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PARTS AND WHOLES OF MEMORY

by Robert W. Greene



 
 
 
 

1. IN HIS ELEMENT
If he was not at work, on Sundays Dad could sit for hours in his favorite chair, lost to the world in the fat Globe he'd have picked up outside St. Andrew's after Mass. Sooner or later, his lips would start to move, though he read on in silence otherwise. Mother would tease him about it. I think she was embarassed for him in front of us, "the gang," his pet name for his children.

One Sunday, he jumped up and took me with him on the El to a cold-storage warehouse near the docks. A fellow stationary engineer had drawn the three-to-eleven watch. The two of them were talking away as we squeezed past big open bins of tuna and swordfish packed in ice. I don't know which frightened me more, the great gray carcasses piled up on their sides, or the impending blast of a cargo ship about to weigh anchor. ("Don't be afraid, they're all dead. And the ship's horn can't hurt you. Anyway, remember, it lasts only a few seconds.")

But I wanted to be where I was, and Dad no doubt was "in his element," as Mother used to say. He was passing the time with a friend from work, he had one of "the gang" with him, and there was no one to remind him that reading the paper in perfect silence was something he was still learning how to do.


 
 
2. OFF-DUTY
Mother has taken Nancy and me on the streetcar to visit a childhood friend of hers. Bridie, recently married, is living in West Roxbury, which in the 1930s is still a largely rural section of Boston. Bridie's house is surrounded by endlessly inviting fields of tall grass. My sister and I have never seen, let alone ventured into, such a setting in our district, Jamaica Plain, with its street after street of two- and three-family homes, interspersed with the odd single house, every lot delimited by a foreshortened garden in front, a narrow yard in back.

I am three or four, Nancy, five or six. While Mother and Bridie drink tea inside Bridie's screened-in porch, Nancy and I charge headlong through the high grass. By mischance, I step on a hornets' nest. Suddenly they're all over me, stinging me everywhere. Nancy runs screaming to get Mother, who is there in a flash, picking me up and carrying me to the screened-in porch. The hornets are still at it even as Mother's quick hands are brushing them off my bare torso and plucking them out of my hair. In the process, I learn later from Nancy, Mother is being stung repeatedly. Undeterred in her task, she pays no heed to her own burning bare arms.

These days, when I meet Mother in a dream, I pick her up and carry her for a while. She seems relieved to go off-duty. Maybe we are happy just to change places.


 
 
3. SIDE BY SIDE
The privations that we on the "home front" had to put up with during the War were nothing compared to what others were enduring overseas, that we knew.

There was the meat, butter and gas rationing, the shortages of cigarettes, nylon and tires, the loss of certain kinds of services. Among the latter, one involved a rather peculiar edict from Washington. To reduce non-essential labor still further, butchers would no longer clean the chickens they sold. From now on, housewives could do that job at their kitchen sinks.

On Sundays, in the early afternoon, Mother and Dad would stand side by side at the sink. Each would grab a dead bird in one hand, plunge the other into its guts, then slowly pull the innards out. Dad, who grew up on a farm, had performed this unpleasant task many times as a boy. Mother, a town girl, had never been called upon to do anything like it before. Yet it was Dad, grabbing and pulling to beat the band, who turned his head away. "I can't abide the stink," he would say.
 

 
 
4. FEAR AND LOATHING
After Dad died, Mother, in reminiscing, told us that when they were first married, he drank very little, even at weddings. It came on gradually, she said. We, their children, remembered that when we were young, if Dad was drunk, life at our house was scarily unpredictable.

We also remembered that Dad's turnaround occurred as abruptly as one of his mood swings when he'd been drinking. This change, however, was permanent. He became a near-total abstainer on March 15, 1951, when our sister Mary, out for a drive with friends, was killed in an automobile accident. The horror shocked him sober.

