The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Mother wanted a good life, with lace tablecloths and marmalade. Instead, we smeared jam on a linoleum table. She consoled herself by thinking that if blessings came too soon we would only run roughshod over the manners and heirlooms that made a miter’s corner out of life. She would wait for my father to bear us up, slowly, strongly, like a hymn. Occasionally, when Dad belted up his trousers with twine, she turned as brittle as snapbread, but in those early years, she was usually willing to dismiss our days as the pruning from which decorous bloom must one day erupt.
My father could certainly hear the loud ticking of her patience, and he finally agreed with her that San Francisco was turning us into skeletons and shadows: dinner was often some soup started with bones. Once, while out walking, I caught Uncle Mike parting the plush curtains guarding a skin show the way one enters a confessional. My brothers and I could take a bus from our dark apartment to dragon parades or the purging smell of boiling crabs, but real deliverance lay farther beyond.
I was still young when my father, Kevin Farrell, brought Mother, Patrick, Brian, and me to the Napa Valley, where the water and air were clean and the grapes shone like rubies and amethysts. Several other disgruntled Irishmen had also transported their families from the city, and together they planned to open their own winery. The vineyards would scale the hillsides, as they had seen in books about Italy, and there would be a contest of sorts to design a wine label.
During the first flush of glory, our tiny wooden house shook with excitement. When they finalized their deal, Barry Donovan, John O’Dowd, Tom Casey, and Dennis Harrigan played leapfrog with my father in the living room that also served as our dining room. My mother was the very picture of forbearance. She had made an elaborate cake shaped like a dove, with a ribbon of almond paste inside, and did not react badly when the men hooted that it looked like a dog, or a baboon, or Casey’s face.
My father’s cheery games were part of the journey to the good life — they meant he had vision and stamina — but my mother was unfailingly embarrassed during family dinners when he became overwrought with his desire to please her.
“Mary!” he would call out. “Tell me what you’re seeing!”
“What am I seeing?” she said. “You and the kids.”
“No, no, no!” He would point to his temple and squint, like a man either thinking hard or about to blow out his brains. “Up here, darling! Where the heart sends its blood! Where the baby chicks hatch! What’re you seeing that we don’t have now?”
“A ten-speed,” Patrick would offer.
“Keep your trap shut, buddy. I’m talking to your Ma.”
“She wants pearls,” Brian suggested one evening. He snatched away the dish towel that Mother habitually wore over her shoulder so that we could imagine an opalescent gleam around her neck.
“Pearls? Just you wait, Mary. Then you can pass them on to Colleen at her wedding. Perfect!”
“Wedding, ha ha. I’m never getting married,” I said. “Marriage is for the birds.”
“Tell me that ten years from now, Miss Smart Mouth,” said Dad. “You’ll turn into a bird like the rest of us.”
“The bluebird of happiness is going to fly right up your nose,” said Patrick as I flicked rice at him.
“Knock it off,” said Dad. “Mary? We’re all gonna sit here like statues until you tell your favorite winemaker exactly what you want.”
“Aw, good God,” sputtered Brian, who brooked no stalling of his nightly foray into Napa in search of girls.
“Kevin,” said my red-faced mother, “it’s not something that can be put into words. All I want is nice music. That’s it. Nice music is the sign that everything is good.”
Brian was a genius at seizing exit cues, and he decided to make a little music of his own. “OOHHHH, SO LONG, FAREWELL, AUF WIEDERSEHEN, ADIEU! DA-DA, DA-DA, TO YOU AND YOU AND YOU!” he bellowed as he fled from dreamland out into the night.
Later on my father filled every glass in our house with different levels of water and showed Patrick and me how to tap out tunes with a fork. Our water music was aimless, light, as airy as angels. Together we chimed out our quavering notes. We were giggling so much that it shocked us when Mother put a symphony with trumpets and clashing cymbals on the record player. She did not want a weak xylophonic trickle, she wanted thunder.
