The Ice House

by John S. O’Connor

Photo by John S. O'Connor

Photo by John S. O’Connor

Like many American kids, I started playing tennis in the summer of ’74, the year Chrissy and Jimmy each won Wimbledon. Dad finally landed full time work with Streets and San, and we’d just moved to a new house—our first—a bungalow on the Northwest side of Chicago.
I started playing by volleying a ball against the three flat next door, but the Vuksinics, our Yugoslavian neighbors to the south, insisted I stop, incensed by the constant pinging in their kitchen. Their complaints seemed a little unfair to me since no one ever called the cops when they built a little slaughterhouse every spring, making homemade kielbasa in the do-it-yourself abbatoir they called a meat hut. But no one else seemed to share my outrage, so tennis was banned in the back yard. It turned out to be a good trade since I took my game down the street to play against the Ice House wall.
We called it The Ice House since years before it had been the home of the Jefferson Ice Company, but all that remained of that era was the fading outline of the corporate logo stenciled just above the loading dock. Still, we continued to call it the Ice House because we were all grateful for a recognizable place marker within the monotonous local geography of the bungalow belt.
The parking lot held about 20 cars and the wall had recently been tuckpointed for true bounces off the wall. While lots of kids played Pinners on their front steps with pink rubber baseballs; and while nearly everyone lined up to play fast pitch with the freshly painted strike zones on the convent wall, the Ice House wall was mine, a little kingdom all my own.
Nearly every afternoon of my boyhood was spent hitting tennis balls against the wall. I played in the rain and, if I couldn’t afford or arrange indoor court time in the winter months, I even brought a shovel with me to clear away a clean rectangle of “court space.” As a mediocre tournament player, and a guy who eventually peaked as a bottom-rung player on a D-III college team, it was clear to me early on (though probably not as early as it should have been), that the Ice House wall was the closest I’d ever get to playing in a Grand Slam tennis tournament. For me, you see, the Ice House was Forest Hills and Flushing Meadows of the U.S. Open; Kooyong Stadium down under; the slow red clay of Roland Garros. Christ, to me, the Ice House was the All-England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon.
* * *
The summer I really got into tennis was also one of the worst summers in our family. My mother was home less than usual, working two or three jobs as a private nurse. With a steady paycheck and money in his pocket for the first time in ages, my father drank nearly every night. He also beat my brother on a regular basis, their battles always at a steady simmer and ready to boil over. Their fights that summer were the ugliest they had ever been, volcanic eruptions of anger always reeking of sweat and accusation and almost always ending in blood and tears.
We were sensitive as seismologists to my father’s approach, anticipating his presence long before we saw his face. We’d listen for the breaking and jerking of his Impala outside and the heavy thud of his construction boots on the front steps—powerful signs of what would come next, the way horror movie directors show roadside puddles shivering with every footfall long before the monster actually appears.
My father entered our house the same way every time, swinging the front door open to crash against the little writing desk on which no one ever wrote. Then he’d slam the door shut behind him so hard that the portrait of St. Theresa, the Little Flower, swung back and forth on the penny nail peg, as if she were shaking her head in disapproval. The fights always ended in one of two ways: my dad would pass out or he’d drive off for the Six Penny Bit and, when he left, our house once again grew cold and quiet as ice.
* * *
There is a Zen-like rhythm to be found in pounding balls against a brick wall: the satisfying sameness of shots, the profound sound of rebound. It must be the same feeling basketball players get shooting jump shots all afternoon, or pianists practicing endless sets of scales. It’s the mesmerizing monotony of muscle memory. It’s the almost spiritual way you can utterly lose yourself in the solipsistic cocoon of repetition and block the rest of the world out completely.
