Thursday, July 28, 2005

What's in a Name?

“Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.”
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”
“Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault
If Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.”
“Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?”
“Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre”

From Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard

I’d like to thank the folks who’ve given me the encouragement to proceed on my literary journey.

I’ve wrestled with this enterprise on which I’m embarking for a long time. Like almost all Americans I value my privacy. Knowing the blogosphere as I do now I see that there is a very eclectic mix of people out there who will have access to my story. Most I’ve met seem to be genuinely nice folks, but there are some who would trample on anyone’s life or their life narrative like swine on pearls. But I’ve concluded that, in the end, this medium is not unlike other media. It’s just a bit freer, a bit more open.

There are, it seems to me, keys to telling one’s story. First and foremost, one can’t tell his or her story to evoke sympathy or praise. In recounting history one must, from his or her unique viewpoint, just tell the story. But there’s a counterpoint to that admonition. I also think that one cannot strip history of its emotion and feeling. To do so would make it a sterile, useless exercise. And then there are the “facts.” These, too, must be held in balance. Given a unique perspective one will almost certainly see some events differently than those who have seen the same events from a different vantage point. How does the old standard from Gigi go?

He: “We met at nine.”
She: “We met at eight.”

He: “I was on time”
She: “No, you were late”

Both (in unison):

Ah, yes I remember it well.”

I think the key in all of this is for the storyteller not to lose sight of his or her target. And the target is, as I see it, the story itself and the stories it will hopefully bring up in those who hear it. The real point is that the recounting of one journey will lead to someone else recounting theirs, making sense of it all if possible.

In some cases the facts may be a bit muddled. In some instances the story could become too much of an emotional journey and drift into a Kerouac like stream of useless consciousness.

I hope that my literary journey will find that delicate path, the middle road between journalism and a personal journal.

I was going to start with what little I know of my early life, but after a long conversation with Nancy over lunch today I see that our narratives actually begin before we ever come upon the human scene. There are people and events that have some role in shaping us even before we’re born. This is not to deny the sovereignty of God. In fact, I believe it validates it. He knew the times; He knew the seasons. My life, and everyone’s life, is no accident and history itself reveals that this is true.

I’ve always felt that my father was the biggest influence on my life. That feeling manifests itself in the way I treasure the name Dillon. I have the trinkets to prove it. There are several coasters that make their way around the house that have the Dillon family crest emblazoned on them. On our living room coffee table sits a book titled “Clans and Families of Ireland,” with the name Dillon and the family crest proudly displayed on page 109. Behind me, on the wall of my writing room/library there is a plaque outlining the history of the Dillon family. It’s there to let me and anyone who visits know that the Dillons are a strong, proud family.

Now I honestly don’t know how much of the history that’s been written about the Dillons, just those little glimpses that have validated my pride. I can’t say for sure that I can trace my ancestry back to the noble events that brought them to America, but I claim them nonetheless. What I don’t claim are the ignoble traits the Dillons, like any other family or clan, have passed down from generation to generation. After all, would Cain’s descendants claim his envy and heart filled with murder? So, I’ve always claimed the Dillon ideal.

Today as we were discussing all of this at lunch I could see that Nancy was digging down into my soul, trying to glean some insight into my journey. It’s not that she hasn’t asked them before. But she’s very wise and has a wonderful knack of knowing the right moment to ask the right questions.

