John Michael Nabhy
© 2016 by the author
All rights reserved
Any resemblance between the characters, institutions, and events depicted in this story and real life is entirely coincidental.
Since we are ordinarily better at forgetting than remembering, it is often a mystery why some such sight has stamped itself on our memory, when countless others that ought to have far greater meaning can hardly be said to exist for us anymore. It makes me suspect that a richer and less predictable account of our lives would eschew chronology and any attempt to fit a lifetime into a coherent narrative and instead be made up of a series of fragments, spur-of-the-moment reminiscences occasioned by whatever gets our imagination working.
—Henry James, The American Scene, 1907
Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
—Emily Dickinson, ca 1868
The following reminiscences are random essays and attempts to make sense of my life. I no longer trust narratives. This is emphatically and intentionally not a neat and tidy story. As is true of any autobiography, you should remain sceptical of my account. I cannot guarantee objectivity or even honesty. But then fiction, the fictions we choose to present as the truth about ourselves, sometimes reveal more about ourselves than the truth might.
—Patrick Rósgleann, 2016, Errarooey, Co. Donegal, Ireland
I was born in 1942 in Dublin, the first child of Mary Katherine (née O’Connell) and Bram Ross. I have one sibling, my sister Niamh (for non-Irish readers, this is pronounced ‘Neeve’), who was born in 1944.
My father was born in 1915 in Derry and died in Dublin in March 2011, age 95. He was a lawyer who specialised in international business law. He served as a teachta dála (TD), a member of the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish parliament, from 1943 to 1981 and was a parliamentary secretary advising the Government on programmes to attract foreign businesses to Ireland from 1957 to 1973. The boundaries of his constituency, variously known as Donegal West and Donegal South-West, varied slightly over time but generally included the north- and south-western parts of County Donegal. His official residence was a house in a rural area known as Errarooey Beg, a handful of scattered houses along the coast between Dunfanaghy and Falcarragh in north-central Donegal. He spent most of his adult life in Dublin, however.
My mother was born near Drogheda in 1918. She came from a family of prosperous merchants much involved in the Home Rule movement and then in the early struggles of the Free State. She married my father in 1941. As I will relate in this account, she and my father separated in 1949, and she resided for the rest of her life in a rural area of County Meath near Drogheda. She died in 2014 at age 96, of ‘old age’. She took medications to lower blood pressure and to reduce cholesterol, but, although these conditions may have contributed to her decay, they were not the proximate causes of her death. The consultant at Our Lady of Lourdes in Drogheda was, he confessed, at a loss to specify the cause when he registered the death. ‘She just wore out,’ he said with wonder in his young voice that such a thing might happen. Niamh said that mother had simply decided it was time to die. Perhaps both of them found a truth they could live with.
Mother was active until about five years before her death, and then little by little her tenure in her body grew fragile. She had to use a walker for support. She became increasingly deaf. To her great distress, her eyesight also began to fail. She had been an omnivorous reader, and books were her primary pleasure and recreation. We found large-type books for her, but soon even those became unreadable without a magnifying glass. The books and magnifier were heavy and tired her hands. She could not hold them for more than a few minutes, but she never gave up attempting to read. From three or four books a week, she cut back to two and then to one. Towards the end, I wondered if she even finished that one and simply pretended to have read it. If I asked if she had enjoyed it, she always said yes. I once asked her what the book had been about. She stared blankly for a moment and then confessed that she could not remember. ‘I guess it wasn’t very good, if I can’t remember the plot.’ That was the last time I asked. After that, I simply accepted the fiction that she was reading the books. Crosswords, which had been a daily habit for as long as I knew her, became a reminder of her problems instead of a joy. ‘I don’t know what the clues mean any more,’ she complained. ‘Words have changed.’ She refused to cancel the newspaper, however, and they piled up unread in a stack on the table beside her chair. She clung tenaciously to the habits of a lifetime as if forgoing any of them would betoken surrender.
As a girl in the convent school she attended, mother once won a prize, a book of daily devotions. She read from it every day. She had a habit of opening the front cover and glancing quickly at the inscription written on the inside flyleaf that recorded the presentation of the book to her before turning the pages to that day’s devotions. Over the years the binding cracked and split, and individual signatures and pages came loose. The book finally fell apart about ten years ago. Niamh’s husband, Michael, tried to put it back together. My brother-in-law is skilled at repairs, but the book was so damaged that it defeated his efforts to restore it to something resembling its original state. It became impossible to open the book so that the pages lay flat, and near the middle of the book the words nearest the inside margins disappeared into the centre fold. Mother refused to part with it, however, and buy a replacement.
The book was arranged according to the liturgical year and contained a meditation, a passage from the Bible, and a prayer for each day. Certain dates in the liturgical year, such as Christmas, always fall on the same day in the regular calendar. Others, notably Easter, vary from year to year. This means, for example, that the number of Sundays between Christmas and the start of Lent changes each year. Using a book of devotions keyed to the liturgical year requires that one adjust the readings accordingly, skipping or adding weeks to keep the liturgical and the calendar years aligned. Towards the end, that proved too difficult for my mother. She simply opened the book each morning and read a random page. Eventually she just held the book for a few minutes each morning. If I or my sister were there, we would read a passage to her. She could not have heard us clearly, but the act comforted her.
Mother’s deafness and blindness isolated her. Conversation became a tiresome exercise in shouting into her left ear, the only one with some capacity to hear, and watching her uncomprehending face struggle to attach some meaning to the garbled sounds she heard. She would make what she thought was a proper reply and then smile uncertainly and wait for some sign from us that she had understood correctly. In the last year of her life, Niamh and I would nod and beam at her, no matter what she said. Reassuring her that she was still capable of speaking with us became more important than the message we were trying to communicate. Only when it was something important such as reminding her of a doctor’s appointment did we insist on understanding.
Other than my sister and her family, myself and Mrs Sullivan (the home-care aide we hired to look after mother during the week), the district nurse and the priest were the only visitors to the house during her last months. They came because of their professional obligations. The nurse stayed only long enough to take mother’s pulse, listen to her heart, and check her blood pressure. She asked a few standard questions about diet and exercise. Mother always said ‘Oh, I’m fine’ in response to the questions. I doubt that she heard what was being asked. She was simply giving the answers that she had learned would placate the nurse and end an encounter neither wanted to prolong. The priest said a decade of the rosary with mother, refused a cup of tea, shouted a few bromides, patted my mother’s hand and then left. Neighbours and her few remaining friends ceased to visit her because of the difficulty of talking with her. She was not always able to identify them because of her poor eyesight, and she could not hear them well enough to carry on a conversation.
The signs of decline grew more apparent. Once considered overly fastidious for her insistence on bathing daily, she began to refuse offers to help her bathe when it became necessary for someone to be with her. Mrs Sullivan learned to bribe her into taking a bath by promising to wash and set her hair. Until the final few weeks mother was still proud of her hair and her appearance. In her youth, she had been known for her bright red hair. The colour became a family legend. One of her more poetic cousins once likened it to ‘red sunlight’. My first memories of her date to her late twenties, and by that time her hair had darkened and was more brown than red. By the time she was forty, white strands had begun to appear. From the age of fifty on, she had thick, brilliant white hair, without a trace of grey. At that time, she began parting it in the centre. Each half fell to just below her ears and framed her face in well-disciplined waves. She retained that style almost until her death. Luckily she could not see how thin and untidy her hair became towards the end.
Having Mrs Sullivan fuss over her hair became her final pleasure. That in itself was remarkable. For my mother, the worst social sin was imposing on others. Niamh and I were raised on that principle. ‘You do not impose’ was my mother’s first commandment. Her lifelong refusal to rely on others or to ask for help carried into her final days. She hated her growing need for others to help her perform ordinary tasks and to survive for another day. In a life devoted to refusing to indulge herself, her inability to care for herself was the ultimate indignity because it exposed the contradictions in her own rules. Much of the time her solution was to ignore that she had been helped. If we told her how nice her hair looked, she would say, ‘I washed it this morning and pinned it up.’
Even though in her last years mother seldom went out, she continued to dress in the slightly formal clothes that were her customary wardrobe her entire life. One sign of her increasing debility was her abandonment of skirts and blouses and stockings and lace-up shoes in favour first of trousers with an elastic waistband, fleece jackets with a zipper in front and trainers with ankle socks, and then later of towelling robes and slippers.
She seldom slept more than a few hours at night and would rise and dress early. More and more she spent her day sitting in a chair, falling asleep frequently for brief naps. She ate less and less. Towards the end, she might eat a half slice of toast for breakfast and two or three small bites of meat and a bit of a boiled potato for tea. The only foods she appeared to enjoy were sweet pastries. We still cooked full meals for her and tried to persuade her to eat them, but all too often we settled for letting her get her calories through sugar. She grew thinner and thinner. The flesh disappeared from her hands and forearms, and they became bones covered closely by skin, each joint a large knob. One of the medications she took made her bleed easily and her arms and legs were covered with black bruises. Where the skin was not bruised, it was red and burnt looking, almost shiny.
Her increasing physical decay was accompanied by a growing indifference. She seldom turned on a light and never bothered with the television. She couldn’t see the picture or hear the sound. That, too, became a blank presence in her house. If we asked if she wanted to sit in the garden when the weather warmed, she would answer ‘Perhaps later’. If we proposed an outing—a drive along the coast or a visit to see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she would say ‘Not today. I’m too tired. Maybe tomorrow.’ When my nephews and their families came to visit, she would rouse herself for a few minutes and then slowly grow distant. Her visitors would end up talking among themselves and ignoring the silent, unseeing presence. When, after a half-hour or so, she began to nod, they would excuse themselves and hurry off. ‘Mamó needs rest. We mustn’t tire her out.’ I often found myself relieved when she slept. It meant I could relax and cease trying to pretend to interact with her.
For the last eighteen months of my mother’s life, Mrs Sullivan stayed with her during the week. Niamh took over on Saturday and I on Sunday, my sister and often Michael driving up from Dublin on Friday night and staying until I arrived late on Saturday afternoon. The district nurse and her doctors argued that she would be better off in a care home, but mother resisted the idea strenuously. ‘I am fine here. I want to die among my own things,’ she told my sister. ‘This is where I’ve lived. This is where I want to die.’ Niamh and I felt that the arrangement with Mrs Sullivan would allow mother to stay in her own home as long as possible. She agreed to it, more to please us, I believe, than from any strong desire on her part to have someone help her. She understood that we were worried about her, and catering to our wishes was a habit. But I think she saw acquiescing in this arrangement as a sign that she was no longer an adult. In some ways she tolerated Mrs Sullivan’s help better than Niamh’s and mine. She paid Mrs Sullivan and that meant Mrs Sullivan was not doing my mother a favour. It was not imposing to let a hireling do the job she was being paid to do. Niamh and I, however, were, in my mother’s view, interrupting our lives to care for her. She saw that as burdening us and imposing on us, and that increased her anguish.
