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One is a very odd number.

March 22, 2014 1 comment

Yesterday, Michigan’s ban against same-sex marriage was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. There was lots of cheering in my home state and around the country. In my living room, as I watched the news, there was a little shout of joy. Straight from my heart. My first thought was, “Finally, Michigan, you’ve done something right.” My second thought was “Good. Now there won’t be so many people alone.”

I know that’s a simplistic way to look at this news. And marriage is certainly no guarantee against loneliness. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But when your heart tells you that you want to be with someone and one of the things in your way is a ridiculous law that tries to tell you that you can’t, having one less barrier is always a good thing.

Besides, we humans create plenty of obstacles to happiness all by ourselves. Without the government’s help, thank you. I don’t know much about constitutional law and I am the furthest thing from an activist, but I am all for anything that allows 1 + 1 to equal 2…no matter what the chromosome police say.

Selfishly, I feel this way because “one” is not fun. I have come to know this fact intimately in recent months. Oddly (to me, anyway) at age 56, I suddenly find myself pretty much alone. It’s not something I’ve ever really experienced. And now that I have, I must admit that I am not a fan.

You see, I have spent most of my life in the very close company of others. I grew up a member of a family of six in a two-family flat. The other family – three of my father’s sisters — always had company. Always. Sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, friends, grandchildren. One year, an entire family of cousins spent most of the school year — an amazingly fun and memorable school year — in our home. Depending on the time of year, anywhere from eight to 15 people could be found roaming around the O’Connor compound. It was fun. It was noisy. Sometimes, we ate in shifts, gathered around hectic but happy tables. It was occasionally very, very crowded (only two bathrooms in the whole place). But it was never, ever lonely.

Bedrooms were also in high demand; I didn’t have my own room until I was 25 years old. That lasted only 4 years, but it was okay with me. Night times are so much better when you are comforted by the sound of the rhythmic breathing of someone you love sleeping nearby.

I got married and had two kids. Busy, active, engaged, noisy, complicated, brilliant, high-maintenance-but-amazing kids. They filled the house with laughter and tears, joy and frustration, dirty clothes and missing homework, and all of the comedy and tragedy that is part of growing up. And I was happy. Exhausted and stressed out sometimes, but happy. And never alone. Now they are gone, off to college and marriage and all the stuff grownups are supposed to do.

Recently, because of some complicated issues, I have found myself in a place where I have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, two empty living room couches and a very empty bed all to myself. There’s plenty of room on the bathroom shelves. Only the closets are full (in addition to enjoying being around other people, I love to buy clothes and shoes). There’s also lots of space in the refrigerator because, I have discovered, cooking for one can be a little depressing. On Sundays, I buy enough groceries for four people, freeze a lot, poach some chicken or bake a pasta dish, and call it dinner for the week. Not much reason to go to any more fuss than that.

As oxymoronic as it seems, I am an introvert who loves to be with people more often than not. I have never done “alone” very well. Ever. I was used to waiting my turn for the bathroom, cleaning up after other people’s messes, yelling at people to turn down the TV or the music. I enjoyed finding the toilet seat in the “up” position. I loved the happy (and occasionally unhappy) chaos that is created by the thoughts, needs and actions of other people packed tightly into the same living space. I like it even more now that it’s gone.

Now, I work at home. Alone. I eat at home. Alone. I mow the lawn and shovel the snow. Alone. I watch TV and read at home. Alone. I watch the news and debate the issues with myself (at least I always win). It’s not as much fun to watch my beloved Detroit Tigers play baseball or catch a Red Wings’ game on TV because when the Wings score when I am in the other room and I run in to see what happened, no one answers my question, “who got the goal?” I just listen to the echo of my own voice and wait for the replay.

I guess I should learn to deal with being alone. As Jean-Paul Sartre said,  “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”  And maybe someday, I will come to accept it or at least be comfortable with it. In the meantime, I can live with merely being secretly happy, from afar, for all of those other people who now have one less reason to be alone.

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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.

Salad days

August 18, 2010 1 comment

It was hot at dinner time last night. Well, what passes for “hot” in the Pacific Northwest: 82 degrees, no breeze, minimal humidity. But we also don’t have air conditioning in the great PNW. I think everyone’s still waiting for Lewis and Clark to bring out the AC units on their next expedition. So, it was a little too warm for the stove or oven.

The kids were pretty hungry so I headed to the store to buy something, anything, for dinner. “Let’s have something cool,” Erin shouted after me as I walked out the door. “Something delicious and  cool.”

