The Year I Was Born 8…

Not only do I seem to live in a storm but I was born in one as well – a snow-storm. Mom and dad could barely see out of the front windshield, wipers lashing back-and-forth in a vain attempt to clear away the wet, heavy snow as they drove the four miles, hurrying to arrive only to wait 24 hours more. “We thought we wouldn’t make it, that I’d have you right there in the front seat of our old Chevy, in the middle of a snow storm.”

But dad heroically arrived at the emergency room door and spirited mom inside but then he had to park the car. His mistake was to walk around to the main entrance and they told him to go around to the emergency room so he retraced his steps and found mom sitting in a wheel-chair in the waiting room, right next to a man with blood all over his shirt and a woman throwing-up into a waste-basket (both made mom sick, she said). The nurse told them, “You’ve got a while to go yet, deary.” and turning to dad, “Would you fill out this form, sir.” “We thought you would be born right there, in the emergency room waiting room, next to a man who’d been in a bar-fight and a woman with typhoid fever!”

It was a spring snow that had fallen suddenly, starting early that one evening. In the week before the sun was staying-up later and encouraging the dawn of spring, the temperatures had been unusually warm for a Chicago spring and the landscape showed several early signs of greening and burgeoning blooms – budding, but none ripe with pregnancy to match mom’s 44 weeks.

All signs of spring were then quickly enclosed in a freeze of lingering dampness, topped with snow, sealed for a true spring still weeks off. March had entered as a lamb and was going to go out as a lion (it always ended as a lion in Chicago so we never put much stock in Farmer’s Almanac sayings). “It was quiet, a quiet night when we left the apartment; it was the middle of the night so nobody was out, and the snow was falling but the wind wasn’t blowing. I remember how quiet it was,” mom said. It always sounded strange to hear a heavy snowfall described as quiet because snow for me always meant screams from sleders and laughter and snowball fights and swooshing of car tires through puddles of slush – it always meant noise.

The other time I heard of a quiet snowfall was in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. At the end my parents were teary-eyed and I was confused. George repented that he’d treated his own birth with contempt, he was back at home in his drafty living room with his wife, Mary and kids, Peter, Janie, Tommy, and Zu-Zu, and all the town’s residents had joined him, except the villainous Mr. Potter who had failed to ruin George’s life.

George had  wanted to “throw away God’s greatest gift,” according to the voice of Joseph in heaven. He wished he’d never been born all because he was frustrated with the way his little life was going. He had his dreams, he wanted to travel – to Italy, to Baghdad; “I just feel like if I didn’t get away, I’d bust” George said. George refused his father’s wish for a return to take over the Bailey Building and Loan, “I, I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office…. I’d go crazy. I, I want to do something big, something important.” George saw his dad as someone who financed the narrow, little, dream-less world of small town folks, and George wanted to change the world.

To the young Mary, George ranted “I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long.” But when George’s dad died, it was Mr. Potter who jerked George’s chain and insulted him into forfeiting his own dreams to fulfill the silly dreams of lazy people, “starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir ‘em up and fill their head with a lot of impossible ideas.” Well, George is still frustrated, Uncle Charlie (the old fool) mistakenly hands over $8000 to Mr. Potter – pride cometh and goeth before a fall it seems – and George despairs of bankruptcy, scandal, and prison, argues with his family and wife, yells at everyone, gets drunk, he’s cold-cocked by the husband of his kid’s school teacher (he’d also insulted that women), crashes his car and jumps off the bridge to rescue Clarence Oddbody his guardian angel who turns around and shows George how bankrupt everyone’s life would be without him.

If I’d never been born Mary would be the oldest and running the show and little Johnny without his big brother would still be the baby. Or maybe my parents would have had more babies and they’d never miss me. Or what if they didn’t have me and had all the money they had to spend on me instead – bills paid, moved into their first house sooner, not as many weeks struggling from paycheck to paycheck. I wonder if dad every wondered or wished I’d never been born, but I never could imagine mom wished I’d never been born. Every story mom and dad told me of their early married life was happy poverty, no regrets, at least none they ever shared with me.

It made a big impression on me – the whole It’s a Wonderful Life and black-and-white scenes of Bedford Falls. For example, what about the day after in Bedford Falls – the day after Bedford’s citizens bailed out the Bailey Building and Loan, the day after the all sang Auld Lang Sine and laughed and cried in the Bailey’s cold, drafty living room at 320 Sycamore, the day after Clarence got his wings. Uncle Billy was still stupid and silly, Mr. Potter still ruled the world (and he was $8,000 richer, to boot) and George Bailey was still stuck in Bedford Falls – another delay to his ever-postponed dreams, still tied to the town charity called the Bailey Building and Loan.

Imagine the snow that was falling on Christmas Eve left the town pristine, a blindingly white blanket, and as George set out for the Building and Loan with the snow crunching under his feet as he walked (remember, he ruined his car on Christmas Eve). The first person he saw that morning approaches and poor George is frozen in panic: How will he be greeted today by all those who bailed him out two days before? Can he just say Hello and not at least acknowledge they saved his life? ‘Thank you, Sam, your twenty bucks really got me out of a pickle, I couldn’t’ have done it without you! And thank you, Alice, your five dollars saved me from Bankruptcy! Scandal! Prison!’ That would sound like a politician thanking each individual voter after a landslide victory. George was in a pickle (that sounds like something people would say in George’s day). He can’t act as if everything was the same because he who had done so much for others was rescued by their spontaneous generosity. If George Bailey was to be praised because of his wonderful life, then the outpouring of community spirit on his behalf was equally praiseworthy. They’re all even. He saved their lives, they his. The slate is wiped clean; they don’t owe George Bailey – that unappreciative dreamer of a do-gooder – a copper cent.