Our discovery of water music seemed to usher in an era of defeat. My father’s vineyard suffered a crop-killing frost, and everyone might have recovered if O’Dowd had not suddenly cleaned out the mutual account and skipped town. Donovan, Casey, Harrigan, and my father waited a while for O’Dowd to return, but after a few days it was clear that their money was gone. My father knelt at the fireplace and pounded the ash with his fists until gray clouds hung over our heads. He sobbed until my mother warned that he was scaring us.
After the men sold the vineyard to pay most of their debts, Harrigan gave up and returned to San Francisco. Casey and Donovan drove milk trucks before dawn and then worked in another man’s fields until dusk. Their pace wrung the anger out of them, leaving them stunned and gentle.
My father chose a different method for expelling the fire. During the day he poured wine for tourists at Charlotte Vineyards, but at night he would often head straight for Delaney’s Pub. When he drank beer, he would slosh back home like a fat zoo bear, clumsy but too full in the belly for rage. But when he drank whiskey, he often plunged into a blackout so headlong and utter that it destroyed his memory. On those nights he would set up a half-dozen glasses for water music and declare that a dash of whiskey in each added Irish body and resonance to the melody.
He would then drink them down until he passed out. Although he could go for weeks without a drink, each little bar of Irish water music that he sounded put the symphonic good life farther beyond the pale. My mother appeared to resign herself to an ordinary life. We would ride on Napa’s coattails and not grieve for more, or so she pretended.
Perhaps this bravado would have worked if we had never received that letter — the letter that changed our lives so completely that I now divide what all of us are between “before the letter” and “after the letter.” Before the letter, Mother worked at her county records job and every Sunday made new paper roses to put on the mantle for St. Brigid. She showed me how to use a knitting needle to crimp the edges of each petal. My father told jokes to tourists at Charlotte Wineries and grew a beige moustache. He was no longer too eager to discover what my mother saw. Patrick and Brian wore plaid lumberjack shirts and Giants baseball caps and did the usual high school things. The years wore on with sweet dissolve.
One cold, clear Saturday, the postman handed my mother a letter that stopped all that. There was no return address, but the envelope bore the homey directive: “To Kevin, Mary, and the Farrell children.” She inhaled sharply when she opened it. It was from the long-lost John O’Dowd.
“My word,” she breathed as she scanned his note. “Kevin, dear. You’ll never believe what John O’Dowd wants to do. He’s made a fortune in computers and wants to pay us back.”
At first my father could not move. Then he rose from his chair the way boas hearing thin reed music rise from their baskets. “He’s made what?” he said. “You’d better tell me that again, Mary.”
“He wants to pay us back twice over,” she said, her eyes focused on the letter. “Not only us, but the other lads too. He hopes that will help us forgive him. My Lord God, he’s sent us twenty thousand dollars. This is like winning a lottery.” Breathless and trembling, she held up the enormous check.
“You’re not serious about this, are you, Mary?” he said.
“Serious? Why not?”
“So his conscience is taking the son of a bitch for a ride! Now we’re supposed to accept his petty bribe, shake hands, and say thank you? Have you lost your mind, Mary?” My father’s hands shook as he poured himself a huge brandy.
“I am using my mind,” she said evenly. “What’s petty about this much money, Kevin? What’s in the past is done. Finished. This can give us a new start.”
Dad slammed the snifter onto the table. “What’s in the past is never done!” he roared. “If he’s handing out that much to me and three other men, I’m damn sure he’s made a hell of a lot more for himself. With money that was bloody mine in the first place! Jesus Almighty, Mary! You have no goddamn pride!”
I had been pretending to read a book, but now I closed it. Both my parents were tall and rangy, with bristling dark-blond hair. When they sparred, they looked like battling lions.
“Pride?” said my mother. Years of furious patience flooded past her every internal dam in a cold white froth. “I have no pride? Is that what you said? You’re lecturing me about pride, Kevin? Have another drink! Go on, have six or seven and lie in a heap until Patrick can haul you off to bed again.”
“So I’m that terrible?” said my father. “And you’re a saint for taking a handout from a bastard who destroyed his friends? Don’t think I don’t know what’s at the bottom of this. You had an eye for John, now didn’t you? Go on, admit it!”
