McMan's Bipolar Story
part 3 of 5
Aloysius and Me
"My grandfather explained: He took church pills. The net result was you
didn't have to go to church."
I transferred to an all-boys Catholic school,
and there, on the bus that also dropped the
girls at their school, I met the girl who should
have been my wife. I'd shot up some ten
inches in one summer, so I was almost able
to blend in. But my quality of being different
sent out some invisible signal, and perhaps
this is what she was responding to.
She was a cancer survivor and had the kinds
of insights fifteen year olds shouldn't have, together with a beauty that
ran far deeper than her amazing good looks. I would come home from dates
feeling I'd been dropped onto a balance beam with my legs spread apart.
I was innocent. I didn't realize she might have helped me out had I asked.
She was from a professional Catholic family - one that took their religious
obligations seriously - but that wouldn't have stopped her, I am sure.
Sure, there would have been a few religious technicalities to overcome,
such as burning in Hell forever, but these could easily be resolved by
other religious technicalities, such as getting to Confession before a
truck ran either of us over while in a state of mortal sin.
Perhaps this is a good time to talk about being Catholic, for I can no
more neglect this aspect of my life than a Jew can ignore growing up Jewish
or an African-American forget to mention the fact of being black.
This is true despite the fact that I grew up on a new shore far removed
from the hard-core experiences of an earlier generation, and that I have
not been inside a church in more than thirty years, except to weddings
My grandfather on my father's side came from a large Irish family in Quebec.
Like most families of this type back then, there was a designated priest-to-be
while all the other kids labored to put food on the table and maybe subsidize
a lucky brother or sister's upward mobility. My Grandpa Joe was not one
of the lucky ones. Out into the workforce he went, a kid who loved Shakespeare
chopping wood in the cold at age fourteen.
I suspect his religion came to the rescue here, for I can remember him
with his weathered face and tobacco-stained hands talking about the nobility
and dignity of manual labor. I suspect at an early age he dedicated his
sweat and strain to the glory of God.
Or maybe not.
The old Grandpa Joe that I was familiar with would have been a natural
as a priest, but I'm not so sure about the young Grandpa Joe. The brother
who would have been a priest died at age six or seven, which might have
presented my grandfather with a a golden opportunity. Perhaps his family
was too dependent on his pay packet by then. Perhaps my grandfather entertained
other hopes and dreams.
In any event, it's practically impossible to put the pieces together, for
my father steadfastly refused to talk about him. With good reason, I might
add, which I will get to in a minute. Nevertheless, it seems you couldn't
keep a good Shakespearean down, for my grandfather eventually brought his
charm and eloquence to bear on my Grandma Alice - thirty years old at the
time - and together they found their way to Springfield Massachusetts.
Now we jump ahead to when my father was a boy and his parents sent him
by train to spend the summer with a rich uncle in Quebec. How this rich
uncle fits into the picture and where his wealth came from I will never
know, particularly when I could never get a word out of my father. In fact
it is only through an aunt I found out in the first place, an account later
corroborated by my mother.
It seems this uncle wanted to adopt my father. He had no son. Anyway, he
put the question to my grandfather, who said yes. Just like that. Who knows
what was going through my grandfather's mind? This was the depression,
after all. They were poor. This was a good deal for his son, a dream come
true, in fact. What struggling father wouldn't want the best for his boy?
Then again, my grandfather might have been content to sell my father to
a traveling circus, so long as they promised to raise him as a Catholic.
That is, until my Grandma Alice found out what was going on. She was on
that train to Quebec in a flash, and when she returned it was with her
But now the mystery deepens. Let's backtrack ten or fifteen years and consider:
Out of the woods of Canada comes a Shakespearean woodcutter who by now
is in uniform and sweeps a gardener's daughter off her feet, a daughter,
I am told, who passed a piano exam by nailing a Mozart sonata.
But now it is years later and Shakespeare and Mozart are trapped in a loveless
marriage, poor with four kids, my father the oldest. My Grandpa Joe is
now some kind of religious fanatic, always going to church and praying
and making a great show of his faith, even as he abuses his wife and children.
Maybe I am overstating the situation. Then again, my mother has this little
story to tell:
When my older sister was born, in which my mother nearly died from an infection,
my Grandpa Joe paid a visit, and the first thing he said to my mother was
too bad it wasn't a boy to carry on the family name. My mother was too
shaken to reply.
Wait, there's more. When I was born, my Grandpa Joe said John, that's not
a family name. This time my mother was ready. He is named after his OTHER
grandfather, she let him know.
Ah, my other grandparents. No Shakespeare or Mozart here, but there was
a piano in the house. That's the one thing, apparently, both sets of grandparents
had in common, the piano in the house. My Grandpa John had a secure job
driving a truck for Railroad Express, which made my mother's family well-off
by depression standards.
I have found memories of both these grandparents. But anytime we went for
a visit my younger brother and I couldn't help but notice that neither
he nor my Nana Tess ever attended mass, which, of course, was a mortal
sin. Then my grandfather explained: He took church pills. Not just him.
Nana Tess, too. The two of them, church pills.