Maybe everyone should get a do-over – that peasant opportunity of childhood gaming, concocted to create fairness in the face of the obvious fact that life isn’t fair, or the manipulation of bullies who fail to win by the rules who must create their own rules until they are victorious. So George wouldn’t send everyone a Thank You note, he wouldn’t personally express his eternal indebtedness to each contributor to the hat that Christmas Eve evening; he would just get to keep on being who he was before and they would get to keep on being who they were. But that doesn’t seem to be the point of Capra’s movie. George is suppose to be enlightened, made self-aware, and the citizens of Bedford Falls, including Mr. Carter, the Bank examiner and everyone else who was already on George’s side, seem to experience the euphoria of being able to finally thank the one to whom they owe so much.

Actually, what George did wasn’t all that virtuous when all is said and done. He said so himself, to Violet – she was making like an aspiring actress decked out in fur and matching hat, getting some suspicious cash from George in the office (even the bank examiner was wondering about the cash–and–kiss he witnessed that Christmas Eve in Bailey Building and Loan). When Violet gushed and left her lipstick as incriminating evidence, George gruffly informed her that it wasn’t a gift, it was a loan – she was going to have to pay that back, that was his business. He was investing in her, in her career, he said and she would have make good on his investment. So when everyone in town showed-up in his living room that night, money in hand, they were just paying George back for his confidence in them. He was a business man, they were his business – how cold is that?

So here’s where George’s story takes an even nastier turn for me. Imagine in the days after his Christmas miracle George arrives at the Bailey Building and Loan after quickening his pace, putting his head down to avoid eye contact, only to discover the waiting area filled with people looking for small favors. It seems that holiday inflicted poverty, exacerbated by their generous outpouring to save George’s neck, has been a fertile bed for thoughts of reciprocity. The good folks of Bedford Falls are wondering about the new spirit of benevolence that must have swept over old George (‘He’s so happy to be alive, just to be alive, that he is thankful for the opportunity to loan us money. Let’s make him even happier and let him receive the fulfillment of loaning us more money.’).

The next year is hell, sheer hell for George. Nobody will let him forget his despair, their rescue, and his need to remember how careless he was with his wonderful life (or maybe they are just jealous). Things go so poorly for George that he hears from Clarence Oddbody within the year. The occasion for the first visit was George’s despair –Clarence asked Joseph if George was in so much trouble, “Is he sick?” Joseph replied, “No, worse than sick, he’s discouraged.”

George was still discouraged, and Clarence was still a cute two-hundred-ninety year old man, suit, scarf, top hat, but his wings weren’t visible to normal humans and this bothered George (‘Seeing is believing, Clarence, now whip ‘em out!’ ‘No, George, Joseph told me to keep my wings hidden from you.’). George just had to see Clarence’s wings on that second meeting, something to confirm George’s waning faith, to at least hint that his own life was worth living after all. George had started to make daily trips to the fateful bridge from which he would have jumped on the Eve of Bankruptcy! Scandal! and Prison! He would stand at the rail, looking down, mumbling to himself about how he should have learned something that night, something that would have actually made him different. His repentant and desperate, “I want to live again, I want to live again,” was fine and all at the moment, but George began to resent the endless effort of own conversion. It was so, so inviting to be passive everyday now, expecting everyone to bail him out of difficult situations because he somehow had earned their charity (at least that is the way it would be if Ovid had gotten his hands on It’s a Wonderful Life).

So it’s later the next year and George is back at the bridge, again, starring down into the icy waters still wondering if his wonderful life is so wonderful. It was snowing, but noisy. Clarence appeared on the bridge behind George and that almost scarred him over the rail, this time by accident. ‘What, what the heck are you doing you fool angel? You scared me!’ ‘George, I’m here to help you… again.’ ‘Help me what you old spook?’ ‘George, why do you come back to this bridge, almost every day now? Are you thinking of jumping, again?’ ‘You, you’re crazy, you are, you, you old ghost. Get away from me, get away from me, you, you hear.’ And George stomped away. But there was no third chance this time. Now Clarence was sent to teach George the hardest lesson of life –that life, real life, the life everyone has to live, has no short-cuts, no do-overs; he would learn him that the hardest lesson of life is that you have to live life. No miracles, no hasty wishes temporarily fulfilled only to be suspended hours later, no opportunities to see what life would be like if we were never born. Instead George was now going to endure what everyone else in town has to endure without the privilege of angelic visitations. All the townspeople rallied to help George without the aid of their guardian angels, they just did the right thing, sacrificed their hard earned money to save the favored child, and had to go back to work and start from scratch on the morning of the 26th.

The first miracle Clarence granted George was a stupid indulgence wasted on an ungrateful full-grown adolescent who had the unconditional love of his wife, kids, family and friends and still thought of himself as poor and neglected. It took a miracle for this brat to wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee of his wonderful life, but everyone else in town had to learn their lesson the hard way. And now George was unlearning what the lesson of the Eve miracle just one year ago. ‘George, I’m here to help you.’ ‘Well then, Clarence, wave you magic wand again, or flap your wings, or do whatever you angels do, and make it better again!’ ‘No George, I can’t do that. I’m here to help you by not helping you. You can jump off that bridge or go on being miserable or run off with Violet and leave Mary, Pete, Janie, Tommy, Zu-Zu and her petals for all I care. But I’m not here to save you from your life. I’m here to tell you that you have to live your life.’ ‘Well…well, that’s just stupid Clarence, that’s what that is. Aren’t you supposed to do what I ask? Don’t you…don’t you have to?’ ‘No, George, I’m not a genie, and I’m not from a magic lamp that you rub when you want things your way, I’m from heaven where we see what life is really about; and it’s about living, nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.’

