A Quiet Man: My father’s homecoming

My mother, brother Eddie and father

My father, a Tipperary man, was proud of his Irish ancestry, though he was so complaisant of disposition you would be hard put to discern that right away. He was a modest man of modest means and modest ambition. Since his departure from this world, little is said of him in family circles. At times I wonder if they remember he ever existed.

I do. I remember his smile, deep and wide, when my kid brother Eddie said something smart or funny. I remember the great care he took washing the bottles in the cellar, sucking the air from the tube so the near-beer he had crafted would pour into the bottles that I would cap and shelve for the year’s supply. During election campaign season, I recall Pa, in his Sunday suit, walking down toward headquarters to help out with mailings and the like.

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At Sunday Mass he would follow the liturgy intently in his leather-bound missal, giving us kids the eye whenever we got out of line. At night, though he thought he had closed the door behind him, I can still see him kneeling at his bedside, his head in his hands, checking things out with his Maker. Pa never talked about himself. He was a good listener. And though he was stingy with this, he could sing an Irish ballad—any Irish ballad—with the authority of a John McCormack.

Then there was the telegram. It came from Ireland, from my older brother who had just changed his name from John Jr. to Father Pat of the Servite order. He had completed his theology studies at the Servite monastery in Benburb, Co. Tyrone, and remained there for his ordination in 1949. My father, John, and mother, Margaret Gannon, had flown over to witness their first-born son being made a priest, fulfilling the most ardent, long-held wish of my mother. (She would receive the second fulfillment from the kid brother.)

It was their first and only trip back to the land of their birth since leaving it separately four decades earlier. However, truth to tell, they almost didn’t go. “Now listen John,”—that’s my mother talking—“you have to have those teeth cleaned before we go. I’ll not go at all till you do that one thing. For me, yes, but even more for your son the priest, and don’t forget your poor mother waiting for the miracle of seeing her own first-born son that left her 40 long years ago. I’ll call the dentist now and make the appointment, and I’ll get your brother Joe to drive you; sure he’ll not mind, he has little else to do.”

My father never had a car or a license to drive one. He had never been to a dentist either, and he attributed that satisfaction to the pipes he puffed on and the tobacco he chewed. One day, when he sent me to Finley’s to purchase a plug for him, I snitched a wee bite and marveled that any man could abide the awful taste, and never mind the yellowing. Wonder of wonders, however, after a litany of objections and dismissals of prior supplications, this time Pa caved in. He believed what his wife said about refusing to go. He couldn’t go without her. The yellow teeth were cleaned, and he looked to be a new man with a new prize to smile about.

Then a telegram message came from Tipperary, my father’s home-place, and it said: “Pa’s not well. See you at Logan tomorrow at 10:45 a.m.” Signed, “Fr. Pat.”

Not well? Not well? How much and what kind of not well? The questions rattled around my brain on the 40-mile drive to Logan International Airport in Boston. In those days you could wriggle close to the passengers’ entrance gate. You could watch your travelers walk from the plane to the gate. First I spotted my mother and brother, side by side, their faces set on grim, almost as though they were in mourning. But there, shuffling along 10 feet behind them, carry-on bag in hand, was Pa, facial expression resigned, almost as though he were being delivered to a new country alone, no gentle arm to support him, no friendly voice chatting him up. Was I seeing right? What was the altered relationship of these three people I used to know? What was motivating it? Shame, confusion, fear?

My father had seen his son elevated to the priesthood, seen him celebrate his first Mass; had seen and embraced his mother in the house he grew up in with his brothers and sisters; had visited the Trappist monks at the monastery where he taught Gaelic before emigrating; had gone to bed where something snapped and made his movement labored and his voice mute. He had suffered a stroke, and not a little one. I was surprised that the doctor who examined him approved of his flight home. He was not well and the prognosis was glum.

He sat beside me up front on the ride home, his lovely singing voice gone. I told him things I can’t remember. His response was a small smile or a little nod of the head. I asked him if he would like to stop for a glass of beer en route. Bigger smile, deeper nod. In the back seat, frowns of disapproval. When we did make our stop at a first-aid station lit up with Bud and Gansett signs, the back-seaters said they would wait in the car for us and not to be long. We sat at the bar and made short work of two cool draughts, cheeky smiles to and fro.

At my parents’ home in Providence, R.I., she started calling doctors while Father Pat, obviously shaken to his core, unpacked a suitcase. He was blaming himself, I thought, and still think.

Through this uncertain time, I was married to the Most Ideal Wife of the Duration, with four young sons and counting, and had a writing job that seemed to matter quite a lot. We lived in an old, come-hither farmhouse in Greenville, R.I. My younger sister lived in similar circumstances in Cranston, just a few blocks south of my mother. We had that younger brother too, who had left home at age 13 to become a Carmelite monk. He worked his first miracle for us by finding a room and bed for Pa at a hospice facility run by the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God in Gloucester, Mass. When I told my father that his caretakers were the same outfit that took care of the pope, he produced a smile that made the cool-beer grin seem trifling. He was in the same league now as the pope. Not bad for a guy who could not even talk.

Through his lifetime, my father read tons of books and tended to his gardens and his chickens in the backyard. He didn’t watch television or go out to movies or parties. He had to read all those books and to write letters till the cows came home. Most of his letters landed there in the old country. As kids, we found out that my mother kept an autograph book in the middle of which Pa had written (well before pa-hood): “If I could have my dearest wish fulfilled and ask from heaven whatsoe’er I willed, I’d ask for you.” And then, not to be forgotten or taken lightly, he claimed the last page of the book for this entry: “You asked me to write in your album, to put something original in, but there’s nothing original in me since I lost original sin.”

With the Hospitallers, his last year of life was one of peaceful resignation. The loving care showed in his eyes, in his whole countenance. When he died without a whimper in the middle of the night, he took his last trip alone, wrapped in solitude and full of grace replacing that damnable original sin.

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 10 months ago
Mr. McNamara, I just loved reading about your Pa, John. His fidelity to duty and docility in walking the often slippery and serpentine paths of life, prayerfully inspired me to say to heaven, "Thank you Jesus, for sharing one of your treasures, Pa, John with us." He was clearly a wonderful man and I feel that I am a better person for getting to know him, to know about him, the Quiet Man! Pray for us Pa, John.

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