She began by asking some very simple questions. “So how much do you really know about your father?” I thought about it for a second or two and answered, “Not much, really.” Then she began to hit the target dead center. She has that gift - I think it’s called insight. She leaned back a bit from the table and began. “I know from what you’ve told me that he died from tuberculosis and that was compounded by his alcoholism.”
“Yeah, he did. He just gave up when he found out he had TB. The Second World War had begun and he wanted to enlist in the Army or the Marines when he found out. They told him that he didn’t pass the physical because of the disease, but that if he got treated and got better he could come back and they’d accept him. They told him it was going to be a long war and that there’d be plenty for him to do if he took a cure. But he just refused. He crawled into a bottle and died a slow, painful death. After all that I have very few memories of him. I have one of me running up and jumping into his arms when he came home from work once. And I have another of me seeing him toward the end of his life. He was in a hospital of some sort, waving at me, my brother and sister from a glass enclosed room. What I remember most was the feeling that gripped me as I watched him wave. I felt helpless. I wanted to touch him. I wanted to run up and jump into his arms like I’d done when I was even younger. But I couldn’t. The alcohol and the disease had taken their deadly toll. He’d given up. He’d abandoned everyone he said he loved and now the end was near.”
“Why do you suppose he did that?” Nancy asked
“I don’t know. My brother Bill has often asked that question and has never been able to make sense of it. All I can say is that I think it was a family thing.”
“Like his mother and father did?”
I began to feel a bit uncomfortable, but I knew I had to go on. “Well, Coach, you know the story. His mother died of alcoholism. I think they called it consumption back in those days.”
“And your grandfather? What about him?”
The memories began to come back, like wispy clouds, clouds that seemed benign at first glance, but hinted of storms to come. I remembered seeing him in a sleazy Boston flat, drunk as he almost always was. I remembered a time when he opened an old issue of Life magazine and began to weep uncontrollably. The mix of alcohol and Irish melancholy he displayed made me recoil. I tried to pull away from him, but he had to tell his story. He opened the magazine to a story about West Point graduates who had been killed during the Korean War. He would point to a photo, to a face I’d never seen before, and begin to moan and cry. “Oh, Jesus, these were good boys,” he wailed. He went on for what seemed like hours, eulogizing them one by one. When he was done he let me go and I moved as far away from him as I could. I was just a boy, but I knew then that I didn’t want to be like him.

Nancy interrupted this part of the journey with another question. “You said he died an awful death?”

The words pierced, bringing more old memories to the fore. I could see my grandfather, vividly, with his face twisting and contorting, struggling against death. He was in a hospital bed. I remember seeing his arms flailing, partly because of the pain and partly because I think he knew death was near. As his arms flailed the intravenous tubes emanating from his hands would vibrate. He would occasionally moan; he would occasionally curse God for giving him his lot in life. As I looked back across the table at Nancy I stiffened my back and tried to stifle my emotions. “I swear to you, Coach, I’ll never die like that. I’m gonna’ take it like a man when it comes.”

Nancy kept probing. “Your dad had a brother and sister too?”
“They were alcoholics too. Right?”
Another inescapable Dillon “fact.” “They were, Coach.” “My uncle never got over it, but my Aunt Annie did. I think my brother, sister, and I have always loved and admired her for that. She didn’t give up. She fought the good fight and she won.”
“Your uncle?”
I felt my insides vibrate when she mentioned him a second time. “Coach, you know the story. He wasn’t just a drunk, he was a child molester.”
I struggled with my thoughts, thinking that something very painful from the past would overwhelm me. But the only thing that came was a memory of a time later in life. I think I was in the military at the time, home on leave. I was visiting my brother and during the course of the visit we went over to my uncle’s apartment. I think my brother really knew what I needed, but all the way over I was internally resisting. The memory of those few moments is, again, very vivid. My uncle was restless, almost constantly in motion as my brother and I sat. I’d decided I wasn’t go to say anything at all and I think that made the air inside that cramped apartment very tense. My uncle tried, tentatively, to break the ice. “So, Butch, how are you doin.”
I really didn’t want to answer, but felt I had to say something.” “I’m alright, Frank,” I deadpanned, hoping he would see that the lack of emotion in my words was tantamount to contempt.
“Let me get you some ice cream?” he asked. I think he was looking for some way to atone.
“Okay,” I responded, this time in an even more pronounced monotone.
He fixed some ice cream for both of us. What I noticed was that he’d made me a much bigger bowl than he had for Bill. “Another flimsy attempt at seeking absolution,” I thought.
A few minutes of silence passed and he reached into his wallet and pulled out some money. “Here,” he said as he handed to me. “Just a little something to spend. I know it’s not much, but it’s hearfelt.”
“I pushed his hand back. “No, Frank, that’s okay. I’m doing fine.”
He pushed the money back in my direction and I pushed back again. It seems now that it was choreographed, like an absolution ballet. My uncle was desperate for forgiveness and I was in no mood to grant it. When I saw that he was going to keep trying I took the money. I never said thanks. I never brought up the past. I just took it and kept my thoughts to myself. As I folded the money and put it in my wallet I remember thinking, “You worthless bag o’ shit. Do you really think that fifty dollars and a bowl of ice cream can make up for what you did?”

