Oh, Danny Boy

Like many Irish writer before me, I get lazy and stop writing. And then I have to rest on my laurels and republish my old work. So there you have it. Enjoy…

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Those who know the Sean-Peggy-Claire-Kevin-Patty version of the O’Connor Family of Detroit, know that we’re not exactly big fans of the Irish tune, “Danny Boy.”

Having been to a funeral or fifty in our time and having heard “Danny Boy” played, sung, cried, mimed, signed, whistled and bagpiped beyond all recognition, we’ve come to despise the song. “Cheap sentiment,” my brother Kevin growls, rolling his eyes upon hearing the church organist crank it up once again. “What’s wrong with having dry eyes in the house?” asks my sister Claire, as she dabs away Danny Boy-induced tears, cursing. “Wonder what’s for funeral lunch,” Sean says in a stage-whisper.

Over the years, the five of us have planned several funerals together, including those of our parents. We have not, will not and plan to NEVER request “Danny Boy” to be played in any way, shape or form. We’ve spent too much time…

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How much love fits on a Post It note? You’d be surprised

How much love fits on a Post It note? You’d be surprised.

Categories: Uncategorized

How much love fits on a Post It note? You’d be surprised

May 13, 2012 9 comments

My mom, Ann Ryan O’Connor, died 39 years ago last month. It was the Tuesday after Easter, 1973. She choked to death during an asthma attack. In the hospital. During a respiratory therapy treatment.

As the first of my family to get to the hospital (at age 15, I drove there on a learner’s permit while my hapless Aunt Bert wept and worried in the passenger seat), I remember seeing my mom’s still-warm body lying in the hospital bed. The look on her face was amazing: she was at peace – muscles relaxed, her tortured breathing finally quiet, her long battle with the disease that had robbed her of many normal things finally over. Her beautiful mouth was shaped into a tiny “O” – as if she was surprised by her sudden death. Later that day, we found out that was not the case.

That evening, as we wept and planned her funeral and dealt with annoying and overwrought relatives who were already fighting over who would take custody of the baby, our 4-year-old sister, Patty, my older brother Sean showed us something he’d found in the bottom of Mom’s purse that day. It was a set of hastily scrawled little notes in our mother’s handwriting. There was a fervent prayer on one: “God, please let me be their mother a little while longer.” The other five were individual notes addressed to each one of us.

Each one was a gift – her last  – to us. She wrote about how proud she was of each of us, how much she loved us, and how we should keep living our lives. She told Sean and Kevin that she knew they would grow up to “be the men that their father, Patrick O’Connor” was and would want them to be. She called her baby, Patty, the “gift that replaced a gift.”  We’ve kept the notes, treasured them, learned from them, and even framed them. The original set now lives in a lovely frame on Patty’s nightstand.

For a long time, I refused to look at my note. I can’t really remember when I was strong enough to read it, but eventually I did. I can’t say I have always done what she asked me to in that note, but at least I have tried. I haven’t looked at the notes in years (they always make me cry), but I don’t need to. I know what they say. I know what they mean. More importantly, I can feel the incredible depth of love and fear and courage and sadness in her heart when she wrote them, knowing somehow that she was not going to be around us much longer, yet feeling that she had to teach us one more thing, to be our mother just a little while longer.

As a mother myself now, I have a hard time imagining that I would ever have the courage to face the fact that I would not be alive long enough to raise my children to adulthood. I would have wept and screamed and tried to bargain with God and would probably have been filled with despair that I would not be around to see my children grow up. I am not sure I would have had the wherewithal to write my children love notes.

Then again, my mother was an amazing human being. She had faith. She WAS faith. She believed that everything happened for a reason, that God was good and would always be there to protect us, and that she had been given many incredible gifts in life – including the illness that eventually killed her, which she said taught her patience. She truly believed that the meaning of life was to be kind and happy and loving, and to spend our time treating others well because our real place, our real purpose, was to be with God in heaven. It was just that simple for her. And she carried that faith to the last moments of her life, I think, as evidenced by those little notes.

So, when life treated her poorly (like the day she had to remove her wedding and engagement rings because the government guy at the food stamp office denied her food stamps and  told her that the rings signified that she had enough money to feed her kids, despite being a penniless widow with no job), she did what the guy said. And later, she prayed for the man because, after all, “he was just doing  his job.”  When her husband of 15 years (only 15 years!) died suddenly and left her with four children and pregnant with a fifth, she grieved. Then, knowing the task she had before her, she trusted in God, called upon her faith, continued to laugh and sing and smile, and went on with her life as Mom, treasuring her last baby as a “gift that replaced a gift.”

She was only my mom for 15 years, but there’s not an event in my life that happens where I don’t stop and think about how Mom would have handled it. She never got to hold my babies in her arms, but she taught me how to love and teach and discipline my own children, who have grown into thoughtful, intelligent, generous, funny and sensitive people. Mom never got to see me graduate from high school and college and she never went to college herself, but she taught me how important it was to always be open to new ideas, to learning and to using the things I’ve learned in life.

I see her face every morning when I look in the mirror, even though I really don’t look like her. And while she has been gone more than twice as long as I had her with me, she is everywhere.

I see her gentle humor and her natural grace and ease with talking to people in my son Patrick, who is mature and poised and charming, easily friendly and comfortable with most people he meets. I see Mom’s beauty and her determination and her resilience against many odds in my daughter Erin, who has fought and won so many battles already in her short 18 years. I hear her joyous laugh and feel her warmth and her love of life whenever my sister Claire laughs and sings. I feel her kindness, her sense of fairness and justice and her belief that everyone deserves to be treated well no matter where they’ve come from in my brothers, Sean and Kevin, who live out those characteristics every day of their lives. And I see her pure joy at being a mom – not to mention her beautiful eyes, her soft voice and her amazing smile –  in my sister Pat. (And it’s okay, Pat, as you get frustrated with your own daughter today, even Mom lost patience with us more than once in a day!)

But even though she is always “with” me, I can’t put my arms around her on a day like today, Mother’s Day, and tell her how much I love her and miss her and am grateful for everything she did, for everything she was.

So I wrote her this note.

Rainbow Cake!

Today, my youngest niece, Natalie, turned 10.

Ten. A decade. So young. Hell, I have sweaters that I still wear that are older than 10.

I remember 10. Long ago, I was a 10-year-old myself. In fact, it was the last best year of my life. Too soon I was 11, my dad died and my life changed immeasurably and forever. And when I forget about 10, I have frequent reminders. See, I work in a school for girls in grades 5-12. Lots of the people here act like they are 10…or 12…or sometimes even 5. But there are also some real, actual 10-year-olds here who have the perfect right to act their age. And when they do, it’s a lot of fun. Of course, I don’t have to be trapped in a room with them for seven hours a day, so it’s all fun and cute to me (Natalie’s mother, her teacher and the three Grade 5 teachers at my school might disagree).

But 10 is fun. Ten is amazing. The life of a 10-year-old is perfect. Santa and Tinkerbell are still real. American Girl dolls and Nickelodeon TV dominate most of your waking thoughts, once you get boring old school and its insane demands for memorizing the U.S. states and multiplication tables out of the way each day. You play outside until its dark, you don’t care much about showers or whether your hair is combed, and boys are those icky, smelly things that for some reason you must allow to live.

There is lots of drama if you are a girl. Friend drama, school drama, Mom drama (just beginning, so hang on for the ride of your lives, moms of 10-year-olds), and sometimes, just plain drama for the sake of drama. But there’s also lots of fun.

When you are 10, you are delighted when your brother ties Look and Life magazines around your arms and legs, hands you a broom and tells you to play goalie for him and his team of 9th grade friends out on the backyard ice rink. When you are 10, you are ecstatic at an eight-inch snowfall because it means you not only have a snow day, but you get to help your dad shovel snow at 11 p.m., reveling at being with him on the dark and quiet street, with only the sounds of his breathing, the shovels crunching in the snow, and his occasional jokes and whistling. You are happy and safe, soaking up the joy of just being in his presence.

