran Church was a battlefield, a besieged city.  As if the America all around it didn’t exist.

My Dad, though, met my Mom. It was at a party at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey; he had a new blue Buick. She had blue eyes, a hint of a brogue and was lovely and Irish Catholic to her very bones. The laugh, the temper, the father who drank a wee bit. Old Germans had listened to Hitler on the shortwave, while the old Irish boys hung out in bars and sang. Can’t you meet a nice Irish boy? he grumbled. But he didn’t mean it. They never did. Didn’t even mind he wasn’t Catholic. The kids were going to be going to Mass, don’t you worry Pop. They’d all be confirmed by a priest. He drank port to that and sang and a little bit of heaven fell out the sky that day. So my folks were married. In Ankara, Turkey. And then Istanbul. It’s complicated. NATO and all that. But they found a priest somewhere over there and the neighbors threw them a big wedding party. Dad had a zillion photos of it, racked up in slides. A local Roman Catholic priest pronounced them man and wife. Martin Luther spun in his grave. A black lamb was slaughtered, as if it were still ancient Greece. The blood was vivid red in the photo. Dad said some of the kids got the eyeballs. It’s a delicacy. All us kids went ewwww. Mom just winced. That poor thing, she said. The poor little lamb. The party went on for days, everyone in the village was there, plus some. Hundreds of people. Those were the days. They thought they’d never end.

Fifty some years later Dad was long dead (and died Catholic, and got a wake), and all of us were hanging out with Mom. We’d driven out to Arizona to see her. The nuns had said if we want to see her one last time we’d better get there as fast as possible. We left at four or five in the morning, driving across the Mojave as the sun was rising over it. Desert dawns are the most beautiful things you can ever see. Pastels and shadows. Birds. A zillion butterflies. Rocks in crazy piles and jagged mountains promising no water at all. Buzzards smell sweet death in the air.

The party began as soon as we got there. Five of the six siblings, a couple wives, an energetic swarm of grandsons. Plus dogs, birds, turtles, fish and a cat. The piano was played, some guitars, a saxophone, whatever made or tried to make music. We talked and talked and talked. The food was endless. We joked and talked and ate and Mom, riddled with bone cancer, talked and joke and even ate. Her imminent death was just a given, something to be discussed, even kidded about. It was normal. Sad but normal. The order of things. Not much you can do about it she told me. And laughed. Her kids were there, their kids were there, there could not be a better way to go. At one point the priest came by and all became solemn as he delivered Last Rites. We all stood around her bed. The ceremony was ancient and beautiful. Two thousand years of beauty. You could see the worry released in her face. Afterword he switched to his civvies and joined the party. Everyone talking, looking in on Mom, letting her sleep. Eventually it broke up. Mom was awake. I said so long, we’ll see you tomorrow, and kissed her on the forehead. She smiled.

She died the next morning. My brother Jon was in the room with her, playing Mozart on the piano. She slept uneasily. Mumbled about home. Home, home, home. Then she let out a little gasp, breathed hard for a minute, and was gone.

The wake began immediately, just a small wake, her kids, her brother, the wives and grandsons and nephews. It was sad, but it was nice. We had the bigger, boozy wake later, after the internment. This was just the family hanging out. The priest came by. The sisters. She just decided it was the time to go, one of the sisters told me. She worked in a hospice. We thought your mother would hang on for weeks, she said, a slow horrible bone cancer death. But she decided it was time, with all of you out here. She smiled at the thought. That’s the way it should be. I nodded.

So now it’s a couple years later and I’m watching Going My Way. At one point Bing, the young priest, is trying to get Barry Fitzgerald, the ornery old priest, to fall asleep for chrissakes. So he sings the old Irish lullaby “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral.” Some of my earliest memories are of my mother singing me off to sleep with it. The melody sways in the breeze, the words loll, and sometimes it sounds like the most beautiful tune you ever heard.

And it took me back to the morning Mom had died. She was still in the bed, looking peacefully asleep. We had each of us slipped in alone throughout the morning to bid her farewell. No one made a big deal about it, we’d sort of break off from the chatter and walk in for a few minutes. At some time that morning I entered and there she was sleeping, looking beautiful. Just like you want the dead to look, just how we want ourselves to look. I gazed at her a minute, and began singing “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” in a hushed voice, so as not to wake her. Just a couple choruses. Then I said Goodbye, Mom, kissed her forehead one last time and stepped out again to join the living.

Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley in Going My Way (1944)

Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley in Going My Way (1944)

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Dream job

Got a call last week about the perfect day gig. One of those out of the blue dream jobs. They loved the resume. Tracked me down. I aced the phone interview. The in-person went even better on Monday. I was “the perfect candidate”.  Felt good about it, I was obviously the prime contender. Went out for drinks and dinner with the wife. It was hot and the restaurant was cool, the margaritas even cooler. Tuesday began ominously…no genius grant. Again? Hell, I write good. Or would that be the Pulitzer. One of those aw shucks it was nothing awards. Whatever, I didn’t get one. Could have used that half a mill. Who do you have to fuck in this town to get a genius award? Still, the day went well. Then at 5 pm came the email. Spare, impersonal, third hand even…I was no longer under consideration.  The prose was taut and resonant. Think Hemingway read aloud by HAL the computer. I stared in disbelief. WTF? What had happened? I had dressed nice and everything. Even in the 106 degree temp there I was looking sharp, all in black, black blazer….hell, I’d hire me, and I don’t even like me. Maybe my “agent” was a prick. Agents can be pricks, even employment agents. Though mine is a really nice guy, actually. So maybe the weasely guy at the interview black balled me. You know the type. Or maybe one of my references talked trash, tho’ why I can’t imagine. Maybe I just came off as a jerk and they were way too nice to tell me so. Whatever. Poof…the dream gig was gone. Yet another good break gone bad…. A lot of those lately. Four years’ worth. I must have pissed some goddess off somehow. One of the ball breaking, unforgiving ones.

