Saturday, August 11, 2018


Forty-two years ago today.  42 years of life without you. Just 22 with you.  Why is it then that this is all fresh in my mind - all around me all the time:
  • Your laugh
  • Your smile
  • Your eyes
  • Your patience
  • Bertha Kissacowassky
  • By the Light of the Silvery Moon
  • Peanut butter and Ritz
  • Sleeping in your chair as you "watched" TV
  • You coming upstairs to make us stop talking and go to sleep
  • Our rides to work
  • Toe jam
  • Stretching your neck in the basement
  • Harvard beets
  • White tank/sleeveless undershirts to mow the lawn
  • Poker
  • Driving with one finger
  • Sunday brunch
  • Your peace with the death of family members
  • Your pride in your kids
  • Sleeping naked
  • Your kindness, gentility, your love.

My Greatest Generation

Several years ago I attended a lecture by Dennis Lehane as part of an Arts and Lectures series.  The talk focused on the art of writing but the tips were largely driven by life-shaping experiences that also influenced his art.  He spoke of growing up as part of a very large Irish immigrant family in a south Boston neighborhood.  His large extended family would gather every Saturday night to socialize and drink.  The young Lehane quickly learned his relatives told the same stories each week.  The basic premise of the story always remained the same, but the spin of the story changed depending on who was telling the story.  The "new" story Lehane heard each week  was driven by the storytellers' perspective with changing details taking twist and turns not recounted by previous narrators.  Each week produced new heroes and victims, new backdrops, and in many cases - different outcomes.  These Saturday nights taught Lehane that each story has a basic truth but the rest is largely perception.

I use Lehane's talk to set up my story of the greatest generation of our own Irish American family.  The greatest generation is completely gone now with the passing last week of Uncle Joe.  I wasn't close to Joe but his passing has caused me to hit the pause button for a number of reasons. I have been slapped in the face, yet again, with the passage of time.  The passage this time?  Their generation is gone and we, the boomers, are now the oldest generation.  I, for one, do not feel prepared or adequate to move into their roles.  I looked up to those people as heroes, salt-of-the-earth, hard-working role models.  Life had handed them a lot of lemons and rather than sweeten it into lemonade, they normally swallowed the lemon and just kept going.  Because that's what you do.  Their generation just sucked it up and tried to build something out of the nothing they were left with - post-depression/war.  This is why I fear being unable to fill their shoes.

The overall make-up of the greatest generation is the basic truth of this story.  They were men and women who fought and worked because it was the right thing to do and they expected no recognition as a result of their actions. They loved, they worked, they were religious, and they had their own brand of passion.  They were quiet everyday heroes.  Beyond this basic generational commonality -  who they were is open for interpretation. It's a good time to briefly look at them individually and tell you my perception so that I can un-hit the pause button and venture into my role in the oldest generation.

My dad's family rarely made it to the ripe old age of sixty.  Cigarettes were not true friends although they were ever-present.  As a result, my memories of them are childhood memories.

Joe and Dan morph together as one person to me.  Both were Roman Catholic priests in Rochester NY.  They passed away, at young ages,  before I made it to elementary school.  I remember Uncle Dan to be a jokester and Uncle Joe to be quietly present with a warm, kind smile.  Both had piercing blue eyes that I'm sure could see your soul.  Well after they were gone the feeling that the family was blessed to have two RC priests in the ranks persisted.  It seemed that this was the ultimate honor bestowed upon any Irish American family.  Traditional religion and belief in the Catholic church seemed to shape the family.

Margaret M was always in the background.   She had struggled at some point in time with mental illness and it was immaterial whether she had had returned to mental health or not.  Mental illness was not understood, recognized, or discussed.  Margaret had not resumed her previous life after her illness.  She stayed at home with a very strong mother and older sister who was designated as head-of-household.  Margaret was always in the background - listening, gazing with sometimes piercing eyes, sometimes vacant eyes.  I don't know that I either feared or loved Aunt Margaret, but I always felt that her fate was sad.