During his first visit Clarence told George, “Strange isn’t it. Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole doesn’t he?” Couldn’t the same story be told about every single person, or only about special people like George Bailey? Is that the kind of world we live in? I’m pretty sure most of us would like to think that we are all absolutely necessary ingredients in everyone else’s lives, everyone else’s life would absolutely suck without us, and therefore the world is not only a better place because of us but it is also a zero-sum type of world with one complete set of human beings and no room for one less, especially me. And maybe there is someone in the heavens coordinating all our own personal guardian angels assigned to each and every one of us, and we live where we should be living, and when we die we live beyond the grave and become guardian angels ourselves. We console ourselves with the myth that someone is in heaven coordinating all our guardian angels who are assigned to each and every one of us; we console ourselves with the wish that each and every one of us can’t be done without, that each and every one of us not only live beyond the grave (and become guardian angels ourselves) but that we live now, today, everyday. We don’t choose to be born, or not to be born, and we can’t make the world like it would be if we were never born; but maybe, just maybe, we matter.

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The Year I Was Born 7…

The Hebrews have Moses born to change the world, combat the oppressive ways of a Pharaoh who did not remember Joseph. That forgetfulness makes for a plot twist to trump all plot twists as the Egyptians come into tragedy and the Hebrews salvation – the Passover is after all a holiday celebrating infanticide.

The Hebrew god kills the babies of the Egyptians (fitting payback for Pharaoh’s infanticide decree against Hebrew babies when Moses was just a baby). And Christians have Jesus born king of Jews that upsets King Herod so much he has all the boy babies under two years old killed and everyone cries.

But Jesus, Mary and Joseph run away and hide in Egypt because God warned them to get the hell out of there, but God didn’t warn anyone else and their babies were killed. Moses’ and Jesus’ stories work for people because they are so cause-and-effect, they have clear morals, people know who they are, and the reader knows what’s going on. But I know I’m no Moses, or Jesus, just as much as I know life isn’t easy and that even the constant flux and indeterminacy don’t give us certain meaning.

For Ovid even heroes are just stuck in life and even Rome passes, fails, falls and will come to an end leaving only the crumbling tombs of ancestors. Ovid dreams of immortality but only when the poet’s voice is repeated; vivam – I shall live.

But maybe caring what the world was like in 1956 wouldn’t make that much of a difference after all; maybe keeping track of the world would just teach me to live life rather than try to figure it all out.

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The Year I Was Born 6…

What I’ve discovered is that when I was born people didn’t keep track of the way the world was when I was born. You were just born on the day you were born, your mom was happy to get you out of her and your dad was happy to welcome a tax deduction.

But maybe we should pay attention to the way the world was when we were born if only to attempt to figure out if we change it at all. Ignoring the way the world was when you were born is kind of like starting a diet without weighting yourself – how would know if it’s working?

Well, in 1956 life was just fine for most of us so I’m really not sure how much better I’d make the place; maybe my only chance is to leave it as I found it (like a “Please don’t litter” leave the place as you found it type of instruction). Elvis was riding high with Don’t Be Cruel and Blue Suede Shoes and Hound Dog. Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected President, even after his heart attack they year before – while playing golf in Colorado, of all things. They all thought he had indigestion, even his own doctor who ate dinner with him that night and Mamie called the doctor again in the middle of the night but he still didn’t think it was anything that Bromo Seltzer wouldn’t cure so Eisenhower didn’t go to the hospital until mid-day. He probably should have died but didn’t and got a second chance and ran the free world with it. You could compare the world before Eisenhower was born with the way he left it and it would be easy to see he changed it.

Same thing with Cuba when Castro started his mess – the world was different because of him, that’s for sure. We almost ended the world because of him a couple of years later (and he also had a baby that year – my year – a girl named Alina, Castro, of course).

The U.S. Congress enacted the Highway Act that began one of the best infrastructure cash-cows known as the interstate highway system and that changed the world and now we can drive from here to there and back again and never hit Highway 66. And actress Grace Kelly started life over by marrying Monaco’s Prince Rainier III; she left Hollywood in the dust, assumed the humble life of royalty and never looked back. All this was going on, the world was getting better or just changing and I was born and I don’t know if I was suppose to change it for the better or just add to the mix so as to maintain the status quo (I didn’t figure I was put here to make the world a worse place).

Trying to figure out such things – like why we’re here rather than not here – is difficult to do; kind of like trying to justify our little lives in order to make each of us, or at least the trinity of me, myself and I, so important that the world would come crashing to a stop without me, myself and I. Maybe we’re like characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. You see, instead of trying to grandly explain how everything and everyone fits into a singularly immutable and intrinsic script called life, Publius Ovidius Naso gives us a comedy (much like his name) in which senseless impassiveness and constant transformation are what we call living.

The heroes of Ovid are often victims – protesting but helpless. And whenever everything seems to be going well and there is a happy and harmonious way to life then get set because Ovid is about to mess with you. The narrative twists, characters are transformed, and life continues to stumble on. There is no great moral insight in anyone’s and everyone’s story, but a sordid narrative of how violence and suffering and sex and rape give us life. It’s like he doesn’t care to run the world through the stories he tells, even though he talks like the other poets, like hapless Hesiod, hawkish Homer or sour Sophocles. He talks about great legends, wars, the gods, the creation of the world and Julius Caesar but he forfeits the attempt to interpret great reversals of misfortune under the hand of the gods through the birth of babies that change the world into what it should be. Instead his characters are knit in a yarn, not to be extracted by moralizing.

