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Mad dogs, Englishmen, and ghosts of Irishmen

This is so not the day I finally try the heat gun! Now that it's scary-hot, we're holed up in our bunker--the living room, the one room with AC.  We eat there, like the Simpsons, in front of the TV, and last night we permitted the Child to sleep there, since her little room was like a pizza oven. The cats are, mostly, too stupid to figure out that it's cooler in there--they associate being closed into the living room with protracted stretches of imprisonment during home repairs--so they sack out, dull-eyed, on the landing, sending a continuous exodus of fur up and down the staircase.  Up here on the third floor, in my study, I've mostly had the computer off, afraid the hard drive will melt.   Last night there was a scary little brownout. I have been too cowardly to go out and water the plants, and now my cowardice is stoked by guilt and anxiety that all the container guys will be dead. Dead and reproachful.

 Speaking of dead and reproachful, I had a marvelous time yesterday hiding from the heat wave in the gorgeous cool marble-and-gilt caverns of the 42nd Street New York Public Library, researching my mother's family on the Ancestry.com database of Federal census records (free at the Library, by subscription only elsewhere). Beneath the vast ornate ceiling of the Reading Room, crystal-clear on a laptop screen, popped up the names that peopled the tales I begged to hear as a child: Richard D. Beecher, head of household. (My grandfather, naturalized from the "Irish Free State" after emigrating in 1898 as a 20-year old, handsome, fiercely articulate, and destined to die in his 40s in the tragic grip of alcohol.) Mathilde Beecher, wife. (My sad-eyed and elegant grandmother, whose iron hold on her daughters' lives outlived her by many decades.) Mathilde and Rosemary Beecher, daughters. (Mommy and Aunt Roey,  my godmother.) Lawless Loadsman, brother-in law--a consumptive cowboy who dated Ziegfield girls and brought home jazzy Victrola records on his trips back East, whose death seemed to have broken the family's heart into pieces that were further shattered by my grandfather's death a few years later. Cornelius Beecher ("Uncle Con"), brother-in-law, recalled by my mother as a grouchy but loveable simpleton who refused to be under the same roof with an Englishman. Micael Kiersey, lodger--the 21-year-old son of my grandmother's dear Dublin friend Mary, whose occupation was listed as "newspaper reporter," but was more accurately "IRA gun-runner on the lam," a dashing youth whose doomed romance with my teenaged Aunt Rosemary brought her close to the family hobby of attempted suicide.  Is it any wonder I dubbed the maternal clan "The Eugene O'Neill Dinner Party"?beechersdad.jpg

The girls,  with Daddy in winter (my mother is in the white fur hat, my Aunt Rosemary in the dark one)...








...and with Mommy, in summer (yes, the hair bows were as painful as they look)




Pointing and clicking, I followed my grandfather's life in 10-year glimpses: 1900 (a young clerk "fresh off the boat," single, in a boarding house on East 19th Street);  1910 (now a dry-goods salesman, still single at same address, with a fellow lodger whose occupation was "barkeeper at liquor saloon"); 1920, head of household with 2 young daughters, several hapless family members, and some lodgers, all in a rented house on Rodney Street in Williamsburg. Then, by 1930, in the depths of the Depression, there was no more Richard Declan Beecher; only my grandmother, widow and head of household, living in the house her husband bought in Richmond Hill, Queens for$8,500 shortly before his heart gave out. (There were too many Jews crossing over from the Lower East Side into Williamsburg for her parents to stay there, my mother recalled--ah, the Irish. Who at least have coined a word to describe such thinking: "Tuppence-ha'penny looking down on tuppence.")

The spidery handwritten census entries don't tell the half of it. They omit my grandfather's final years as a successful Model T salesman dubbed "One-a-day Dick" (I swear to God) for his car-selling prowess...the trips with his beautiful daughters in a smart new dealer's model out to the New Jersey countryside (it reminded him of Waterford, where he hoped to return for "the twilight of his life")...his passion for the opera (although he decried the legendary tenor John McCormick's acting ability, saying he looked like a turf farmer instead of a starving artist in "Boheme")...his lost weekends and nightmarish battles with various pledges and cures...and the day my mother opened the door to see a policeman holding her Daddy's hat and glasses and a face full of bad news: Twilight had come early and suddenly, on a bench in Forest Park. (My grandmother, standing at the top of the stairs, passed out cold and tumbled to the bottom, displaying the flair for drama that has been passed down through her female line.)

It was surreal to emerge with my pocketful of geneology notes into the suffocating tropical haze of Bryant Park, where lunch-hour fashionistas sat at cafe tables in the shade.  My city, my mother's city, her parents' city...Brooklyn and Manhattan, home and work, past and present...stories and memories, scraps of evidence and ephemera, as invisible as the mighty Crystal Palace that once stood on the grass and gravel beneath my feet. It's a cliche, this Irish passion for keeping the past alive, but like most cliche's, it's also a truth--and a treasure, and a curse. The names on the census sheet stay alive through the stories. The last place the stories were told was here, at the CrazyStable, my mother's last real home--and thus, in some very Irish way, the final home of  Lawless and Con and Micael and the rest of the Beecher clan. 

Well, almost the last place. Because now I've told them to you--a very few of them, anyway. 

Posted on Wednesday, August 2, 2006 at 10:59AM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | Comments1 Comment

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Reader Comments (1)

"It's a cliche, this Irish passion for keeping the past alive, but like most cliche's, it's also a truth--and a treasure, and a curse."

This so true.

My wife's family on her mom's side is predominately Irish, and they have a passion for their family's past and stories. They talk about family members that lived and died over 100 years ago like they knew them personally; it's amazing.

I'm kind of jealous. My family is mostly Scandinavian with a sizable bit of German on the side. They're the antithesis of the Irish; silence in all things is a virtue. It makes for a dull family get togehters. My wife's are a hoot. One of my favorites is the great-uncle who shot his son-in-law with pistol over dinner. It was loaded with blanks, but no one knew until after the fact.
August 7, 2006 at 10:52AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn

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