* * *
My parents were Irish immigrants and we (my sisters, brother, and I) were Irish-American, or just plain American, a species living just beyond this seemingly unbridgeable gulf. My father spoke disparagingly of Americans and he hated American slang: “Yeah, sure” he’d mock, grotesquely elongating the vowels, trying to escape his brogue long enough to approximate the local accent. “That’s the American for you: they’re sure of everything and they know nothing.” On Sunday mornings after Mass, when the Irish parishioners would congregate in little packs outside St. Ed’s church, the conversation inevitably centered on the idea of home—meaning Ireland: “When are you going home next?” or “Has it been three years then since you’ve been home?” Maybe that was why my father didn’t think of our house as his home.
My father never played sports of any kind, and he certainly never played when he was a child either, but he watched sports on TV when he was home. He liked boxing most of all—Muhammad Ali was the only black man I ever heard him praise—but I don’t think he understood any of the American sports he watched. When he was home he’d sit on the La-Z-Boy in his boxers shouting blindly at the TV, owing to his terrible vision and to his almost complete ignorance of the rules. He rooted mostly for the Irish players, the Fighting Irish, of course, but also, smitten by the shamrock logo on their warm-up suits, he cheered on the Boston Celtics (which he pronounced KELL-tics) as if they were his home team, later insisting, for example, that Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell was from the old country. (I knew a Maxwell back in Connemara). When watching tennis with my father, on those rare occasions when I’d watch with him, I only recall him shouting, Who won that one? after—and sometimes during—each point. My father never in his life set foot on a tennis court. He never saw me play.
* * *
I wasn’t looking for a father figure, but I found one when McFetridge, a park district sports complex that included indoor tennis courts, opened the following year (just two miles east on the 78). The head pro was William Ross, a British born military man who ran a tight ship. He always wore a military crew cut and tennis whites. Why white? Because white is the color of my soul, he’d deadpan.
Mr. Ross himself came onto the courts before my first Saturday Junior Development lesson. We were all dying to play, and we didn’t want to hear a sermon from the old man. I shot my friend Danny Portenlanger a look and rolled my eyes, but he was too good natured, too well-mannered, or maybe just too afraid of the old guy to play along.
Channeling his inner Elizabeth Bishop, Mr. Ross started our first lessons by teaching us how to lose. “Okay, put your racquets down, and listen up,” he said. Before we had even struck a ball, we practiced defeat. “Most of you are going to lose as often as you win,” he said, “so you better learn how to do it right.” Then, using the mysterious fractions that only gym teachers understand, he continued: “I want half you guys on the far baseline,” he said, pointing with his Dunlop Maxply Fort. Why does he get to hang on to his racquet? I wondered, but no one else seemed to notice the injustices I observed everywhere. “And half you guys on this baseline,” he continued, before the head-scratching, unwitting, punchline: “The rest of you guys follow me to the net to watch.”
The two lines at opposite ends of the court each sent a player to the net to practice losing with grace: “Nice match. Good luck in the rest of the tournament” (the idea being that there was no rest of the tournament for the loser). “Eye contact,” Mr. Ross barked. “Firm grip.”
A wildcard named Orestes said, “Hey Mr. Ross, when do we practice winning?” A couple of us younger kids gasped at his impertinence. I don’t think I ever spoke to Mr. Ross directly, though I respected his authority as much as anyone I’d ever met.
“You practice winning when you learn to follow rules. Now why don’t you take a lap of contemplation to think about that.” Orestes knew not to question Mr. Ross again and he took off jogging around the perimeter of the five indoor courts.
“Everyone knows how to win, but losing with grace is the most difficult part of any sport.”
Even as a bratty ten-year-old, I knew Mr. Ross was right. I still often find the handshake between coaches and players at the end of basketball games or the ragged handshake lines after hockey games to be as riveting as the games that preceded them. Handshakes at the end of tennis matches—where two men meet in the middle, reaching out across the net—are the best of all.
I also loved the clear-cut code of manners that Mr. Ross preached. (This will seem hypocritical to anyone who saw me smash racquets as a junior player—especially Father Jaskula, my high school coach who loaned me an aluminum “red-Head” racquet that I returned looking more like a soup ladle at the end of a three-set loss). I’m talking more about the rituals surrounding tennis more than tennis itself. With tennis you always knew what was coming, what to expect.