When you are 10, you don’t care if your mom makes you keep your curly hair short and easy to take care of because she rewards you by buying your first pair of pantyhose and letting you wear them to your cousin’s summer wedding…your first official grown-up event at which you felt pretty and really cool and sophisticated. When you are 10, you spend endless happy days playing with your best friend – your sister – and creating entire melodramas and real-life soap operas from the dress-up box that keep you both laughing and entertained…even 44 years later.

Best of all, when you are 10, you have NO idea that there are dark days ahead of you. You don’t even know what a dark day is (other than when your little brother drinks the rest of your Pepsi when you aren’t looking or your big brother takes the last slice of bacon off the breakfast plate). You believe with all your heart and soul that the whole rest of your life will be nothing but sunny days, starry nights, cute puppies and kittens and unicorns…with Sanders’ hot fudge sundaes for every meal.

And rainbow cake.

Yesterday,  I went to the school dining room for lunch at the same time the “real” 10-year-olds (5th-graders) did. Their excitement that it was LUNCH TIME!!!!(heart, heart, confetti, purple squiggles, 10,000 exclamation points!!!!!) was almost deafening. I had grabbed a cup of soup and salad and was moving to the cashier’s counter when a bevy (gaggle?) of 10-year-olds cut me off to get to the dessert table. “WE HAVE RAINBOW CAKE!” one yelled to the other 30 little girls. RAINBOW CAKE! RAINBOW CAKE! RAINBOW CAKE! The joyful cry sounded throughout the dining room. I let them grab their cake and move on to their tables, a chattering, skipping, hopping, vibrantly alive little bundle of khaki, green, pink and purple all tied up with animal-themed hair ribbons and fuzzy hats. I watched as a virtual trail of sunshine and happiness followed them out the door.

Then I turned to the cashier and said, “hey, why not add a slice of that rainbow cake to my bill? After all, we’re only 10 once, aren’t we?”

So, Natalie, happy birthday and all my love to you, along with hopes for a lifetime of puppies, kittens, unicorns, bright, shiny days, peaceful nights, bold adventures, a happy heart, and only make-believe drama.

Oh, and all the rainbow cake you can eat.

Categories: Uncategorized

On being (an O’Connor)

March 17, 2012 3 comments

On days like St. Patrick’s Day (PLEASE don’t call it St. Paddy’s Day or I’ll have to box your ears), and, of course, on days that end in “y,” I think of my parents and my brothers and sisters. But especially on St. Patrick’s Day.

Ann and Pat O’Connor were by today’s standards, dirt-poor. But they didn’t live today. They lived their adult lives in the 40s, 50s and 60s (and Mom, a bit into the 1970s – thank God she didn’t live to hear her beloved Frank Sinatra sing a duet with U2’s Bono). They had literally nothing of their own: they never owned a home, or a car, or property, or jewelry. They didn’t take vacations, or worry about retirement funds, or try to keep pace with their neighbors. They worked and lived, sang and joked, prayed and went to church, loved one another and doted nearly completely on their children.

It was like they lived in this big bubble of love and laughter and learning. And the four of us (at the time, since Patty was the gift from God that Mom got to open four and a half months after Dad died) were warm and safe and happy knowing we were in the middle of this big bubble, being cherished and cared enough about for Pat and Ann to have given up almost everything else in life. They didn’t drink, they didn’t party, but they knew how to have fun with one another and with us. While St. Patrick’s Day for many people means drink until you puke or until the police drag you away, for we O’Connors it meant learning about your heritage, singing songs, knowing why the Irish hated the English, singing more songs, scoffing at Irish stereotypes while singing Irish songs, and occasionally, when Mom got silly, decking the entire house in green crepe paper ribbons and dyeing the dinner potatoes green.

Of all the things that Pat and Ann weren’t, what they were was smart and curious. They read, they talked, they were aware of the world and its woes. They asked questions and more importantly, they taught us to ask questions, pursue answers, understand justice and seek the truth but always, always  remembering the dignity of each person. Looking back, it seems like they must have known they weren’t going to be around long enough to see us grow up and be our own people. So they taught us to be our own people right out of the gate.