“You’re disgusting,” said Mother.
“Admit it!” He hurled the brandy snifter at the wall and it made an amber starburst where it shattered.
“The only thing to admit is that I married a bitter old fool,” breathed my mother.
“I forbid you to accept a dime from that thief. Let him burn in hell.” With each step he took toward my mother, she took one step back. “Give me that check, Mary,” he said.
“No,” she said.
“I said, give me that check, Mary.”
“Dad,” I said. “Take it easy.”
He wrenched the check from Mother’s hand and tore it into pieces.
With twenty grand in shreds, my mother turned into a wild animal, clawing at his face and unleashing a banshee wail that brought Patrick and Brian running in from outside. “You goddamn idiot!” she screamed. “You small, mean, miserable creature! Look at you! Look at you! You oaf! You drunk!”
My father burned O’Dowd’s offering in the fireplace. Smoke riffled the flowers around Brigid as our fortune turned to ash. Patrick and Brian stared in amazement, and Dad was gray-faced and breathing hard. “Mary,” he said. “That man should be in jail.”
My mother watched as perhaps her last hope for the good life burned away, and I could see it dawn on her that her music would forever come not from grand opera but from the formless and boozy issue of our own jam jars and cracked waterglasses. She looked at my father with the worst loathing I have ever seen contort a human face. “When a man steals something and returns it, don’t you forgive him and take it back? When he returns twice what he stole, don’t you forget the past and thank God?” she hissed.
“Mary. Jesus, Lord, girl. He ruined us to make himself a rich man. Can’t you see that, love? How can you accept his charity?”
“It was ours to begin with!” she screeched. “How could that be charity?” Her hair was standing on end.
“I’m supposed to take care of you,” said my father. “If what I can give you isn’t enough, then God help us.”
“God help us indeed,” said my mother. “Get out of my sight.”
“She doesn’t mean that,” I said, but it was too late. He was out the door. My brothers and I watched him recede to a blot in the distance. We knew he was headed straight for Delaney’s, and I thought of him then as too weak and prideful to be saved. He had denied us a windfall — a windfall born of betrayal, but what did that matter to our hungry eyes? — simply because he could not forgive an old friend’s sins.
That night my father collapsed into a stunning blackout, but it was not enough to erase the memory of O’Dowd. In the weeks that followed, even Dad must have wondered occasionally, as the rest of us did, exactly what twenty thousand could have bought. A storm settled over the house, and when my brothers spoke it was to mention how quickly they planned to get away. Brian wanted to be an engineer, and Patrick was fixed on becoming a rodeo rider. Once again the Farrell mind could only see deliverance as farther beyond.
Our unease took a fateful turn when O’Dowd decided to come out of hiding. Money can make a man feel invulnerable, and these were still the years when anything even vaguely “in computers” was a guarantee of safe passage in the world. I’m sure that O’Dowd felt immune, as well as guilty enough to one day come to the house to see why we had not cashed his retribution. He also was in love with my mother, but I did not know this at the time.
His visit took us by surprise. It was just before twilight. My mother and I were on the porch shelling peas, and my father was in back of the house pretending that he could fix his bolt-heap car. Patrick and Brian were, as usual, off on their own adventures. A sour lilac smell filled the air, and Mother and I spoke aimlessly, desultorily tossing peas into a kettle like pennies into a wishing well. We stopped when we saw the man on the horizon. He stood a moment with the beams of dying light arrayed around him, this sun god who had arrived from the big wide world beyond, and then he came to us.
“Oh, no,” said Mother. “Oh, God.”
It was the old swindler himself, dressed like an insurance agent in a royal-blue business suit and tie. He did not look ready to play leapfrog in our living room. His cologne smelled like ether, and his fedora sliced his face in half with shadow.
“Mr. O’Dowd,” said my mother.
“Good heavens, Mary,” he said. “Call me John, same as always.” He took out his wallet and smiled at us. “I guess you never got the check I sent. My way of saying I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you, Mary. You know that, don’t you?”