The Year I Was Born… 5

I’m just glad I wasn’t named after something or someone silly. I had a friend who was named after the movie star John Wayne who played Sean Thornton in the movie The Quiet Man (the family named my friend Sean, not John Wayne, except his last name was Donohue, Sean Thornton Donohue – quite a mouth full).

The movie came out in 1952 and it was about this American, Sean Thornton, who went back to Ireland to claim his homestead. Turns out he was born in Ireland, went to America to make a fortune and come back; “I’ve come home and home I’m gon-na stay” Sean said. Then he met a nice girl named Mary Kate (played by the red-headed Maureen O’Hara) but Mary Kate’s brother tries to keep them apart and they start singing and fighting and dancing and laughing and drinking all around until the director John Ford runs out of scenes and songs.

The movie appropriately ends with a fight when Mary Kate’s final stubbornness leads to her humiliation and she gets dragged through sheep shit by her red hair in front of the whole community – sort of an Irish version of Taming of the Shrew, except with Irish music.

It’s proud and poor – it’s Irish! And it’s pure nostalgia for the old ways on Ireland; quaint, simple and true just as John Ford wants us to remember them. For instance, Mary Kate refuses to be bossed around and says, “Come a-runnin’! I’m no woman to be honked at and come a-runnin.” On their wedding night Mary Kate refuses sex because without her dowry according to Irish custom she doesn’t consider herself married, “I’ll wear your ring. I’ll cook and I’ll wash and I’ll keep the land but that is all! Until you have my dowry, you haven’t got any bit of me” – me, myself, and everyone knows what she means by that, even the thick-skulled Sean Thornton understands. But first he has to prove that he could bed her if he wanted to by grabbing her, craning her head back by grabbing her red locks and kissing her harshly before tossing her onto their honeymoon bed collapsing it and then spending his wedding night in a sleeping bag). It is a romantic comedy if you find the abuse and humiliation of strong-willed fiery Irish women by their pugilistic beaus romantic.

The music is nice, and scenery is, well, Ireland, and that’s quite enough for most people, but Sean Thornton Donohue can’t live it down among his parents’ friends who tell and retell the whole movie’s story saying “Sean Thornton…just like your name” again and again.

My name is Daniel which is an uncle’s name, my dad’s oldest brother who pickled his liver at a young age and died a painful death eased by the hospice care of Bushmill’s (I can’t look at a bottle or glass of the amber without thinking of him). Dad said he was a great guy who worked a city job in Streets & Sanitation, loved his wife, loved kids but they had none of their own so I was named after him posthumously. And Patrick is also my dad’s name – no significance to the name, he told me, just something we shared.

We knew we were Irish, but St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t as big a holiday as Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving. But having alcohol around was just ordinary (dad told me Uncle Danny used to look out at Lake Michigan and say, “Oh, if she were beer….”). We ate corned beef, cabbage and boiled potatoes and mom and dad each drank a beer, only one each and mom would never finish hers. And we wore something that was green on my middle-namesake’s day (just one thing that was green). Everyone else in Chicago would get blasted, they’d dye the Chicago river green (instead of the greenish-brown it was every other day of the year) and we’d get a special dispensation from the Cardinal that allowed us to eat our corned beef if March 17 was on a Friday during lent.

These days in celebration I imbibe in a simple pint of refreshment that is enough to stir my genetic pool with its predisposition for drinking, smoking, poor anger management skills, and the high fat-low exercise lifestyle which puts the majority of us in the grave well before we’ve outlived our usefulness to society and thereby earning ourselves a saintly remembrance from our abandoned families and friends. These are genetic predispositions that insurance companies will certainly consider pre-existing conditions for a certain and untimely death. This is why the Irish need to mind their ‘p’s’ and ‘q’s’ – usually taken to refer to the pub’s way of accounting for one’s bill by counting pints and quarts. Dad’s story was that the wife would utter the charge “Mind your p’s and q’s deary” and that meant that he shouldn’t get so drunk that he was charged for a quart when he only had a pint (like an Irishman could ever get that drunk).

Everyone else adopts the Irish stereotypes as credentials which allow the underprivileged of the world (born with the dumb luck of not being Irish) to experience the life of simultaneous joviality and sorrow called inebriation. But the Irish don’t need an excuse to drink, just as mere mortals don’t need an excuse to breathe. And St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t make anyone Irish (it didn’t even make St. Patrick Irish); to paraphrase someone who paraphrased the Irishman H. L. Mencken, just because you have discovered millions of cowboys willing to throw up on their shoes in the name of some distant foreign patron saint doesn’t mean you have discovered an actual culture!

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The Year I Was Born… 4

It was a Saturday when they brought me home to an apartment – two bedrooms and my new parent’s second residence since their marriage five years before my birth. In that time they had acquired a genuine dinette set, two chairs for the living room to go with the same old couch with a few pillows added to fill the empty space of the missing cushion, and a bassinette.

They were still poor, my dad was now working full-time at the law firm and attending the last of his law school classes at night, and my mom stopped working because of me. “We were so happy” mom always said. “We didn’t have two pennies to rub together, we had a radio that Grandma Kelly had passed-on to us and your dad worked all day and went to school at night.”

She said he used to come home after 9 pm and sit on the couch holding me and telling her about his day. Then he would study and go to bed. On Friday nights they would go to Grandma Kelly’s for dinner (another cheap night out) and show off baby Danny – me.

I didn’t choose my name, Daniel Patrick Kelly. Nobody chooses his names; they happen to us like infant baptism – we don’t have a choice and that’s the point about salvation and grace, and life. “Character is formed by how we handle what comes our way,” dad said as many times as he said “Goodnight Danny” or “It’s time to go Mary.” And like our names, we don’t choose the things we believe in either, they chose us.