You spin a racquet to decide who will serve first. Thanks to Chrissy and Jimmy, practically everyone played with Wilsons in those days, so when my opponent asked me, “M or W?” at the start of a match, I copied Mr. Ross’s line, “I’ll take W for Winner,” a line I used for the next ten years or so. Warm-up balls should be hit to your opponent’s forehand at waist height unless he specifically tells you otherwise. Never step up to the service line unless you are holding two balls (Mr. Ross had no patience with players who didn’t wear shorts with pockets or who couldn’t hit one-handed backhands—and almost everyone used two hands back then since … need I say it? … Evert and Connors did).
The rulebook settled all ambiguity as clearly as the white lines on a tennis court demarcated the service boxes, baselines, and alleys. Tennis provided an abundance of order and stability, the very commodities that were most missing in my home life.
* * *
Dad came home late nearly every night, but one night that summer my brother, Junior, came home even later than Dad did, and all hell broke loose. Dad shouted so loud, smashed so much furniture, and beat my brother so badly that night the neighbors had to call the cops. I don’t remember how much I saw. I usually hid behind the dining room table or the La-Z-Boy, feebly yelling, “Stop it.” My sisters retreated to their room. I tried not to look, but I remember my father slapping my brother, and I can still picture him holding my brother up with one hand, his work belt in the other snaking through the air over and over again. My mother tried to intervene that night, but he pushed her away and called her a whore, a word he pronounced as though it rhymed with poor. I don’t remember him ever hitting my mom, or my sisters for that matter, but he never let anyone get in the way of his target. That night he pushed her to the side, knocking her so hard into the wall, the hallway closet flew open, sending her white nursing uniforms flying out like ghosts on a string.
My brother red-faced, bleeding, crying, the room reeking of alcohol…whose? My brother had already started “experimenting” with booze. My father shook with rage. His own face was redder and blotchier than usual, an enormous, misshapen pomegranate.
We all ran to the neighbor’s house for protection. Mrs. Field, a divorcee, was what we’d call a single mom these days. But back then my parents said she lived alone—despite the fact she lived with her two children. We pitied her and thought that, as a Protestant, she would surely burn in hell, but that night we were grateful to find a place where we’d be safe for the night. She offered a safe house without our having to ask, and we ate frozen pizza and Archway cookies, played cards until bedtime while the cops talked my father down, staying with him until he fell asleep.
I remember people asking my mother if she felt safe, if she might want to join a support group. But she had already done this. When we lived in an apartment on the west side, my mother used to take me with her to meetings in the basement of St. Catherine of Siena, our parish church. The women in the group were all victims of alcoholic spouses, and while I don’t have any idea what they could have talked about, I do know that the size of the support group got smaller and smaller each month, some leaving their spouses-unthinkable to an Irish Catholic like my mother—and others, I guess, deciding they would live with the situation as best they could. Once, years later, I asked her why she stopped going and she told me, “I stopped going when I was the only one left.”
I don’t remember much more of what happened that night except that in the morning we returned home, cleaned up the broken dishes, and the house returned to normal.
Or at least my mom cleaned up. I went down to the Ice House and played a 128 man Wimbledon draw. I didn’t know enough names of current players (even though I’d usually bring Tennis and World Tennis with me to generate names) to make up the entire field, so I used the names of past stars where I had to fill in. This way Don Budge could play John Newcombe, and Roscoe Tanner enjoyed an epic battle with Rene Lacoste. Owing to my hatred of the Vuksinics, the Yugoslav players, Mimi Jausovic and Niki Pilic, never made it out of the first round.