My mother shot a panicked glance behind her; my father flew to trouble like a moth to a flame. O’Dowd’s sickly-sweet ether would soon strike him broadside.
“Colleen,” he said. “I can’t believe how much you’ve grown. Pretty soon you’ll be as beautiful as your mother.”
“John,” said my mother. “You can deal with me, but you can’t deal with Kevin. You understand? I forgive you. I’ll do business with you, but Kevin — well, listen. This is quite a surprise. It’s been so long, hasn’t it?” Her outstretched hand brushed one of John’s rings.
“I shouldn’t have come. I know it,” said John, pushing up his hat to get a clear look at my mother. “But I had to do right by you.”
“Fine, John. Fine,” said Mother, wringing her hands. “But this will have to be my secret. And Colleen’s.” She glanced at me nervously. “We won’t tell Kevin you were here, will we, Colleen?”
It was the first time an adult had ever been at my mercy, a moment that taught me irrevocably how fragile our jugulars are. “Don’t worry, Mother,” I said.
“You want a check in your name? Tell me anything and it’s yours, Mary.” He smiled like a bishop on Sunday.
“You’ve got to hurry. Kevin’s out back,” she said. “Maybe we should meet —”
Too late. My father appeared like a roused beast, his shirt torn and covered with grease, his hair tousled. As he clenched and unclenched his fists, he stared at the spotless apparition whose bulging wallet was in my mother’s face. “Well,” he managed from between his teeth, “if it isn’t the repentant son of a bitch.”
Mother was on her feet. “He was just leaving, dear.”
Before any of us knew what happened, my father decked his old friend with a single blow to the head. My mother screamed, and as John rose up from the dust, my father struck him again in the eye. A burst of blood splattered on my jeans. O’Dowd fell back like a hooked marlin.
My mother threw herself onto the ground and sat John up. He was nothing but a ragdoll. My father stood watching, dirty and disheveled, as she tried to clear the blood from O’Dowd’s eye. She turned on my father with curdled fury. “Look what you’ve done! There isn’t a speck of forgiveness in your black heart! As God is my witness, I can’t bear to look at you!”
She kept her arms around O’Dowd as she raged at my father, who looked beaten, his hands hanging dead at his sides. “I’ll call a doctor,” he said.
“You’ll do nothing,” said my mother. “Colleen and I are taking John to the hospital ourselves.” I couldn’t believe the strength she summoned to hoist O’Dowd into the car.
O’Dowd could see only gray shadow out of his left eye, and the lid had been torn almost cleanly off. Doctors gave him painkillers and stitched up his ragged, paper-thin flesh. They could not guess how long he would have this fish eye, vacant and sleepless and innocent of color. There was nothing more to do but return home, where we found my Dad standing in the kitchen eating tuna out of a can and drinking whiskey out of the bottle. Choking down this bitter Communion, poised there as if torn between his poison and flight, he seemed completely without a tribe.
Within the hour the police were at the door. John O’Dowd had filed a complaint; one could not turn a man into a fish and then calmly sit down to dinner. As they took my Dad away to be booked on charges of aggravated assault, I noticed a thinning patch of hair at the top of his head: my father was getting old. When he bent down to kiss me goodbye, I touched his raw scalp, and shivers passed through me like the ones that herald a long sick spell of chills. He shook hands with Patrick and Brian, but he and my mother did not say goodbye. That night, after the police scheduled a court date and released him, he slept outside the house.
I remember the nine weeks between then and the morning he actually went off to the county jail to serve his two months as fractious and dripping with whiskey. His trial had been swift and uneventful — more like a drumming from the school principal than a mise en scène of the glories of justice — but there was a waiting list to get into the Napa jail, and my father would have to be patient for his turn.
I’d like to say that during those tense interim weeks I mourned for my brute and stubborn father and my angry mother, but mostly I filled my brain with a wretched longing for various movie stars who might save me. I looked at Giles O’Meara and Billy Waxman with new contempt, brutally disheartened that of the only boys who seemed passably fond of me, one liked to drop anchovies from the overpass onto cars, and the other’s idea of heaven was having me watch him shadowbox in the schoolyard.
