Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Aloysius and Me

Following is an edited version from an article on mcmanweb ...

I transferred to an all-boys Catholic school, and there, on the bus that also dropped the girls at their school, I met the girl who should have been my wife. I'd shot up some ten inches in one summer, so I was almost able to blend in. But my quality of being different sent out some invisible signal, and perhaps this is what she was responding to.

She was a cancer survivor and had the kinds of insights fifteen year olds shouldn't have, together with a beauty that ran far deeper than her amazing good looks. I would come home from dates feeling I'd been dropped onto a balance beam with my legs spread apart. I was innocent. I didn't realize she might have helped me out had I asked.

She was from a professional Catholic family - one that took their religious obligations seriously - but that wouldn't have stopped her, I am sure. Sure, there would have been a few religious technicalities to overcome, such as burning in Hell forever, but these could easily be resolved by other religious technicalities, such as getting to Confession before a truck ran either of us over while in a state of mortal sin.

Perhaps this is a good time to talk about being Catholic.

My grandfather on my father's side came from a large Irish family in Quebec. Like most families of this type back then, there was a designated priest-to-be while all the other kids labored to put food on the table and maybe subsidize a lucky brother or sister's upward mobility. My Grandpa Joe was not one of the lucky ones. Out into the workforce he went, a kid who loved Shakespeare chopping wood in the cold at age fourteen.

Nevertheless, it seems you couldn't keep a good Shakespearean down, for my grandfather eventually brought his charm and eloquence to bear on my Grandma Alice - thirty years old at the time - and together they found their way to Springfield Massachusetts.

Now we jump ahead to when my father was a boy and his parents sent him by train to spend the summer with a rich uncle in Quebec. How this rich uncle fits into the picture and where his wealth came from I will never know, particularly when I could never get a word out of my father. In fact it is only through an aunt I found out in the first place.

It seems this uncle wanted to adopt my father. He had no son. Anyway, he put the question to my grandfather, who said yes. Just like that. Who knows what was going through my grandfather's mind? This was the depression, after all. They were poor. This was a good deal for his son, a dream come true, in fact. What struggling father wouldn't want the best for his boy?

That is, until my Grandma Alice found out what was going on. She was on that train to Quebec in a flash, and when she returned it was with her son.

But now the mystery deepens. Let's backtrack ten or fifteen years and consider: Out of the woods of Canada comes a Shakespearean woodcutter who by now is in uniform and sweeps a gardener's daughter off her feet, a daughter, I am told, who passed a piano exam by nailing a Mozart sonata.

But now it is years later and Shakespeare and Mozart are trapped in what I am told was a loveless marriage, poor with four kids, my father the oldest. My Grandpa Joe is now some kind of religious fanatic, always going to church and praying and making a great show of his faith. Who knows? Maybe his religious excesses did bring him closer to God. 

My mother has this little story to tell:

When my older sister was born, in which my mother nearly died from an infection, my Grandpa Joe paid a visit, and the first thing he said to my mother was too bad it wasn't a boy to carry on the family name. My mother was too shaken to reply.

Wait, there's more. When I was born, my Grandpa Joe said John, that's not a family name. This time my mother was ready. He is named after his OTHER grandfather, she let him know.

Ah, my other grandparents. No Shakespeare or Mozart here, but there was a piano in the house. That's the one thing, apparently, both sets of grandparents had in common, the piano in the house. My Grandpa John had a secure job driving a truck for Railroad Express, which made my mother's family well-off by depression standards.

I have fond memories of both these grandparents. But anytime we went for a visit my younger brother and I couldn't help but notice that neither he nor my Nana Tess ever attended mass, which, of course, was a mortal sin. Then my grandfather explained: He took church pills. Not just him. Nana Tess, too. The two of them, church pills.

I gathered this worked something like holy water or a communion wafer, but to a slightly different end. The net result of taking one was you didn't have to go to church. Now I was old enough and smart enough to figure out that church pills weren't available to kids, and that in all probability they were very difficult for even adults to obtain. Otherwise, no one would be going to church, now would they?

