…the beginning of a short story, or a long therapy session.
The oldest of them, in his best imitation Irish brogue, only attained through a robust supply of Falstaff beer, started, “So Pat says to Mike, he says, Mike, did you hear about the new pub across town, where for a buck and a quarter, they’ll give ya a pint, a glass of whiskey and take ya in the back and get ya laid? And Mike says, no way; for a buck and a quarter they give ya a pint, a glass of whiskey and then they take ya in the back and get ya laid… who told ya that? To which Pat replies; my sister did.” And so would begin hours of brothers swapping familial heirloom “Pat & Mike” jokes. They told these jokes as if they had never heard them before, from 3rd rate, overstuffed chairs that their own father had occupied, until the railroad took his life at 38. They were bright, literate and loyal and they spoke to each other from under the yellowing portraits of JFK and Pope John.
And Patrick would listen, only son of the youngest of the brothers. Clad in Roy Rogers footie pajamas, he would press his ear between the heavy wooden dowels of the hallway stair, terrified of being betrayed by the squeak of the fourth step, mesmerized by the sound of unguarded man-speak. The absolute expectation in the family was that he would do as they had done, and meet the world as an Irishman. The problem; these Irish men never talked to their Irish boys.
But the women did; as far back as he could remember, Pat’s grandmother had flooded him with information that he rarely understood, “You know Patrick Francis, the British Empire tried to murder the entire Irish race in the 1840’s, that’s why the family came to America and built the railroad.” As a child, Patrick took these statements as divine doctrine and later found it hard to remember if St. Michael and Michael Collins were two people or one, or if he should celebrate Easter because of the resurrection, or the Easter Rebellion of 1916.
These women all seemed to wear a uniform, as if to show their membership in the family; a Kleenex stuffed just under the cuff of a sweater (always paper, never linen, they were not protestants after all), severely detailed make-up, an apron or house-coat depending on the presence of company, and the ever-present plastic encased whicker coffee cup. Those coffee cups were the female version of the men’s cans of Falstaff, sometime after dinner the contents of those cups would surreptitiously transform from coffee to the bourbon that was kept discretely behind the flour box in a bottle referred to, for Patrick’s sake, as medicine.
Patrick thought that they lived in the kitchen, and the dishrag that always hung from their last finger rarely ceased movement. It was usually employed to lend dramatic emphasis to certain phrases that they refused to say above a whisper. “…I heard from the ladies that clean the rectory at St. Pats (and the dishrag would rub quickly over an already immaculate portion of linoleum) that they found four empty bottles of (now the lowered voice, and another swipe with the rag) Bushmills, in Father O’Bearne’s trash pale last week.“ Said Aunt Maureen, with a final flourish of dishrag to signal her disapproval but not surprise; after all Father O’Bearne was from Ireland, but not from County Cork.
But from his perch on the fifth step, Patrick strained to pick-up the information that he would need to someday take his place at the head of his own family. The women were a mystery, and they would always be so, but these were the men that he was destined to become, and he needed all the information he could get. As an only child, he had no brothers to turn to, so he would have to go straight to the source.
Their conversations, which only really took place after the family meals on the five major holidays; Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day and the annual football game between the beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers and Barry Switzers’s dirty, cheating Oklahoma Sooners. The talk always started with comments about the meal they had just shared and the qualities of the beef, with the obligatory statements about the superiority of “corn fed” over “grass range” cattle. Then Uncle Dave would remind his younger brothers of how little food they had all been able to make do with during the years of the Great Depression. “Do you boys remember those fried bologna sandwiches that we had for Sunday dinners?” Uncle Dave would offer. “We were lucky that Dad had his job at the UP, even after he lost his hand coupling those freight cars” Patrick’s father would add. To Patrick, this was a crucible that their generation had all shared, a test that they had all endured, and one that he was constantly reminded he had not shared, due to being born during the glory years of post-WWII America.
After the opening stanzas covering the food, weather, crop predictions and the Huskers chances in the upcoming season, enough Falstaff had been absorbed for the real conversations to begin; everyone was in place, the women firmly holding court in their kitchen, the men settled into the worn chairs of the den in the house built by the hand of their grandfather, and Patrick Francis, safely hidden, ready to take it all in.
Patrick Francis Coulton was the only son of Jerry and MaryEllen, although he could name the six siblings that he was supposed to have had, for MaryEllen had suffered six failed pregnancies; three before Patrick’s birth, and three more after. It was to have been John Michael, Colleen Anne, and Thomas Patrick as his older siblings, followed by Maureen Frances, Patricia Kelley and finally Emma Lynne. In Patrick’s mind, he missed these people as if they had actually lived, and he ached at the loss of John and Tommy, his older brothers and guides, and he would have traded anything to have been able to play the role of protector to his three little sisters. “You’re a lucky boy,” Aunt Kathleen would remind him, “not many people have two brothers and four sisters in Limbo that can offer prayers for them, you should be grateful.” This was the first part of Patrick’s Irish-Catholic upbringing that he remembered being troubling; that he was to consider himself lucky to have six dead siblings. But he took these words as he did all statements from the previous generation, as absolutes, not to be questioned, but to be internalized and acted upon.
For Patrick excelled at the quality that his family, his Parish and his Race identified as most important; Patrick was loyal. But the loyalty within Patrick was not the same loyalty felt by most members of large clans; his was a loyalty born of isolation, the cold and desperate loyalty of needing to belong to something, anything.
Patrick’s father was the youngest of six and his mother was one of eight, the next smallest family sub-unit in Patrick’s extended family clan contained two parents (for there was no divorce in his known world) and five children. By the time Patrick could do the math, he could count 13 sets of aunts and uncles and well over one hundred first cousins. To Patrick, everyone had a set to which they belonged, except for himself. These sets came with identifying characteristics, “My God, but those Mahoney children are all such wonderful athletes,” and Aunt Ione would often comment on the somewhat raggedy manner of dress displayed by the children of Uncle Jack and Aunt Bobbie. Patrick was a member of no set; he had no confederates to help in the work of coming to understand his place in the world. He was, and feared he would always be, alone. He had his parents, and they would love him in the way they had been trained, but in his world, children played with children, and adults with adults.
Early in Patrick’s life he had missed these distinctions. His mother and her younger sister, Kathleen, both worked at The Queen of Angels, a decaying 19th century red brick hospital that had always terrified Patrick, but within which he had been born and cured of pneumonia. It was an easy walk for the sisters as both of their homes were on the same block of their ancestral neighborhood. And so for the first half decade of Patrick’s life he was raised among his cousins, and the distinctions of who belonged with whom were blurred. His mother and aunt worked out a schedule where one of them was always at home and the children lived in the house of whichever was off duty. Patrick was part of a set, included in the lives of others, and very happily, nothing special.
In the late summer of Patrick’s fifth year, his mother called from the front porch, interrupting a very complex reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand. “Patrick! Come inside and wash-up, your father is home and has some very exciting news to tell you.” An impromptu audience with his father was always a moment that filled Patrick with an odd mix of excitement and nausea. Normally, when Jerry Coulton returned home from whatever mysterious world he inhabited during the day, Patrick knew how to behave; no speaking until spoken to, no toys in public view and no noise until his father’s mood could be determined. But today, Patrick sensed, was a different kind of day.
Without even changing his clothes, usually a sacred ritual, Patrick’s father sank into his chair and looked at him, “Paddie, I’ve got some very exciting news…” the pause made Patrick even more nervous and he debated with himself as to which part of his father’s face his eyes should be focused on. “I’ve been given a big promotion at work,” at which point Patrick’s mother elbowed him in the back as a reminder to tell his father how proud he was and how he wasn’t even a bit surprised. “And with the extra money, your mother and I have decided to buy one of those brand new houses that they are building up on top of the bluffs.” But Patrick was to start school at St. Francis that fall, the same school that his parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles had attended and that all of his cousins still did, and he began to wonder how he would be able to get way across town to school if they moved all the way up on top of the bluffs; and that’s when it hit him. — Patrick Francis Coulton, descendant of Famine-Irish railroad workers, was to move to a modern house in the suburbs and attend public school.
He had screwed-up and he knew it, “Well, I know one student in this class that can answer the question… Patrick?” When the question had been asked Patrick had betrayed his closely maintained anonymity by looking up. The teacher, a rather ascendant promoter of a long dead cultural elite, saw the answer in Patrick’s face, and called him out. Patrick would rather drop the bells during mass than have to answer a question in class, but when an adult asked; he answered.
Patrick had dutifully entered the new public school in his new suburban neighborhood, had ridden there on his new bike from his new house along the new roads. His old neighborhood had brick streets, the kind that he knew his ancestors had laid by hand to make extra money on the weekends, but his new world was paved with “blacktop,” the kind that seemed to melt when it got really hot, and always smelled bad. He hated new, he loved anything old; people, places and things.
Patrick’s new neighborhood was a winding narrow lane that wound itself over the ridgelines that ran along the top of the bluffs that looked out over the great river valley. A short walk from his new house gave Patrick the ability to look out over a vista that held his old neighborhood and the train yards. From those heights Patrick could have stared off at the vastness of the high plains where, in a few years, he would spend countless days on horseback, riding fence lines to keep an eye on the summer cattle, but at that time all he could see was the history of his family as it had developed down on that plain, far from where he now stood.
From kindergarten through the end of his sixth grade, Patrick had made his way in a strange new world where his fellow children talked of things that he found bewildering. “Last week my dad came home with brand new hair” said Pete Yost, one of the kids from Patrick’s cul-de-sac, “my sister said he needed it ‘cause our new stepmom is half his age.” Patrick wasn’t sure how someone came into possession of “new” hair, but he had no earthly idea what a “stepmom” was.
Before Patrick was taken away from his home, the only people he had ever met that belonged to a different religion were the Costanza’s, but his grandmother had allowed the children to play with them anyway, “…that family is not like yours Patrick, but Mr. Costanza does work at the UP, so I suppose you children can play with them, but only in our neighborhood. Just remember, they’re not Catholic like us… they’re Italian.” Patrick had learned something of these other strange religions; he and his attended St. Pat’s, but the Costanza’s parish, St. Anthony’s, was five blocks away, and in little league he had met a kid with an unpronounceable last name who attended St. Wenceslaus’ way out by the river. But it was not until his personal Diaspora that Patrick first met the people that he remembered being told had tried to wipe-out the Irish race; Protestants.
Not that Patrick was a minority, for even in his new world Catholics still filled half of any room they entered, but these were those other catholics – the kind that didn’t automatically cross themselves and mutter to Mary every time they heard the wail of an ambulance or the shriek of a siren. “Hey kid, what are you doing that for? Is it for good luck or something?” Jimmy Pearson would ask. “Maybe you should try it the next time you come up to bat.” Patrick learned to mute his natural habits, at least any that drew the attention of his classmates. Which was why he hated it when the teachers began to call attention to Patrick’s ability to answer any question they cared to ask. Those situations presented an irresolvable dilemma – to find a place in the new world of his classmates, he had to find a way to fit in, but as representative of his family, he had to carry the burden of child scholar. It was Patrick’s first irreconcilable conflict, to do that which made life bearable and possibly even happy, or to fulfill the dreams for which his ancestors had sacrificed, by sacrificing his own life. In his new world, he was the sole representative of that family, and he could not let them down.
“Patrick?” Mr. McCarthy repeated, with a bit more edge to his voice. The teacher had simply asked a question, but it forced Patrick into a set of decisions that should have still been years away. In the end, Patrick always answered, and was almost always correct, “There are three branches that make-up the Federal government – the Judicial, Legislative and the Executive, Mr. McCarthy.” The teachers were always so pleased, but Patrick knew he would pay for his sins on the playground, probably during the next game of smear the queer.
Patrick’s family had followed the immigrant path to new wealth and status that America had offered to all the huddled masses of the middle 19th Century. The first arrivals had endured the backbreaking work offered by the Union Pacific in its attempt to build an iron span across the high plains. They had then settled in concentrated little pools along the path the rail lines had created, from Chicago to Wyoming, you could find little remade bits of Ireland, even amidst the NINA signs and the thinly veiled pity. They lived hard, at work and at play, “…you haven’t had too much to drink,” one of Patrick’s uncles had taught him before him went off to college, “if you can still get-up and do a full days work.” Society painted them as the human equivalent of sturdy dogs – if trained well, they were hard working and loyal, but prone to bite if abused. And so the early generations latched onto the corresponding occupations – firemen, policemen, soldier, and permeated those institutions with their own values; work, family and loyalty.