I think they did fine. None of us wound up in jail. We are smart. We love God and our families. We all work. We all pray. We have friends and better than that, we ARE friends. We laugh and we love and we read and we question and we sing (although most of us, not very well – cheers to you, my sister Claire, for inheriting the pipes). And most of all, we know what it means to be an O’Connor:

It means that none of us will ever sit alone worrying in a hospital emergency room; even if the other four aren’t physically there, that sibling knows that we ARE there. With our arms wrapped around one another.

It means that at least four other people in the world understand our sense of humor. Sometimes, maybe just those four, but at least four.

It means that even when we don’t speak for days or weeks (Kevin – call your brother Sean today), we each know that there are four other people out there thinking about us, hoping for us, praying for us, and thinking of ways to make us laugh.

It means that we each know that after being through the hell of losing Pat and Ann and all the millions of pounds of other assorted stuff and nonsense that has come after, nothing can truly knock us down. We may stagger (and no, we don’t drink anymore), but we still stand – together.

It means that on the days that we are the saddest, or the most stressed out, or the loneliest, or the poorest, or the most frustrated…that four other people are there  to see us through that moment (and laugh at us later).

It means going out the door each day knowing that you are at least as good – and probably better – than nearly everyone you will meet.

Thanks, Pat and Ann. And Slàinte, Sean, Kevin, Claire and Patty.

Categories: Detroit, Family, Home, Irish

But I DO care if I never get back…

March 31, 2011 3 comments

It’s Opening Day of the major league baseball season. Where I am – physically – it is dark and dreary, cold and rainy. But my soul is seated in section 218 of Tiger Stadium in Detroit where it is warm and sunny, loud and joyful, and where the boys of 50 Detroit summers play a kid’s game on the lush emerald lawn in front of me.

There’s Kaline…and Cash…and LeFlore…and the Gator. Gibby and Rosey and Tram and Lou. Jason Thompson and Cecil Fielder and Miggy to bash the ball. Mickey Stanley and Chet Lemon and Dick McAuliffe and Steady Eddie who made it look so easy, something that “Five-Tool” Juan Encarnacion would never figure out. There’s Lolich and Jack and Mark the Bird…and of course, there’s never been any quite like Denny.

And there’s Billy Martin and Ralph Houk and Mayo Smith and Les Moss. There’s Sparky.

For me, no matter what, no matter where I am in life, there has always been baseball. For me, it has survived and thrived…at Briggs Stadium or Tiger Stadium or Comerica Park.

Baseball – but especially Tiger baseball – has meant so much in my life. Some of the best times of my life have been centered around baseball.

My brother Sean and I at a doubleheader on Bat Day, which coincided with my June birthday. 10 hours of baseball in 90-degree Detroit weather, in the Tiger Stadium bleachers. Tiger catcher Bill Freehan’s postgame interview wasn’t very complimentary; something about the torture of 48,000 bats banging on concrete for 10 hours in the baking sun of a too-humid June day (and two losses to the Yankees as well). I loved it – time with my brother and his antics? A birthday filled with hot dogs, pop, cotton candy, lots of laughing and BASEBALL!

At 10, I played baseball every day in the summer. We played in our backyard, where Dad had painted the lines and bases of a baseball diamond and where Mom – who played on women’s leagues in the 1940s – showed me how to lay off a sinking curve ball. And we played at the local sandlot, where one day, my Dad and his co-workers stopped to eat their lunch and watch all of us kids- plus the neighbors – play baseball. That’s the day I learned that sliding headfirst – even if Pete Rose did it that way – can be painful for a blossoming young woman.

At age 14, my best friend Marianne and I joined the “Pepsi Tiger Fan Club.” A very small investment allowed us to buy lower deck reserved seats in Section 218, under the overhang, for something like 20 games (plus a hot dog and a Coke). Marianne’s mom drove us down to the game sometimes; other times we took a bus, getting off at the downtown branch of the Detroit Public Library and then walking about a mile down Michigan Avenue to the ballpark, stepping over sleeping drunks along the way. At 14!