The surname Kelly is the second most common Irish name you can have and probably comes from Celli that some people say means something like man of the woods.

But most also connect it with the Gaelic, Ó Ceallaigh, and that is taken to mean strife or war or contention and it either refers to the Irish predisposition to fight as an instinctual reaction to adversity or joy. It doesn’t matter because we’d just fight about it. Or it may have to do with the predisposition to face the challenges that come our way instead of running from inconvenience.

If it explains why the Irish are angry even when happy then it never showed-up much in my family; my dad never yelled at us, he didn’t hit things or throw things, he just went out on the front steps in the evening and looked up at the stars, never saying a word.

I would join him, under his condition that I joined him in his silence and we would just stand there in the quiet until I got bored and went back inside. So our surname probably had more to do with not running away from trouble when it finds us.

We travel through life and make a place for ourselves, not just taking the crap of life without a fight and maybe even making life work for us or die trying. This might explain why there are more Kellys in the United States than in Ireland (we make life work when it doesn’t fall into our lap).

The Kelly coat of arms has an Enfield – a green wolf-dog standing on a crown and it means something like the Kelly’s fight like this against oppressive kings and the Danes. Actually our Enfield is a composite: the head of a fox, chest of an elephant, mane of a horse, front legs of an eagle, body and back legs of a hound and tail of a lion. Our Kelly motto is Turr-is Fort’iz Me-He Day’us, which means “God is my tower of strength.” We got this from our patron saint, Grellan, who was a young cleric in the 5th century who received a parcel of land from Saint Patrick and built a small church on it and proceeded to build churches wherever he traveled, but never settled down himself (most Kelly’s are from Galway and Roscommon in the West). He actually had a distaste for warring and spared others from exploitation, treachery and injustice. He spent his life like a religious civil rights leader.

Kelly was the right name for my dad. “We can’t just stand by and see wrong done to good people” was his usual take on life… like the time, mom told me, he worked weekends and spent a week in court and then at the office afterward for someone we’d never met and my dad wasn’t getting any money to lawyer for – pro bono was what it was called and being poor pro bono meant we’d be poorer and happier.

That self-righteous and come to the aid of the victim Kelly spirit also has its roots in just being Irish Catholic because being Irish Catholic was officially a crime, especially since the seventeenth-century when it became a crime to be – simply be – Catholic in Ireland. Laws included prohibitions against Irish Catholics owning their own land and against passing on the land to your eldest son.

You had to divide it up in order to prevent any perpetual and settled land-base of power and in turn impoverish the lads. But if one of the lads converted to Protestantism he got the whole parcel of land and the others got nothing. Catholics couldn’t inherit land from any Protestant stupid enough to bequeath it to a Catholic and Catholics could only lease land for a maximum of 31 years (that’s practically an entire lifetime for an Irish Catholic male).

They even rewarded Protestants for providing information on a Catholic who broke a land-law by making the incarcerated’s land available to him. This was a high incentive to snitch. Oh, and they used to hunt priests for sport (but this seems to be less certain and more a tale told).

For their part Catholics snuck around, held masses in secret and if one of the Catholic lads was mentally handicapped they’d registered him as a Protestant (not much of a difference to them really). It was noble but tragic to be a Kelly and I enjoy that reputation.

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The Year I Was Born… 3

The coffee served in the waiting room of the hospital was decaffeinated. It didn’t matter because this Dad-to-be was jittery all on his own, thanks to me. It was actually Sanka or something like it (sans is French for without the caffeine – it’s the best General Foods could come up with).

The lack of caffeine was because the hospital was actually called a Sanitarium but not the kind of place with padded walls. It was a Seventh Day Adventist Sanitarium and that meant it was a sort of a combination of hospital, health spa and counseling center modeled after the old nineteenth-century idea of biologic living and the ideas of Ellen White and John and Will Kellogg – the Kellogg brothers. John was a physician and he had these unique ideas about health.

That’s where the whole corn flakes thing came from because everything for breakfast was animal products – meat, eggs, fried and/or buttery. At his Sanitariums they would wake residents (not patients) with calisthenics after sun-rise, then they had cold baths, enemas, swimming, electroshock and were rewarded with vegetarian meals. Yuck. When my mom was sweating through contractions all she had to look forward to as her reward was a bowl of corn flakes in the morning.

It was just after 3 am and I had troubled my poor mother long enough (in utero that is); she pushed and I cried (after my first of many spankings) and she was back in her room in time for a nap and corn flakes. Dad got to look at me through a glass window. He knew me because of the card on the bassinette reading Baby Boy Kelly.

Mom got five days of this – standard hospital stay for vaginal births in the 50’s. By the third day my dad was sneaking in real coffee, sweet rolls, a hot dog and cheeseburger and french fries. I always thought this was heroic – dad sneaking by the nurses hiding greasy caffeinated sugary foods in his pockets. “Mrs. Kelly, that food isn’t good for you… or your baby” the nurse scolded more than once. My mom said she just stopped chewing, agreed with a nod and waited for the nurse to leave to finish off the fries with extra salt.

Adventists talk about “coming into the truth” as short-hand for buying the whole message and lifestyle. And even if you are Catholic you use the San because it is the best hospital around.

They don’t try to convert you but you don’t have much of a choice about diet and regimen. The message part of Adventism is unique. It seems that some funny Baptists thought THE END was going to be 1844 and when it didn’t happen that was very disappointing – so disappointing that it became known as The Great Disappointment.

But Ellen Harmon (who married James White and got a new name) thought that Jesus HAD returned, sort of, but in a spiritual way that was the start of the Investigative Judgment and Jesus was looking us all over, looking over our shoulders, looking at what we all ate, drank, smoked or didn’t smoke preferably. And when all this was over then Jesus would actually show up and hold us all accountable for not being like Ellen White.