Dad ate frosted cornflakes and drank bourbon the morning he finally went to jail. He admonished us to “be good, or I’ll come after you when I get out.” It might have been the wind chimes threatening us. Casey came to drive him to jail, and Mother remained in the bedroom. They had the night before rekindled the argument about whether or not she had betrayed him unforgivably by taking that no-good rattlesnake Judas to the hospital, and even upon this parting neither of them would make the first move to forgive the other.
The house got even quieter when Brian moved to Berkeley for college, and within weeks Patrick decided to thumb his way to Montana, or Denver or Wyoming, and begin his real life. “You’ll be mad at me for a while, Colleen, but you won’t be when I send you a ticket to visit me at the rodeo,” he told me before he left. He held my hand while we sat on the porch. The moonlight cast us orange, and mosquitoes buzzed in our ears. “What does Mother say, Patrick?” I asked.
“She says this is another example of how we’ve all deserted her.”
“Did you promise to send her some tickets?”
“Sure I did,” he said. “I mean, damn. Does she expect me to hang around here until I die?”
We laughed nervously, and then Patrick handed me the key to his bicycle lock. “Take care of things until I come back, OK?” he said, and I began to cry as if my heart would break.
Being alone in the house with Mother was excruciating. The flesh on her face collapsed around her bones, as if it had to cling to something. Often her dinners consisted of tequila, aspirin, and bread. Her world was hers, and mine was mine. My brain was still roily with movie stars. (I would readmit them to my fantasies, I warned them, if they would only stop playing so hard to get. My head was bursting with the unattainable.)
When I finally snapped out of my girlish, glazed-over delirium over silver boys, I discovered that when my mother announced each Saturday that she was “going out,” she was actually visiting John O’Dowd. She never told me this, but I could smell his ether on her skin. One Saturday she sat outside upon returning, and with legs planted wide, her thin skirt a membranous bridge from knee to knee, she plucked the purple straw grapes from her sunhat and tossed them into the dust.
This confirmed my suspicion about O’Dowd, because it seemed a casting of my father’s long-ago vineyard dreams into the dirt; I had, like most seventeen-year-olds, the dreary belief that I alone could see and weigh symbols. But more than that, it was the way she tore at her clothes and smiled at the horizon where O’Dowd had resurfaced that told me that she and my father’s enemy were having an affair. This marked the day she became a stranger to me. I did not know her heart, but I knew that she was already far away from us.
Not long after my father returned home, she announced that she could not possibly forgive him for the ruin he had brought on us, for the ruin of a man he was. In the year that followed, I received postcards from her that were breezy and clueless: Hello! She was in Memphis! Tomorrow she would visit Graceland, where she could worship at the shrine of one of her heroes! Then on to — maybe the Everglades! Kisses, Mummy.
My father finally received the divorce papers, and shortly afterward she wrote me a letter explaining that she and John O’Dowd had married in a little Vegas chapel called Holy Abode. She hoped the Church would forgive her someday. She hoped I would forgive her someday. Where was Patrick, anyway, and how could she get in touch with him? She loved me.
My father drank with impunity, and I married the first boy who could get me out of the house. We ended up in Boston, where one morning, in a note left on the orange crate we used as a table, he declared that he had to go to Europe and find himself. I then embarked on a dumb and dewy-eyed affair with a married Harvard professor, and one night while crying in my beer I seized the phone to call my father. It turned out that he had sold the house, and the woman who spoke to me did not know where he had gone.
What did I expect? Hadn’t I deserted him? I called Brian, who was due to graduate, and Patrick, whose adventures at a ranch outside Cheyenne had put him on crutches. I couldn’t wait another moment to see them, and before long I was embracing Brian in the dank, moldy corridor of Priestly Hall. Like most student housing, Priestly vibrated with the enormous swell of rock music. Brian showed me the city and his haunts. Although my brothers and I had lost all contact with our parents, I flew out to Patrick feeling the first stirrings that we were a family again.