In the end, I suspect it was that feeling that killed her. At least once each Sunday, when she noticed me working about her house or beginning to prepare a meal, she would pound the arm of her chair and mutter ‘No No No’ angrily. Niamh told me that she had witnessed the same behaviour. Mrs Sullivan said that mother did this several times a day. Towards the end the mutterings grew louder. Once Mrs Sullivan rang Niamh to report that mother was crying and shouting, ‘Why can’t I die? Why can’t I die?’ Mrs Sullivan could not calm her down and Niamh, who is a lecturer in politics at University College Dublin, had to cancel her appointments and drive to Drogheda. Niamh managed with some effort to quiet mother that day. Mother grew increasingly despondent, however, and began rejecting attempts to help her, jabbing at us with her bony fingers and pushing us away. The rages against her helplessness and dependency grew louder and more frequent.
She remained at home until three days before she died. One Saturday morning when my sister went to wake mother, she found her unresponsive. With some effort, my sister roused her and persuaded her to go to hospital, although mother asserted herself enough to insist that my sister and Michael drive her there rather than call an ambulance. With Niamh’s help, mother dressed and walked out of her house for the last time. She was semi-comatose by the time they arrived, and she never regained full consciousness. She died in her sleep two days later, apparently peacefully and without pain.
I did not mourn her passing. The person who died was a stranger. Mother had died a few months earlier. The body remained, and occasionally the creature inhabiting it might for a quarter hour resemble my mother. Towards the end, however, her face became less and less familiar. It was as if some fierce and essential thing were becoming visible through the mask she had worn all her life. As the flesh over the skull melted away, her cheeks hollowed out, and her nose and chin and cheek bones became sharp ridges as the skin over them became taut and shiny. Her grey eyes usually appeared to be focussed on something—what we could not tell. They shifted in unison and tracked movements that only she could see. Her head would turn to follow whatever she was seeing. She might nod or smile, but not in response to those who were physically present. More often than not when she did interact with us, she seemed impatient and restless but distant. Her occasional comments were often unrelated to her present circumstances. One of the last sensible things she said to me was ‘Mother arranges flowers so nicely.’ She leaned forward in her chair and turned towards me as she spoke. I nodded and shouted, ‘Yes, she does,’ and mother settled back in her chair and resumed gazing into the distance, apparently deriving some happiness from what she was seeing.
Once, during my last Sunday with her at her home, I entered the room in which she was sitting. She did not react to my presence. I had to touch her arm several times before she registered the fact that someone was there. I do not think she knew who I was. In response, she croaked in alarm. I think she might have said ‘what’, but I am not certain. I asked if I could bring her a cup of tea but she retreated and said nothing further. An hour or so later she stood up and crept with her walker to bed. I followed her down the hallway to the room that now held her bed and waited until she crawled into it. When Mrs Sullivan arrived the next morning, she helped mother get up. I left after she ate her breakfast. My final sight of her in her own home was of her sitting in her chair in a dark room, her feet elevated on a cushioned stool and her body covered with a knitted blanket. She made no response to me when I said goodbye. By the time I arrived at the hospital on the next Saturday afternoon she was comatose.
I have dreamt several times of the last sound I heard her make, that awful, frightened gasping bark of terror. In the dream, the noise comes charging towards me out of the dark, detached from any speaker, but I know that it is the final exhalation of another terrified creature. The dream always wakes me and leaves me nauseous with anxiety, thrashing about in the dark and trying to escape from the bedcovers. I am coming to fear that is how I will end, not with rage against the dying of the light but with an animal’s uncomprehending howl.
How do you sum up a person’s life? I want to avoid the meaningless clichés of ‘good wife’, ‘good mother’, and the like that pepper eulogies. They are statements more of what we think others ought to be than what they are. Mother never did anything of public importance. Birth, marriage, and death certificates, diplomas, driver’s licenses, medical records, bear witness to the official reality of her life. In this age of computers, the facts they record will survive, buried among millions of similar facts, significant only in the aggregate. She was the only person in her parish to die that week, one of two people to die that day at Lourdes, one of seven people age 90 or above to die that month in County Meath, one of …. She disappears into the numbers.
Of course, I knew my mother only after she was an adult. My parents married when my father was 26 and my mother 23. I was born the year after they married, my sister arrived two years later. As I said above, mother would have been in her late twenties at the time of my first memories of her. All that I know of her earlier life is based on what she or others told me of it. But she was not one to talk about herself. My knowledge of her life seems so random and haphazard.
One story of her childhood sticks out as exemplifying my mother’s personality. When she was a young girl, perhaps four or five, a servant girl slept in a room next to mother’s bedroom. One night mother heard this woman talking with a man in her room, and the next morning she asked her own mother who the man was. Mother was sent off to visit her grandparents for the day, and when she returned that evening, the girl was gone and another had taken her place. Mother was told that the ‘poor’ girl was so lonely that she had been talking to herself in a man’s voice, carrying on both sides of the conversation, and that she had been sent away for medical treatment. Mother accepted this explanation and even late in her life would tell this story as a cautionary tale of the dangers of an overactive imagination—a danger to which she thought me particularly prone. Despite her own marriage and all the modern novels she read, it seemed never to occur to her that she had indeed overheard a man in the woman’s bedroom.
My mother revered her parents. She could not conceive that they would lie to her, even out of a strong sense of the proprieties and the need to protect a child from the realities of life. She carried that sense of trust over into her adult dealings with others. In my mother’s world, the fishmonger’s wares were always fresh.
Mother was religious but fonder of the observances than knowledgeable about the doctrines behind the rites. She knelt and recited a decade of the rosary every night, but I suspect she seldom meditated on the mystery of the faith associated with that decade. Her notion of heaven was based on the grand seaside hotels her family visited for their holidays when she was a child. She was always certain that she and all her relatives would be together again in heaven, housed in pleasant surroundings, and that all the creature comforts would be provided by a competent and attentive staff. Tea would be served every afternoon in the spacious, high-ceilinged lounge, with a piano, violin and cello trio playing sedately behind a screen of potted palms. Saint Peter was cast as the concierge.
‘We have always been comfortable.’ I heard my mother say that to a friend once. It is hard to convey the matter-of-fact tone in which she uttered that remark. For her it was simply a fact. She was not bragging. It was an explanation, rather, of a fundamental, obvious truth. Comfort and care were expected and, because expected, supplied.
She came from a family that liked photographs of themselves. One of the earliest of mother is a picture with her great-grandmother. The older woman is seated in a chair. Mother stands beside her, leaning one arm on the chair for support. She is wearing a white pinafore over a dark dress, and there is a large bow perched on the back of her head, the ribbons trailing down her back. From the date written on the back of the photo, mother was three when the picture was taken. I checked the family records. Her great-grandmother was 87 that year. She is a handsome woman and appears to care about her appearance. Her hair is carefully set and full, extending in wing-like structures on either side. I know nothing of woman’s clothing of that era, but she appears to be well dressed. Her white dress has a tight bodice and a high collar. The skirt extends to the floor. Only the tips of her shoes are visible. Her hands rest lightly on her lap. She sits forward in the chair, in minimal contact with it. Her back is rigidly straight and does not touch the chair. Nor do her arms or the sides of her body. One has the impression that if the chair were removed, she would continue to sit there undisturbed.
Mother often conveyed the same impression of being at ease while confined within her rules. She chose her authorities and her rules carefully, however. The cardinals of Vatican II may have decreed that women could leave their heads uncovered while in church. Mother knew better. The succession of Sisters Mary Rose Margaret Catherine Theresa who populated her childhood had taught her that women wore hats or scarves in church lest the sight of their crowning glory tempt men to worldly thoughts. Mother accepted their precedence in matters of dogma. For weekday services or for visits to St Columkille’s on parish business, mother usually wore a headscarf. For Mass on Sunday, she favoured small, rather plain hats with a veil in front. The first Sunday after the ruling at Vatican II, mother wore her largest and most ostentatious hat to Mass. There were a few women in the congregation that Sunday who took advantage of the new freedom to display their hair. There were none the next Sunday.
Several months before she died, I took her to Mass. She dressed as carefully as she always did. Later I prepared dinner at her house and we ate together. That was one of the last times she spoke with me at length. I had cooked a small joint of beef and roasted it with carrots, potatoes, and onions. The combination triggered a memory, and she began telling me of a Christmas feast at her Aunt Sarah’s, her mother’s sister, that had featured a large joint of roast beef. When she began the story, she was reminiscing of a long past event. Within a few sentences, however, the dinner shifted in time to only a few days before.
There were thirty-four people, all family members, present. Cook was so proud of her handiwork that she carried the roast in herself rather than allow one of the lesser servants to bring it in. She set the heavy silver platter carefully on the table in front of mother’s Uncle Claude. Aunt Sarah thanked the cook, and Aunt Catherine, the wife of mother’s Uncle Rupert, remarked in the presence of the cook how lucky Aunt Sarah was to have such a paragon. Cook beamed and nodded and wished everyone a happy Christmas. Uncle Claude then carved the roast. After he set a slice on a plate, a maid would carry it down the table and place it before one of the guests. Another maid would then step forward and offer the potatoes. A third maid served the carrots.
That was the first time mother had been allowed to sit with the adults rather than being fed with the children in the nursery. I suppose that is why that particular occasion remained so prominent in her mind. She told the story with such fresh happiness. She knew that I was her grown son, but she was simultaneously a young girl again. She was proud of her family—proud that they had the resources to seat thirty-four people at the same table, proud of the silver and the heavy furniture. She saw the wonder of the hothouse flowers on the table and the bright lights of the chandelier overhead and the fire blazing in the corner fireplace overheating the room. She heard the excited voices of her cousins discussing their triumphs at school, the staid conversations of her grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles. I had not seen her so happy in many months.
She was the last survivor of that supper, but that Sunday as we ate our meal she was the younger person at the table.
Like the rest of us, she must have had regrets and disappointments. But she never dwelt on them. My impression is that she considered complaining a failure to face facts. The strongest complaint I ever heard her voice may seem quite minor. Niamh had her first son when ‘natural childbirth’ was becoming popular. My mother had given birth to myself and Niamh at a time when middle-class women went to hospital and were anaesthetised. After listening to Michael and Niamh describe the classes they were attending and seeing their enthusiasm about the upcoming birth, mother remarked, ‘I always wanted to see something born. When I was young, it wasn’t considered proper for girls to know anything about birth. I was sent away when one of the mares foaled or the cows had a calf or the dog had puppies. I wasn’t even allowed to see our cat have kittens. They kept me away until everything was cleaned up and then they would let me see the cat in her box with her kittens. Everything was always made neat and clean before they would allow me to have a look. Even when I was a young woman. And when I had you, it was the same. I went into labour and then they gassed me and they brought you around after I had woke up and finished being sick from the ether. You were wrapped up tightly. All that I was allowed to see was your face and your hands.’ She lived her entire life within such strictures. But she seemed comfortable and secure within them.