Those generations had provided the backbone upon which the great engine of American industrial might had developed as it rushed into the new century, and the following generations had fought the wars that assured Americans of their place at the front of the line. The generation of Patrick’s father and his brothers had been given a clear objective – now was the time to reap the rewards earned by those who had gone before, and the path to those rewards began at the front door of the closest Jesuit school.
At some unremembered family gathering, Fr. Charles, who Patrick knew must be some kind of shirttail relative, since only family Priests were ever referred to as Father First Name, had told a joke; “Did you know that right next to the three wise men at the birth of Jesus, there was a Jesuit priest? Of course there was, he taught at the local university, and after the three kings had offered their gifts, the priest turned to Mary and Joseph with a question (and a brochure), have you considered where you will be sending the boy to school?” Patrick’s father and uncles had all attended the local Jesuit school, which was ever diligent in its search for the gifted children of the working classes. No dog is as loyal as the adopted stray… They offered the way out – and up. All the child needed was a quick mind and the ability to offer absolute allegiance to the Order. The brothers had all taken advantage, going from the Jesuits to the engineering school at the state university, to the tops of their various corporate ladders. “Your Grandfather left his hand at the rail yard and worked himself into an early grave,” said Patrick’s father, who lost his father when he was only 8, “but he provided me with the opportunities to do all that I’ve done. With what I’ve been able to do, I can’t imagine how far you’ll get with all the advantages I’ve given you.”
But Patrick was not sent to the Jesuits, he thought that he was smart, maybe he just wasn’t Jesuit smart. Patrick attended the public grade school that sat three houses down the street. His father, who seemed to share the hubris of Richard Nixon, believed that any American school was all a young man of this generation needed to make his way in America’s golden age. Unless it was the fact that the Jesuit school was on the other side of the river, and that would require logistical support from very busy parents.
During those years of public school, Patrick’s religious education consisted of Sunday catechism classes held back at his old neighborhood parish, and in the common curriculum of the Altar Boy. At least, Patrick thought, in these two ways he could keep in contact with his old world. What Patrick didn’t know was that during the first three years of his life, the leaders of his Church were meeting in Rome to try and wrestle the Church into the modern world.
Two very different types of nun conducted Patrick’s catechism classes, and Patrick could usually tell the difference by the shoes that they wore. The changes in the Church had allowed many of the nuns two adopt secular clothing rather than the traditional habits of their order – to Patrick, earthshoes and sandals meant a morning of talking about the love of Jesus and listening to Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, where as strict black broghans meant memorizing some of the Sorrowful Mysteries and listening to Gregorian chant. These nuns played a “zero-sum” game for Patrick’s allegiance while Patrick tried to force both views of the Church into some kind of workable combination. Patrick felt the same contradictions as he learned to become an altar boy. For old Monsignor Coughlin, Patrick learned to serve at mass in much the same way that his father had, even though Patrick’s father told him, “…it’s much easier for you now than in the ‘old days’ when we had to learn all the latin.” Patrick donned the same black cassock and starched white surpluss from the musty altar boys closet beneath the sacristy that his father and uncles had; but when young Father Steve had the mass, things were very different. He was a recent graduate of the Greggorian University in Rome and he brought with him every new idea that the recently concluded church council wanted implemented.
For Patrick, it was like being a member of two churches – “There is nothing you could ever do, no thought you could ever have, that will separate you from the love of God,” Father Steve would tell the boys during confessions, and send them on their way with a penance that consisted of picking-up trash from the street, or paying an extra visit to elderly relatives. But Monsignor Coughlin reminded the boys that “a fiery punishment awaits all those who betray the commands of the Lord, God see’s all that you do and knows all that you think, and his judgment comes as a thief in the night.” Love and fear, acceptance and judgment, Patrick tried to find a way to make a place for both ideas in his head and heart. Like brick streets and blacktops, Patrick inclined toward the old fashion, but Father Steve and Sister Sandals’ church became Patrick’s, and he perceived that these new ideas would slowly permeate his church and transform it into something that could truly bring about a better world. Maybe someday, that new church could be the place for Patrick to make his mark on the world.