Despite the broken bones he’d suffered trying to rope a steer, Patrick was the same coiling and uncoiling spring of energy. We ate barbecue in a loud cowboy bar that shook with boot-stomping Western music, and we played along with a tipsy barmaid who wanted to tell us knock-knock jokes. I don’t think I could stand it if Patrick weren’t in the world.
Neither of my brothers had an inkling of where our mother and father were. Brian was especially adamant about keeping it that way. Mother could not forgive Dad’s calamitous pride and he could not forgive her perfidy, and it was as if each had wished the other into oblivion. I went back to Boston, told the professor I never wanted to see him again, immediately regretted it, and spent a few more tortured months wrangling with him until at last, it ended badly. I am a Farrell, and I guess we are unsparing when disappointed.
Four years later, I came across my mother quite by accident. The software computer company for which I was a salesperson sent me to a convention in Vegas. On a whim, I visited the Holy Abode chapel and bribed the mail-order reverend into disclosing the address given by my mother and O’Dowd. I drove my rental car through searing heat out to a small residential area, where the modest houses were, like covered wagons braced for attack, arranged in a circle within striking distance of the Strip.
There I found my mother in the pose I had last seen her: packing up to move on. Her skin had become leathery from the desert, and she’d colored her hair the shade of a yellow crayon. It filled me with strange pity. She dropped a cardboard box when she saw me. “Colleen!” she said. “My Lord. My baby.”
I had half-expected the hand of the grand smiter to strike her down as a hussy; for balance, she would be a drunk, or O’Dowd would have taken up with a showgirl. Instead, She was simply a middle-aged woman who happened to be my mother, who to others walked about without towering griefs or dazzling glories. O’Dowd came out with some coffee, and we sat on packing boxes in the yard and chatted about my job. His left eye had a chalky film on it, but he could now see fine. He was on to something hot, he told me, and he and “Queen Mary” — the use of a marooned rococo boat as my mother’s nickname unnerved me — were going to hit the road again and see where fortune took them.
In the background we could hear a neighbor’s loud stereo assaulting everyone with show tunes. “Have dinner with us?” said my mother. “Colleen? I’m so proud of you having a job in computer sales. Maybe Johnny will get back to computers some day.” She looked at him hopefully.
“The Queen Mary hasn’t quite got the hang of moving on,” said O’Dowd to me. “One of these days we’ll find a dream house and she’ll forgive me for dragging her around the country. Won’t you, kitten?”
My mother attempted to smile, and in that moment I no longer hated her. She had put herself at my mercy long ago that afternoon on the porch, and she was doing it again now by making it clear how much she feared my judgment.
“I’ve got a convention to get to,” I said. “Be well, Momma.” I bent to kiss her. I had to leave at once, or I would tell this stringy fool that my mother was never going to forgive him any more than I would. Imagine a man old enough to be bald using the words “dream house”! He was a ragdoll then and he was a ragdoll now, and I understood why my father had refused to feed from his leprous hand.
It took me another few weeks to find my father. Patrick finally discovered that Dad had remarried and was living in San Francisco, and the next time I was on the Coast I called him up. His new wife was a soft, plumpish woman named April. He’d met her in a drying-out program, and together these days they held hands and made vegetable salads and took daily communion.
He and April took me along to their choir practice, and I sat in a back pew listening to them lift their voices with a dozen other singers in thunderous harmony. We need loud music, all of us Farrells, I thought. It drowns out the beating of our hearts. Brian’s walls throbbed with heavy metal, Patrick’s nights echoed with twanging guitars, and my mother set her exoduses to the brassy cheer of show tunes.
But here, finally, were hymns that could make us forget for a moment that to skeletons and shadows we must one day go. I remember my father’s cry that the past is never done, but that is not true. The tricks, the houses — even the loved ones vanish. What lingers is only the degree to which we forgive, the united pitch of our own hopeful and despairing voices, and our immortal Irish souls.