In 1949, when I was six and Niamh four, my mother inherited her father’s family property in what was then a rural area of County Meath from a childless uncle. Both of her brothers had died, and she was the sole surviving family member on her father’s side. At the time my parents lived in Dublin most of the year. My mother left my father and moved to County Meath, taking myself and Niamh with her. My parents never lived together again for more than a few days at a time. Until Niamh and I were sent away to school, my father visited almost every weekend. Thereafter he came only when we were home during holidays. For the last few decades of their lives, he and my mother met perhaps two or three times a year. Divorce did not become legal in Ireland until 1996. An informal separation such as the one between my parents was the closest substitute.
I do not know what led my parents to separate. Neither of them ever spoke of a problem between the two of them. Both upheld the fiction that they were married. If asked, either would say only that mother had moved to her ancestral home because it was a better place to raise the children or because she preferred to live in the country. As a child I accepted their arrangement as normal. It was only later that I began to wonder about it.
Once I overheard mother talking with a friend. They were discussing a young acquaintance who fought with her husband continually. Mother said, ‘Of course, it’s only natural when you first marry that you have disagreements. You work through those in the first few months.’ I took that as a description of her and my father’s marriage. Indeed I never witnessed a fight between my parents, or even raised voices. They were cool and distant towards each other. My memories of them together are of the two of them sitting in the same room, each involved separately in their life, perhaps reading or working, but never together in any but the most trivial sense.
Mother lived such a placid life. I have always assumed that she initiated the separation from my father, although I have no proof of that other than my impressions of my parents’ personalities. My father would not have admitted a failure in something as essential as marriage by sending my mother away. If she was indeed the one responsible for the separation, it was perhaps the only assertive act of her life. After Niamh and I left home, she spent her days keeping her house clean, gardening, reading, all domestic tasks. She ventured out to do the shopping and to attend church. Occasionally she might visit one of her cousins or join my father at a political dinner in which the presence of wives was obligatory.
She wrote weekly to both Niamh and myself. Her letters to me were filled with reports on the weather, news about Niamh and her family, information about people I knew in Ireland that she thought might interest me. She seldom mentioned herself. I have lived for long periods outside Ireland, and for many years between the mid-1960s and the late 1990s, I saw mother only a few times each year. Niamh was with mother much more often, but even she had to rely on those visits for personal information about mother’s daily life. Niamh might learn during a visit— and I from Niamh’s subsequent letter or email—that mother had been sick or that she had taken a trip with her cousin Aoife to visit the shrine at Knock. Those events went unrecorded in her letters to me and Niamh.
Others had made the important decisions in her life. As a child, she did what her parents demanded. My grandfather was the one who introduced my father to her. Theirs was not an arranged marriage in the traditional sense, but my grandfather made it clear to mother than he considered my father a more than acceptable husband for her. If Niamh or myself made a suggestion to her, she always fell in with it. And she always took care to give the impression that she was enjoying herself when we were with her. I hope that she did.
What survives of mother is so ephemeral. Her stories, the habits she instilled in my sister and myself, our memories of her—those will inevitably disappear with time, and with us. I sometimes see her in a gesture of my sister’s, and Niamh occasionally remarks that something that I have done reminds her of mother. My sister’s grandchildren will be the last people to remember her. I doubt that either of my parents will be much of a presence in their future lives. Last Christmas I overheard Niamh’s younger son tell his children to plan on living long lives. He pointed to my parents, their great-grandparents, as proof of their genetic heritage of a long life expectancy. If anything, for them mother will survive as an assertion of a genetic disposition rather than as a person of cherished memory. My father’s success and his claim to a place in Irish history may occupy more of their conceptions of who they are, but again not as memories of the man himself but as a means of asserting their own social position.
After mother died, Lewis was looking at photographs of her and remarked that, unlike most people, her face had not changed much over the years. ‘With some people,’ he said, ‘you can’t identify them from early pictures. But your mother began to look like herself from the age of five or so.’ Lewis was correct. Mother acquired her adult face at an early age, but she retained a youthful face for many years. Almost until the end, except for her white hair, she did not look her age. At sixty she would have been thought forty. And at eighty, she looked fifty. As Niamh and myself grow older, I think that our physical resemblance to mother is becoming stronger. We have her narrow high nose and her broad open forehead. Both of us have her grey, deep-set eyes, and pale skin. Like her, both of us are plagued by ocular rosacea.
I am my parents’ child. I reproduce their behaviour. I hear echoes of their speech in mine. My thoughts and my reactions are sometimes theirs. I respond as they responded. And yet I am inevitably different. I grew up in a different age and was shaped by the problems and events of that age, just as they were shaped by those of their youth. I have spent much of my life outside Ireland and encountered much that they, especially mother, were never exposed to. I have been far luckier in my relationship with Lewis than they were in theirs. That is perhaps the greatest difference in our lives.
My mother’s—and my father’s—death prompted the reminiscences that follow. I want to avoid a narrative that manufactures sense and meaning where there were none. I have come to distrust such narratives. They are artefacts of our longing for an impossible order. Our original sin is the desire to make sense of the world. The fruit of the tree of knowledge is the story we use to tame the chaos that surrounds us, to make it palatable, to make it possible for us to continue. And so all I will offer are fragments as they surface randomly in my mind. I will not pretend that my life has significance, let alone meaning, for others. This record is undertaken for selfish, egoistical reasons. I am the audience as well as the creator. I will try to be honest, even though I place no great value on honesty. I have hid from others for many years. I suspect that in this chronicle I will continue to do so. Fiction is for me a refuge, and I have made of silence a haven.
Lewis—here’s the first instalment of the ‘life’. I emphasize that this is a very rough draft of what I want to say. The writing is going well. I have all the episodes I want to discuss mapped out in detail. I am planning to follow my usual procedure and rush through the first draft. I think it will take me another month. Then I will return home to Brighton. Sorry to desert you—again, but you know what I am like when a new book begins. Thanks. Love, Pat
Are you still having that dream? Or is that paragraph an example of literary license? I hope it’s no more than that.
Whenever I think of your mother, I have this strong vision of her sitting in a chair in her living room, with the tea things on a table near her. She is sitting very stiffly and making polite conversation about my life—never about hers. Much like the letters you mention. When you weren’t present, she might ask me about you. Usually it was some question about how you were “getting on.” During the first such encounters, I gave her an honest answer, but I soon discovered that she didn’t want to hear about any problems you might be having. She just wanted to be reassured that you were doing fine. She also shied away from any conversation about our lives together. I never felt I really knew her. I guess my model of a mother is my mom, and since your mother was nothing like her, I didn’t know what to make of your mother. I learned more about her from you that from anything I witnessed directly. Even so, this chapter has things in it I never heard before. Yours is a very private family.
Don’t worry about the separation. I do know what you are like when you’re working on a new book, and I don’t want to be around you.
As I told you when you left for Errarooey, I don’t know if I will be able to add anything to your “life.” I’m not going to censor what you write. Feel free to say whatever you like about us. I trust you. At most I plan on correcting errors of fact, should there be any—dates and spellings of names and the like. I’ll try to give you my honest impressions as a reader, but that’s the most I will do.
Geramie wandered in while I was reading your first chapter (I’m in college today—back to Brighton tomorrow) and asked what I was doing. When I told him, he said to say hello. I think he would like to be asked to read the draft chapters as well. You would have made much of the look on his face when he discovered what I was doing. It was one of those looks that you would have gone on about for three or four paragraphs. Let me know if it’s OK to show him what you’re writing. Of course, if he reads them, so will Lynne. He may just be curious about what you might say about him and Lynne. (If you haven’t already decided to include them, think about doing so, even if it’s just a brief appearance. He—and Lynne—will be disappointed if they aren’t at least mentioned.)
Received three emailed requests to referee articles today. And a letter from the International Journal of Number Theory asking if I will serve as its general editor. I seem to have reached the status of elder statesmen. I think the word that I am retiring at the end of this term has gotten out, and people have decided that I will have time on my hands and need something to do. The IJNT says the editorship is for three years, but I suspect that is a fiction. If I agree, they probably will conveniently forget that the offer came with a term limit and “let” me serve until I ask to be relieved of the duty. The present editor has been there for nine years. What do you think?
Must close now. Have a tutorial in a few minutes and need to prepare. Miss you.
Lewis—The first time I met your mother, I didn’t know what to make of her. I was overwhelmed by your family in the beginning. Looking back on it, I suspect I learned more about your parents the first time I met them than I knew about my own. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but from my point of view, your family does not understand the concept of a ‘private life’. The first time your mother began interrogating me, I panicked. Only the respect for older people drilled into me during my childhood kept me from bolting. I was not used to a family that felt no one has a right to an undiscussed life, let alone a secret.
About Geramie and Lynne. Please give them my regards. I will leave it to you to decide about showing them the chapters. Be sure to emphasize to them that these are drafts. I may mention them and others of our friends and colleagues in passing, but the ‘life’ will be about us and about my parents.
Congratulations on the offer. That’s quite a prestigious journal, isn’t it? If they are trying to entangle you in a longer commitment, would it work to state in your letter of acceptance that you will take the post for three years only? That way it will be on record, and you can refer to it later if you want out.
PS. Don’t worry—I am not having that dream again. As you suspected, it is a bit of literary license. My real dreams are unprintable, being X-rated and featuring you.
Pat—A “private life”? Among the Rosenthals? We expect you to tell us everything. It gives us something to tell others. What—you want we should have nothing to talk about? L.
PS. Your dreams are a matter of interest and sometimes of concern to me.
Michelle—Here is the first instalment of the ‘life.’ This is very much a rough draft. Let me know what you think. I am sequestering meself in Errarooey for the next month to bang out the first version of this. Then I will return to Dublin for a few days before going on to Brighton. When I have a better sense of when I will be in Dublin, I shall let you know and we can arrange to meet to talk about the book, possibly with those of your colleagues you think need to be part of the discussions. Regards. Patrick.
Good start. I got a real feeling for your mother. I also recognized some traits in her that appear in characters in your books, and I’m sure that others will do so as well. That will go down well. The author may be dead in academic criticism, but in the popular mind the more you know about the author, the more you understand his works. My only concern is the final paragraph. I wonder if it might better serve as a statement you make privately to yourself about the book—your guiding principles, as it were—rather than something you openly acknowledge for readers. I suspect a good many people will close the book at that point. Granted, autobiographies are always a case of special pleading by the writer, and readers expect lies and exaggerations, but they also expect a certain—what can we call it?—a certain decorum and the appearance of truth. They are hoping for a book that will tell all. Telling them up-front that you’re going to lie to them doesn’t strike me as a good tactic.
Having said all that, my next comment might seem strange—but will Lewis and your sister be comfortable with your remarks about them? The same goes for anyone you mention. Something for you to keep in mind as you prepare the final version of this for publication. Comments about living people will worry the legal department. Honesty is good but libel suits are not.
I also don’t understand the title. Are you planning on discussing that somewhere in the book?
I wish I were in Errarooey. Awful day here. Actually, on second thought, no matter how bad my day is, I don’t want to be in fecking Errarooey. But I want to be my equivalent of Errarooey, which is a room and a visit to the spa at the Shelbourne.
Michelle—I have not decided if I will explain the title. It might be best to let that remain a mystery. I think the meaning will be clear from context but that may be no more than saying that it is clear to me. I will discuss the issue with you later. Let’s leave that question open for the moment until you have had a chance to read the entire work. If the title still doesn’t make sense to you, I will consider explaining it. I won’t tell you what it means now—I’ll wait to see if you reach the right understanding of it. I will have Niamh read the final version and have her sign off on it. I will consider removing or toning down anything she objects to. Will that satisfy the lawyers? Lewis and I have discussed this. He says that he trusts me, but he may change that opinion when he sees what I write about us. I am also emailing him each chapter in this version as I finish it for comment. I will tell him again that he has the right to censor any parts he feels are too personal. I suspect that he will not make overt objections to any of it but, in his usual tactful way, will find some means of letting me know of his objections. I am not planning to reveal the size of his penis—it is not going to be that sort of tell-all autobiography—but there may be discussions of aspects of our relationship that he would prefer not be aired in public. It is an issue that I have to approach carefully. It is a sensitive matter between the two of us. He objects on principle to censorship and is careful to adhere to a non-interference policy on my writings, but he is well aware that his students and colleagues may misread what I say about him. There have been incidents in the past when something I wrote was interpreted as applying to him and became the subject of college gossip. Niamh has never mentioned a similar incident, at least to me, but UCD cannot be so different from other universities that gossip is not the favourite intramural sport. Since much of the ‘life’ will be about our parents, she needs to be comfortable about what I say, especially after all the fash engendered by ‘Pain Killers’. Because of the differences in our public surnames, people do not immediately identify her as the sister of Patrick Rósgleann, but many people know that she is the daughter of Bram Ross, and since our father is the subject of much of the book, my discussions of our relations with him may well turn out to be something she has to deal with—assuming that the book ever sees the light of day or that anyone will read it if it does. I have not spoken about this with her yet. She does not know that I am writing an autobiography. I will broach the subject when the first draft is finished and ask her to read that. If anything, I expect her to be disappointed at how little she is mentioned in the work.
Lewis mentioned that one of his colleagues—he and his wife are our closest friends—saw him reading this chapter and asked if he could read the drafts. I told Lewis to use his judgement. Another pair of readers, especially since they are less familiar with the details of my life, might be a good thing. Lewis did advise me to mention them in the work. I hope this will not turn out to be a problem when word spreads that I am writing an autobiography. My intent is to focus on my parents’ marriage, my early history, and my relationship with Lewis. I do not see this as becoming a ‘proper’ autobiography that addresses all aspects of my life. Perhaps I am conceiving it more as a ‘novel’ whose plot grows out of its theme and the questions it asks rather than an omnium gatherum that incorporates everything that ever happened to me.
About the final paragraph. I will take your views under advisement. I understand your point, and I will think about it. But I also want readers to think about it. Regards, Patrick
‘My father …’
He stared at the screen. For fifteen minutes, the cursor blinking at the end of the line had been prompting him to continue. Tomorrow morning, at about 10:30, he would lean forward in his chair in the front row of seats in the Pro-Cathedral, turn halfway towards his mother and allow her to grasp his hand briefly to show the others that he had her blessing, and then stand up, walk to the lectern, and speak in praise of his father’s life. The assembled mourners would grant him the courtesy of their attention, their faces constrained in notions of polite grief. They would glance at him from time to time, before allowing their gazes to drift, to the spray of white lilies stipulated by his mother resting atop the simple black coffin, to the other floral ‘tributes’, to the altar table with its ornate candlesticks, the tabernacle, the monstrance, the chalice, all the other paraphernalia for the mass, to the attending priests (what colour were the chasubles and stoles for a funeral—he thought they were purple or black, but he couldn’t remember—it had been so long since he had been to a funeral in a church), to any of the hundreds of things in the Pro-Cathedral that would take their minds away from the reason for their attendance. They would greet any humorous anecdotes with reminiscent smiles and brief, restrained laughter, perhaps a slow affectionate shaking of the head from side to side to demonstrate their familiarity with ‘the deceased’.
Others—a retired leader of Fianna Fáil, to whose service his father had devoted much of his life, a colleague from the bar, a cabinet minister—would speak of his father’s public accomplishments. It fell to him, as the only son, to deliver the family’s tribute. ‘Make it more personal,’ the priest at the Pro-Cathedral deputed to speak with him about the funeral arrangements had counselled. ‘Talk about him as a father, a husband.’
He had nodded to show that he understood. He glanced down into the cup of tea he held in his left hand as if it might hold the text of the eulogy he was to deliver. He had forgotten the priest’s name. When he had presented himself at the appointed time in Monsignor Ryan’s office and spoke his name, the middle-aged woman sitting behind the desk in the outer office had lifted the phone on the desk and spoken briefly to someone. Within seconds, the priest had stepped into the office and said, ‘I’m Father something something. The monsignor was called away unexpectedly and he asked me to speak to you. Why don’t we go across the hall to the library? Would you like a cup of tea?’ He wondered if the monsignor had found it politic not to enter into a discussion with the reprobate son. Was he being snubbed? Passed off to a minor functionary? Was the Church’s verdict on his life being delivered? In the confusion of shaking hands with the priest and dealing with his coat and the tea and the question of sugar and milk and the offer of a biscuit and taking a seat at the table and wondering about the reasons for the monsignor’s absence, he had paid no attention to the priest’s name.
The library looked unused, more a place to display books than to read them. It smelled of polish and wax scented with a heavy perfume but underneath that was the odour of old books. The room was damp and unheated. He regretted removing his coat as soon as he took it off but if he put it on again, the priest might think he was preparing to leave. He sipped the tea. It was tepid and the milk was a bit off.
He answered the priest’s questions about seating arrangements and the likely number and identity of what the priest insisted on calling ‘the chief mourners’. Father whatever-his-name was particularly interested in learning what people of note would attend the service and was considerably cheered to learn that two former taoiseachs, several current leaders of the Fianna Fáil, and other TDs and senators would be present. Upon hearing that news, he leaned forward conspiratorially in his chair and whispered in honour of the solemnity of the occasion, ‘His Grace will want to speak with them.’ There was, he noted, the slightest emphasis on ‘them’.
When the discussion turned to the eulogies, he had confessed his quandary. ‘It’s difficult to sum up my father’s life in a few words.’ The priest had nodded and then advised him to speak of the deceased as a father and husband and let the other eulogists talk about his public accomplishments. ‘Show us the human being behind the politician. The man who wasn’t visible in public.’
That, he stopped himself from saying, was the difficulty. He was not at all certain there was a human being behind the politician, at least not a human being others would want to hear about at a funeral. He thought about what he might say, how he might present his father, how he might ‘package’ him and make him palatable. If he strayed too far from the truth into the realm of customary funerary tributes, the others would recognise his inability to venture beyond the clichés and would know that he was hiding his feelings behind them. If he spoke truly—well, he could not do that. Dublin—at least the Dublin that had been important to his father—would find much to talk about if he spoke the truth. So he had simply thanked the priest for his advice and then left.
He wondered how many other sons hated their fathers. Had others experienced the surge of quickly hidden joy and the sense of relief that he had felt when the doctor had bent one last time over the body, applied the stethoscope over the heart, listened intently for a brief moment, and then announced ‘I’m sorry. He’s gone’? The doctor had simply confirmed the story the monitors already told, his action a sop to tradition, a last personal service to the ‘great man’ in lieu of the coldness of the machinery.
He had been keeping his eyes on the monitors. He had not wanted to look at his father as he died. He had seen the blips in the lines that recorded respiration and pulse slow, their peaks further and further apart and lower and lower until they ended in a straight line, the intermittent beeping replaced by a constant tone of alarm. Following the doctor’s official pronouncement, a nurse interposed herself between the bed and the monitors, facing the others in the room. She reached behind her back and surreptitiously switched them off. The action forced the bodice of the starched pinafore she wore to protrude, making it appear as if her breasts had suddenly grown.
In the background, the priest and the nursing sister on the ward began praying quietly, at the threshold of audibility so that one knew that prayers were being offered but not so loudly as to intrude. His mother reached out and touched his father’s face. Her eyes watered and a solitary noiseless tear flowed down the right side of her face. He tracked its slow progress down a furrow age had gouged into her skin. Its path glittered in the harsh hospital lighting. The tear hung suspended for a second before continuing downward over her lips. Without thinking, she licked at it with the tip of her tongue and then seemed startled by the sudden saltiness. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse and then dabbed at her eyes. That was the only sign of regret from his mother that he witnessed.
His sister Julia moved forwards and embraced their mother and began drawing her away from the bed. Someone patted him on the shoulder and murmured, ‘It’s a blessing. He’s not in pain anymore.’ ‘Thank you,’ he said to the doctor and the others in the room. ‘Mother, do you want a few moments alone with Da? Julia?’ He was glad to note that he had his voice under control and could speak gently to his mother with just the right amount of supportive sadness.
He wanted the others out of the room. It suddenly seemed crowded. When had all these people entered? Why were they there? How had his father’s death become such a public occasion? Most of all, he wanted an excuse to leave the room. He wanted to be alone in his own flat so that he could remove the mask that suddenly seemed glued to his face, stretching it into taut, unfamiliar lines. His body felt foreign, caught in an unnatural pose. He was conscious that he was being watched and judged. It was important that the others see him as grieving but able to postpone his own mourning until his mother had had time to respond. Her claim to grief would be felt as greater than his or his sister’s and they must defer to her, reserving their own mourning until later and supporting her ‘in her hour of need’. It was strange how easily the customary phrases rose unbidden to the surface.
He kept his face and his body frozen in the semblance of sorrow, hiding the sense of relief he felt. The immediate aftermath of the death was devoted to the bureaucracy of burial and condolence—there were papers to be signed, people to be notified, journalists to be spoken to, a long stream of visitors and phone calls to be dealt with, a service to arrange. He felt as if he had responded to at least a thousand expressions of sympathy, had said a thousand times of his mother, ‘She’s resting now. She’s taking it as well as can be expected.’ The mechanisms of the funeral and burial were almost comforting. They provided something to do. He could drift passively by fulfilling the ritual expectations.
He put off writing the eulogy as long as he could. He avoided thinking of his father. When he finally turned to the task, the images and memories came crowding in.
