back row, Allen Jr. and Jeanne
middle: Dad and Mom
front: Ross, Joe, me
afterward would also be Geordie, Tim, and Meredith
“The Floyds invited me to the lake,” I announced: Dad mused “Remember that Kelleher boy who pitched over the side of a canoe and drowned?”
“Can I learn how to ski?” Joe begged: “Was it last year that girl wandered off the trail and froze to death?” Dad replied.
“Doesn't that get my goat!” he'd rail in the parking lots of grocery stores, spotting a cart left by a careless shopper. “If that thing ever got rolling, it could pick up momentum, barrel right into a three- or four-year-old kid…” He shook his head, leaving us to imagine the twitching limbs; the tiny crushed skull bleeding onto the asphalt.
We had dinner--supper we called it--together every night. Around the table we bonded, and made fun of each other, and bitterly fought, and around the table the neuroses were created and cemented in place with which I, for one, have struggled all my life. My older brother Allen and older sister Jeanne left home as soon as they graduated from high school leaving me, at the age of ten, the oldest of the remaining six. My job, I believed, was to relieve my father's financial anxiety and I took it seriously. When he was worried, I was worried. Like him, I took every wasted penny personally. Like him, I learned early to see imaginary fissures in the facade of the world and to take them as signs of impending doom.
One night, the whole brood was eating supper and as happened about twenty times a meal, had run out of milk. "I'll get some more," Ross offered, and made for the kitchen. Right away, Dad started in. “Don’t drop the milk.” “For Crimey’s sake, don’t drop the milk, it's up to a dollar-thirty.” “Watch out Ross, whatever you do, don’t drop the milk.”
Almost inevitably, just as Ross was about to reach the table--a tremendous crash. Milk splashed, glass shattered. A gallon of milk, released from the confines of its glass bottle onto the floor, walls and table of the family dining room, is a fearsome thing. Milk pooled on the floor. Milk ran in runnels into the kitchen. My father wasn’t violent but for a second we stopped breathing and looked instinctively to the head of the table. A stricken, defeated look crossed his face, and then he bent over double and silently buried his head in his hands.
Had Dad lost it for good? Had we finally pushed him over the brink? What if he just got up, put on his brown Carhartt jacket that smelled like White Owl cigars and Old Spice and Smith Brothers cherry cough drops, got in his pickup, and left us for good? Who would take us out in the boat to check the banged-up lobster traps? Who would bake bread on weekends? Who would plant a single amaryllis bulb in a pot of soil, put it in the dining room window, and marvel when it bloomed each spring? Who would dig the garden, and harvest the tomatoes, and sit out on the breezeway with his buddies drinking Bud and listening to the Sox? Who would go around the house singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” in that crackpot fake tenor? Who would recite Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” (“And I am two-and-twenty,/And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true”) with what sounded suspiciously like a catch in his throat? Mom couldn't leave us. But what if Daddy, fount of all fun, all jokes, all food, shelter, clothing, security, order, warmth, bolted?
He was trembling, for God’s sake! Jesus, was he crying? Had we made Dad cry?
At last he straightened up. His beat-up hands dropped to his knees. His face, unthinkably, was wet with tears, and so red we thought he might have had a heart attack. He was still trembling. He was gasping. But finally we realized he wasn’t crying. He was laughing.
"Ha ha, heh heh, Don’t spill the milk!” he gasped. “Don’t…don’t drop…HAH…HUNHH… Janet, get me a napkin…Don’t”…He pointed to Ross, as if Ross had just told the funniest joke ever, “Don’t spill…HANH HAH…if that doesn’t beat....HANNHHH…Lindy Gilman’s kids [Mr. Gilman was the Runnymede Farms milkman] will eat!”… but he was laughing so hard he couldn’t go on.
We suddenly sprang to action. One of us ran to the rag box. Someone else started picking out the biggest chunks of glass. Someone, maybe me, passed behind the back of his chair and patted his thinning hair. But in a way, I am still sitting at that table with my father: head in his hands, face hidden, present physically, yet a millions miles away. Sitting with him while he perhaps contemplated the years stretching behind and ahead: of waking in the dark, of driving 40, 60,
Sitting with him knowing that when and if he opened his eyes his family, his glory and his cross, his family whose entire purpose in life was to break his heart was going to be looking back at him: waiting, bereft, refusing to leave. Sitting with him while all that was good and kind and decent in him, and all that was fearful and weak and in pain had perhaps met, and clashed, and in some place that was unknown to us, where we could not follow, on some terrible battlefield in which our fates hung in the balance, he had chosen us over himself; had chosen the spark of life that is humor--over despair, over death. In a way, that is who I write to. My father, in that moment before he lifted his head, and stayed.
For weeks, we’d be finding splinters of glass under the sewing table, the desk, the radiators. There would be more anxiety. There would be more pain. But for now, God was in His heaven and all was right with the world. We were saved, until the next broken bottle of milk, or window, or leg, or spirit. Life could go on.
Because Dad had laughed. Thank God Almighty. Daddy had laughed.