* * *
One of the gifts sports can bestow is an appreciation of a bigger world than the one you come from, especially in an international sport like tennis. How cool and exotic the names of the players: Olga Morozova, Wojtek Fibak, Ilie Nastase, Hans Gildemeister, Corrado Barrazuti, Frew McMillan, Vitas Gerulaitis, Balazs Taroczy, Ilana Kloss, Bjorn Borg, Evonne Goolagong, Fiorella Bonnicelli, Torbin Ulrich, Virginia Ruzici, Althea Gibson, Guillermo Vilas. And not an Irish name in the bunch!
The language was pure music: the names of serves (the Cannonball, the Slice, the American Twist) sounded like amusement park rides; grips (western, eastern, continental) sounded like dance steps. The various court surfaces fascinated me (I learned that “la terre battue” was French for broken brick, just as “hard courts” were American for cement; I discovered that the perfect whiteness painted on the manicured lawns of Wimbledon was called titanium paste; I marveled at the slick overlay of carpet at indoor events, rolled right on top of basketball courts or ice rinks, that always made me think of the Ice House remnants. In fact, when remnant rolls stuck out of the dumpsters, I’d sometimes roll them out in the parking lot and play the U.S. Pro Indoor in Philadelphia). Tennis gave me a seemingly ever-expanding universe of possibilities at a time when the world of my home was feeling ever more cramped, claustrophobic, constricted.
* * *
These days we might call it cosplay. At the Ice House I’d wear wristbands in emulation of Ashe and Connors, a headband in imitation of Borg and Vilas, a dishtowel tucked inside my shorts to play like the fastidious Manuel Orantes. I also borrowed their sounds, often grunting like an Argentinian baseliner on every shot. No one seemed to notice this aside from Mrs. Nitz, an ancient widow who lived across the street and who walked her schnauzer mix, Fluffy, about thirty-five times per day. Usually she’d leave me alone, but every now and then she’d mumble, as if to herself but clearly within earshot, “That boy doesn’t have an ounce of sense.”
I learned to hit like the players I was impersonating, too—a pale imitation of course, but I copied the general strokes fairly well. I copied Navratilova’s rocking service motion; Vilas’s grapevine footwork across the center service line, an obvious foot fault that was never called; I imitated McEnroe’s “can opener” serve which was so closed-shouldered it looked like a Luis Tiant delivery, and I aped John Newcombe’s “buggy whip” forehand; like Billie Jean King, I pointed my index finger skyward on every overhead; I borrowed Borg’s extreme western grip, low to high with a follow through so powerful he appeared to be hugging himself; I adopted Panatta’s elegant slice backhand, his guide arm and his racquet arms moving synchronously in opposite directions, resembling a home plate umpire calling the runner “Safe!”; I loved hitting Kenny Rosewall’s slice forehand, a shot I still hit, though it’s practically extinct on the pro tour these days; I practiced the chip and charge of Stan Smith and Brian Gottfried and all of the Aussies; I doggedly practiced hitting moonballs—defensive lobs used even when no one was attacking—off both sides that Eddie Dibbs and Harold Solomon used to confound would-be net rushers or fellow baseliners with less patience or inferior actuarial data. The moonballers caused me to roof dozens of balls over the years. (Once, an Ice House worker went to clean the roof and threw a bucket full of ancient tennis balls back down to me. It was a surreal event, the tennis balls grey, fungal and fuzzy like rancid fruit shaken out of an imaginary vegetable crisper, or maybe the hideous monochromatic ornaments bedecking Charles Adams’ Christmas tree). There was an endless variety of shots to master and a near infinite catalog of roles to play.
* * *
Those summer nights were full of fireflies and the wails of emergency vehicles. One night that summer, though, it wasn’t my dad. It was my dog, Friskey, a French poodle with an AKC pedigree (his show name was My Boy Whiskey, shortened to Whiskey and then altered to Friskey lest anyone think we were a family of drinkers. That’ll throw them off the stink of the Mick stereotype). Friskey came to us the way all our dogs had come to us-through bar bets. Dad was a fierce poker player—he often won our Thanksgiving turkeys the same way—and apparently had a particularly good hand one night, bringing home a dog with a lineage far superior to any we could ever claim. (Dad hit some bad luck as well now and then, like the time a few years later when my beloved Sheena, a collie-shepherd mix, vanished as fast my dad could turn over a pair of nines, only to be replaced by Chico, an anti-social Chihuahua who came advertised as having a “nervous anus”).
