All Roads Lead to Home

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Photo by fabulousphotosbybrittany on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

My niece recently said to me at a bridal shower, “Aunt Lou, I still have dreams about your house.”

She meant our century home in Cleveland. It was a grand old house that dominated the street. It accommodated me, Jimmy, my mother, seven children, a menagerie of animals, and various family and friends who came for a visit or sometimes to stay awhile. No matter how many people we had, there always seemed to be enough room.

I fell in love with that house the moment I set eyes on it. In fact, even though we weren’t looking for a house, it showed up at just the right time. Jimmy and I weren’t married long and we were living outside of the neighborhood. We were renting the lower half a double and it was fine. Except that it was far enough from the neighborhood that I couldn’t walk home. We had to drive.

One fine Saturday afternoon I was waiting for Jimmy to come home so we could take the children and go and visit my mother. And wait I did. Jimmy showed up four hours late. The kids had already fallen asleep. Needless to say I was not happy with him because he never called and I was worried. And if his breath was any indication, he had his fair share of beer, no doubt.

He explained he was out with his Godfather Ray and that they were looking at a house. It was a house he had no intention of buying. We couldn’t afford it. We didn’t have a down payment and we had three children. My guess is that they were at a “public house”, i.e. a local bar, having a few drinks.

Playing along, I said, “I didn’t know we’re in the market for a house. But now that you mention it, that’s a good idea.”

And much to Jimmy’s shock and amazement, I phoned his Godfather and asked Ray to take me to see the house. Much to my shock and amazement there really was a house to be seen. And Ray was only happy to take me. He knew the owners and he felt that he could help us seal the deal.

And such a deal it was. The house cost $10,000 in 1964. And since we had no deposit the owner agreed to sell it to us for $13,000.00. We used the extra money for the down payment. But we had one small problem; our rental agreement wasn’t up for many months. And we couldn’t afford both places.

It turned out that on the day we signed the loan our landlord asked us if we could move out of the double to accommodate his newly married son who was looking for a place to live. It looked like the stars were aligning in our favor. And from that day forward, although we had our ups and downs, that house was magical and filled with memories.

It withstood tornadoes, blizzards and meteorites that Jimmy mistook for aliens when they landed in the funeral home parking lot across the street. And he was stone cold sober when he saw them. But that’s another story for another time.

Guido recently reminded me of the many times our house gave shelter during some severe natural disasters.

The first time was during the tornado of 1969. Our house which was just south of Lake Erie, gave shelter to dozens of people fleeing the Lake after the July 4th fireworks. Total strangers and neighbors took shelter in our home and waited out the storm.

And in January 1978, a blizzard covered the city knocking out power and heat. Again, our house became a refuge for neighbors until the power came on. Our kids still refer to it as the neighborhood slumber party – the one they always wanted as kids but we never allowed.

Every once in a while, when I go to mass in the neighborhood I go back and visit our old house. The neighborhood has changed a lot since the days when we lived there. But there she sits atop the street, towering over the neighboring houses, like a mother hen watching her chicks.

And when I see her, because my house is definitely a “her”, I have this urge to ask the owners to rent it to me for just one night. One night where I’d have my own brood, just my children, come home and spend the night. My kids like to tease me about this. And on more than one occasion they have talked me out of knocking on the door to accost the poor unsuspecting owners.

And perhaps they’re right to do that. And while it saddens me that I can’t turn back the clock. I take comfort in the wise words of the Polish poet, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, who said, “You can close your eyes to reality but not to memories.”

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Kids Say the Darndest Things

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Photo by SamwiseGamgee69 on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Years ago there used to be a talk show program on TV hosted by Art Linkletter called Kids Say the Darndest Things.

And that’s true. You have only to talk or listen to a child to gain a fresh perspective on things.

I remember years ago, in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, overhearing a conversation between my youngest son Danny and his best friend Tommy. They might have been about seven or eight years old at the time.

Danny and Tommy attended different schools. Danny went to the local Catholic school and Tommy to the local public school. In fact, that’s how my children identified themselves back then. You were either Catholic or “Public” which was a catchall term for anyone who was not Catholic. Catholicism colored their everyday lives.

Take for example the different perspectives shared by the two boys on a fine summer’s day.

Danny pointed to the sky as a large white bird lands on the garage roof, “Look Tommy, it’s the Holy Spirit!”

“No it’s not,” Tommy said. “It’s the Spirit of ’76!”

Either way, I said, “God Bless America!”

And God Bless, Mom!

 

Off To The Zoo

My husband Jimmy was known to tell a tall tale or two. He didn’t quite lie so much as stretch the truth. I was reminded of that recently when I happened to be going through a box of old photographs.

One Sunday he volunteered to take the three youngest children, then six, five and three years old to the zoo. I thought that was wonderful as it gave me an afternoon off and it was a learning experience for the children.

I was a bit concerned about how he would manage the three of them on his own but he reassured me everything would be fine. And so off they went to the zoo – or so he told me.

Naturally the children were too young to make the distinction between to the zoo and the racetrack, which was the real destination. To kids at that age, an animal was an animal was an animal.

Jimmy was pretty pleased with himself when he returned. The kids said they had a good time and that they liked the animals. And mom was none the wiser. That is until a large brown envelope arrived in the mail a week later. It was a photo from the racetrack. It was a souvenir of the horse, jockey, owner and his friends in the winner’s circle.

Of course Jimmy had a wide circle of friends, one of whom was the horse’s owner, so it was no surprise that he and the kids were invited to be part of the group shot. What was a surprise to him was that the picture was mailed to our house addressed to our family.

And so when he came home from work, I asked him about his recent trip to the zoo as I placed the photo in front of him.

Whereby he calmly explained the racetrack was just like the zoo – after all both places had animals!

The Zoo1

Far right: Jimmy holding Donna with Beth and Danny in front.  Ponchos were very fashionable at that time.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

April has always been the hardest month for me. It’s the end of winter and the beginning of spring. I find it ironic that in the month of rebirth, over the years I lost three of the people who were dearest to me: my mom for whom this blog is named, and my brothers Carmen and Tony. I considered myself  and orphan and the young me, the Louisa of the old neighborhood, was alone.

My husband Jimmy always knew this was a bad month for me and held his breath and my hand until the “sad season” passed. He was so conscious of my struggle that even when he was sick and dying at the end of April 2015 he hung on until May 1st before he decided to go home to God. And even though I was surrounded by loving family and friends I never felt more alone.

Since then my family has always made sure that April was a busy month. We started this blog in April 2016 and we acquired my beloved Luigi in April 2017.

Luigi sleeping

I also recently took a bus trip with my in-laws to a Casino in Toledo. I know that my mom, brothers and Jimmy would have approved.

On the bus ride, a family member by marriage, called Uncle Eamon, pulled me aside. “I have something for you,” he said.

“Is it money?” I joked.

It turned out to be even better. He took my hand placed a beautiful rosary in it. He told me that my mother had given him that rosary 40 years ago when she returned from a visit to Rome. I had no idea.

I was pleased and surprised. And now he wanted me to have it. I of course insisted that he keep it because mom had given it to him. But he persisted. And so I put it in my purse. I thought perhaps it would bring me luck. Little did I know that later that night it would bring me something much better than luck.

After having paid for another chandelier at the casino we made the long bus trip home. Once home, I had a light bite, put the rosary next to my mom’s picture on the dresser and then fell exhausted into bed. I was just on the edge of sleep when I felt someone looking at me. I thought perhaps it was my granddaughter who lives with me and had come in to check on me.

I opened one eye and waved her away. I was fine. But the figure didn’t budge. And so I opened both eyes and saw the flickering figure of my mother standing at the foot of my bed. And then I knew.

At that moment even though all of those people that I loved were no longer here somehow I wasn’t alone. My mother came back to remind me that we are body and soul. And although the body may be gone the soul is eternal.
She showed up at the moment I needed her most. And her message to me is to always remember you’ll never walk alone.

Really I'm half Italian

Child’s Play

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Photo credit: E>mar on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Some people are lucky enough to retain a childlike sense of play all their entire lives. And the person who embodied that most in our family was my husband Jimmy.
He was just a big kid at heart who enjoyed the company of his children, the neighborhood kids, and his nieces and nephews.

Whether he was teaching them how to ride a bike down our gravel driveway, playing catch in the backyard, or acting as official kickball pitcher, he always tried to instill teamwork, good sportsmanship and a sense of fun in these activities.

Sometimes he was silly and many times he wouldn’t quite play fair. But as he used to tell me, life isn’t always fair. Take for example the summer of the banana splits. Back in the day we used to treat all of the kids to a soft custard cone from the ice cream shop at the top of the street. At ten cents a cone we could afford to treat our children and the neighborhood kids.

One summer my husband took it into his head to offer everyone a banana split if each one could catch the softball he’d throw to them. That was a big IF. It took all summer before all of the kids figured out his wily ways. Every night after supper they all lined up in the backyard. Each one punched his or her baseball glove rhythmically in anticipation eyeing the official pitcher (Jimmy) warily. What was he going to do now they wondered?

He was a tricky one that Jimmy. If they scanned the trees for a pop up fly, he threw it at their knees. If they prepared for a fast ball, he threw a sinker or curve ball. It took all summer but they finally did it. They finally figured it out. One hot summer night every single one of them finally caught whatever Jimmy could throw at them – even five year old Guido.