We left my uncle’s apartment and went back to my brother’s house. I can’t recall much of the conversation on the way home, but I’m almost certain it was about forgiveness. As I think back on it now it was wisdom that was well beyond me. I couldn’t see it then, but I can now. Forgiveness is a two-way power. It gives a person the power to remit sins committed and it gives a person the power to overcome the effects of past sins. I think that only love is more powerful than forgiveness, and that’s because forgiveness is rooted in love. I couldn’t see it all back then. I can now. Unfortunately, for my uncle it’s too late. He died some time ago and I never saw him again after that brief encounter at his apartment. I’ve forgiven him, I really have. There may come a time when I can tell him in person. I’ll only know that when I cross the bar.

Nancy was observing intently as I sat quietly reflecting. Then she picked up a crayon that was sitting on the table at the restaurant and began to write the names of my mother’s family on the paper table cloth. This exercise went on for some time, and I’ll relate more about that part of the story tomorrow. But, when she was done she leaned over and asked, “I’m curious about something. Why do you identify so with the Dillons and so little with the Parks?”
“I’m a Dillon,” I responded.
“It’s not as simple as that, Slick. Why would you identify and idealize all that seems to awful when you recount it?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.”
“You know I’m not making any value judgments, Slick. But I think that’s an important question for you to answer.”

We left the restaurant and started to make our way up the turnpike to Emporia. I think that it was at about Cassoday, mile marker ninety-two, that it really struck me. The reason I’ve idealized that part of my life is that it’s been part of my search for the ideal. As I look back at the Dillon family crest I see a lion surrounded by three crescent moons. As I gaze at it I see the Dillons in all their nobility. I see men of courage and conviction; I don’t see men with feet of clay. I see men of honor and nobility; I don’t see men who are deeply flawed, fallen men, weak men, sinful men. Of course the reality is much different. Sins of the fathers are passed down to the sons. One generation often wreaks havoc on the next.

And, more importantly, I think I’m trying to grasp at the things I didn’t have. I guess life is like that. We all too often want the things we don’t have. We want someone else’s wealth. We want someone else’s husband or wife. We want someone else’s land. We want someone else’s ideal, believing it’s better than ours. It’s the human condition.

I gaze back again at the Dillon family crest. The lion looks no less noble than he did a moment ago, but I think something has changed, something that will facilitate the journey I’m undertaking. Reality has set in. I’m a Dillon, not the idealized Dillon, mind you. I’ve had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get to where I am. So have my brother and sister. We’ve broken the chain. And I wonder now how that all happened. What contributed to our success? I guess I could go the easy route and just say it was grace, but I think there are ingredients that combined to make that grace possible. As I do I see that God, in His sovereignty, planted things in the lives of others before I was born that made those acts of grace in my life possible. One side of that story is the story of the Dillons of Boston and the Dillons of County Meath. But there’s also the story of the Parks, some of whom emigrated from Mciver’s Cove, Newfoundland and found their way to Boston.

It’s their story, the story of the Parks, and one Park in particular, Susie, that needs to be told to make sense of my story.

That will come tomorrow.

1 comment:

Gone Away said...

Fascinating. And so well written.