I gathered this worked something like holy water or a communion wafer,
but to a slightly different end. The net result of taking one was you didn't
have to go to church. Now I was old enough and smart enough to figure out
that church pills weren't available to kids, and that in all probability
they were very difficult for even adults to obtain. Otherwise, no one would
be going to church, now would they? Except for my Grandpa Joe, of course.
All which goes to explain the rather lax attitude we had to Catholicism
in our own house. Between my mother's parents and my father's reaction
to his own father's displays of religion - especially a father who was
all too willing to give him away - church and religious instruction were
regarded as a sort of family obligation, like getting your kids vaccinated.
But back to the mystery of my grandfather the religious fanatic. The other
day, I suddenly recalled this vital piece of the puzzle: You see, when
my father was born he wasn't supposed to live more than a few hours. A
nun in the hospital suggested that since the day on which he happened to
be born was the feast day of Saint Aloysius, he may as well be given that
name. My Grandma Alice, hedging her bets, decided that Aloysius would
be his middle, rather than first, name.
Now whether it was because of a medical miracle or because Aloysius up
there was so grateful to have someone named after him, even though it was
only a middle name, my father pulled through. Luckily it was my younger
brother - to my infinite relief - who wound up the dubious recipient of
the family middle name.
But lately I can't help but wonder: Suppose Aloysius did pull off the miracle.
If so, wouldn't this be the logical person to pray to in times of need?
In fact, owing to his relative anonymity, it would be like having one's
own personal family saint. No waiting, no queues.
Listen, I'm not joking. These days, as I contemplate the trials some of
my family is going through, and at the same time find some of my own options
dropping off, I find myself thinking of Aloysius and the miracle of my
father and end up praying for his help.
Maybe that's what happened to my Grandpa Joe. Maybe, when faced with the
prospect of losing his son - the son he would later almost give away -
he found God. Maybe he recognized a true miracle for what it was. Maybe
when he returned home with a healthy boy in his arms he knew he would never
be the same.
Like a Damascus Road experience.
But there's more to it that that. You see, even though I bear the name
of my Grandpa John, I'm afraid I have much more in common with my Grandpa
Joe. True, I hated church and all its trappings, but somewhere in all the
apparent absurdities of the Catholic faith (from a boy's perspective) was
the permission to be me.
It's very hard to explain, but somehow it was comforting to know that other
people cared about the kinds of things that touched my soul, even if they
went about it in ways quite foreign to my sensibilities.
I suspect that is what my Grandpa Joe responded to, as well. Perhaps he
used church as a sort of cover, as a place where he could sit in quiet
and not be disturbed. Perhaps home prayer was his version of a do-not-disturb
sign and his rosary his entry into a world his family and neighbors never
Perhaps, he took to heart the outside trappings of the church, as well.
But that part doesn't matter to me. My Grandpa Joe was different, different
like me. That's all that counted. There was something in both of us that
belonged in another world. I know that because of my father, of all people.
He wouldn't say it, but I could see it in his eyes.
When I stopped going to church as a teenager my father immediately followed
suit, relieved of his obligation to set an example. Perhaps he thought
when you died the lights simply went out. At any rate, I never heard him
reflect on it. His Christianity was more of this earth - Chairman
of the local Human Rights Commission, director of the local
United Fund, involved in more charities
than you can name.
Not long ago, he fell asleep in the hospital, and never came out of it.
We called in a priest for last rites, then they unplugged the life support.
His kidneys went. Then his other organs. I stood there with a Bible reading
A time to ...
Perhaps there was a part of him that heard it, that managed to reconcile
the many complicated parts of his own self before moving on to the next
phase of his life. Or perhaps the lights really did just go out. Perhaps
he really was ready to accept that possibility. Perhaps he knew a lot more
than I ever will.
Oddly enough, my Grandpa Joe, for all his dedication to his faith, died
in pretty much the same circumstances as my father. As fate would have
it, he spent his last hours in a Protestant hospital. My Nana Tess, by
contrast - the one who took church pills - happened to face her maker in
a Catholic hospital attended to by no end of nuns and priests.
So anyway, getting back to the present, here I was, a boy of sixteen, with
the girl who should have been my wife, the one I was willing to risk eternal
damnation for, and had we stayed together any longer it might have come
to that, but it never did.
No, we shared a different kind of intimacy. I look back on those moments
with both fondness and amazement, the two of us in perfect comfort in the
dark on the closed in front porch of her family's double-decker in the
ethnic neighborhood where her quality of being different seemed to cancel
out mine, without destroying that precious gift in each of us of being
unique. Somehow we were able to share it without necessarily making out
Had I known how precious this was, I would have held onto her for dear
life, for I never experienced this with any other woman. Ever. With her,
I could open up the inner spaces of myself and have her walk in and and
warm me with her glow. Other women, I would discover, only sought to arrange
the furniture or shattered the objects inside, leaving me with a feeling
of broken trust and violation.
But I was young and stupid. I let her slip away, and we never kept in touch.
Granted, there were probably a million reasons it wouldn't have worked,
and I accept that. Still, I can't help but wonder: Where would I be now
if I had held on to her? What would I be like?
Would she have brought out something in me that would have made me feel
accepted? Would I have eventually found a way to fit in? Or would my quality
of being different have proved too much, even for her?
God, of course, won't tell me, so maybe I'll ask Saint Aloysius.
Story Part 4 Crash
STORY from this SECTION