That was it. Jimmy was on the hook for eight banana splits. And at 0.75 cents a piece that was quite a chunk of change for us to absorb. I was scrambling for loose change to try and cover Jimmy’s extravagant prize.

Jimmy of course was unfazed by the whole thing. He calmly marched the entire troop into the kitchen. Hot and sweaty, their dirt streaked faces bore witness to their herculean efforts as they waited for my husband. Waited for him to grab his wallet and pay up.

Jimmy did pay up but not in the way they expected. That was one thing you could always count on with him. Expect the unexpected. (More about that later).

He reached up to the top of the refrigerator and pulled down a bunch of bananas. What he did next stunned his young charges. He promptly took a banana and cut it in half for each of them – splitting one each between the players.

Cries of “Not fair! Not fair!” rang out through the kitchen.

“How so,” Jimmy wanted to know? “Isn’t this a banana split?”

Jimmy turned the experience into a teachable moment quoting the immortal Yogi Berra.

“Kids,” he said. “Remember that ‘baseball in ninety percent physical. The other half is mental.’”

They were tricked by a sly fox and they knew it. “Do over!” they yelled.

And “do over” they did but not before clearly outlining the terms and conditions of the prize.

“This time it had to be a real banana split, with three scoops of ice cream, toppings, nuts and whipped cream. And it had to be served in the plastic banana boat. And it had to be purchased at the custard store at the top of the street.”

“Done,” said Jimmy.

Lucky for me, it took another two weeks before they were all able to catch the softball. And during time I was able to find enough loose change cover Jimmy’s extravagant prize. One thing for sure, child’s play in our family was certainly enough to keep this adult busy!

No Guts, No Glory

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My late husband used to wear his heart on his sleeve but kept his colors, green, white and orange, close to his heart. Sure he was an Irishman through and through and although he did celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as a young man, as he grew older and wiser he took a more sober approach.

Nothing pleased him more than a good party among friends and family. And the best loved, best attended party on the West Side was at the McNamara’s. Year in and year out, in a little house that seemed to have elastic walls, the Macs played host to hundreds of people of all ages including some of Cleveland’s finest first responders.

In 2015 Jimmy couldn’t attend the party personally but he called in to the house and they played the bag pipes for him over the phone. It really lifted his spirits.

At every party children would scamper between the adults, the old Irish immigrants would sing rebel songs, those who knew how to step dance would do a jig or a reel. And even those who didn’t  made an attempt. Steaming trays of corned beef and cabbage rolled out of the kitchen in abundance. Strangers were made welcome as is the Irish custom and old friends caught up.

Needless to say the beer flowed like a fountain. And the drink of choice was always Pabst Blue Ribbon. Sorry Great Lakes. For the designated drivers there was Barry’s or Lyon’s tea and scones. The term falling down drunk would never apply here because there were so many people standing shoulder to shoulder there was no opportunity to sit down let alone fall down.

Everyone drank his fill and then some. And soon the night wore into day and breakfast was served. The house was put in order and reset for a second round of festivities the next day. Yes, that’s right a second party – they called the Guts Party. As the Macs like to say, if you have the guts to show up again and pick up where you left off – then you’re welcome!

Here’s Céad Míle Fáilte to friend and to rover
That’s a greeting that’s Irish as Irish can be
It means you are welcome
A thousand times over
Wherever you come from.
Whosever you be.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all the Macs, to Eamon Moran, my favorite Irishman after Jimmy and all of the Westside Irish. Up Mayo!

God Only Knows – And He’s Not Telling

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Lately it seems that I have been making lots of trips to the neighborhood especially during Lent. I go to Mass, the Stations of the Cross, or just to reflect.

On a recent trip I had exited off of I-71 and Dennison Avenue. And as usual I caught the red light. And that light has got to be the longest light in the city. Ah, I thought, it’s a good test of my patience during Lent.

So as I sat there waiting for it to change I noticed a scruffy, young homeless man standing on the median with a sign that said “I’m Hungry.”

Well I’m as guilty as the next person as I thought, “Why doesn’t’ he get a job?” Not the most charitable thought to have on the way to church, now. Is it?

And so I wondered why kind of cross was he carrying? It’s easy to see Christ’s cross in a church but not so easy to see that Cross or Christ in others.

Overcome with shame and guilt, I rolled down my window and handed him two dollars.

By then the light had changed and the cars behind me were becoming impatient. “Move it lady,” Cried one driver. And so I did.

I was tempted to yell back, would you blow your horn at God and tell Him to move it? This poor young man could be God in disguise. But I didn’t.

That man’s behavior is between him and God. God help him!