“Yeah, let me get right on that, princess,” I muttered to myself as I walked to the car. Grocery shopping and cooking meals have never been in the top 2,751 things I love to do in my life. I’d rather clean up kid vomit – even from someone else’s kid – than go grocery shopping and then cook a meal.

But, since the Department of Social Services rarely sees any humor in parents who don’t feed their kids, I usually manage to muster enough interest and energy to come up with five or six pretty-fair-to-occasionally-awesome evening meals a week. The kids are on their own for breakfasts, lunches and Sundays.

So last night, in the heat, I came up with the idea of a meat and cheese salad. Something with lots of lettuce and a cool and creamy, sweet-tangy dressing. And sweet gherkins, yeah. And maybe a couple of green olives for garnish.

I raced through the store buying ingredients and then headed home in a hurry. It was getting late, we were all hungry and there was still driving practice (Lord help me: two teenaged driving novices on the road at the same time) to fit in before dark.

I told the kids: here’s a recipe I found…start chopping and mixing. Erin was right on it. Patrick’s interest faded when he noticed that there weren’t going to be too many calories in a meat and low-fat cheese salad. And those ingredients, Mom. “Can’t we substitute dill pickles for the sweet gherkins? And black olives for the green? And I hate Swiss,” he said, shooting big holes in my selection of cheeses. “Why don’t you use cheddar instead?” he asked, clearly disappointed that there wouldn’t be any breading and frying going on at dinner this night.

“Because then, my son, then this wouldn’t be a Maurice Salad,” I replied. “And tonight, we’re having Maurice Salad.”

Erin and I worked together in the kitchen, side by side, chatting and laughing. We ran back and forth to the computer to check the recipe several times, laughing at the weird, old-fashioned instructions. “Onion juice…really, Mom?” And, “who is this Maurice dude, anyway.” It was a rare moment for us. And darn it, it was fun.

Fifteen minutes later we sat down to the crisp yet comforting mixture of julienned turkey, ham, Swiss cheese and lettuce crowned by that famous tangy dressing and two – only two – pimento-stuffed green olives on each salad plate.

Patrick politely ate one small plateful and didn’t comment much. But Erin raved over the cool, crunchy combination of flavors and actually ate an entire, normal-person serving instead of the bird-size portions that are her usual practice. “Mmmmm, Mom. This is awesome,” she said, with a full mouth and a satisfied smile.

“Oh, it’s more than awesome,” I said, savoring each bite of my salad. “It’s history, guys. It’s Detroit in a mouthful. This was the salad that was to die for at the old J.L. Hudson’s department store downtown,” I explained, watching their faces for looks of recognition.

Then I suddenly remembered that neither of them had any recollection of the historic downtown treasure whatsoever. J.L. Hudson’s downtown store closed in 1983 and was imploded in 1998 when they were 6 and 4 years old, respectively.

They would never remember that Hudson’s at one time was the tallest department store in America, each floor filled with curiously wonderful and odd sounding items: Notions. Stationery. Men’s Haberdashery. Ladies Foundations. They never sat on Santa’s lap in the 13th Floor Christmas Wonderland. And they never dined in the Mezzanine Restaurant nor did they sit in the window booths of the restaurant, looking out over the First Floor Jewelry counters and watching with excitement as the fancy Grosse Pointe ladies bought their watches and earrings.

Their stomachs full and their attention turning elsewhere, I sat alone with my thoughts. Each bite reminded me of Hudson’s, of Detroit, of home. The memories came flooding back: Saturday excursions by bus with Grandma or Margie Ryan or aunt Bert O’Connor. A stop at Crowley’s or Kerns and then off to Hudson’s for the main event:  shopping and then into the Hudson’s restaurant for lunch. Lunch was always the same: Maurice Salad with a delicate dinner roll and real, soft butter, and a cold Coke with lots of tiny ice chips; coffee for Bert and tea for Grandma or Margie. No dessert, even if the lemon pie always looked delicious. No, dessert was for later, over at Sanders’ Ice Cream Parlor…but that’s another memory entirely.

Last night, as I savored my Maurice Salad I wasn’t wondering who Maurice was…or why, indeed, did they use sweet gherkins instead of dill pickles. I was remembering the wonderful days walking through that old store and the incredible, strong Irish women who made it their mission to introduce us kids to the finest things that Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s could offer. I was remembering the giant flag – largest in the world – that Hudson’s flew every Flag Day. I was remembering the green J. L. Hudson’s shopping bags that invariably carried home special treasures that wouldn’t last nearly as long as my memories of those special times.

“Thanks, Mom,” Erin said, bounding back into the kitchen, ready to rinse her plate and hit the road for driving practice.  “That was delicious. Really cool.”

It WAS cool. REALLY cool.

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