Part of the problem – why Jesus didn’t show up when expected – had to do with the wicked ways of otherwise good Christian people (it’s always our fault, sort of why I think Adventists are kin to Catholics).

First there is that whole thing with the real, true Sabbath which of course was Saturday but got changed to Sunday when Christians started running the world. Jesus didn’t like it that Christians messed with his calendar so he said he wasn’t going to show-up until they got that straightened out. That’s why Adventists worship on Saturdays – that’s why they’re the true remnant and no one else might get to heaven.

Ellen White really got her act together in the 1850’s and she became a self-proclaimed messenger with the “spirit of prophecy” that meant this woman with a third grade education was as right as God in just about everything she said (living with her must have been fun for the husband).

There is nothing like an embarrassing disappointment (like predicting Jesus’ kick-ass revelation and being absolutely wrong about it) that makes people dig in their heels and say insist absolutely right.

She was rather proud of being illiterate and it just proved that her beautiful writing was “of God.” Turns out that she miraculously reproduced other people’s writings – what the rest of us would call plagiarism – in just about all her writing. It was another miracle of Ellen White – a White-lie.

That Sabbath thing makes the Adventist lifestyle different. It’s not just having Sundays off like some pagan while the rest of the Christian world is starched and kneeling in musty stone churches begging God to let them into heaven someday.

Sweet Ellen White said people who didn’t get the Sabbath thing right (that is, her way) were unbelievers and were going to get the mark of the beast when all hell breaks loose in THE END.

Until they get the reward of being the only people who are right they spend a lot of energy fussing about health. Hardcore Adventists are vegetarians, and most keep away from meat, alcohol, smoking, drugs, sugars, caffeine -basically everything good (and that pretty much cancels out Catholics similarities).

They were so serious that they started the Health Reform Institute back in the 1860’s because Ellen White had a vision from God telling her to do this. Like most of Ellen’s miraculously produced writings her How to Live and her vision for houses to promote physical and mental health were amazingly close to something someone else had already published, like the book by L. B. Coles called, Philosophy of Health – a book published a dozen years before Ellen’s unique vision. And Ellen just happened to have that book around. The coincidences are miraculous!

Ellen’s real contribution to health care (and one that truly coordinated with the Catholicism of my youth) was her stringent attitude toward self-indulgence, especially before puberty. (And she wasn’t talking about a second scoop of ice cream.)

Masturbation, according to Ellen White lead to an escalation in adolescent mortality and if it didn’t kill you she said it might just bring about liver and lung disease, neuralgia, rheumatism, curvature of the spine, diseased kidneys, various cancers, weakened brain activity, catarrh (that’s inflammation of the mucous membranes), dropsy, mild blindness, headaches, and insanity (that last one is universally shared by mothers, so it isn’t really unique to Ellen).

She was influenced by Kellogg who thought masturbation gave you rounded shoulders (and a weak back) and stiffness of the joints (not to mention in the act); it made you pale, gave you acne, a racing heart (no doubt) but it also led to personality traits like fickleness (except about masturbating itself), bashfulness, confusion, disgust at simple foods (which Kellogg used to dismiss anyone who didn’t like his corn flakes, ‘Oh, you don’t like my corn flakes? Well, you must be a masturbater!’), bed wetting (which he probably had confused with wet dreams) and nail biting. When I was educated in anti-masturbatory ethics in parochial school I was simply informed about the sinfulness of such activities (and it was called touching yourself).

Word on the street is that you would (might?) go blind but Ellen came up with quite an impressive list of maladies, sicknesses and fatal consequences. She even thought that very young kids should be prohibited from exploring by securing diapers and pants in such a way so as to prevent a toddler’s groping – something about the pleasure babies derived from inadvertently touching themselves would establish habits that would difficult to change later in life (Amen, sister).

The only embarrassing story mom and dad told about my life as a baby was when my dad was changing my diaper and I was obviously at attention and squirted him right in the face (they didn’t comment on the spontaneous erection, or even credit it to Ellen Whites suspicions about self-indulgence). Mom and dad stopped repeating this story when I reached my early teen years – they thought it was cute.

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The Year I Was Born… 2

I’ll admit dad was a vague participant in my origins, but only in the masculinity of his grip and biceps and that strength he explained as elbow grease and I took to be the determination and commitment and supervision he exerted in our world which was for most of my young life also just the world.

Dad was paternal and masculine and sturdy and stalwart. He needed no time to collect his emotions in a time of crisis. He acted sacrificially and bravely without a moment’s notice. He was reliable and a provider of food, shelter, comfort and treats like ice cream on Sunday afternoons and a sip of his beer after a summer Saturday’s gardening. His odor communicated faithfulness – a sameness in his aftershave mixed with the sweat of toil and exertion. And besides the times he was pacing in a waiting room for his children to come into the world I didn’t imagine him waiting for anything.

*** *** ***

I was first, then Cathleen and then baby Johnny. It only took a few years to have the three of us, but it changed life in ways mom and dad couldn’t really explain to us, although they tried. That change, or rather changes, that came into their world when we the world.

The way they tell it they were very poor and very happy before I was born – romantically living paycheck to paycheck, eating canned peaches and stale bread and peanut butter and saltine crackers the couple of days leading up to the next payday and then after cashing that check they’d buy more of the same anticipating poverty again the next week.

They were never ashamed or embarrassed to inform me and then Cathleen and me and then Johnny, Cathleen and me that their happiest days were before me and before us. It wasn’t me or us that made them less happy they told us. It was some unspecified, incalculable ratio of paucity and happiness; sometimes told as one-in-spite-of-the-other and at other times as a we-didn’t-know-any-better-but-that’s-still-okay-because-we-love-you-all kind of fairytale.

