For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
Albany, New York, September 1964
The country was just climbing out of its blue funk since the death of President Kennedy. The British had invaded the airwaves and the race to space was on! But like most teenagers, I was only thinking of myself for now. Nervous about the coming semester, Ethan Kelly’s first year in High School, I worried about all the little things. About not fitting in, about my ears being too big, about my hair being too short, about gym and the communal showers, YIKES! The summer seemed to drag on endlessly even though my folks had done their best to fill it up with the usual family activities and outings.
There was the “Flag Day” barbecue in June at Uncle Liam’s farm in Lancaster County. This was always a big gathering, but hard to fit in among the Amish and the Mennonites and their odd customs and traditions. It was awkward enough being Irish Catholic in the land of the plain peoples, but those frocks they wore, oh my gosh, surely they knew that it was the sixties now, had they never heard of the Beatles? Then of course, there was the big Fourth of July gala that Mother organized each year. Everyone always managed to have a great time at that soirée! It was my favorite of the annual shindigs.
This year’s bash was a particularly memorable event, as it would go into my journal as the year I kissed my first girl. Truth be told, kissing wasn’t the only first experience I had that day. As it turned out, on this particular afternoon of carnal exploration, my neighbor Sandy Pulchoski, an early bloomer, would prove to be quite an enthusiastic tour guide, well beyond my wildest imaginings. Ahh, there are advantages of having a college age sister who still lived at home. Suffice to say that I learned some new terminology with regard to female undergarments, specifically the subtle difference of hooks versus snaps. By the way, for you curious nubies out there, if you can snap your fingers, you have a running start at ‘second base’. I also learned that caressing is good and inspires enthusiastic participation, while pinching is bad and results in a loud ‘HEY’ followed by a sock in the beezer! Another interesting discovery and surprise bonus was that Sandy’s retainer could be removed for certain shall we say emergencies, my, my, my.
Finally, the annual trip to summer camp in early August up at Lake George came and went without much fanfare. Not that I didn’t enjoy the swimming and hiking and baseball (always loved the baseball), as well as the horsing around with all my pals, Mikey, Kenny, Paul, Sparky, and of course J. Cullen Wainwright Hollenbeck IV (nerd), that stuff was always cool. And although this should have been Nirvana for any normal fourteen-year old boy, for me, well, somehow I just knew that I was about to enter a scary new and world. I had no idea how prophetic that feeling would turn out to be.
Fate happened to be riding along with me as we made our way back home, traveling Rt. 9 and then Interstate 87 through the beautiful blue Adirondack Mountains in that old white jalopy of a school bus from O’Sullivan’s camp. Life up and slapped me good and hard the minute I waved off the driver and started up the walkway to the house. My kid sister Shannon ran up to me crying, dragging my teddy bear ‘Buster’ by his ragged little arm. She always slept with it whenever I was away from home. With mother and Dad both working at the dry cleaners they owned 14 hours a day, I was responsible for taking care of her needs. Shannon was a doll, pretty and precocious, only 5 years old and so excited about starting Kindergarten this year.
“Peepers,” she cried as she leaped into my arms, nearly knocking me over and making me drop my duffel bag. My family has always called me peepers because of my blue eyes. The rest of the family being dark haired and brown eyed. Dad liked to tease Mom about me looking more like the milkman then himself.
“Peepers, mommy is crying and daddy is berry thick.”
Shannon had a slight lisp and even though the mood was dark I could not help smiling, she was just too cute. We went inside together and mother met us in the foyer, and five minutes later, I was up to date with all the bad news. This would be a pivotal time in my life, it would be the year my father, Edward Lee Kelly, would be diagnosed with the cancer. This would be the year that I would learn about great loss, and sacrifice, about love and hate, and about the path, my life would follow. These lessons, that usually take years to manifest themselves, would unfortunately hit me one after the other with a machine gun like cadence. The long summer spent anticipating the shiny start of a new chapter in my life, in a new school, in a new era, suddenly dimmed with the realization that it was no longer all about me.
My mother kissed me on the forehead, then wet her thumb and removed the smudge that her lipstick left behind. She picked up my sister and started walking towards the kitchen. I knew that she would get her a glass of milk and an oatmeal cookie or two to help soften the blow as she explained what all of this really meant to us.
“Come on Peepers, Mommy wait for Ethan!” Shannon pleaded.
“I’ll be there in a minute Squirt,” I said to her.
