Mary Grace Gallagher: Holidays remind us of the truth in family stories
By Mary Grace Gallagher
Nov 16, 2019 | 12:18 PM
I have wished, many times, that I could press a rewind button, especially in the nine years since my father passed away. I’ve wanted to go back in time and have my laptop recorder on while I sat in the passenger seat of the car being ferried back and forth from college, a four-hour trip he made dozens of times, passing the hours with his funny stories of a free-range childhood; his carousing youth, his rocky relationships with employers who didn’t share his vision of fairness.
So many of those stories have settled into my brain as vivid images with few details. There’s the one of him on a raft traveling down the Monongahela River with a bunch of other kids, madly paddling to get out of the way of a steel barge. And why, exactly, did he get kicked out of Central Catholic High School? What about the one where his parents lost everything they owned after their Prohibition-era speak-easy was shut down?
I only have these vague ideas; maybe they’re completely wrong. Since my dad would have turned 83 this year, he has few contemporaries to corroborate and elaborate on those stories; fewer every day.
The more I’ve thought about those stories, the more I have felt compelled to track them down and see what parts invention they had become to me. A few years ago, I started by going through the online condolences from my father’s funeral announcement, but they had timed out. My mom was able to come up with the names of a couple of friends from my dad’s childhood in Hazelwood, a neighborhood on the Monongahela River’s edge of Pittsburgh. I remember my dad playfully referring to the first, Pasquale "Pat" DeBlasio, by his "Irish" nickname, “Patty O'Furniture.”
I had to schedule an appointment to talk to Pat, who, having had a heart transplant in his 60s, is still a full-time CPA at age 83. It was so much fun talking with a man who knew my dad as a “happy-go-lucky” grade-school kid with a slight build and “speed to him.” Even his story-telling reminded me of the way Dad would hoot midway through a story when he knew something funny was coming.
“I was a kid who got in fights myself, but your dad did what he was told to do,” said Pat. This surprised me. Dad had painted a bit of a rebellious picture of himself in the day.
I asked him about a classmate my father had seen killed in a terrible train accident when the boy had dodged ahead of him on his bike. The story haunted me; the way my dad said the boy’s name, over and over; still in disbelief that he had had to convince the boy’s father that the bloody trackside scene was, indeed, his son. It bothered me that I couldn’t remember the boy’s name when it had been shared so many times. Did Pat?
“Oh, George Lowe,” he said, his tone grave. “We were in third- maybe fourth, grade. Whatever possessed him to do that, we’ll never know. They put up whistles and bells and crossing arms after that. It’s always too late… At the time, there was a man stationed at a little shed, a booth with a chair to keep him out of the rain-- and he would come out when the signal was activated, when the train was a mile or so down the track, with a stop sign at the end of a handle. George went flying right past this guy, just as the train was coming.”
George’s death was, Pat said, a “big moment for all of us. It was like all of us kids felt that for a long time.”
Pat went on to talk about high schools and how my dad probably just couldn’t “toe the line.” He marveled, as I do, at how remarkable it had been to learn that my dad had overcome his expulsion from high school and gone on to finish high school and college and, at age 21, to step up to raise his 14-year-old sister when they were orphaned, and, in his final decade, teach graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University.
It was a good talk for both of us and we hung up, reluctantly, promising to talk again. George Lowe! I had a name and a story confirmed. Slowly, it dawned on me that I would need to make 30 or 40 more calls just like that to answer half the questions I have about my dad. Even then, there would be gaps and contradictions and so many stories missed.
In truth, it would be a mistake to try to fill in all the blanks in a life well-lived, whether it's for a personal archive, a book, film or story. It can't be done. Days and years fly by, some with little consequence; some with consequences so profound as to be lost in trauma, secrecy and the distraction of celebration.
But there is a reason my dad told those stories with some frequency. I like to think that they were a kind of a bridge, spanning the generations by showing us his fears and failures as well as his fortitude. Or perhaps he told me just enough of them to insure that I would someday have gratifying conversations with his old friends, reminding us all of what a delight he had been.
Obviously, children take all of those stories for granted, letting years slip by like miles on the road to a future somewhere more exciting; somewhere that would belong just to us. As the holidays approach and I find myself missing cherished extended family, I will try not to beat myself up for not recalling details like names and dates.
But every once in a while, when my mom is remembering her first sewing class or her long recovery from a childhood illness, I will slow down, pull up a chair and, with permission, press record.
I know I won’t be able to save all the stories. But maybe I can save the ones that will help me better understand some of the roads that she traveled before I climbed into the passenger seat.