And so it was that Dad drank the most while most of us were growing up. "You've turned the gang against me!" he shouted at Mother in the kitchen, while we, "the gang," cowered in our beds. Mother, not answering, served him his reheated dinner in silence. After a while, he would subside, muttering to himself who knows what. The next day, it would be as if nothing had happened. Mother never spoke against him. Had she done so, she could not have cast him farther into hell than I already had.

It's a Friday evening in 1948, a few months after my 15th birthday. As my friends and I are strolling to Howard Johnson's for an icecream, something I've long dreaded happens. Ambling past the stone stairways that, years before, had been built into the hillside front yards of the houses lining the avenue, I spot Dad. His face sagging from drink, he is sitting back, almost hidden, in the stairway we are passing. He is holding a box of fried clams in one hand, rummaging around in it with the other. Our eyes meet for a second. Have my friends seen him? They say nothing. I feel the shame that only a child can feel witnessing a parent's bad behavior in public.

Back then, besides shame, waves of rage toward Dad for what he was doing to us would wash over me. It took time for those feelings to recede, to dissolve in larger, deeper feelings.


 
 
5. MY FATHER'S HEEL
We kids are gathered around, but not too close. We've been warned off by the mute, stone-faced adults. Mice, we know, are nothing to be afraid of, an annoyance easily taken care of by a cat or a snap trap. But a rat, that's something else entirely.

I had run indoors to tell my mother about it. My father, just home from work, comes outside right away, followed by my mother. My playmate's parents do likewise as soon as they hear the news from their child.

No doubt because my playmate and I had glimpsed the rat among the fence boards stacked up under my back porch, my father conducts the hunt. He picks the boards up slowly, individually, placing each one against the foundation of the house. Although the whole operation takes less than a minute, it seems like an eternity, time enough for me to start worrying about what my father will actually do when he uncovers the animal.

But the very instant my anxiety crystallizes, it vanishes. With a speed that almost surpasses my powers of observation, the rat breaks into the open, only to bulge and burst, under my father's slammed heel. That was his plan, wasn't it?
 

 

6. POLE RACE

Because we still have Topsy, I must be eight or nine years old, which means that Hughie is either 13 or 14. Dad has come home from work late and a little drunk, but on a rare high. Why, we can't fathom, since drinking usually makes him sullen or grouchy or even angry. Hughie, Dad's namesake, never talks to me about Dad's drinking, or about anything else for that matter.

After supper, Dad insists on going with Hughie and me when we take the dog for its evening walk along the dirt path that borders the cemetery across the way from our house. As soon as we've crossed the street, Dad grabs the leash from my hand and takes Topsy on a run, laughing all the while. Hughie and I trot alongside the pair. I am surprised at how fast Dad is moving. Suddenly he stops, hands the leash back to me and announces that he and Hughie are going to race between the next two telephone poles. I can tell that Hughie is reluctant to race with Dad, but sees that he has no choice in the matter. Dad sends me on ahead with Topsy to stand at the finish line by the far pole. Hughie can run very fast, much faster than I can. So I'm worried about the outcome, about what might happen to Dad's buoyancy if he should lose the race.

The next thing I know, they're off and galloping toward me. I'm astonished by Dad's speed. His legs are pumping like pistons in a souped-up hot rod, which more than makes up for his short stride relative to his height. And he is still laughing, still exhilarated. The expression on Hughie's face shows me that he is more amazed than I am and is genuinely exerting himself. They pass the telephone pole almost abreast, but with Dad perhaps a half step in the lead. Did he really win? Did Hughie let him win? Does Hughie even know?

Before Hughie died, I wonder, did he ever drift back in memory to that summer evening long ago when Dad was so oddly happy, almost airborne with joy? As for Dad, did he remember the pole race at all? I, obviously, remember it, but I still don't know what happened, how those runners finished.


 
 
7. UP IN SMOKE
Unbeknownst to Dad, today is the day for draining and scouring one of the fermentation tanks at the brewery where he works as a stationary engineer. Heading back from the brewmaster's office to his post in the power plant, Dad takes his customary shortcut through the fermentation building. As he is making his way along the catwalk above the tanks, caustic fumes waft up from below and temporarily blind him.