Except for my Grandpa Joe, of course.

All which goes to explain the rather lax attitude we had to Catholicism in our own house. Between my mother's parents and my father's reaction to his own father's displays of religion - especially a father who was all too willing to give him away - church and religious instruction were regarded as a sort of family obligation, like getting your kids vaccinated.

But back to the mystery of my grandfather the religious fanatic. The other day, I suddenly recalled this vital piece of the puzzle: You see, when my father was born he wasn't supposed to live more than a few hours. A nun in the hospital suggested that since the day on which he happened to be born was the feast day of Saint Aloysius, he may as well be given that name. My Grandma Alice, hedging her bets, decided that Aloysius would be his middle, rather than first, name.

Now whether it was because of a medical miracle or because Aloysius up there was so grateful to have someone named after him, even though it was only a middle name, my father pulled through. Luckily it was my younger brother - to my infinite relief - who wound up the dubious recipient of the family middle name.

But lately I can't help but wonder: Suppose Aloysius did pull off the miracle. If so, wouldn't this be the logical person to pray to in times of need? In fact, owing to his relative anonymity, it would be like having one's own personal family saint. No waiting, no queues.

Maybe that's what happened to my Grandpa Joe. Maybe, when faced with the prospect of losing his son - the son he would later almost give away - he found God. Maybe he recognized a true miracle for what it was. Maybe when he returned home with a healthy boy in his arms he knew he would never be the same.

Funny thing, I got along really well with Grandpa Joe. Perhaps because he was different, different like me. That's all that counted. There was something in both of us that belonged in another world. I know that because of my father, of all people. He wouldn't say it, but I could see it in his eyes.

When I stopped going to church as a teenager my father immediately followed suit, relieved of his obligation to set an example. Perhaps he thought when you died the lights simply went out. At any rate, I never heard him reflect on it. His Christianity was more of this earth - Chairman of the local Human Rights Commission, director of the local United Fund, involved in more charities than you can name.

On a cold evening in 1994, he fell asleep in the hospital, and never came out of it. We called in a priest for last rites, then they unplugged the life support. His kidneys went. Then his other organs. I stood there with a Bible reading Ecclesiates.

A time to ...

Perhaps there was a part of him that heard it, that managed to reconcile the many complicated parts of his own self before moving on to the next phase of his life. Or perhaps the lights really did just go out. Perhaps he really was ready to accept that possibility. Perhaps he knew a lot more than I ever will.

Oddly enough, my Grandpa Joe, for all his dedication to his faith, died in pretty much the same circumstances as my father. As fate would have it, he spent his last hours in a Protestant hospital. My Nana Tess, by contrast - the one who took church pills - happened to face her maker in a Catholic hospital attended to by no end of nuns and priests.

So anyway, getting back to the present, here I was, a boy of sixteen, with the girl who should have been my wife, the one I was willing to risk eternal damnation for, and had we stayed together any longer it might have come to that, but it never did.

No, we shared a different kind of intimacy. I look back on those moments with both fondness and amazement, the two of us in perfect comfort in the dark on the closed in front porch of her family's double-decker in the ethnic neighborhood where her quality of being different seemed to cancel out mine, without destroying that precious gift in each of us of being unique. Somehow we were able to share it without necessarily making out or talking.

Had I known how precious this was, I would have held onto her for dear life. With her, I could open up the inner spaces of myself and have her walk in and and warm me with her glow. Other women, I would discover, only sought to arrange the furniture or shattered the objects inside, leaving me with a feeling of broken trust and violation.

But I was young and stupid. I let her slip away, and we never kept in touch. Granted, there were probably a million reasons it wouldn't have worked, and I accept that. Still, I can't help but wonder: Where would I be now if I had held on to her? What would I be like?

Would she have brought out something in me that would have made me feel accepted? Would I have eventually found a way to fit in? Or would my quality of being different have proved too much, even for her?

God, of course, won't tell me, so maybe I'll ask Saint Aloysius.

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