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 interment. 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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Mr. Coffee

(2012)

I cannot remember the last time I used a typewriter. 20 years ago? And a manual typewriter? 35 years ago? An adding machine…. I don’t remember. Decades and decades ago. I remember seeing slide rules in high school. They were beyond me. I learned to use the abacus in Maine in the 3rd grade……

Then there’s Polaroid cameras…that was wild. Going to Disneyland with a Polaroid camera. Everyone smile and there you are with Mickey. Magic.

We used to watch home movies at home a lot. Even better we looked at slides. Dad had boxes and boxes of slides. Dad would put up the movie screen, the light would go out and we’d all sit around the living room and watched slide after slide. The slide projector would whir and click and Niagara Falls. Whir, click Niagara Falls again. Whir, click and Dad pretending he’s falling into Niagara Falls. We loved it. I imagine there was popcorn and soda. We were a big family and that was cheap entertainment. There was a big chair I liked. I’d settle into it, curl up, and we’d eat popcorn and watch slides for hours. Wherever we were living at the time. Orange County, Tacoma, Maine, San Diego,Virginia, Maryland, or maybe a motel in Amarillo with the roads to icy to drive on—there’d be slides, whir, click, Niagara Falls.

I’ll have to start looking through our photo albums again. They’re very late 70’s, and all through the 80’s and most of the 90’s. Maybe a bit beyond. We threw a lot parties. There’ll be a TV and no VCR, there’ll be records spinning and no CD’s;  there’ll be piles of cassettes and a ghetto blaster. We’d be heating up party snacks in a little oven and not the microwave (talk about revolutionary…an old technology that suddenly became essential.) Maybe one of those ghastly coffee pots….though I liked the percolating sounds. Our last one died, thank god, so we got a Mr. Coffee in the 80’s. It died the same night as Joe DiMaggio. Joe was always on TV somewhere, sixty seconds of him and Mr. Coffee. He was to Mr. Coffee what Mrs. Olson was to Folgers. Then the late news said Joltin’ Joe was dead and next morning my Mr. Coffee wasn’t working. It was still and cold. I jiggled the on off button and waited. Nothing. I unplugged and replugged it. Nothing. I checked the outlet.  It was fine. Mr. Coffee was dead. It was my favorite coincidence ever.

The Irish, you know, anthropomorphize their machines. I’ve argued with tea kettles all my life, like my mom did, and my grandmother. I talk to my coffee maker. Talk to all kinds of inanimate things, like they could talk back. I thought everybody did this till my wife caught me bickering with the tea kettle. She looked at me like I was nuts. I had no idea she didn’t talk to tea kettles. She thought the whole notion was so stupid. I said, umm, it’s an old Irish thing. She said sure. I hate it when she says sure. There is something humiliating about being called irrational by a Sioux Indian. You guys with your dream catchers? And talking to a tea kettle is stupid? I didn’t say that of course. But when she walked out of the kitchen I gave the tea kettle a quick shake and it whistled in protest. Don’t listen to her I said.

Anyway, Mr. Coffee’s were gloriously noisy things, they grumbled and groaned, they had a personality. So when our Mr. Coffee died brokenhearted after hearing about Joe, well, it was very sad. I felt sad throwing it into the recycle bin. I’m sure I didn’t throw it at all, but dropped it carefully. I had to fight the urge to keep it. It still makes me sad to think about the poor thing.

My mother would understand.

Joltin’ Joe brewing joe.

Ku Klux Klan

(2015)

Back before World War Two the KKK burned a cross on my mother’s lawn. It was the budget variety–the shape of a big cross splashed in gasoline on the lawn and set alight. It certainly caught everyone’s attention. Apparently the nice Philadelphia neighborhood my grandparents had moved into was restricted–Protestants only. No Catholics and certainly no Irish. The Irish back then were only white in color anyway, they weren’t really white, not like WASP white. Everybody knew that. They drank too much, bred like rabbits, were loud, obnoxious, always fighting and voting Democrat and were, well, thugs. Nice people didn’t want Irish people in their neighborhoods. But my grandfather had done real good for a shanty Irish, got himself a real job, an executive job, making good money working for a government contractor, getting bombers built for the war to come. So he moved uptown and even got the family a maid. An Irish family with a maid. There’s an irony for you. It apparently wasn’t lost on the neighbors. The local branch of the KKK–they were everywhere, back then, the KKK, saving America from negroes and papists and jews and intellectuals–well the local branch got together and decided that if one Irishman moved in there went the whole neighborhood. So some brave souls stole onto the lawn in the middle of the night and poured a few gallons of gasoline into the shape of the Holy Cross and set it ablaze. The light filled my mother’s bedroom and she looked out her window and screamed in terror. My grandmother collected her and rest of the children in a safe spot away from the windows and my grandfather waited for the fire truck. The firemen–all Irish–doused the flames. The police officers–all Irish–took down the information. Things were whispered between my grandfather and the police and firemen. They probably warned him there’d be more to come. They’d seen it before. Said it was a dangerous part of town for an Irishman and his children. We all know our place, they said, and it’s not on this end of town.