They also never tired of reciting the inventory of all their earthly possessions in great detail, which was easily done in light of the number of their possessions. They owned a folding table and three folding chairs that didn’t match as their kitchenette, a very, very old sofa with a back cushion missing and the folding chairs doubled as living room furniture, a double bed and a couple of crates covered with old curtain fabric as night stands for their bedroom suite.

Add towels, everyday dishes, hand-me-down flatware, pots, pans and kitchen towels from my dad’s mom’s kitchen and they could cook food when they had enough money to buy food to cook. It never sounded like they bought fresh food, but I’m sure they did – like some hamburger or a can of vegetables or even a potato they shared in a romantic dinner-for-one-eaten-by-two moment they never forgot to rehearse for a table of five with more leftovers than they had for a month before me, before us, as they insisted on reminding us on many occasions.

Before mom became a Mom she was Mary and she was a typist in a secretarial pool. Three years of what we’d call high school education for a poor girl on the south side of Chicago meant typing, grammar and home economics classes. She claimed she only owned two dresses and wore one then the other and then the first one again, rotating the order the next week – that’s what she always told us but we didn’t believe it. And she met my dad while working at the law firm when he was clerking.

He was in his second year, didn’t have a penny to his name, lived with his mom, and fell in love with a seventeen year old girl with a 22 inch waist accentuated (according to a photo of her) by a full skirt and tight sweater. He didn’t stand a chance. They had  cheap dates of free concerts in park, visits to museums, the zoo, parades, walks along the lake and anything else free the city of Chicago had to offer. They ate meals at the school’s cafeteria or at one of their family’s homes. “Mary, I have nothing to offer you but my love; will you marry me?” They were standing by the lake next to the Shedd Aquarium.

Like Shedd himself sort of. John Shedd started as a poor clerk in Marshall Field’s store and worked his way up to the top and became president and chairman when Field died – from poverty to riches and a story told through hard work for forty years. Shedd bought into Daniel Burnham’s “make no little plans” hook-line-and-sinker. He put up millions to build his fish tank and then died before it opened but after he paid for it. His own wife – his very own Mary – stood on the lake front and cut the ribbon for him. This made it something romantic and couples just happened to favor this spot for their proposals.

The aquarium was something huge and romantic and totally unrealistic. It took a million gallons of saltwater brought by train from Key West, Florida to fill the tank in this first permanent inland saltwater aquarium. And when did all this happen? Well right at the start of the Great Depression, that’s when!

When everyone was dirt poor in Chicago (except Shedd obviously) he built that one damn huge tank of water that sat right there on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was as extravagant as it was ironic.

And to top it off, literally, was its Beaux Arts design. That was a style used for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and everyone was so impressed by the Greek and Roman synthesis became a way of making Chicago “the Paris of the Prairie.” That’s why young couples went there to do romantic things, including propose marriage like dad did. They’d stand right there where John’s widow Mary cut the ribbon and promise to tie the knot.

It was a cool spring evening – a Friday they said – in May of 1951 when dad proposed. (Make no little plans.) He didn’t even have a ring to offer her, just a promise that he would always love her no matter what.

He said he wanted them to spend the rest of their lives together, to have a family and it didn’t matter that they were poor. Mom told us all this more than once and it was the best story she told. She said “Yes” and now she was 44 weeks pregnant sweating through eighteen hours of labor and dad was pacing in the waiting room wondering how he was going to pay for me.

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The Year I Was Born… 1

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

Like you I had the privilege of being present for my own birth. I was right there with my mother but my dad was relegated to pacing in the waiting room. Relegated to the role that no Dad has been trained for and no Dad worth the name accepts easily.

He got to pace, back and forth, back and forth and wait; left to worry about paying the bills, wondering what he’d done, how mom was doing and how long he was going to wait – pacing, pacing, pacing. Mom and dad had already waited almost four more weeks than they should have since I was officially 27 days late.

Doctors just let you go until you popped-out back in 1956 – no pitocin drip to stimulate contractions, not even old wives tales about drinking castor oil (which only gave you a bowel purging anyway) or having sex to induce labor (which was a little of the hair of the dog that bit you so to speak). Instead they just waited.

Mom just waited in her gravid state for forty weeks plus four. She never let me forget that especially when exasperated with me, “I carried you for 44 weeks to have you act like this?! Oh, no, I don’t think so….”

Sitting around the dinner table with all of us waited-for children years later she told us how she was in labor for 26 hours with my younger sister Cathleen and just 9 hours with baby Johnny (and with my 18 hours that equaled 53 hours of contractions – 2 days and 5 hours of labor, of pain, of unexplainable and excruciating discomfort).

The math got us started. “Okay, okay, so how long were you pregnant with me?” Cathleen asked. “Well just about 40 weeks, not like the 44 weeks with Danny, but Johnny was only 38 weeks.” “That means you were pregnant for…, for…, well…, let’s see….” I tried to calculate these overwhelming numbers in my head when Cathleen quickly answered, correctly, “That means you were pregnant for 122 weeks mom.” That’s more than 28 months, two and a third years, and that’s 845 days, to be exact. After hearing the math mom never forgot it and never let us forget especially when we were annoying her. But I always thought I was worth it. At least that’s what I imagine.

I’m also pretty sure I was a normal and attractive baby – clean and without blemishes. In labor I may have mildly discomforted my saintly mother who perspired mildly but was a-glow with a hint of make-up and hair quaffed appropriately, covered modestly in a fresh gown and centered in a homey but antiseptic room softly lit with ambiance and even pleasantly fragrant.