A masked scrubber leads Dad quickly to a sink, where, unaided, he splashes cold water on his face and recovers his sight. As a precaution, however, he is rushed to the hospital for examination and, if necessary, treatment. The doctor on duty in the emergency room washes his eyes out again, wraps them in bandages and sends him home with instructions not to remove the wrappings for 48 hours.

Because of the accident, Dad is home from work early. His head bound like a mummy, he is sitting in his favorite chair, tapping his fingers on its arms, listening to the radio.

It's now after two in the morning. Only Hughie is still up. He is out in the kitchen, at the table, studying for his classes at Bentley College, where he has enrolled on the G.I. Bill. Eddie and I are sound asleep in the back bedroom. So Hughie must be the one who gave the alarm.

The bedroom lights are on and Eddie and I are being shaken awake. Everything is happening at once. Just as I catch sight of a strange brightness coming from the closet, I see Dad barreling down the hall toward our now opened bedroom door. He is ripping bandages from his face and ordering us up and out. Then he's back and forth from the kitchen, heaving pans of water at the flames. In short order, the fire is out.

The clothes hanging in my part of the closet have burned up or are badly singed. My reversible warm-up jacket, with the school letter I won in track on one side, the wingèd foot on the other, has gone up in smoke.

Later, Dad empties the closet out and scrubs it down. Over the next few weeks, he repaints the walls and refinishes the floor. But despite his best efforts, for months afterwards, even years, the odor of something burning hangs suspended in the air near the closet's ceiling. Smoke and fumes go up, not away.


 
 
8. MY FATHER'S NAMES
Like many a Catholic boy born in Ulster, my father was christened "Hugh," after Hugh O'Donnell and Hugh O'Neill, 17th-century Irish heroes from, respectively, Donegal and Tyrone.

When my sisters and brothers and I were growing up in Boston during the 1930s and 40s, Dad would regale us with stories of his boyhood in Culdaff, Donegal. Gifted spinner of tales that he was, he always left us eager to hear more. I was hooked on the daring adventures of a certain McGrenaghan, a rambunctious fellow who, like Dad, attended the Bokan, the national school that had been established in the late 1800s for that corner of Donegal.

"Then Master Kane would shout: `McGrenaghan, we've had enough out of you for today!'"

"But, Dad, who was McGrenaghan anyway?"

"Oh, he was a scamp, a rascal!"

Long after Dad's death, Mother, who was also from Donegal, would still marvel in mock exasperation at his genius for telling only what he wanted to tell, nothing more. "That guy was so cute," she would say, so sly in his evasiveness.

When my sister Nancy was planning her wedding back in 1950, she pressed Dad hard for his middle name. She needed it for the invitations, she argued. Was it really "Charles," as he had sometimes hinted? We knew that whenever he signed anything official, like our school report cards, he used only his first and last names. I no longer recall how Dad sidestepped Nancy's questioning, but I'm sure he did. In any event, my sister went ahead with her plans, and in due course we all agreed that "Hugh Charles Greene" looked pretty nice in print. Decades later, we learned that in fact Dad had no middle name.

We also found out that Dad was older by a couple of years than he had ever admitted to being, since he was born in March or April 1900, not on June 6, 1902, as he had claimed. A single piece of paper provided us with this information. Shortly after Dad's death, Mother sent to his old parish church in Culdaff for a copy of his baptismal record. For reasons of her own, on receiving the document, she hid it from us. Nancy and I came across it when we were sifting through boxes of old letters and photographs the summer after Mother died.

Along with Dad's name (first and last only) and the names of his parents and baptismal sponsors, the date of his christening was on the document: April 10, 1900. Also, next to his surname, in parentheses, appeared this phrase: "or McGrenaghan." We were stunned, but not entirely surprised. The ancestral name had been saved from oblivion after all. And Dad, artful dodger supreme, was himself the rascal in Master Kane's classroom. Mother had kept Dad's oldest guiles and guises for herself.


 


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