Anyway, I should have gotten drunk. You would have gotten drunk, admit it. But I didn’t. I had a PBR that was in the fridge, Then some milk. Milk. What kind of loser drinks milk when his dream job slips through his fingers? What kind of Irishman am I?  The disgrace of the family, the sober one. A long line of boozers singing Little Bit of Heaven Fell From Out the Sky One day and mumbling about Bing Crosby and then there’s me, the lightweight. Sigh…. Well that PBR wore off hours ago and here I am still sulking, awash in an ocean of self-pity and what am I doing? Writing this. I always write stuff like this when things go wrong. And lately a lot of things have been going wrong. A novel’s worth. A War and Peace. The remembrance of things pissed right down the drain.

Well, time to hit the bricks again, I tell myself and punning unintentionally. Maybe I’ll get off my creative ass and try and score a writing gig, as is such things existed, or that I liked doing them.   But money is money and money I like.

Saw a chunk of A Day at the Races today. God those Marx Brothers were funny. Even after Thalberg tamed them. Too much anarchy for Hollywood. But you watch the Marx Brothers and wish life were like that. Just like that. Anarchistic and giving it to the man. An endless blur of self referential jokes. Pianos that disintegrate and authority figures so dumb they don’t know they have their pants on. Blondes to be chased up stairs and down again. Singing Sweet Adeline and eating crackers in bed.  But you need a day gig to pull that off. And oh what a day gig that would have been. The most beautiful studio I have ever seen. Fountains, streams, a pond the size of an olympic pool. Koi the length of your arm played in its waters, living slow, perfect, endless lives and looking absolutely beautiful. I watched one rolling lazily near the surface, all gold and creamy white and tried to imagine being one. I couldn’t. All I could think of was just how cool it would be to work in a place that was more beautiful than any jobsite deserved to be. I imagined walking the grounds on some errand or another, belonging there. It was fun to think about.

But back now to reality. I promised the wife I’d take out the garbage.

And maybe another PBR before bed. Living dangerously. F Scott Fitzgerald would dig it. He and Zelda. They probably roamed these very streets. They might have staggered down the very steps outside my window after some wild Hollywood party. Raymond Chandler lived only a hill away, drinking and unable to write. Sylvia Plath tried suicide at the far end of the reservoir. Bukowski lived in squalor nearby, writing his shitty poetry. Don Van Vliet discovered words at the other end of Waverly Drive, and my brother lives in Tom Waits’ old house. Tom told him so himself.

Me? I got to take out the garbage…..

Bing

Somebody just told me Bing Crosby was jailed for drunk driving in 1929. Right here in Hollywood even. I had no idea. 1929 was the middle of Prohibition. And Hollywood had been a dry town to begin with, before the movies came. So they hauled him in. They wouldn’t have dared a decade later, but this was 1929, and Bing was still a jazz singer then, and cops didn’t particularly like jazz singers. Or jazz trumpeters…the LAPD busted Louis Armstrong for marijuana possession a couple years later, in 1931. Vice cops were busy saving the city back then. They knew about Bing’s drinking back then. Who didn’t? But did they know that Bing and Louis would hang out smoking reefer in Chicago just a bit before? Probably not. That was a secret.

We didn’t know it, not in our family. Along with Jack Kennedy (or simply Jack), Bing Crosby (simply Bing) were icons in our house. Jesus and Jack on the wall, Bing on the Hi Fi. We didn’t know about the jailed for drunk driving, and we certainly know that he’d been a viper, getting high and cracking wise and singing with Satchmo…but we knew generally that he was quite the heller in his young days. That was a good thing, being quite the heller in your young days. It was expected. A drunk driving bust would have been perfectly understandable. Besides, the cops probably set him up anyway. That’s what we would have said. I don’t believe he was set up. I just think he was drunk. Bad luck. Somebody smacked into his car. Rear ended him. What can ya do? Looked it up–he was busted on Hollywood Blvd right there in front of the Roosevelt Hotel. No doubt I’ll think of that now every time I pass .Every time.

My mother called me the day he died. Bing died she said. It was like losing a grandfather’s brother, a relation you never saw in person, but knew all about. When my grandmother told my grandfather that Bing had died, my grandfather went pale. You aren’t gonna die on me too now, she asked. He recovered. No, No,  I’m not going anywhere. But he did not long after.

There’s never been Irish Americans as important to American Irishmen since Jack and Bing. Jack’s story is too sad for words (and Bobby’s even sadder), but Bing’s ended just right. That was a great game, fellas.  And it was.

Bing on the phone.

Bing on the phone.

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