‘Here, this is where I went after leaving Boston.’ His father traced a path westward and then south along a red line inked onto the map. ‘I stayed in New York City for the next four days.’ He stabbed at a point on the map with his finger. Step by step his father traced the days of his visit to the United States. He spoke briefly of the business he had transacted in each city and of the people he had met, the contracts he had signed, the deals that he had arranged. When he finished, there were several road maps spread over the table in the library.
He was seven years old at the time. He liked maps and he was grateful to his father for bringing him this bounty. He liked the way maps reduced and managed reality. He looked forward to pouring over them later and imagining what it would be like to live in these cities with strange names. What sort of people lived in this place called Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania? What was there in Chicago that had kept his father there for three days?
‘They give these maps away for free in what they call “gas stations” in the States. That’s where they sell petrol for cars. Petrol is very cheap there, less than a shilling for one of their gallons.’
He nodded. He didn’t know what to make of his father’s sudden confidences. It was unusual for his father to explain his life to his son. ‘What is this?’ He pointed to a random blotch of green on one of the maps.
His father bent over the map and examined the spot. ‘Shenandoah National Park,’ he read. ‘It’s one of their national parks,’ he explained. ‘America is a very big country. They have lots of room for parks. I didn’t go there,’ he said dismissively. ‘Didn’t have time.’
His father looked around suddenly, as if registering the clutter on the library table for the first time. ‘Here,’ he thrust one of the maps at his son, ‘fold these up and take them to your room. I need to do some work before tea.’
He had to stretch his arms wide to encompass the width of the map. He tried to fold it in half, but the paper resisted. The creases in the paper fought his attempts to force the map to bend.
‘Not like that.’ His father snatched the map away and in a whirlwind of motion created a small, neat rectangle. He held it by one of the narrow ends and waved it up and down in front of his son’s face. ‘See. It’s easy. Try it again.’
Each of his attempts to restore the maps to their original shape met with failure. After he had struggled for a few seconds, his father would take the map away from him and magically the neat rectangle would reappear. His father impatiently folded the last two maps up by himself and then thrust the bundle into his son’s hands and motioned him away without speaking.
He carried the maps up to his room and put them in a drawer of his desk. His one later attempt to refold a map was a disaster. Fearing that his father would find the mess and ridicule him, he hid the map under a stack of books, hoping that their weight were force it to become that neat, co-operative shape. He waited until both his parents were absent and then pulled it out and tried again to refold it into the flat rectangle. Finally in frustration, after several attempts, he crumpled the map and stepped on it with his feet to force into the smallest package possible, stamping hard on the creases to flatten it. He put it at the bottom of his satchel beneath several books and his school supplies. On the way to school, he discarded it in a waste bin. Occasionally he would remove one of the maps from his desk drawer and unfold it cautiously. He never dared venture past the first two folds for fear that his father would discover that his son was an idiot unable to accomplish the simplest task.
He was never to learn why his parents lived such separate lives. When he was four and Julia two, his mother inherited a property and house along the coast north of Drogheda. She moved there with her two children. His father worked in Dublin during the week. In the beginning, he arrived at the house on Friday night and stayed until early Monday morning. Gradually, his visits had grown shorter. He would drive up on Saturday afternoon and leave on Sunday after Mass. There always seemed to be some excuse why he could not stay longer—an important meeting, a visitor from overseas—he never bothered to offer many details. An explanation would take too much of his valuable time. Even when he was in the house, he kept apart, studying reports, writing memos. ‘Don’t bother your father. He’s busy’—that was a constant refrain on weekends.
Then his father began to skip the weekend visits. Perhaps once every two months an event in Dublin would require his presence. Other weekends he brought guests with him, his secretary to type an important report, one of his aides to work on a project. On those weekends, he and his sister saw their father only for a few minutes, when he arrived and when he left. They were banished from the family table because of the guests and had to eat in the kitchen. When he and Julia were sent away to school, his father’s visits to Drogheda almost ceased. As far as he knew, in the three decades since he had left home, his father and mother met only a few times each year.
It was, he understood later, the Irish form of divorce in an age when divorce was not possible—couples lived apart, meeting only for appearance’ sake on the necessary occasions. His mother appeared beside his father at important functions. He spent Christmas and Easter with his children and wife. Even when divorce became possible, they had continued the arrangement. It had become a habit neither was willing to forgo. In any case, it took little of their time.
The cynical adult he became concluded that his father had married his mother for her connections. The power of her family must have given his father an advantage as a young solicitor with political ambitions. It did his career no harm to be allied to the Callighans of County Louth.
His father was an absence in their life. The disappointment he had felt as a child when his father ignored them was later replaced by relief. As a teenager, he had on many occasions avoided contact with his father for months. When they did see each other, his father would shake his hand and pat him on the shoulder, say a few words, and then hurry off. He saw more of his friends’ fathers than he did of his own.
It was only towards the end of his life that his father had returned to his official ‘home’. When he became too ill to maintain his independent life, he had demanded help from the three persons he considered obligated to care for him—his wife and his children. A room on the ground floor of his mother’s house had been converted into a bedroom. A woman with nursing experience spent the nights in a nearby room in case his father needed help. During the day, his mother served his father. She became a hostess again, greeting the stream of visitors and ushering them into her husband’s presence. As his father grew worse, both he and Julia were pressed into service. …
A fictional son writing a fictional eulogy—I tried to write the story that way. I started the preceding after my father’s death in 2011. I never finished more than a preliminary draft. I did not have a clear idea of how it would end, and I could not continue past the introductory bits. I could not even settle on a name for the narrator and had to refer to him as a nameless ‘he’ throughout. Parts of the story are truthful—the business with the maps actually happened. The details of my parents’ married life are there in rough outline.
As so often has been the case in my life, I thought that the distance afforded by fiction would allow me to achieve a degree of solace and consolation. I would tell the truth slant, at least as much of the truth as I could bear telling. But I could not go on. I could not, as I have done on so many occasions, make the words in a story of an unlived life rhyme. They had no reality. I found no shelter in the restless, unsubstantial shadows on the cave wall.
My father is past hearing any eulogy, but then eulogies are not for the dead, are they? They are stories we tell about the dead, the ones we wish were true. In real life I had no eulogy to write. Before his death, my father designated others to perform that task. Indeed, I had no funerary duties at all other than to show up at the right time and sit in the front row wearing a black suit.
Truth—the only truth my father ever wanted to hear was his own. He dismissed mine or anyone else’s with an impatient wave of a hand.
‘I don’t want you to say anything, just listen.’ My father said that to me the last time we saw each other before he became ill. My father may have known that he was dying, but he had not as yet told others—at least he had not informed my mother, Niamh, or myself. He may have felt that it would be his last chance to deliver a message to me before he became incapacitated. He wanted to appear in full possession of his faculties. An admission of physical deterioration might have given me a reason to suspect mental deterioration, and my father would not have wanted me to have that consolation.
My father’s assistant summoned me by phone to the house in Dún Laoghaire that served as my father’s office and his living quarters after his retirement. My father wanted to talk with me, he said. Arrive at 4:30. The meeting, the assistant assured me, would not take more than a half hour. Even my father’s help had absorbed his peremptory manner towards his family.
Another assistant escorted me to my father’s office. My father was seated behind his desk. He motioned me into a hard wooden chair opposite him. ‘Thank you,’ he said—to the assistant. ‘Please hold my calls.’ When the assistant closed the door, my father removed a folder from one of the desk drawers, opened it, and consulted the single sheet of paper it contained. It was apparently an aide-mémoire of the points he wished to discuss with me. He read it for a half-minute and then closed the folder. ‘I don’t want you to say anything, just listen.’ My father made it clear that he did not want to talk with me; he wanted to talk at me.
He paused for a second and gazed at me with the look of a schoolmaster about to deliver distasteful news to an errant boy. He would do his duty no matter how painful, how much it distressed him.
‘I will not pretend that we have had a successful father-son relationship. Some of that may be in part my fault.’ My father paused, silently and judiciously weighing that admission as if fairness demanded that the possibility at least be considered before he rejected this obvious absurdity. ‘I am told by those who have read some of your books that you can write. You have chosen to publish them under a pseudonym. Since you have done nothing to hide the fact of your true identity, I can only conclude that you wish to embarrass me and that the pseudonym you have adopted is merely a sop to your conscience, a device that allows you to pretend that you are shielding myself—and your mother—from the scandal of having a son who writes pornography. I am also told that you earn a respectable living from these stories, although I am heartened to note that most of your sales are outside Ireland. It is no little satisfaction to me that the nation that has chosen to honour me with its esteem has rejected you.’
My father continued on this vein for another ten minutes. At the end, he informed me that since I did not need the money and since I would have no children because of my ‘perversion’, he would leave his entire estate to my sister and her children. ‘I have conveyed my thoughts on the matter to your mother and advised her to do the same. For reasons I do not understand, she has declined to do so.’
When he finished, I stood up and walked out without speaking. Before I was halfway through the door, he was already calling to his secretary to bring him a file and to ring someone to confirm their lunch meeting. I never spoke with him again. He died in hospital five months later. I escorted my mother to the funeral and afterwards drove her back to her house.
You never told me you tried to write a story about the eulogy. I remember about the eulogy. You tried to pretend that it didn’t matter, but I could tell it did.
This is a tough chapter to read. It’s not just the emotional content. The story fragment confused me at first. The details you seemed to be giving about your father’s funeral didn’t match my recollection of events, and I was confused. Others who don’t know you won’t have that problem, but won’t they accept the story as true and then be pulled up short when you abandon it? Maybe preface the story with something that makes it clear that it’s a fiction.
Emailed the IJNT and accepted the editorship but stressed that it’s only for three years as you suggested. Thanks. The current editor will handle the next three issues, which are already in process. I’m to start work immediately on what will be the next issue after that, which is scheduled for publication fifteen months from now. Overnight I received a batch of sixteen submissions to vet. More are to come shortly. Once I winnow out the clearly unacceptable ones, I have to find referees for those that remain.
Lewis—You helped me survive—as you always do. Should I offer congratulations on the editorship? Or condolences? Or a bit of both? Please accept either, or both, as the mood strikes you.
I understand your point about the potential for confusion. But I want readers to be confused. I hope that will make them think about the nature of what they are reading. Perhaps I should not be billing this as an autobiography. But my whole life has mixed fact and fiction. It is what I do, as you well know. Any honest account of my life has to face that. For me, the ‘life’ has to confront the role of fiction in my life and the role of life in my fiction. It is not a question of avoiding that but of how to present it so that readers understand the point. I will have to think about that. I thought that plunging directly into a fiction without announcing that it was a fiction would foreground the issue. Or am I being obtuse? Love, Pat
Geramie and Lynne both read the chapter. Geramie didn’t say anything, at least not to me. Lynne’s only remark was to ask if your father was really that bad. Neither said anything about the story at the beginning. So either it didn’t bother them or they’re being polite. For the time being, as a reader, I will accept the challenge to think about the nature of what you’re up to. As always, Love, L.