Friskey’d been hit by a car driven by an old lady. It never occurred to me that my dog might have run out into traffic and that he likely darted through the steady line of parked cars on our street. On our block there was only one driveway—a rarity in the bungalow belt—and after 6 pm it was always hard to find a spot. No driver would have seen him. Nor did it ever occur to me that it was our responsibility to keep Friskey inside. He romped freely through the neighborhood, coming and going as he pleased. He was my most frequent visitor at the Ice House, where he’d stop for a quick pet and continue roaming the neighborhood. Instead, I blamed the stupid old lady—who had to be fifty if she was a day—and who had no business on the road. And I cried that night as I hadn’t cried over anything else in my life.
We rushed Friskey to the vet, but he said the injuries were severe, a broken leg and some brain damage we’d have to look out for. A few days later, Friskey’s eyes clouded over, and he began walking —limping—into walls. We needed to have him put to sleep. Friskey, my constant companion, and my only regular visitor at the Ice House was gone. That night I said, “I hope Friskey is in heaven right now.” But rather than be comforted by this thought, my dad was furious. He ground his teeth at the sacrilege and threw a right punch into his open left palm. “Don’t ever say that to him,” my mom said. “You’ve upset him. Dogs are animals. Heaven’s only for human beings.”
Dad’s reaction surprised me since Sister Jean Michael, a nun who tragically shared the same name as the future New York Yankees’ skipper, never minded my prayers for the dog. In fact, she welcomed my prayers. If I had one decided strength as a grade school student it was as a petitioner. I excelled at offering up the day’s school work for a particular cause. The default offering from a stoner like Joey Matthias or a ditz like Mary Kate O’Brien was generally something generic like “the tortured souls of purgatory,” but that always seemed like a cop out to me. I made my offerings count, using the occasion as a chance to show that I always watched the nightly news: May we offer up our work today for the misguided members of the Simbionese Liberation Army; for the Cambodian refugees fleeing the fallen capital of Pnom Penh; for my dog Friskey who was hit by a car. I could mention the dog at school, but I learned quickly that this was another subject that we would never talk about at home. We just waited for the day when a new dog would be dropped into the poker kitty.
* * *
Mom saved all her tears for the late August night they drove in silence to the Aer Lingus terminal at O’Hare airport. My brother had continued to stay out late, continued to drink. Though he was a gifted student, earning a scholarship to his Catholic high school, he failed freshman biology and was later accused of stealing paint from a neighbor’s garage. Improbably, the neighbors pressed charges, and my father sent him off to Ireland for the next four years to finish high school. My mother wept, huge heaving sobs, in silence, as she got in the car and they headed for the Kennedy. My dad wore a jacket and tie, which he usually only wore to church services, weddings and wakes. I wore a tee shirt and tennis shorts and bounced a ball on my racquet on the front porch until the car pulled away. My brother was told to dress up. He’d have to make a good impression on my father’s sister, Auntie Bridget, and her husband, Uncle John. Everyone cried as much at the creepy ceremony of the scene as for my brother’s actual departure. My brother and I were told to shake hands—something we had never done before except for the offering of peace in church—and we shook firmly in silence. I tried to speak once but swallowed my words. All I could think to say was, “Nice match. Good luck for the rest of your life.”
