Friday, May 21, 2010

A Cloud No Bigger Than a Man's Hand


I'd flown thirteen timezones just to see him. Actually, the flight from Adelaide to New York took the eleven zone route, but my family favors exaggeration. With this in mind, I guess you will have to figure out for yourself how much of the rest of this story is true, and how much is fabricated.
It was late in the afternoon. The sun was still up as was to be expected in August, but the family had suffered through a long dry spell so there was little appreciation for the length of the day. Little Brian Michael, the newest member of the O'Connor clan had been christened around two-thirty and was now being passed from the arms of one elderly female to another so that each could hold the tiny bundle in her arms and feel again the elation of holding her own newborn in this way capturing decades old memories. The men did not hold the baby. They talked of old times.


Maurice, the baby's grandfather, was holding court at our table in one corner of the deck in the backyard. The priest who had performed the baptism was performing a similar function at the larger table where the elderly women sat. In the other corner at a smaller table one of the baby's grand uncles sat with two friends who between them were finishing off a bottle of Corvoisier shot for shot. Up here in Palisades the surrounding trees and grass all yellow green and tan and ready to retire early for the lack of rain were less colorful than the blarney Maurice was giving forth. Though the priest's conversation was peppered with homilies and aphorisms and quaint remembrances of the area when he had first been stationed here, Maurice spoke of Ireland when he was young, which was a time and place considerably far removed from the young priest's experience, and though Maurice's forebears had come from the west of Ireland, there was sometimes a tinge of anger in his reminiscences, for the situation in the North as he perceived it. Every so often he used the phrase, "Well you've got your Queen Lizzie to thank for that."


How Maurice would segue from the British monarch’s influence over Ireland to the shadow of bad luck that hovered over our family would rarely be noted as his transitions were so subtle, but eventually he came to mention once again, "Yes, well, Bridget had to have the operation after Aidan. She knew we were only going to have the two boys."

Everyone knew he would soon follow with a success story. It was his way of tempering achievements by mentioning the suffering that had to be endured before they arrived.

Kevin, his eldest and father to the newborn, gripped his father's shoulder and gave it a pat before moving on to the table where the two men were traveling through the Corvoisier. "Good stuff," one of them said in a half toast to Kevin.

When he was out of earshot of our table Maurice gestured his thumb in his son's direction and said, "He's got a hard job and he's a good man. Did he show you the plans for the Pope's visit? They've got the whole of Central Park mapped out. Where he's going to speak. Where he'll ride through. It's like a bloody Hollywood celebrity was coming to give something away for free; they're expecting so many people. It's a big responsibility he has, being First in Charge of so many officers."


Carl's son Keith who was also a policeman, but in Irvington, was silent while this was going on, but after a few minutes when nobody had said anything other than saying they had or had not seen the plans for the Pope's visit spread out on the bed inside, he changed topics and began asking Maurice questions about the members of the O'Connor family tree. His wife Barbara had been writing some names on a napkin. They had, in fact, been having a sort of private confab over the napkin up until Kevin had come along, and now he wanted to draw some missing pieces from Maurice, he being the oldest O'Connor in attendance. Maurice's eyes sparkled. He gave a nod in the priest's direction. Father Belford was relating the adventures of Ruth and Naomi. "Well, I don't think I have such interesting stories to tell as that young fellow has, but I bet I can put you to sleep faster."
Carl said, "Tell him about the time you put the wet flour in the neighbor's chimney. Or the time you put the cow in his house." Keith was already laughing, knowing something of these pranks as his father had related them second hand to him as a child. Barbara sat attentively, her pen poised over the napkin. She looked as if she felt trapped, and her only escape, short of announcing that she was pregnant, would be through taking minutes of the meeting.


"You know we didn't have all these modern gadgets to play with when we was kids back in Listowell, but we weren't bad boys either. We could spend all day playing fetch with a doggie that didn’t belong to one of us. Of course, each day one of the boys would have to bring the bone from yesterday’s soup to keep the doggie coming round. We called him Pip because I guess we all had great expectations.
"Stephen McManus had an older brother named Kieron who was a struggling artist, who drew each one of us at play with that mongrel, but none of those pictures survived the fire that destroyed the house where the McManuses lived, and when Kieron died in the war, Stephen went off to find work in England. That was a fool’s errand. They used to have signs in the shops saying, 'No Irish need apply.'
"‘Course everyone knew America was where all the jobs were. And eventually most of us came over, too. Had all our children here, and only go back to visit now and then.
"Here's a story my brother told me just a fortnight ago when I was over there. There's these two Irish farmers laboring in the field when an American tourist walks by. And the Irishmen are digging up spuds and sweating and digging. They're pulling up these little biddy spuds and throwing them in the barrel. And they're digging and sweating and the American says, 'Waddaya call them big beans? They kinda look like little potatoes...'"
I glanced at my watch to try and figure out what time it was back in Adelaide, as Aunt Bridget announced it was time for the baby to take his nap, and for some reason I felt compelled to ask, “Uncle Maurice, whatever happened to old Pip?”
With a look of indignation, that swiftly turned into a broad smile, Maurice said, “Are you listening to me at all, boy?”

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