Dozens of medical professionals buzzed about excitedly anticipating my birth. Nurses who were plainly attractive but not one as pretty as my mother were helpfully attending at her head and side, dabbing mom’s brow with a cool cloth and whispering maternal encouragements – secrets shared and understandable only to the uterine gender.

The doctor – the only male in the room, before me that is – smiling, directing attention to my imminent appearance but averting his eyes from the vaginal portal whence I emerged lubricated through elastic drapes of privilege allowing only a glimpse of the reproductive secrecy of the origins of my life.

It’s time for the lesson…

Pastor Webber ended the conversation after just a half hour and with no resolutions, no acts of contrition, no penance, no threats or warnings of eternal damnation or calls for recommitting his life to Jesus, and no compromises like I was young once, so I understand which always had the ring of jealously to it, and with all that missing it made it that much more difficult for John.

He shouldn’t have done whatever it was he had done with Suzie-Q, and it could never be As if it never happened, because David and Bathsheba are about as famous as John and Suzie-Q, Together, forever. All Pastor Webber offered was It might be the price of your success, and a problem that didn’t happen to other people, like Jimmy Killeen.

Jimmy just said Thank you, sir, to the know-it-all judge and gave the video tape to his mother that night and she put it up on a shelf right next to Bambi which was next to a John Deere tractor video that Jimmy’s dad received during his training at the Tractor and Farm Implement convention in Rockford a few years back when he worked for a nearby tractor resale business that closed down not long ago.

Now Jimmy’s dad worked for Jo Carroll, the local electric provider just west of town, and his mom wore a red vest with a nametag on it when she worked part-time at the hardware store downtown owned by Mr. Longo. Jimmy’s two younger sisters, who were in grade school and on the honor roll, watched some television, but they rented movies to watch and never looked at any of the three or four dozen the Killeen’s had on the shelf.

And the next Monday night Jimmy Killeen and John Clark were at the Boys’ Club at the Baptist church helping Pastor Webber; they were Leaders and they ran the games in the church basement like Scatter-ball which was an Every-boy-for-himself dodgeball free-for-all, which Pastor Webber sometimes referred to in his Sunday sermons as a metaphor of living life amidst chaos, but most adults hadn’t ever seen the game and would have probably tried to stop the mayhem if they had been there.

But the boys loved it, especially when the Leaders joined-in, and they used three or four balls at the same time. Pastor Webber was too easy a target and he was always hit early, but Jimmy was quick and sly and hard to hit, and John had a great arm and had to hold-back or he’d kill the nine year olds not paying attention. –When they played it was something special, and it always wound-up being just Jimmy and John left and fifteen boys hollering for them to kill each other.

But they didn’t ever throw at each other. Besides the game being for the boys and not the leaders, there was some unwritten rule of Baptist Church Boys’ Club Leadership that when it was just Jimmy and John left they’d call-out Everyone’s free! and fifteen boys would flood back onto the floor and the game would start all over again until Pastor Webber said It’s time for the lesson.

Shaming Bathsheba…

The Baptists’ God doesn’t have such a short memory and knows perfectly well just how much folks sin, but at least the Baptist God doesn’t expect us to be as sinful as the Lutheran God does.

That’s how Reverend Richard at St. John’s gave his catechism instruction To live is to sin, so we are called to sin boldly, and anyone who wasn’t a Lutheran wondered if it was some kind of game with God. Baptists just knew God doesn’t want people to sin in the first place. Lutherans have a healthy moral code of avoiding greater sins with lesser ones, but Baptists are down right vague when it comes to moral codes and they have to ask What should I do? all the time and then do the best they can without ever knowing.

This was pretty tough on teenagers who were actually trying to do the right thing –whatever that was for Baptists. It was all over his face when John Clark showed-up at Pastor Webber’s door one autumn afternoon, right after football practice and said I’ve got a problem.

John’s problem was Suzie-Q, and every boy at River Ridge High School had probably wished that she was his problem.

It seems that Suzie’s obvious affection for John had presented the boy with temptations, and that for Suzie physical familiarity was a normal demonstration of fondness. It was difficult and awkward for Pastor Webber to figure out how fond this fondness was without John volunteering a baseball metaphor or football analogy, and he really didn’t want to know.

Part of the typical Baptist advice was that when the opportunity to sin presented itself, one should simply not consent, but when sin had already happened, as John told Pastor Webber it had, you were stuck between the old timers’ I told you so, and You deserve what you get. Then they’d question the sincerity of your salvation, and sometimes you’d have to Get saved all over again, and warn you sternly Be not deceived, God is not mocked, whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap.

Younger Baptists were a bit more cavalier and would suggest a sincere confession of sin and rededication to the Lord was sufficient. Pastor Webber told John a story.

It only took a minute, probably because John remembered the story from Sunday school –it was the one about David and Bathsheba, but the way Pastor Webber told it didn’t sound right to John.

Wasn’t it David’s fault? John asked, and it was, but Bathsheba shouldn’t have been so available, so willing, and everyone else who knew what’d happened and went along with it shouldn’t have been so agreeable –no excuses.

It wasn’t the story John expected, and it didn’t have the How to, conclusion John half expected. So, Pastor Webber said and said nothing else and this made John talk more but say less. Finally after trying to figure out why Pastor Webber reminded him of the story, John asked Am I like David? I mean, I’m no king or anything, but Suzie didn’t pay any attention to me until I became the team captain and all, and Pastor Webber asked him why he ended his sentence with And all, Was there more?

John quickly said they didn’t do anything that could make her pregnant, as if that would relieve Pastor Webber, but it didn’t and he said so. It didn’t matter that everyone on the Spirit Squad and football team Hooked up, as John said, and Pastor Webber asked if it was Really everyone? and John admitted that it wasn’t.