Mom waived and smiled weakly then continued on to the kitchen with Shannon. I stood alone in the foyer for a moment longer. The house seemed quieter than usual, and I was feeling kind of silly standing there all by myself. I wondered if Dad was home, but thought not, because I didn’t hear the TV or his whistling. Dad always whistled to himself whenever he was working or puttering around the house. Usually it was “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” or ‘With a little Bit of Luck’ from ‘My Fair Lady‘. No matter what he chose mother would wince and wrinkle her nose shouting “Darn it Eddy, must you torture everyone with that confounded noise!”
And, given the time of year, nine times out of ten there would be a Yankee game playing in the background. Dad loved the Yanks, loved the ‘Yankee Clipper’ and ‘Mantle’ and laughed out loud at ‘Yogi’. Truth be told, he loved the ‘Splendid Splinter’ (Ted Williams) as well. However, because he was a Red Sock, my Father had to hate him officially! Today there was none of the normal, comforting sounds that made this house a home.
I walked through the living room past the Colonial furniture rich with all the deep polished maple wood color, reflecting the sunlight as it shone through the bay window. The television was not on and the room was empty except for an open book, upside down resting on Dad’s big armchair. His reading glasses were on the table next to the chair, along with his pipe rack. The odd thing about these items was that Dad would always remove his glasses whenever anyone entered the room, still suffering from the sin of pride. And, as for the pipes, well, he didn't smoke. He just liked the way they looked in the fancy sculpted rack.
“I can look grand without actually taking up the nasty habit,” he would say.
“Besides Sonny, this way your Mother will kiss me more often,” he would tease.
“That’s good advise boy, you’ll thank me for that one later in life” he’d chuckle to himself.
He always poked me in the stomach with his finger whenever he told me that, and I would blush and squeal “Ahhh, Da!” I loved my Father, and although he was stern and proper, and shy about showing too much affection for fear of appearing weak and easy, in these little exchanges he always showed me that he loved me back. At least that's how I always looked at it.
I walked into the hall and went towards my parent’s room. The door was ajar and I could hear no noise as I placed my ear near it. I tapped lightly on the door and called out.
“Are you in there Da?” No answer, I knocked a little harder.
“Da, are you in there sir?” Still no sound, so I went inside to take a look around, and see what I could see. The room was empty. The four-poster bed was made up neatly, hospital corners and all, with nary a wrinkle on the pastel colored comforter. My mother was a stickler for neatness, so I was accustomed to the museum like appearance of the room. Everything in its place, not even a stray hair in the brush on her dressing bureau. Dad’s suit was already laid out on the dressing rack for Monday morning. His Oxford wingtips neatly placed underneath with a fresh pair of argyle socks across the shoes. Even the laces had been tucked neatly under the tongue, and not left to hang sloppily over the side like some commoner’s. As I said, my mother was a stickler. Years later I would discover in school that there was a term for this behavior, but I could never use that word in her presence lest I treasured the taste of Lifebouy!
Satisfying myself that he was not anywhere nearby, I headed for my room to unpack my duffel bag. Then it occurred to me, whenever my father was struggling with something, he always went into the backyard and lay down in the grass. He claimed that sunlight could cure anything mental or physical. I had tried this myself on several occasions, and darned if he wasn’t right. Tossing my duffel onto my bed, I raced for the sliding glass door in the dining room making for the yard.
“ETHAN ANDREW KELLY, you get back here this instant and close this door. Is it millionaires you think we are?” my mother hollered.
I quickly peeked past the hedges to see if my hunch was right, and it was, there was my father lying smack in the middle of the lawn, flat on his back, his hands folded behind his head. Wearing his usual weekend uniform of blue jeans, white tee shirt and “smiley” sneakers, the one’s with the blue smile swooshed across the toe like a big grin, Dad looked peaceful enough. I mean, he didn’t look any different, but my intuition was telling me that things were not as right as they seemed. I ran back to the house, peeked inside and winked at Shannon, who was coloring at the table, eating an oatmeal cookie. Then I carefully closed the sliding glass door and returned to my hunt for Dad.
Walking slowly towards where my father was resting I stopped for a minute at the edge of the lawn next to the driveway. I looked over at the garage and noticed that the car hadn't been parked all the way inside. If I were playing basketball, I would not be able to finish a lay-up as the rear bumper was directly under the hoop. I made a mental note to ask Dad if I could finish parking the car, I was a teenager after all! Turning my attention back to my father, I noticed that he was sitting up now, his arms hugging his knees, and he was looking my way. He squinted in the bright sunlight and motioned for me to come over to him. All of the sudden there was a lump in my throat and I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. SHOOT, I didn’t want him to see acting like a baby. I pretended to sneeze and used the opportunity to rub my eyes dry and wipe my face with my shirtsleeve. Dad was smiling as I walked up to him, and he held up his left hand toward me.
