THE LOVELY APRIL OF HER PRIME

By Paul M. Lewis

If my mother were alive, she would have turned ninety-five years old today. Not an impossibility, of course, since many of us know people whose parents are in their nineties. Yet, she died forty-five years ago, in 1970, when she was just fifty years old.

No doubt, everyone thinks of his or her mother as a special person, and it’s an old saw among the Irish that you practically have to say of your mother: “She was a saint.” But it’s also true that this happens to quite accurately describe my mother. Her name was Kathleen, or Kay, as she usually went by, and she was the most loving and compassionate person whom I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She worried about everyone: her own children, first of all, but other people’s children, too, as well as friends and relatives. Sadly, she fretted greatly about money, as well, of which we had very little. And she worried especially about her husband, my father, who hated his job in the local sandpaper factory, and whose intelligence—it must be said—ought to have insured a better position for him, one where he could have used his mind, rather than just his hands in so mechanical a way.

Intellectuality was not my mother’s greatest gift. I am not speaking here of native intelligence, you understand, but of what used to glibly be referred to as book-learning. She never graduated from high school, seldom read, aside from the occasional perusal of the local newspaper, and was not drawn to an overly cerebral, philosophical way of looking at the world, as was my father. No, she approached life as a thing to be cherished and taken care of, a gift from God to be nurtured and nourished, cultivated and encouraged. She saw life as a benefit freely bestowed, a thing not to be taken for granted.

Although she grew up during the Great Depression and had very real money worries, I never saw in her that persistent, underlying fear of there not being enough, so prevalent among many of that generation. The household she was reared in was entirely feminine. Her own father, my grandfather, met and married her mother, Katy, in what I always think must have been a whirlwind romance. Although no pictures of him exist, he was—or so my imagination likes to project—a dashing fellow. A baseball player for the Montreal Royals, one of the minor league teams of the era, he came with the team to upstate New York to play against the Albany Senators. Though family lore has not recorded just how, this handsome young French-Canadian, who went by the unlikely name of Pierre-Napoleon, somehow met a local Irish-American girl named Katy, and the two were married soon thereafter. Dates here are fuzzy, but the unstated suggestion has always been that Katy may have conceived before the blessings of wedlock were conferred, and she gave birth to Kathleen, my mother, on the 19th of February 1920. Soon thereafter, Pierre-Napoleon disappeared from sight, presumably hightailing it back to Montreal, and no one ever saw or heard from him again. In those days, such legal niceties as child support did not exist, and so Katy moved back in with her own mother, a widow by that time, and the two ladies raised my mother.

I don’t know where my own parents met. One of the many disadvantages of losing one’s parents early on is that there is no longer the opportunity for their children, later in life, when they might themselves be more settled and possibly interested in such matters, to ask these kinds of question. She married Francis (Frank) Lewis in 1940. Not long after, my father was drafted into the navy and served on a destroyer-escort in the North Atlantic, the USS Moffett, during the Second World War. He came home a few times on leave to spend a week or two with his young bride, and during one of those visits I was conceived. He didn’t return home for good until late 1945.

The years that ensued after the war were typical enough for many young couples of the time. My father got a job in a local factory, and my mother worked in a department store in Troy, New York, selling negligees to ladies much richer than she. We never owned a car, and my father walked the twelve blocks to work each morning; she took the bus because her feet always hurt her. Kathleen had five children, two of whom died soon after they were born, and there was struggle enough to raise the remaining three. Her husband was unhappy at work, and in much of life, although not in his marriage, and drank too much. She often had to work evenings at the department store, and the household was a miserable place when she was not there to lighten and brighten things up.

Because of smoking and drinking and, I always believed, failed aspirations and the bitter disappointment of his own life, my father died even younger than my mother. He was forty-seven years old. A few years later, my mother met a nice Italian man by the name of Carlo, and they enjoyed each other’s company for a few years. By then, she was working in the same sandpaper factory where my father had died, since the money was better than anything that could be made as a saleslady. She and Carlo went dancing on Saturday nights, and occasionally out to dinner, things she could never afford to do with Frank, and she seemed happy.

Not that there hadn’t been sorrows aplenty in her life: my father’s drinking, his early death, my brother’s drinking, my sister’s scoliosis and, I suppose, my own entry into the monastery at age fourteen. Far too young, she thought, as much as she never tried to stop me. It was considered a high honor in those years if one of your children had what was referred to as a vocation. Maybe people just thought of it as insurance for a better place in heaven. The church held great moral suasion in those days, far more than it does today. Even so, years later, after I left the monastery and my mother was still living, she told me that she had confessed to the priest that she and my father used birth control, as they could not afford to raise even the three children they had, let alone any more. In turn, the priest told her: “If you do not repent and stop using artificial birth control, you will burn in hell for all eternity. If you wish not to have any more children, cease having relations with your husband.” This was merely the first of many things that turned me against the Catholic Church, with its inhuman, rigid, and doctrinaire legalism.

Obviously, this priest did not know my mother. Anyone who did could never imagine a God by whatever name condemning her for anything. The Hindus speak of Divine Mother, and I have always felt as though my mother was a kind of reflection of that image, filled with great warmth and kindness and a profound empathy for her fellow beings.