Jerry was smart, a reader, the silly uncle.  He loved life and family.  He provided well for his family of four.  Uncle Jerry was fun and he and his sweet wife, Alma, threw great parties.  We missed Uncle Jerry as he lived for years with the symptoms of a bad stroke, leaving him unable to express his quick wit  and endless opinion.  It was hard to watch his frustration.  Jerry will always represent humor and love to me.

Mary M was the designated provider for the family.  Their dad, a Rochester cop, died at a young age from pneumonia.  That left Mary to provide for her siblings.  The family''s totally unsung hero, she never married and her income fully supported the household.  She performed the role well and I remember a woman with a fierce love for family, home, and religion.  She took her role seriously.  I don't remember a lot of humor, but rather remember that Mary weighed in on all decisions - even after siblings have moved on to families of their own.  I remember this causing some rifts within my family.  Mary ultimately buried each of her parents and siblings.  She lived longer than all of those for which she was responsible.  In time, she died alone - it seems as if she just laid down and died.

My dad was the baby.  They all looked to him as the baby.  We all looked to him as a loving, steady, hard-working, humorous, stand-up kind of guy.  His eyes danced and he had a mischievous grin that just had to make you smile.  It seemed that Jack M took on the role of equalizer for both families.  He was fun to be around.

My mom's family "enjoyed" much more longevity.  I use the word enjoyed cautiously as I saw less joy in life in their family, but they all saw old age.

The oldest was a living, breathing "Archie Bunker."  Roe was a hard-working, hard-playing WWII glider pilot who lived his adult life on the shore of Lake Ontario, working at Kodak.  He married twice, had no children, and could be either charming or cantankerous.  He had a skill for insulting whichever ethnicity was represented in the room. He was what he was and if that offended you - so be it.

Jack D was married to Lois.  It was always Jack and Lois.  Proper, controlled, cultured, ingrown Jack and Lois.  No kids.  When Lois died, years after Jack, we went to the church where the clergy asked if any of us wanted to say a few words about Lois because she was so private and the church didn't know her.  No one stepped up to eulogize, well, because none of us knew her either.  We all got in our cars, drove away after the service.  Life went on - without Jack and Lois.  Sad.

My mom was the oldest daughter.  The young Margaret D was intense.  Life was fully about doing the right thing all of the time.  Work first - play later - okay, maybe just work.  Brains and education mattered, feelings did not matter that much.  Expectations must be met.  Actions speak for themselves, no room for boastfulness and yet she was an incredibly proud woman.  She loved through control, care, and with a guiding hand.  Love was not emotionally expressed but was never questioned.

Mary was the wild child.  She lived her life her way.  She was the mother of four and was married to Jimmy.  My grandmother would always introduce Jimmy as a restaurant owner  - in actuality - it was a bar, but that wasn't acknowledged.  Nor was it recognized publicly that this was the party group.   A lot of hard living by goodhearted people.  My uncle once brought "Stormin Norman" (as it was painted on the side of his car) to my brother's graduation party.  Then as Jimmy left the party, he blessed the house with his cocktail.  They were characters.

The youngest, Kathleen, mothered seven children.  She did it in a loving, sweet way.  She married Joe B, the recently deceased.  I had the opportunity to connect with my cousin at his funeral.  She had lived her life in a lesbian relationship with an adopted daughter in San Francisco.  She said that although her dad never approved of her life choices - he respected her right to make them.  That illustrates how seven very different people come out of a home that is built on religion, principles, hard-work, and love.  They were encouraged to do their own things, be different. 

That's it.  A brief sketch of of my greatest generation.  These people shaped my life.  They taught us life lessons, got us started.  Their existence commanded respect and modeled behavior.  These cameos of each show my perception of who they were and what they were about.  Their memories will live on in their children who will all tell the tales just a little differently each time they are told.  The basic truth of their story will remain the same.  They loved, were loved, lived their different lives with a quiet passion and conviction to everything they believed.  I would love to hear the many other versions of their stories.  They're out there.

Maybe now I can release the pause button and try to live my life in a way that the next generation can remember with pride.