He was the only child of star-crossed lovers – a French-Canadian mother and Irish father – each raised in separate, isolated spheres in a foreign land; snow globes from Quebec and Galway dropped on a duck pond beach in Massachusetts.
A river divided the town. Its current pushed wheels to crush grain and saw trees, stitch leather and weave thread. It fed, watered and lifted boats for all the people. And they used the river to create what they lost – the old Catholic life in a new world. The sun set on the French and rose on the Irish; cathedrals and saloons, perched on opposing banks, comfortable and suspicious in their swift water isolation, grappling with heaven and hell in seclusion, two worlds separated by water and a common salvation.
My French Grandmother, our Juliet, said in her austere hubris, “It is easier to get to heaven in the Irish Church.” After a pause, she cocked her grey, tightly-netted head and added, ”but the Irish pews are set far behind the French before the heavenly Throne of God.”
This was spoken within earshot of her Romeo, my Grandfather, who would twinkle blue eyes over the Brockton Enterprise, his favorite rag.
Their child, my father, was raised in the DMZ of this covenant, an arrangement established despite muttered oaths and hysteria, threats of sharpened steel and gunpowder. A cross-haired truce became tolerated –‘It’s their lives to squander’ was the only consensus – though the deep-rooted smolder periodically flaired with bellowing cross-river mortar shot and small arms fire.
Dad navigated a remarkable balance within the intrigue and threat of family gossip on both sides of the water. It didn’t hurt that he was aw-shucks funny and starting middle linebacker on the high school football team. You may burn in hell from equinox to solstice, but it was a football town, and many sins were covered with grid iron blood during the autumn. So, even as a youngster, Dad’s boat rarely took on water despite the inevitable lurch and wobble of a small dinghy negotiating the confluence of two imperious currents.
Growing up, we witnessed Dad’s hard won skills in our home. He loved to playfully bastardize the French language during morning ablutions, announcing to everyone, in his best Quebecqois, “I shall now Shah-fay my Facion!” However, to his death bed, he would pray the Hail Mary and Our Father in sincere perfect French.
Any glorious sunrise was greeted with reverence, “Dawn on Galway Bay.” Best of all, for my brother and me, was Dad’s repartee, passed from his father, to any crystal shattering flatulence, “It’s the Battleship Oregon, Boys, we’re saved!”
His favorite adage in later years, offered to those retiring for the night, was, “May you be safely tucked into the arms of Morpheus.” He appropriated this, again, from his father, who insisted the Greek God of Sleep was from Donegal.
When Dad passed away a niece wrote how she will miss Uncle John’s larger than life presence. Dad needed no crowd; he could sit with the quiet all day long, but he stood up large.
We were bereft when he left us. Driving to his funeral, my brother stopped at a red light. An enormous white truck drew up beside me, rumbling even at idle, so close I could spit on it. I had never seen the truck, the driver or the company logo before or since: a one-time showing.
The logo was one word, boldly angled in dark italic lettering across the door and body of the truck: “MORPHEUS.”
I wondered how he harangued the heavens for this windfall of comfort: Dad standing up large for his Darlings one last time.