The Tigers weren’t very good that summer. Or a lot of summers, for that matter. We didn’t care. We loved the game, the atmosphere, the crowds. Oh, how we’d laugh! At anything: the 90-year-old peanut vendor who gave up walking around by the first inning and had patrons come to him. Drunks. People with funny shirts. Canadians who thought they knew baseball. Even at the idea of figuring out the exact angle at which Red Sox homers left the stadium in a 20-to-something drubbing of the Tigers one sad Friday night.

Marianne and I even skipped our Servite High School prom to go to a Tiger game. We also played hooky from high school on three consecutive opening days…I remember calling in sick and hiding in the back of my brother’s Dodge Dart as he picked Marianne up from school and we headed down to the game. Yes, me and the Valedictorian, skipping school for Opening Day. If the nuns ever knew…

I think of those days often. They were fun, happy days. The baseball wasn’t very good most of the time. But the friendship was. And baseball was the one thing in my life that was a constant. Almost every day, from April through October (and three times in my life, DEEP into October) the game has never let me down. No matter what, I’ve had the Tigers…and Ernie Harwell’s voice, reminding me that even when I was far from home, when the Tigers were on, I WAS home.

Even when I was struggling, or sick, or sad, or suffering, or alone…I had my radio and Ernie and my baseball game. The game was my friend, it gave me comfort, and it made me brave. I think of the night in 1972 – at age 15 – when I watched the Tigers beat Oakland in 10 innings to tie up the ALCS…I went alone since I’d only won the ticket lottery to buy a single game ticket.  That’s brave…me, alone, at night, among 41,000 Tiger crazies.

It’s still that way today. I still read box scores. I still watch Sunday Night Baseball even though the Tigers are hardly ever on. I still hate the Yankees with every fiber of my being. I’ve seen both Field of Dreams and Fear Strikes Out hundreds of times. I know why Lou Gehrig was the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. I still hold on to my dream of a retirement trip that will take me to every stadium in North America. The first thing I did when I moved out here was to buy the MLB Extra Innings package on cable, so that I can watch my beloved boys nearly every game. And I already have my tickets for when the Tigers visit Seattle in mid-April. All three games.

And even though my much-loved Tiger Stadium is now a parking lot and I live 3,000 miles away from my Bengals, I can always close my eyes and remember the amazing sights, sounds, smells and sensations of baseball. After all, it’s in my heart and soul. And at this moment, it’s even on my computer while I work, so technically, I am once again skipping school for baseball. Shhhh….don’t tell the nuns!

Happy Opening Day!

Categories: Detroit, Sports Tags: ,

Oh, Danny Boy

March 17, 2011 8 comments

Those who know the Sean-Peggy-Claire-Kevin-Patty version of the O’Connor Family of Detroit, know that we’re not exactly big fans of the Irish tune, “Danny Boy.”

Having been to a funeral or fifty in our time and having heard “Danny Boy” played, sung, cried, mimed, signed, whistled and bagpiped beyond all recognition, we’ve come to despise the song. “Cheap sentiment,” my brother Kevin growls, rolling his eyes upon hearing the church organist crank it up once again. “What’s wrong with having dry eyes in the house?” asks my sister Claire, as she dabs away Danny Boy-induced tears, cursing. “Wonder what’s for funeral lunch,” Sean says in a stage-whisper.

Over the years, the five of us have planned several funerals together, including those of our parents. We have not, will not and plan to NEVER request “Danny Boy” to be played in any way, shape or form. We’ve spent too much time together, walking back down the church aisle after the funeral Mass of yet another family member, or trudging away from the much loved-and-lost guest of honor at a graveside service, to ever want to hear “Danny Boy” played again.

It WAS played at our father’s funeral. And at Uncle Mike O’Connor’s. That was enough.

