Friday, March 14, 2003
An Irish Blessing
After he retired, my grandfather spent his days taking oil painting classes and making pictures of villages and fields, cottages and country people, donkeys and pathways, the mountains and ocean of the Galway home he left behind always in the background, the literal backdrop to his mental vision of a permanent and unchanging peace. He also combed flea markets searching for treasures to load into the basket of his old bicycle. Paintbrushes, golf balls, costume jewelry for my grandmother, books, tools, ugly paintings that he would disassemble in order to reuse the canvas and the frames. On nice days he would pack his battered brown suitcase with the golf balls and carry it to the park beside the train tracks. Each ball was painted fluorescent orange with a blue or red feather glued to it, so that after hitting them across the grass he'd be able to find them easily. He also went to Mass every day. For twenty-five years, he and my grandmother would walk to Saint Ann's Church every morning for the 8:00 service, usually holding hands along the way. They became sort of famous in our small neighborhood. Everyone smiled to see them walking that way, every day, in summer and winter, snow and hot sun. On very hot days he would hold a black umbrella over their heads.
Great-uncle Tom Murphy never retired. He started each day at the 5 a.m. Mass at Gate of Heaven church atop G Street in South Boston. Until a month or so before he died, six days a week for forty years, he drove his Cadillac three blocks, from the corner of P Street and Broadway to the corner of K Street and Broadway, to roll up the grate of T.G. Murphy's Jewelry. Every afternoon and evening he spent at the yacht club down the street, watching the ocean, talking very little. He taught himself to repair watches with a correspondence course, the same way he learned to play the organ, develop black and white photos, and play chess. He probably sold more Claddagh rings and Saint Anthony medals than any jeweler in the history of Boston. Celtic crosses on gold chains for Holy Communion presents, inherited watches, stopped since another time, diamond earrings, gold pens, and silver saints · it seemed that all of the big steps in the lives of his neighbors and customers were not complete without a stop at his store to mark them. Tom never married and lived with his also unmarried sister in the same third floor apartment all his life. During World War II, he fought in gun battles on islands thirteen thousand miles from home, but other than that, he left South Boston only a handful of times. When my father was young he spent his days with Tom, sanding and painting the bottoms of boats and sailing on Boston Harbor. When my sister and I were young, we did the same. From the jewelry store on Broadway to the yacht club at the foot of L Street, the circle of Tom's life was not wide, but it held the triumphs, losses, and hopes of the lives of many others in its embrace.
Both my grandfather and my uncle were quiet men. Words came to them roughly and softly, if at all. They seemed dignified, and they were, but it was not aloofness that made them reserved and courteous; it was a deep shyness. The faith they practiced was private and not discussed, but it was also obvious and strong · all of those hours in chilly, darkened churches, beginning the day with Prayers of the Faithful, in which they asked God to forgive the sins and open the doors of heaven to others who had died before them. The symbols and rituals of their religion were like the words in a poem: meaningless when separated, but full of beauty and power, truth and grace, when understood as one song. They believed in saints and their powers to heal and help. They believed in God's love and the promise of heaven. They believed that, one way or another, we all must answer for each thought and action, even the ones buried in our most quietest hearts.
A blessing is a wish you make for someone else. It's not charity and it's not magic. It can be bestowed silently and from far away: to hope that someone else will have long life, happiness, peace; to ask that some other person be healed or comforted or forgiven. Looked at this way, maybe two thousand years of religion can be refined down to the small habits and rituals of Stephen and Thomas. The daily, quiet prayers of two old men in two old churches were really just blessings in disguise.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito