Portrait of my father as a young man

Harry and Ellen McAuley, Newly Married, Washington Heights, New York City circa 1950s

The original photograph is dated, and somewhat faded it spots. Even so, it still has the power to resonate, even now. There is something about seeing your parents when they themselves were young that makes you stand back and take notice—you realize, finally, that they were people first before they ever became your parents. A shocking thought!

I’m thinking about that photograph today, as it would have been my father’s 92nd birthday. There hasn’t been a day since April 29, 2008—the day Dad died from the aftereffects of a previous stroke and the mild onset of Alzheimer’s Disease—that I haven’t thought about him and what he meant to my mother, my sister and me. And on every passing year, his birthday takes on even more resonance and meaning.


He was Harry McAuley, an Irishman—a fact he was enormously proud of. He was born on March 14, 1924 in a village called Blacklion, County Cavan, Ireland. It is important to note that fact, that he was born in a free Ireland as an Irish citizen and not as a British subject as his forebears were. He grew up in a large family. He grew up on farmland surrounded by a lake, a picturesque setting as you could ever imagine and a vista he always loved. He had the Irish version of a Tom Sawyer boyhood—he’d rather paint the white picket fence and be out in the elements than be beyond the threshold of the schoolhouse door sitting on the bench learning things by mind-numbing rote. But that did not mean he didn’t learn; on the contrary, life was his school.

And I learned a lot from him.

I learned that if it wasn’t for his father—Joseph McCauley—my grandfather, I might not have had Harry McAuley or Ellen Granahan of County Mayo for parents. Given other circumstances or other twists of fate, Dad could have emigrated somewhere else and married differently—and my sister and me might have never come into existence. (Horrors!)  Since Dad wasn’t the eldest, he wasn’t in line to inherit the family farm—all 40 acres of it—so like so many of his generation, he had to seek his life elsewhere. He confided to his father that he was thinking of going to England. What my grandfather said changed Dad’s life—and thankfully gave me mine. My kindly grandfather demurred; “Go to America,” he said to his son. And that’s what Dad did.

And in America, he met my mother, a most fortunate happenstance for him. They met in one of those ubiquitous Irish dances that were held every week in the numerous dance halls that dotted New York City, in the time as the song said, “when New York was Irish.” They met, they courted and they married (on April 11, 1953) in my mother’s home village church in County Mayo. Their marriage lasted until Dad’s death, some 55 years later, and specifically, 18 days after that anniversary. 

They depended on each other and helped each other; they never made a big outward show of it, with outward declarations of love and devotion, as some couples where wont to do. There was no “gushiness” about their bond—for them, there was no need for the ostentatious Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers, or fancy restaurant dinners. Their preferred way was through humor: many a morning when I was young I would wake up to the sound of my mother’s musical laughter at something Dad told or related. Laughter was their way of loving.

I knew that deep down, they loved each other, and I witnessed this when it counted the most, in times of difficulty and sorrow—in Dad’s case, when he broke down completely, choking up with grief, with the thought of Mom having to go through open heart surgery to replace faulty valves; and Mom, who stood at his bedside as he lay dying, unable to recite the prayers from the booklet she had ready, so she could say them to him and for him, only directing me through garbled sobs to do what she could not. It was the hardest—and greatest duty—of my life, to bend down near my father’s ear and pray him into eternity, only for him to turn his head toward me and open those oh-so-blue Paul Newman eyes in one last flicker of recognition, only to understand belatedly how quietly and peacefully he slipped away from us.

And in time, I learned too, that despite that gruff John Wayne tough man type exterior he liked to effect from time to time, below the surface lay a very sentimental man. He was loyal to a fault, especially to his family—back in Ireland and here. He wrote and phoned faithfully to his brothers and sisters back home. And to the family he created in the New World—us—he gave of everything he had, his labor and the fruits of that labor. Having the difficult task of going through his personal effects after his death, I found proof of that sentimentality: in a jacket pocket was a carefully preserved Christmas letter and envelope from his sister Mary Ellen, a letter that he had kept for many years. And in his wallet, the plastic enclosures revealed the worn edges of the First Communion photos of my sister and me that he always carried, plus a blessed medal from Pope John XXIII. When he became a citizen, he registered as a Democrat, because they were for the working people and besides, he always revered the man whose initials were J.F.K. and who, like himself, had deep feelings for that "green and misty land" that lay beyond the Atlantic. 

As far as I know, he never read a book, though he read newspapers. As I said, that did not mean that he didn’t know things. It was from him that I got my love of history and politics and the things he told me spurred me on to learn all that I could in books and newspapers and that reading habit of mine was of his doing, too.  He often told the story—long afterwards—that he had an inkling (like Mom did) that I would turn out to be a reader; he used to play a game with me when I was still in my highchair involving the block letters of the headlines of the Daily News: he would fold the paper, turn it upside down and put it in front of me and inevitably, I’d turn it right side up! So, I learned to read long before I ever learned to speak. Dad always ended the story with the caveat that if he had known how much I’d take to reading, he’d had never pulled his “paper trick.” I often detected a sly wink whenever he said that.

Dad was a very sociable man who liked his drink, his smoke, a good story and an even better joke—and why wouldn’t he, for he was Irish after all. Normally he was a very patient man, but God help the person who tried to get the better of him or who tried to treat him in an unfair manner: he’d make his displeasure known lightning fast. He worked hard and he prayed hard, too. Many a morning before he headed out to work at Fordham Hill Apartments—just a walk beyond Devoe Park—he would always attend 7:30 Mass at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church to pray for the new day. He had a great devotion to two saints: Saint Patrick and Saint Anthony—which was funny, when you thought about it. This proud Irishman prayed to the Apostle to the Irish who wasn’t Irish at all and he was dearly devoted to an Italian who never let him down when he needed finding things—and believe me, there were times Dad needed help finding things!

There are so many memories in that photograph. A favorite of my mother’s, it was the only one we displayed at Dad’s wake. And at that wake, a man who knew Dad came up to me and said with sympathy that I was now “the man of the house.” I objected violently to that notion. Pointing to the shamrock-embossed casket where my father lay, I said: “The man of the house lies there. I’m just his son.”

And so it was. And so will it always be.

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