Wikipedia says this about Danny Boy:

Although penned by Englishman Weatherly, “Danny Boy” is considered to be an unofficial signature song and anthem, particularly by Irish Americans and Irish Canadians.[2]

“Danny Boy” enjoys popularity as a funeral song but, as it is not liturgical, its suitability for funerals is sometimes contested.[3]

Only SOMETIMES? Just ask Sean, Peggy, Claire, Kevin or Patty.  We despise the song. Read the lyrics and you’ll see why:

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountainside.
The summer’s gone, and all the flow’rs are dying.
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

Clearly the words of a mother who cannot bear to bid her son farewell as he goes off to face God-knows-what in the world. Also clearly not the mother of MY son…who likely will NEVER go off to face anything in the world more difficult than a cable TV outage or a broken Internet link, since he is very comfortable ensconced on my couch, hooked up to the laptop, TV remote in hand and a full refrigerator nearby.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow.
‘Tis I’ll be here, in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

Being the good Irish mother that she is, she’ll wait and she’ll wait. In sunshine or in shadow. It’s what she does: remain ever faithful to her child, helping, caring, hoping, and sharing.  Like she did all the hundreds of nights that he was supposed to come home but didn’t – or sneaked out while she was sleeping and went God-knows-where – and she spent the night pacing and worrying and praying and imagining every horrible thing that could have happened to her beloved child.  I love you so, she sings, but I hate you, too, for making me worry so much. Welcome to the Irish psyche.

And when ye come, and all the roses falling.
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “ave” there for me.

Ah, the “I’ll be dead” card. Well played, Irish mother. Well played. If the guilt of making “yer poor old Mam” wait for you while you traveled the world, fancy-free, doing as you please while she waited and prayed the rosary wasn’t enough….now you’ve gone and killed her. She’s died of grief (or too much whiskey, but that’s another song). And it’s your fault, son. What are you going to do about it?

And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me,
And, all my grave shall warmer, sweeter be

I’ll tell you what you’ll do. She’ll continue to wait, you see. And you’ll visit her grave, all grief-stricken, guilty and sorry. And she’ll be there. Waiting. Again. Still. And you’ll tell her that you love her and she’ll hear it, even though she’s deader than the Irish economy in 2011.  Because the fear/expectation of death and the guilt about everything that comes both before and AFTER death are the solitary Irish emotions. So she’ll be dead (well, she DID warn you…and she waited…but you got here too late). And you’ll be guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Drunk and guilty. Drunk, guilty, telling jokes, waiting for death. It’s your heritage, boy. Embrace it.

We did. Sean, Peggy, Claire, Kevin and Patty. And we still do. When the calls go out to let us know that Aunt So-and-So or Cousin Skippy-Lou have passed, God rest their souls, and the funeral is Friday…well, the O’Connor Funeral Team assembles (everybody into a circle, put your hands together, now BREAK! and go get ’em!). We pay respects. We listen to the homages to the dead. We make ourselves and our cousins laugh – in church, in the procession, and at the wake. It’s what we do. And we do it well.

But please don’t play “Danny Boy.” It isn’t fair. Danny Boy. Grandma Ryan crooned it…her one remaining tooth shining in her mouth as the sad words tumbled out, her beautiful, soft voice singing while she stroked our hair and helped us get back to sleep. Our mother sang it the night our father, her husband, died. Alone in her bed, worrying and crying, she whispered it in her clear, calm voice that if you listened closely, sounded a lot like Judy Garland’s. I’ve even sung it hundreds of times myself to my then-babies…I only had a repertoire of four songs and Danny Boy was better lullaby material than “Why Don’t We Get Drunk And Screw” or “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Whiskey in the Jar.”

Uncle John Jay Patrick Ryan sang it best, I guess. He’d crank up his whiskey-touched, lovely-but-untrained Irish tenor voice, and the drunken crowds in hundreds of bars would hush and fall silent while he sang, his voice catching every time he hit the higher notes in the final words:

For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.
Oh, Danny Boy, Oh, Danny Boy, I love you so.

Yes, even though he was English, your man Weatherly knew a good guilt-death-pain-suffering-sadness song when he penned it. No matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid it. Especially on St. Patrick’s Day. My son Patrick played it this morning in the car on the way to school. And of course, on cue, I teared up at just the right spot: “you will bend…and tell me that you loo0ve me…”

God, I hate that song.

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