* * *
Things were icier at home than usual when Mike went off to Ireland. When she lost the battle of keeping Mike at home for school, my mother spoke up more, took my father on, and relied on me to be a conduit when he came home drunk. My job was to carry up food he’d ask for when he’d stagger home and go straight to their bed. Except for Fridays, she usually just made him a hamburger. Auntie Bridget had told her that “red meat was the only real cure.” He was never satisfied, saying, “I’m out there breaking my back, making top fucking dollar, and I come home to this shit?” I often delivered the food tray with mock ceremony, like a Wimbledon champion bowing before the Duke of Kent, but the room always scared me. It stank of tobacco and booze and when my father was ready to move on to the dessert course (tea and oatmeal cookies), he removed his teeth and placed them in a clear glass by the side of the bed. He dipped the cookies in the hot tea and then tossed back the liquefied cookie into his mouth. Sometimes he’d invite me to share some. Then I’d unlace his work boots and pull them off his feet and we’d all hope he’d stay asleep till morning.
* * *
What kind of tennis player would my father have been? I think of Lew Hoad or Pancho Gonzalez—big men who relied exclusively on power rather than finesse. Flat, heavy, overpowering shots. No lobs, no dropshots, a high risk, all-or-nothing sort of game. The kind of player who stands on the baseline and refuses to budge an inch.
* * *
As I got older, I fought with my father more openly. Once when he came home late, smashing plates and threatening my mom, I stepped in between them for the first time. “Leave her alone,” I shouted, but I was no match. His index finger became a straight pin puncturing the swelling balloon of my chest. “Oh, you’re a man, now?” he said with a laugh before going back out to the bars that didn’t always remember to close at two.
As a freshman in high school, I lived under the same threat of exile my brother had actually endured. The tacit guarantee was that if I failed a class I, too, would join my brother at St. Mary’s in Ireland. In early June of that year, I remember walking home from school with my best friend Billy and meeting my Spanish teacher on the street. We were in front of McFetridge, headed toward the Montrose bus. I immediately got a chill seeing my teacher, Señor Kozlowski. Mr. K and I hated each other. I never did homework and he knew almost no Spanish (he was one of the two dozen or so football coaches at the school). I had been on the verge of failing his class all year, and I knew I had bombed the final.
“Oh shit,” Billy said, “you are screwed. “Cross the street before he sees you.” But it was too late.
“Mr. O’Connor,” Señor K said, “I bet you’re wondering how you did on the final.”
“Yes, I mean, sí, I guess so.”
“You sucked. That’s how.”
“So what did that make my final grade?”
He laughed and said, “You know if I had any respect for you at all, I’d give you the failing grade you deserve. But, I don’t, so I’m giving you a D-.”
“Muchas gracias.”
* * *
One summer night a few years later has always stayed with me. My mother was working late and my sisters were both out. My oldest sister had already started college in Wisconsin, and my other sister may well have been working. She was withdrawn as a teenager and often spent huge amounts of time in her room, trying to wall herself off from the commotion in the rest of the house.
My brother, who had just finished high school in Ireland and was as tall as my father by then, had come home drunk and was in a deeply reflective mood. My father had been drying out from a recent binge of his own and ran to the top of the stairs to stop my brother from going to his room. He wore boxers and a sweat-stained dago tee and wielded the belt he had used so many times in the past. He lashed out at my brother like a deranged lion tamer, the belt slithering through the air. The belt buckle shines gold now in my memory, but it was probably an ancient strap of leather, old as all his other clothes, and the hallway stairs were never particularly well lit.
My brother stood across two steps like a sailor on the prow of a ship and he was crying, even though my father had never managed to make contact.
“Why?” Junior screamed over and over again.
And my father screamed back, “Get out. Get the fuck out of my house.”
Their voices sounded hoarse and desperate even from the beginning of this fight, but their words didn’t seem connected to each other. They were just a few feet apart but this was no dialogue. It was more like dueling arias of anger and frustration.
Once, when my father swung the belt, my brother caught the buckle in his hand. I gasped. I know my father was surprised and a little scared himself. Would my brother, as he fell, pull the old man down, toppling the two biggest men in my life, like the outsize monuments of public statues? I pictured the two of them tumbling cartoonishly to the foot of the stairs, crushed into a mountain of red clay dust.