No one ever took responsibility for the act. No one was arrested. Not long afterward my grandfather took the family back across the river to New Jersey, where the local bars rang late into the night with Irish song, people voted early and often, and Mass was full all Sunday long. Those were his people, and he stayed with them and sang with them and drank with them till he died.

The KKK won that battle.

Talking to Inanimate Objects

My wife just busted me talking to bowl of nectarines. Not as a group, either….I bitched at several on them in turn for taking too long to ripen up. Thought they are talking their sweet time. No pun intended. I turned around and she’s looking at me. So who are you talking to?.  Umm…a nectarine? Sure, she said. Sure.

My wife doesn’t talk to inanimate objects. Apparently the Sioux don’t hold conversations with things that cannot actually talk back. Oneida either. I can’t imagine not talking to inanimate objects. It’s so natural. Someone told me it’s an Irish thing. I just googled Irish talking to inanimate objects and several items came up, mostly about why talking to inanimate objects will weird out your English date. The guy, a little drunk, was bitching at the furniture. The girl gave him one of those looks. The dining room table, he said, was snickering behind his back. Inanimate objects can be cruel. I don’t think the rest of the date went well. No little bit of heaven for Clancy that night. She probably went and married an Episcopalian. Episcopalians don’t talk to inanimate objects. Then again they’re pretty inanimate themselves, so what would be the point? An Episcopalian and a table holding a conversation wouldn’t exactly be Shakespeare.

Anyway, I stopped talking to the nectarines till my wife left the room. Then I looked back at the bowl and said you guys got me in trouble. They just sat there, unripe, and said nothing.

 

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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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Merry Christmas

I’m up early, staring at the tree. It looks good even in daylight which is good for a Christmas tree, sometimes they look strange then, things off, lights blinking ridiculously. But not this one. It’s pretty perfect. Our drunk friends did a nice job, though I still see a few Cheetos. No presents under it yet, we haven’t even started shopping, that’ll be today. We always do the last minute thing. Know where to go (which isn’t the Galleria) and be back in time for eggnog and A Christmas Carol. The one with Alistair Sim, the spooky one. Or maybe A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I’ve probably watched at least once every year since it came out in 1965. That was in Maine, there was snow on the ground, it snowed like crazy that year in Maine. Snowed even on the following Mother’s Day, a regular blizzard. Out here they were surfing and tanning and making stupid beach movies, in Maine they were shovelling and cursing the slush. The next year, 1966, How the Grinch Stole Christmas came out for the very first time, and I’ve probably seen it every year since. That was in Maine, too, and there was snow on the ground. Those two Christmases were rather remarkable for me, I remember, since we lived in the same house for both. I can’t remember us ever having two of any holiday in one house during my childhood except 1965 and ’66. Maybe that’s why I have such fond memories of Maine. Brunswick, the little town we lived in, was all dolled up in Yuletide everything, but in an old fashioned way. It was cold and snowy but just like a movie. We had a huge tree and decorating it was a blast. Mom had her own tree, too, in the den. It was aluminum, white, and decked with blue balls, with a blue spinning lamp that reflected on it, and it sparkled, and we weren’t allowed to touch it. That was very early sixties, that tree, very Jackie Onassis. I don’t know if they still even have trees like that. The real tree, though, was big–huge to an eight or nine year old–and had a zillion ornaments, some brought all the way from Austria-Hungary by my grandparents. We had to be extra careful with those, especially the perfect little bird’s nests with the tiny eggs. I wonder if you can still buy those? Or do you have to import them from Austria-Hungary, which hasn’t even existed for a hundred years. A Never-Never Land, like a fairy tale, or a drug induced hallucination, whatever. Leave it to me to have half my relatives from a place that doesn’t exist. The other half came from Ireland, and the tradition was to drape the tree with strings of popcorn and oranges if they could afford them and light it with candles. Whiskey and candles were a bad mix, the one leaving you to forget the latter, and houses would burn down in Irish neighborhoods every year, one or two. Or so my dear mother told me. We had electric lights. Everyone did by the time I was born.  We had a train too going around the tree. We still do.  Maybe you’ve seen it.

I loved Christmas as a kid, and I love Christmas now. I can’t help it. I’m just a sucker for the tree and shopping and wrapping presents and eggnog (lots of eggnog). I think I even like hating the same stupid carols they play over and over and over. Feliz Navidad, oh lord. In Maine groups of kids went door to door a-caroling, I remember that vividly. Out here no children have ever come a-caroling to our door–any of our doors, and there’s been four of them since 1980. Though one Christmas Eve we were at a friend’s place in Hollywood and gay carolers came to his door. Gay as in gay, though they seemed gay as in happy too. You’ve never seen carolers until you’ve seen gay carolers. They were dressed in Christmas to the nines. I’d never seen Christmas handcuffs before. Later I knew a lady who showed me her’s. L.A. is different from Maine, and Silver Lake was different from anywhere.

It’s still traditional in our household, though. Well, I did just notice that the gingerbread couple in the snow globe are anatomically correct. I’d never noticed that before. It was a gift, years ago. That’s a lot of snickering behind Brick’s back. And there are Cheetos hung on the Christmas tree with care. But otherwise it’s a traditional Christmas here, as always, and so I’ll deliver my traditional Merry Christmas to all of you who’ve read this far. And a Happy New Year. I hope your holidays are the best.

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