Lewis—Lynne’s remark is useful. It shows that even a close friend, admittedly a very intelligent friend, harbours suspicions about my veracity. Which is how it should be. I missed you this morning. A cold, damp day here. I needed your warmth. P.
Am I nothing more than a hot body to you? Get yourself an electric blanket if that’s the only reason you miss me.
It’s your mind that I value. The hot body is merely a bonus. Sure if you had been here, we could have discussed the cold, and that would have made it enjoyable to me. I wonder if I can get an electric blanket in Dunfanaghy. Probably not. Maybe in Letterkenny.
You’re already planning on replacing me hot body with a hot blanket so.
In Errarooey only.
This is confusing at first, but it begins to make sense in the end. I liked the fictional fragment at the beginning. I know you want to unsettle readers and force them to confront the nature of what writers do and why they do it. This should put them on notice. But I wonder what readers will make of it—which is, I hope, a subtle hint to you to think about the shock value to readers of such a fiction intruding into what is supposed to be an autobiography. My worry is that many readers will regard it as foul play.
Perhaps you should consider speaking more explicitly about your feelings about your father—the way he excluded you from the funeral plans and the disinheritance. This account leaves things up in the air. Was Lewis at the funeral? What did your father think of him? Readers will know about you and Lewis—they will expect some mention of him in your discussions of your parents. Will you discuss “Pain Killers”? Readers will expect you to address its notoriety and the speculation it fuelled.
Thinking ahead to the revisions—we need to devise a strategy for dealing with off-hand mentions of things Irish. Here you mention the Fianna Fáil, taoiseach, the Pro-Cathedral. Your domestic audience will know what you mean, but American readers in particular will find these references mysterious and possibly off-putting. On the other hand, you don’t want to alienate the Irish audience by implying they’re ignorant of their own country by over-explaining.
And just to warn you—the advertising people will make much of the relations between you and your father. No matter how you portray it, they will inflate it into a feud. Understandably they will focus on what will sell books, and scandalous revelations sell books.
Michelle—My feelings about my father will become clearer over the course of the book. I’m starting nearer the end of the matters I deal with rather than the beginning, and at this early point, I prefer to hint at my feelings rather than discuss them in full. I will attempt to let readers develop their own opinion of the man rather than being spoon-fed mine—although I am doing precisely that here, aren’t I? Lewis was not present at the funeral. I barely was. My father’s assistants prepared the guest list and the seating arrangements. I was given a seat in the front row with my mother and Niamh and her family, more out of a sense of tradition than from any regard for me. I was treated as a supernumerary at the service. I discuss my family’s treatment of Lewis later. Ditto ‘Pain Killers’.
You are right about the Irish problem. (Think how different history would be if that were all that the phrase meant.) Would adding a glossary of Irish terms to the foreign editions be a solution? That way I would not have to explain things Irish to an Irish audience and would not be confusing American readers.
And just to warn you—I will explode if your advertising people sensationalise my life to boost sales and profits. I will privately admit to you that I understand why they are being reprehensible and repellent but publicly I will pillory the good folks at your shop. I am sure the publicists will find a way to milk that too.
No glossary. If American readers discover that they need an appendix to understand the words used in the book, they will run away in fright. I think an occasional parenthesis within a sentence to gloss an Irish term will not dismay Irish readers. We are used to the idea that others don’t understand us, aren’t we? I suspect we even celebrate that proof of our difference—“Is it that yis find taoiseach confusing? Eejits, the lot of yis.” Etc. Michelle J
‘I’ll put a candle in the window.’
Lewis and I became lovers in 1966. In the fifty years since we met, he has said that to me two or three hundred times. Our livelihoods and our circumstances have often conspired to keep us apart. But no matter how long or how short the separation, when I write or email Lewis, or ring him, to let him know that I will soon be re-joining him, he always says, ‘I’ll put a candle in the window.’ And he does. There have been candles, in dozens of windows, over the years—his apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts; in our house in Brighton; in his rooms at his college in Cambridge. So many candles, tiny quivering beacons, tokens of Lewis’s gift of himself to me.
I have never said it to him, however, or put a candle in a window for him. More often than not, I am the traveller and I am the one returning. But even when Lewis is the traveller and I the one who stays at home, I never light a candle for him. It is his phrase and his custom, his ritual. I have always felt that I would be encroaching on his contributions to our relationship if I were to adopt it. There are points in any relationship in which one member of it must be allowed a privilege denied to the other. One must learn when to accept as well as when to give
After I was awarded my doctorate in history at University College Dublin, I applied for and received a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard. My dissertation was on the Irish diaspora, and I wanted to expand it into a book. The geographic range of the dissertation was too wide for the sort of in-depth study I envisioned—the book would have been far too long to fit between two covers—and I decided to concentrate on the Irish migration to the Boston area. The resources in Boston, both at Harvard and other local universities and in archives throughout the region, as well as the opportunities for personal interviews with immigrants and their descendants, were essential for my work. Harvard was also the home of Oscar Handlin, the leading authority at the time on the history of immigration to the United States and the originator of immigration history as a serious scholarly subject. I considered myself very lucky to receive the fellowship. The only requirement other than the fulfilment of my research plan was to teach one graduate seminar each semester.
I flew to Boston in late August 1966, two weeks before the start of the fall term. The university assigned me a flat in its housing for junior faculty. The building, which had been designed by a famous architect of the Bauhaus School who had taught at Harvard, was some ten years old at the time and had won several architectural awards. It may have been functional, but it was also the most characterless building I have ever lived in. Corridors and walls were formed of concrete blocks and painted dull colours chosen because they camouflaged stains. The windows were loose in their cheap metal frames and did little to keep out the cold winds of a New England winter. My apartment was both dank and overheated. The walls felt damp and sticky. The building smelled of mildew and old cooking and gas. It was like camping in an abandoned factory building. It was an efficient assault on comfort, both physical and mental.
The charm of the place was further diminished by a lack of funds to furnish my rooms. I quickly discovered that what had seemed an incredibly generous stipend when I read the letter in Dublin announcing the award meant two years of scrimping and penny-pinching for me. For the first several months, I made do with only an inflatable air mattress on the floor, one chair, and a wooden table, all of them bought at a second-hand store. My room at college in Dublin had seemed cramped in comparison to my mother’s home in County Meath, but I was soon to recall it as palatial, filled with light and snug with comforts.
My office in the history department was little better. It was in the basement of Robinson Hall, a building with an impressive marble-floored and -walled entrance backed by a warren of small rooms. A tiny grimy window near the top of the outside wall of my office was the only source of air and sunlight. A planting of shrubberies next to the building blocked the view. The window’s primary function seemed to be to admit insects and rodents. I also had to keep it closed most of the time because the lawn sprinklers, which operated at unpredictable times, sprayed water into the room when it was open. In the winter, it was below the snow line. The narrow room was lined on both sides with utilitarian metal shelving. The placement of the desk under the window meant that, when I sat, I could see only a narrow patch of twigs or snow. Even so, the office was more pleasant than the apartment, and I spent most of my time in Robinson Hall. I used the apartment only for sleeping.
I had never felt so far from home in my life. It was more than a matter of physical distance. Everything was different. It was both quieter and noisier than Ireland. Sounds that I had learned to ignore over the years—church and college bells, the sirens of ambulances and police cars, ships’ horns, drunken passers-by, rain flowing down gutters and drainpipes—were loud in their absence. But it took several weeks for me to accustom myself to the ceaseless noise of cars and trucks and buses along Massachusetts Avenue half a block away from my flat and the continuous sound of the central heating—itself an innovation to me. The air was more chemical and artificial. The water smelled of chlorine and was both too hot and too cold. There were no bakeries, no chippers, no Indian takeaways. The bread was too soft and too tasteless; the markets were endless expanses of canned or frozen foods.
Even the language was different. Pronunciations were flatter, voices more strident. My own speech was labelled guttural and too filled with ‘those strong r’s’, but ‘I love your brogue’—I heard that a thousand times. Words meant different things or were met with incomprehension when I said them. Even terms shared between the Irish and the American versions of English were slippery slopes. For me, ‘brogue’ was an old-fashioned name for a type of shoe and a derogatory, occasionally self-deprecating historical term for an Irish accent and habits of speech. ‘Mad’ most often meant ‘angry’, rather than ‘insane’. I remember the sense of insult I felt when a professor read one of my papers and labelled it a ‘clever’ argument. To him, ‘clever’ meant ‘ingenious’; to me it was dismissive and implied that I had taken a facile, simplistic approach to the subject.
Despite its population, Boston did not feel like a city to me, and Harvard seemed more an accident of adjacent buildings than a university. Its history seemed contrived; a theme park illustrating different architectural eras by jumbling together dated styles. The most elegant building on campus was a firehouse in the style of a Georgian mansion built by the city of Cambridge; the shabbiest an ugly memorial to the American Civil War dead. Bronze horseshoes embedded in the pavement alongside the Cambridge Commons commemorated the ride of Paul Revere and the start of a rebellion against what to me was the lightest of English yokes (imagine, after many years of having the service for free, objecting against taxes meant to fund the army that was protecting you from your enemies). The commons itself was an expanse of threadbare grass and dispirited trees, perpetually surrounded by traffic.
The week before the start of term was filled with ‘orientation’ meetings for new junior faculty. The president of the university welcomed us and assured us that our contribution to Harvard was valued and essential. A dean delivered an inspiring talk and assured us that our contribution to Harvard was valued and essential. An administrator introduced us to the many forms we were obliged to complete and the records we needed to keep, which, she assured us, would be ‘a valuable contribution to Harvard’. A librarian explained our ‘borrowing privileges’ and how to compile reading lists and ‘place books on reserve’ for student use. She neglected to tell us whether these activities were ‘essential and valuable contributions to Harvard’. Perhaps that went without saying.
At the end of the meetings there was a supper in the faculty club. All the new junior faculty members, as well as several heads of departments and other faculty luminaries, were there. We sat at tables of ten, eight new junior faculty and two senior faculty. I do not know if it happened by sheer chance or whether it struck the organizers as a clever arrangement, but I was seated next to a professor of chemistry from England. Professor Lanham was the last person to arrive at the table, and when he sat down to my left, he demanded a whiskey and soda from a passing waiter. It was obviously not his first drink of the evening. Everyone else was wearing the standard American academic outfit of a poorly fitting suit or a tweed jacket in dull colours whose shabbiness proclaimed its many years of use and its wearer’s studied indifference to fashion. Lanham alone was kitted out in evening dress. I think he would have preferred to be wearing an academic gown over his dinner jacket.
When the waiter brought Lanham’s drink, he snatched it off the small tray, drank half of it, and told the waiter to bring him another. By this point another waiter was setting small bowls of ‘New England clam chowder’ in front of us. The person to my right quietly told the waiter that he did not want any, but not so quietly as to escape the attention of Professor Lanham. He leaned across me, literally shoving me out of the way. The waiter was just placing the bowl of soup on my plate. Lanham hit it with his forearm, knocking the bowl out of the waiter’s hands and tipping about half of it over my jacket and trousers.
Lanham ignored the mess he had created and picked up the name card in front of the person to my right. “Lewis Rosenthal,” he intoned. Then he paused and spoke portentously to everyone within earshot. “We have a member of the tribe among us tonight, gentlemen. No clams for him.”
I had jumped up when the soup hit me, and several waiters had converged to handle the problem. Lewis dipped his napkin in his water glass and handed it to one of them. One of the waiters said something to me about sponging my suit coat off in the kitchen. When Lanham heard my response and my accent, he picked up my name card and examined it. ‘Irish, eh? Well it won’t be the first time you have spilled potato soup on yourself then.’ He leaned across the table to the other faculty member present and said, ‘An Irishman. What next at Harvard? A woman?’ I left the table at the point. The kitchen staff found me a pair of trousers and took my suit away to be cleaned (it was returned to me the next day in better shape than it had been since the day I bought it). I had had enough. I left the banquet and returned to my rooms.
Several weeks later, I was walking through the quadrangle in front of the Widener Library. That area was filled with elm and maple trees. The ground was dense with a coating of autumn leaves. It was rather like walking across a bright tapestry. The colours of those leaves were so intense—golden, scarlet, orange—against the dark green of the lawn. I was so focussed on them that I was paying no attention to anything else.
‘Hello, it’s Patrick Ross, isn’t it?’
I looked at the speaker. I knew that he was one of the dozens of people I had met over the past several weeks but I could not place him. I had no recollection of his name. And then he smiled, smiled not just with his mouth and lips but with his whole face. When Lewis smiles, he smiles with his whole body. He glows, he becomes radiant, incandescent. I did not fall in love at that moment, but that smile began our relationship.
‘Did you ever get that soup out of your clothes?’
Then I recalled who he was. ‘Oh, now I remember. That disastrous supper—that’s where we met.’ Both of us called the scene to mind and laughed. ‘Forgive me,’ I confessed with some chagrin, ‘but I’ve forgotten your name.’
‘I’m Lewis Rosenthal. If you had stayed at the table that night, you would have heard my name repeated many times. You would never have forgotten it. That drunk professor must have said it a hundred times. He was slurring most of his words by the end of the soup, which he didn’t eat by the way, but he was very careful about his pronunciation of my name. “Lew-is Ro-sen-tall.” He wanted to make sure that everyone appreciated that I’m Jewish.’
‘He was a horror, wasn’t he? You stuck it out then?’
‘I’ll be damned if I let any bigot chase me off.’
‘I’m surprised you remembered my name.’
‘Oh, Lanham made sure everyone knew your name as well. When it became clear that you weren’t returning, he treated it as the latest British victory over the Irish. According to him, you snuck off for fear of being exposed as a pig farmer from some bog. He was very careful to warn me that you wouldn’t be kosher—having been weaned on Guinness and nurtured on pork fat.’
‘Did he think you intended to eat me?’
‘What I intend to do is ask you to have a cup of coffee with me.’
I almost pleaded an overload of work (which would have been no more than the truth) and declined. Luckily I remembered that smile and said yes. Lewis and I talked until midnight. From coffee we moved on to beer and then to dinner and then to my office. We exchanged histories, hopes, gossip, horror stories about Harvard (he told me proudly that he had graduated from MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is also located in Cambridge and is the leading American school for mathematics and science). We talked about music, books, movies.
Lewis was the first friend I made at Harvard. My situation was strange. At that time, Harvard hired junior faculty to teach the basic courses. In theory they were eligible for promotion to full professor and tenure, but in practice each served as an assistant professor for five years, with a courtesy appointment as associate professor for two more years for those who had published a book or the requisite number of articles. At the end of the appointments, the position at Harvard evaporated. Perhaps once every five or ten years a junior professor might be appointed to a full professorship and remain at Harvard. Everyone understood the system, and the junior faculty spent most of their time furiously engaged in research and publications that would earn them a post at another university when the Harvard position ended.
I was outside the system. As a courtesy, I was allowed to use the title of ‘professor’ but everyone knew that I was there for only two years, had limited duties and would be leaving shortly. I would disappear from their lives (academia was much less international then than it is today). I would never be in a position to recommend them for jobs. I would never serve as a referee for the scholarly journals in which they were likely to publish. No one was rude to me. But I could do nothing for the participants in that harshly competitive world, and they had no reason to spend any of their limited free time cultivating me.
I quickly fell into a pattern of arriving at my office early in the morning, devoting my day to my research or to teaching, working until late at night, and then returning to my apartment to sleep for a few hours. My main meal of the day was hurried, eaten at the counters of a few cheap cafés I had found. When I found that restaurants often charged less at noon than in the evening, I took to eating at a café for lunch and then making myself a sandwich for my tea.
I do not know what made Lewis speak to me that day. We had exchanged only a few words the night we first encountered each other. The events of that evening were not propitious for a further acquaintance. Our only connection was that both of us had been victims of Professor Lanham’s prejudices. Lewis could not have expected anything from me when he hailed me because he knew nothing of me. I think he was just being kind. He is like that. He stops and speaks to people, he remembers the names of their spouses and children, he is genuinely interested in others’ lives. If our conversation over coffee had not gone as well as it did, he would probably have left after half an hour. If he chanced to see me again, I might rate a few minutes’ talk, but no more.
But something happened over that cup of coffee. I have thought about it often, replaying that meeting in my mind in an attempt to discover what spark carried us forward into a lifetime together. For my part I think I was grateful to Lewis. We were seated opposite each other at a small metal table perhaps half a metre wide. Lewis asked me about myself and as I was telling my history to him, he leaned towards me across the table. Since this was the first time anyone at Harvard had shown any interest in me, I was flattered by the attention he was paying me, and I responded in kind when he told me about himself.
Then, too, Lewis was (and is) attractive physically. Like most young Americans, especially those at Harvard, he was healthy and vigorous. His hair was exuberantly curly. He had dark brown eyes of almost glasslike clarity. He spoke beautifully. He was funny, and he laughed at my jokes. He smiled. Most of all he smiled. It is impossible not to feel good about oneself around Lewis.
That evening Lewis found a book of Irish songs on my office shelves. He opened it at random and made me sing him the song on that page. For a mathematician, he was surprisingly (at least I found it surprising) well informed about music.
‘You have to hear the Boston Symphony. I’m going to a concert this weekend—Schubert’s Ninth is on the program. It’s one of my favourites. Come with me. I’m sure you can still get a ticket. I’ll trade mine in for a seat next to you.’
‘I’ve never heard a live orchestra performance before—just on the radio. But it will have to wait. On my budget, I could not afford a ticket.’
‘Oh, then you have to come. Records just don’t compare. I’ll buy you a ticket. Let me take you …’ Lewis was quite happily planning an evening out for the two of us.
My face must have betrayed my embarrassment at being even a potential recipient of charity. ‘I could not do that. I cannot accept …’
‘No, of course, you can’t.’ Lewis didn’t hesitate a moment when he saw my distress. He tossed his plans immediately. ‘What do you think about becoming an usher? We can get in free then. All we have to do is check people’s tickets and show them to their seats if they need help finding them and prevent latecomers from entering the hall while the orchestra is playing. Oh, yeah, we would also have to open and close the doors for intermission and at the end. We can handle that. We’re smart guys. I’ll check tomorrow and see if it can be arranged.’
What Lewis did not tell me—I found out only months later—was that his parents were major patrons of the Boston Symphony. His mother sat on the board overseeing the orchestra and his father served on a finance committee. By noon the next day the Boston Symphony had two new (and probably unneeded) ushers. Every Friday night during the orchestra’s season, Lewis and I put on dark suits and white shirts and took the T (the local name for the subway and tram system) to Symphony Hall. During the concerts, we stood side by side in the dark at the back of the hall. He gave up his season tickets and a comfortable seat in a prime area so that he could share the music with me.
I should have suspected that there was more to Lewis than he was revealing. That first evening at the symphony, a great many well-dressed people stopped to greet him as they entered the hall and seemed surprised that he was serving as an usher. Lewis was quick to explain that he was there with me and deflected further revelations by introducing me as ‘my friend Patrick Ross,’ a music lover and an historian from University College Dublin who was teaching at Harvard while doing research in Boston. Inevitably, I would be asked how the symphony compared to European ones. I rarely was given a chance to confess my ignorance before the questioner nodded at me, wished me a pleasant stay in Boston, and moved on to talk to someone else.
At the time, the Boston Symphony was conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. The concerts were superb. Even I could tell that. That first evening I floated back to Cambridge in a rapture. A rapture that continued because it was also the first evening that Lewis and I went to bed together. Schubert’s Ninth remains a great favourite of mine. I cannot listen to it without remembering my discovery of Lewis’s body.
Lewis tactfully undertook my education in music. Under the guise of preparing for the concerts, we listened to his extensive collection of records together, with Lewis asking me for my opinion of this phrasing or that interpretation. If I failed to understand what he was asking me, he would replay the passage and teach me to appreciate what was happening. I did not think of it at the time, but much later it occurred to me that Lewis invested a great deal of effort in me. I should have understood what that said about our relationship, but it was not until several weeks later that I even realised that we had a relationship.
In mid-December after classes ended for the winter break and the reading period before examinations, Lewis’s parents invited me to their house. They lived in Brookline, a suburb of Boston south of the Charles River. The inhabitants of Brookline range from students at Boston University and Boston College to young professionals living in flats to the quite wealthy. Lewis’s family belonged to the last category. They lived in a house about three blocks from one of the T stops on Beacon Street. The house was a sizeable wooden structure on what in Boston are considered spacious grounds. The rooms were large and comfortable. It obviously was not cheap housing, but it did not impress one as an estate or a mansion. Nor did his family act as if they were rich—comfortable and well off perhaps, but not wealthy.
It was dark by the time we arrived. All the lights in the house were on, and there was a candle in every window. Lewis’s father opened the door as we walked up the stairs to the front door. He was shaking my hand vigorously before I realised who he was. ‘Hello, Patrick. I’m so glad Lewis persuaded you to join our Hanukkah celebration. Lewis has told us all about you.’
I had no idea what Hanukkah was. Lewis had not mentioned that we would be attending a celebration, and he certainly had not had to persuade me to accompany him. I recovered enough from my surprise to stammer. ‘Thank you for inviting me. I hope it’s not too much of an imposition.’ I handed him the bottle of wine I had bought.