So Patrick spent these early years residing in two-worlds – during the week he attended his new school, lived in his new house and coped with being detached from his clan, but on Sundays he served the mass and attended to his catechism in the same buildings as his ancestors. The buildings were the same, but what was going on inside was quickly beginning to shift.
Christmas of Patrick’s sixth-grade year brought the usual pile of packages that his father would carefully stuff under the tree, except for whatever the Big Present for that year was to be. Patrick’s father liked to hide that gift somewhere else, and then wait to watch Patrick’s reaction when all the visible presents had been opened to see if his face betrayed any ungratefulness; if not, Patrick would be sent on some errand to a part of the house where the final gift had been hidden. Once opened, Patrick’s father would provide some historical context, “You know Paddie, my brothers and I all had to share one present at Christmas, and since I was the youngest, I got the least – I hope you know how very lucky you are not to have to share.” Patrick always wanted to respond by telling his father how lucky he had been to have those siblings, and how dark it was to be alone, “…I know Dad, I am the luckiest boy in the whole wide world, thanks so much for the ping-pong table.” All Patrick could think about was how the hell he was supposed to play ping-pong by himself.
But there had been one gift that Christmas which Patrick would remember for years to come – in a rather odd package, wrapped in the twice-used paper that his mother believed was the very soul of frugality, was a sweatshirt with the mascot of the local Catholic high school. Patrick understood the sign immediately – he would return to his own the next fall, his years of wandering alone had finally come to an end.
During Patrick’s years in public school, the three Catholic high schools had been merged into one – and it took students from grade seven, through their graduation. Patrick’s 7th grade class consisted of about one hundred students that came from the six parochial grade schools and a few (including Patrick) from the public system. On the first day of classes that fall, as Patrick struggled through the vagaries of a new necktie and a heavily starched white shirt, Sister Mary Kay attempted to impart some order, “all of you children from St. Pat’s – go over by the statue of St. Peter, if you went to St. Anthony – meet around the Holy water font” – and so on. Patrick quickly learned that he was, even now, without a set, for he and the other six kids from Public were told to just stay where they were, probably on the assumption that they couldn’t tell their saints from their fonts.
As Patrick folded himself into the small pack of his fellow publicans so that he would attract as little attention as possible, Fr. Steve called out from the other side of the main hall, “Is that Patrick Frances Coulton I see?” Patrick was never sure how he did it, but his voice was always bigger than everyone else’s, during mass he assumed it was the clip-on microphone that he snaked up his robes, but he had the same vocal power even now and he clearly wasn’t wearing a mic. “What in the world are you doing over here with these kids? It seemed Fr. Steve could spot a public school kid at some distance, but he did not associate Patrick with the due to his status as an alter boy. “All of your cousins are over their with the others from St. Frances.” It was then that Fr. Steve remembered about Patrick’s house on the hill and his separation – and Fr. Steve decided to help Patrick return to the fold. It became a moment of terror that Patrick would remember for years.
“Sister, gather-up all of our new students and bring them over here – young Patrick and I are going to explain the meaning of all these statues to them.” Over the next half an hour, although it seemed an eternity to Patrick, he and Fr. Steve (with Fr. Steve’s arm around Patrick’s narrow shoulders, led the new class of 7th graders around the main hall of St. Thomas Central Catholic High School. As they approached each statue Fr. Steve would interrogate Patrick; “Now who is this then Patrick?” St. Joseph. “and how do we know that?” “He has a carpenter’s square in his hand.” “That’s right Patrick!” “And we all know that St. Joseph, the father of our Lord Jesus, was a carpenter.” “Why is this saint standing on a snake Patrick?” That one’s St. Patrick Father, he converted the Irish to the Church and drove the snakes off the island.” “Correct” gushed Fr. Steve, “and who were you named after…?” To which Patrick muttered, “St. Patrick, Father.” Then came the worst blow of all – “I want all of you children here to know this young man, he’s a foot smarter than any of you, and one day I’ll wager, he’ll be hearing all of your confessions!” With the damage done, Fr. Steve gave Patrick a wallop on the back, and walked-off down the hallway – seeming very pleased with himself.