“Help your old man up Sonny,” he said.
I took hold of his hand and he pulled himself up, making that sound that all Dads make when they get up from so far down.
“Ah, you’re a good boy Ethan, a good boy son” he said rubbing his lower back with both hands.
“How was camp, did you have a grand time?”
“It was fine sir, I did sir.”
“Well, that’s good, a boy your age should have all kinds of fun in the summertime” he said smiling.
“Yes sir, thank you sir,” I said uneasily.
“That’s enough of the sirs’ son. Let’s just be Dad and Ethan the rest of the day, OK?” he asked mussing my hair.
“Sure Da, that’ll be swell,” I said smiling back for real.
“Your mother, she talk to you did she?”
“Yes Da, she did,” I replied, feeling the lump coming back in my throat, I swallowed hard.
“Yeah, I guess she would at that,” he said frowning slightly.
“Ethan! Why run over to the garage and fetch the mitts and a baseball. Let’s have us a catch, just you and me,” he said gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb.
“Sure Da, I’ll be back in a jiffy!” I said, and started jogging toward the garage.
“We can chat while we toss the baseball son, there are things I need to share with you,” Dad said as I ran past him. The words hit me like arrows in the back, and I tripped over my own feet, falling down clumsily. I skidded along the concrete on my knees, tearing a small hole in my jeans, and leaving a decent sized strawberry on my right leg.
“I’m OK Da, didn’t hurt,” I yelled back at my father as I jumped up and ran into the garage.
While I composed myself, I searched for the gloves and the baseball, finding them finally at the bottom of an old, rusty wheel barrel, under a bag of grass seed. I stuffed the gloves under my arm and palmed the ball, then trotted back out to stand with my Dad. He took his glove, and put it on while I ran across the yard and stood near the back fence. Dad tossed the ball to me, high and outside, but still with the usual zip on it. At least he seemed like his old self. I could see my mother in the kitchen window, she was watching us, and I noticed that she crying. Dad looked back over his shoulder at the house, and Mother quickly looked down at the sink, so he didn’t notice her tears. It was at this moment when I realized just how tough all of this was going to be, on everyone.
We tossed the baseball back and forth while Dad retold the story of the day he was at Yankee Stadium and Mickey Mantle hit one out of the park! After a few other such stories he laid out to me the whole situation of his illness, at least as he understood it. The words were kind but the message was harsh and uncomfortably certain. As he talked to me, he kept reassuring me that it was still his belief that God was just. With the sound of conviction in his voice, and true passion in his eyes, he tried to pass on his deep faith. With each passing moment the distance between us closed, until we no longer needed to toss the ball, we just kept handing it back and forth. When he was through, when the words were all out, he set his glove on the grass in front of him. He spread his arms wide and invited me in for a hug.
That opened the flood gates, I could hold it in no longer. I wasn’t ready to be a man just yet. I ran to my father and he picked me up like I was a six-year-old, hugging the stuffing right out of me with his powerful arms. I wrapped my skinny legs around him like I did when I was a small boy, and cried on his shoulder quietly, trying not to sob. He held me for a long time and when he set me down he said, “Well, we’ve got that out our system now. And we’ve a man’s job ahead of us Ethan. Let’s see if we can tackle this like Kelly’s, are you game son?” I looked up at him, his eyes were dry, but they were still red. He was smiling at me again and he held out his hand for me to take as a grown-up would.
“Yeah Da, like Kelly’s, I can do that” and I took his hand and squeezed it as hard as I could, a real man’s handshake, like I had seen he and his brothers exchange at every family gathering.
“OK, OK, enough dawdling you two, are you going to lollygag out there all day?” my mother yelled from the house.
“Shake a leg now, my supper’s turning to ice before my very eyes!”
“We'll be in straight away Maggie, don’t get your knickers in a twist my sweet,” Dad said laughing. He picked up his glove and tossed it to me.
“Put this back where you found it and then come in and wash up boy” he said running towards the house, chasing after my mother as she giggled like a schoolgirl. I smiled big through my tears, watching my father scoop up Shannon and then chase my mother around the table. I already missed him, but there wasn’t any time for that, it was time for me to grow up.