‘Imposition? What are you talking about? Imposition? It’s not an imposition. Our house is always open to Lewis’s friends. There’s to be no more talk of impositions, Patrick.’ He spoke in a tone of mock anger and chastisement, scolding me for implying anything less than complete hospitality on his family’s part. He turned away and stepped back into the house, motioning for us to follow him. ‘Anna, Patrick and Lewis are here,’ he called out to his wife. ‘Where are the children? Sophie, Robert, Lewis is here. Come and meet his friend Patrick. Anna, where are the children? They should be here. They were underfoot just a minute ago. Come in, come in (this to us), close the door before all the heat escapes. Take your coat off, Patrick. Lewis, where are your manners? Take Patrick’s coat and hang it up. Oh here you are. Patrick, this is my wife Anna and those two coming down the stairs are Lewis’s sister Sophie and his brother Robert.’
I was engulfed by Lewis’s family. His mother shook my hand vigorously and asked me to forgive her appearance. ‘I’ve been cooking. Dinner is almost ready. Come in, come in. Lewis, where are your manners? Show Patrick into the living room. There are some hors d’oeuvres on the table. Give him something to eat. But not you two,’ she said to her two younger children. ‘I don’t want you spoiling your dinner.’
‘Mom, why is Patrick allowed to spoil his dinner and we’re not?’ Robert was what my mother would have called pert.
‘Robert, don’t be rude. He’s our guest. Besides, he’s big. Look at how tall he is. He can eat a lot. You, not so big. Wait until you grow that tall and then you can eat all you like.’
Sophie rolled her eyes and edged away from her family.
‘Don’t talk to your mother that way.’ Lewis’s father spoke automatically, even before Robert replied, as if this was a remark he had had many occasions to make. He was examining the bottle of wine I had handed him. He placed a finger under a symbol on the label and showed it to his wife. ‘Patrick brought this for us. I’ll open it and we can have it with dinner tonight.’ He turned to me, ‘It’s one of our favourites.’
If the five Rosenthals hadn’t been shouting and conducting conversations with everyone else in the entrance hall, I might have pointed out that on my budget I could not afford a wine that would rank as anyone’s favourite.
Indeed the wine had almost been the cause of an argument between Lewis and myself. In response to my question whether his parents would prefer a red or a white, he responded, rather truculently to my surprise, ‘You don’t have to bring a bottle of wine.’
‘But everyone brings a bottle of wine here. The few dinners I’ve been invited to, every guest brings a bottle of wine. I was embarrassed the first time because I showed up with nothing.’
‘My parents won’t expect it.’ Lewis looked ill at ease. It was the first time I had witnessed him in so much discomfort.
‘But I have to take something. What about candy?’
‘No, not candy. That would be even worse.’
‘Worse? Why would it be worse?’
Lewis sighed and looked at the floor. ‘It’s just that, I mean, well, my parents keep kosher. They would accept what you brought and thank you. Then they would put it away, somewhere where it couldn’t contaminate the other food in the house. They might save it to give to the maid the next time she came, but they would probably throw it in a garbage can as soon as they thought you wouldn’t see them doing it. I don’t want you to spend money on something that would be wasted.’
‘But you drink wine that I’ve bought.’
‘Well, I don’t keep a kosher kitchen, but my parents do, and I respect that.’
‘But Jews drink wine. You were telling me that it’s part of a seder.’
‘That’s kosher wine. There’s kosher wine and non-kosher wine.’
‘So I will buy a bottle of kosher wine. You can show me.’
Lewis and I had stopped at a wine shop on the way to Brookline, one that he knew carried kosher wines. He helped me pick a bottle and showed me the symbol on the front that indicated it was kosher. Lewis kept his eyes carefully averted and his face neutral as his parents enthused about the wine I had given them. He was teasing his brother and sister. All five Rosenthals were talking at once, carrying on multiple conversations with one another and with me.
Lord knows we Irish can be voluble, but every Irishman is an amateur at talking compared to the Rosenthals. They are true professionals. Dinner was a cacophony. I was stunned. My upbringing had stressed that one never talked while others were speaking, Since there was always someone talking, I said very little. They must have wondered if I was a mute.
It was not until after dinner that I had a chance to carry on a conversation. Lewis and his father were engaged in a game with the two younger children. They sat in a circle spinning a dreidel and groaning or shouting in triumph as they won or lost chocolate coins covered with foil. Mrs Rosenthal had made a pot of tea and led me to a seat in a quiet corner of her living room. I asked about the menorah, and she explained that custom and the candles in the window.
‘We have a similar custom in Ireland. On Christmas Eve, we put a candle in a front window. It is supposed to mean that any stranger who needs shelter is welcome to stop. It’s in memory of Mary and Joseph and their difficulty in finding room in Bethlehem the night the Christ was born. Of course, if anyone accepted the invitation, my mother would be appalled.’ I laughed when I thought of my mother’s reaction to a traveller seeking shelter in her house.
‘You have made Lewis very happy, you know.’
She spoke without preamble. Later when I reviewed that conversation, I concluded that it was something she had decided to say to me when the opportunity presented itself. My initial reaction was to pretend ignorance of what she meant. It was 1966. Homosexuality was still outlawed in most places. Even among the liberal and non-religious, it was regarded as a mental illness, if not a disease. It was abhorred by my religion and by hers. Even now, I doubt that any parent is gladdened to learn that a child is gay. In the 1960s, it was unthinkable.
It cannot have been an easy thing for her to say. Sophie and Robert have large families and presented her with several grandchildren. She was proud of all of them and loved them dearly. Yet from the late 1980s on she introduced me to her friends as ‘This is my son Lewis’s partner, Patrick Ross,’ seemingly with as much pride as she introduced her children and grandchildren. She never offered further comment on the relationship. It was not something that she felt a need to explain or to excuse. She insisted that I be included in all family events and that her grandchildren refer to me as ‘Uncle Pat’.
When gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts, she clipped every newspaper article on the subject and sent it to us. I came in one day to find Lewis chuckling over a report on an economic boom in the gay-friendly resort area of Cape Cod caused by an upsurge in same-sex marriages there. In the open space above the headline, Anna had written, ‘When are you two going to stop living in sin and make your relationship official? Your father and I aren’t getting any younger, you know.’
I think that is another reason Lewis and I have stayed together. His parents have a strong marriage, and he never envisioned anything else for himself. He was never willing to settle for less, and he has made sure that I was unwilling as well.
This woman, who would have thrown a box of candy away rather than risk the introduction of non-kosher food into her house, was calmly thanking me for making her oldest child happy. My face flushed with blood. I found it difficult enough to talk with Lewis about being gay. Talking with his mother about the subject discomfitted me.
She reached over and patted my hand. ‘It’s why we wanted to meet you. I hope you will regard yourself as part of our family.’
‘I didn’t know.’
‘That Lewis had said anything.’
‘Lewis has done nothing but talk about you. He loves you.’ She regarded me calmly.
My eyes watered, and I had to turn away. ‘I love him.’ And I did. And I do.
She nodded as if that were a matter of course and then changed the subject. ‘Lewis says that you sing very well. When the children get through playing, perhaps you would sing a song for us.’
Two nights later, on Christmas Eve, when I arrived at Lewis’s apartment, there was a candle burning in his front window. His mother must have relayed what I had told her. It was the first of many candles he has lit for me, tiny flames lessening the night and burning away the effects of any temporary separation.
Some assistant in the president’s office at Harvard is told to arrange a seating chart for a banquet welcoming the new junior faculty. He or she sits a young professor of mathematics beside the recipient of a post-doctoral fellowship in the history department. By chance a boorish professor seated at the same table provides a link for the two of them. Some weeks later they meet again, again by chance. And subsequently they spend a lifetime together. We could so easily have been seated apart. I could so easily have stopped in the departmental office to check my mailbox on my way to the library and arrived two minutes after Lewis had passed. It is a wonder that we meet anyone.
If Lewis and I had not met that second time, I am certain that Lewis would have found someone else and ended up spending the rest of his life with him. That is the sort of person he is. I might have met someone too, but I doubt that it would have lasted for more than a few years. Perhaps not. Who can say? But I am certain that I would not have met someone who lights candles to welcome me home.
This brings back memories. I was trying to figure out how best to attract your attention when that drunk dumped that bowl of soup in your lap. When you didn’t come back to the table, I was so disappointed. I thought I would never see you again. I remembered that you were in the history department and even thought about calling you there the next day on the pretext of making sure that you were all right. But then I thought that you had no reason to remember me fondly and in any case you weren’t gay and wouldn’t be interested and would wonder why I was making these overtures since we didn’t have anything in common. Then suddenly one day there you were. I don’t remember consciously deciding to speak to you. I just ran over, planted myself in front of you, and forced you to acknowledge me. I’m glad I remembered to smile. If my face had honestly reflected my thoughts, you would have seen only lust. Do you have any idea how devastatingly handsome you were?
My mother did tell me about the candle in the window. She thought it a charming story.
About the kosher wine, I don’t remember being that upset about you bringing a bottle. It may have been that as an academic, I was vaguely uncomfortable with the notion of a kosher household. At the time, it wouldn’t have seemed enlightened to me, more like a superstition we should have outgrown. By then I had eaten enough bacon to know that God forbade pork because it’s the best tasting meat, and He is nothing if not demanding of sacrifices on the part of believers.
By the way, I don’t think it was a complete accident that we were seated beside each other at that dinner. I think we were assigned seats in alphabetical order—Ross next to Rosenthal.
Lewis—So the attraction was nothing more than sex? Love, Pat
PS. All this time and it never occurs to me that we were seated alphabetically. I shall have to rewrite that paragraph. I will make out that it was still random, however—based on the vagaries of a centuries-old ordering of letters in the Latin alphabet. I refuse to abandon the idea that our meeting was Kismet, no matter how rationally you explain the reason we were next to each other.
Only for the first 15 minutes. Then lust was obliterated by respect, admiration, wonder, and joy.
Not entirely obliterated, if memory serves.
Memory serves. Good to know that you’re not senile yet.
I want to see how this develops before I comment. Are you sending the chapters in the order you envision them as having in the book? Or are you writing them in random order as whimsy moves you? My initial impression is that all this jumping back and forth in time will quickly grow confusing. I take from the James epigraph at the beginning that this is part of the plan. Is it too late to urge the virtues of linearity on you?
Fine—just keep a list, and we will go over it when I am in Dublin next. Yes. No. Your impression may be correct—we will discuss this after you have seen the entire work. Your surmise is correct. Probably.
Lewis has weighed in with a correction. He pointed out that it was not random chance that we set next to each other at that supper, but simply the workings of alphabetical order. I am chagrined to confess that never occurred to me. I still like my version better—that it was the intervention of fate that brought us together. After all, someone had to decide on that arrangement. He or she could just as easily have chosen another means of ordering the guests—by height, for example. In that case Lewis and I would have been on opposite sides of the room. I have already rewritten that section to acknowledge the role of the alphabet in our first encounter, but I am still attributing it to fate. Lewis will chuckle at my addiction to irrationality, but I will work our differences in viewpoint into the account as well.—Patrick