Shakespeare writes in one of his early sonnets: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime.” It has always seemed to me that the highest goal I could strive for in life was to be some amalgam of my parents, combining my father’s intellectualism, his love for learning and of the written word, with my mother’s immense capacity for sensitivity and her concern for the sufferings of all living creatures.

I’ve never felt that I have been able to fully live up to either one of these aspirations, but it’s enough perhaps to keep on trying. On this day of celebration and remembrance, I wish my mother the happiest of birthdays. I am more thankful than I can ever express that she was born to Katy and Pierre-Napoleon. May she live long in my memory, and in my efforts to be like her. What better way to lead one’s life, I tell myself, than to do what I can to call back that lovely April of her prime?

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY — A LITTLE LATE

By Paul 

I realize I’m a little late with this, inasmuch as Father’s Day is now passed.  My excuse is that we’ve been away on vacation for a time, and I have just now gotten the chance to sit down and write.

I have been thinking quite a bit about Father’s Day, though, and my own father.  He and I had a difficult, even contentious, relationship, as brief as it was.  He died at the early age of 47, and I had, in fact, already left home to join the monastery some 6 or 7 years earlier at the age of 14.  Still, those first 14 years were memorable and formative ones, to say the very least. 

I always felt it was fair to say that my father was a brilliant man, even though all he had was a high school education.  In fact, I might even say that he was cursed with brilliance.  That far-reaching and highly inquisitive mind  may have became something of a stalled car in the circumstances of his life.  He married young, as seemed to be the custom in those years of the late 30’s/early 40’s.  He was 20, and my mother was 18.  Soon after that, he was called away to war, where he served in the Navy aboard a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic.  I never once heard him speak of the war years, but they must have been eventful and eye-opening for a poor Irish-American kid from an upstate New York family. 

Once the war was over, he returned to a factory job in the small town of Watervliet, where he and my mother lived, and where we grew up, just north of Albany.  It was a real ethnic enclave in those years, where the Irish and the Italians and the Polish and the Ukrainians, and a few others, mingled freely, if not always amicably.  He and my mother began having children even before the war ended, and he got a job immediately upon return in a local factory where they made sandpaper.  He worked there almost until the day he died.  In fact, he was working the very day he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.  He survived for a couple of more days, but the end came pretty swiftly.  These are the bare bones of his life. Not much, it would seem, for someone who, I claim anyway, had such a brilliant mind.  But I guess he did what he felt he had to do.

In the meantime, though, it was clear to me that he was not happy.  And he was particularly not happy with me.  I may never know exactly why, but for whatever reason, he seemed to take a particular dislike to me, and I felt the back of his hand more times than I care to remember.  Even worse than anything physical, though, was his harsh language, the anger and even the hatred (or so it seemed) with which he usually addressed me.  Much of it can be summed up by his having told me again and again in my youth: “Why the hell don’t you go play in traffic!”  I always felt as though this was a particularly low blow, since play is such a natural and creative thing for any child, and to take that innate ebullience of children and to turn it into a thing of danger and even of death seemed to epitomized much about our relationship. 

I’ve tried over the years since his death, now going on almost 50 years, to understand what happened, what took place, what could have caused this rift between us.  In the end, I have to say that I just do not know, particularly since his treatment of my siblings was different, and much kinder.  It’s of course been a factor in making me who I am today, both for better and for worse.  But I have done what I could to come to terms with it and to make it all somehow work for me as an adult. 

The odd thing is that I think we were a lot alike.  I always felt as though I got my love of “things intellectual” from him.  He was a great reader.  He would spend his evenings sitting at the kitchen table, reading anything he could get his hands on, books, newspapers, magazines, whatever honored the written word, all the while drinking his 5 quarts of Ballentine ale, which he consumed every night.  Even after we got a television set in the late 50’s he never watched it.  He thought it idiotic and a complete waste of anybody’s time.  And on Sunday afternoons, the local radio station played classical music, which he dearly loved.  One of the few things he ever shared with me about himself was that he wished he’d been able to become a conductor of classical music.  I can still remember him sitting there in the kitchen “conducting” as they played Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart.  And God help any of us kids if we made a sound during that time.  This was his moment, when he could for a few minutes forget what a trap his life had become, when he could forget that he worked in a factory and ran a machine that glued sand to paper, and could instead soar in the exquisite, rarefied, and ethereal world of great music. 

Yes, I got my love of books and of classical music, and of all things having to do with the mind, from this man.  I loved him very much, and wanted him to love me, too.  It could be that he did, in his own way, although I suppose I may never know that for sure.  He did seem to think it a good thing when I left home and entered the monastery, as much as he was himself what was called at that time a “lapsed Catholic” (to the shame and utter condemnation of my Irish grandmother, his mother).  But even then, I thought, maybe he was just glad to be rid of me. 

Fathers are funny beings.  I think we always wind up wanting more from them than they are ever capable of delivering.  In my case, I’ve come to accept that mine did the best he could, as poor as that so often was.  I still wish all good things for him, and hope that some day, in another world where perhaps we are both better able to know who we truly are, we will come together in a way that heals and completes our relationship.  If that is a real thing, I look forward to it, even long for it.  If it is a fantasy, it’s one at least that I find some comfort in.

For the moment, it would seem that there’s not much more I can do than to say to him, and wish for him, a Happy Father’s Day – even if, God help us both, it is maybe now a little late.