Instead, they played a stalemate game of tug-of-war, screaming and yanking, the length of my father’s belt the only distance between them.
Then my father ordered me to get him a bucket of hot water, as hot as I could make it. I wondered if he’d been hurt and I hadn’t seen. I ran to the bathroom and filled the mop bucket to the top with steaming hot water. When I returned he let go of the belt and threw the bucket of scalding water at my brother. He tossed the bucket back to me and said, “Again.” But this time I didn’t move.
My brother was crying and my dad seemed on the verge of tears. The belt lay limp and useless on the stairs between them in a puddle of water. When my brother looked up just before leaving to stay god knows where that night, he looked exactly like my father. My brother had become a mirror. It’s taken me years to understand that, to know that the look of abject hatred on my father’s face was really self-loathing and perhaps a little shame. All I knew that night was that I had never before seen his face so full of disgust and anger. It was the meanest scowl I have ever seen. He must have left his smile in the glass by the bed.
* * *
The next morning I went down to the Ice House to play another tournament, a fortnight of matches in a single day. I dispensed with early rounds in a matter of points, joining the action late the way sports anchors did on update shows, chancing upon Borg serving out Ray Moore, or John Lloyd disappointing the British faithful again with an early round bow-out to the American, Dick Stockton. But the final rounds were generally played out in full, points started with serves and rallies often lasting dozens of shots long unless the ball took an odd bounce. Every time the ball hit the chalk outline of the net, drawn with a miniscule dip in the middle and higher on the ends, I’d whisper/yell “net chord” the way Bud Collins did during the Championships. And though there were occasional upsets, the matches once again went the way I wanted them to go. My favorite player (by then, no doubt, Irish-American John McEnroe) never had to practice losing. He won again, as usual, and I left the Ice House feeling better, as if justice had been served and order restored.
* * *
I no longer think of my father as a monster. It helps that he died. I know that sounds harsh, but I took no solace from his death. Nor was there any relief in seeing my father wither away, ravaged by lung cancer in a now defunct hospital. Certainly not in those final days when I held his shriveled little hands—Big Mike’s hands—his fingers thin and pink and cold as birthday candles on an ice cream cake. Perhaps it is a measure of our empathy, our humanity that we come to see our parents not strictly through the assassin glare of childhood but eventually to appraise them on their own terms. If this is the case, my brother got there long before I did. On the night of my father’s funeral (where we were both pall bearers)-my brother, who had much more reason to feel resentment than I did, kept saying, “You know, the old man had a hell of a tough life.”
It’s true: my dad, Mike Sr., was the youngest of six children and was only eight years old when his father died. Not only that, but his older brother Mattie abused him and bullied him out of the (admittedly paltry) family estate. Big Mike, as he was known on construction job sites, was also illiterate, having only received a second grade education. A huge man with no ability to express himself, he worked full time as a child in Ireland and then in England, where construction boomed after the war, and finally in America. His sister, Bridget, blazed the trail here by landing a job as a maid in Beverly, a tony Boston suburb. Her husband John worked on the same estate as a gardener. Years later when I filled out financial aid forms for college I asked my dad his profession. He looked thoughtfully into the air-he may even have muted the TV-before saying, “Laborer,” I guess. His final job-the longest job he ever held-was installing streetlamps, yellow domes of light that were strong enough to read under though he never learned to read.
It may have also helped that my wife and I have had children of our own. My wife was four months pregnant with our first child when my father died. I returned to class a few days after our daughter’s birth, though it seemed like about an hour and a half later—much less civilized than the six weeks paternity leave my current school affords new fathers. I read this as a hopeful sign that we’re coming to see the value of fathers as caretakers, as nurturers in the family. In any event, that first day back a boy named Brandon, a boy who hadn’t spoken all year, took that occasion as his first foray into classroom speech. We had been working on parallels and contrasts in literature all year and I worried that my students weren’t really seeing them. But Brandon said, “Hey, Mr. O’C, your dad died the same year your daughter was born. That’s a contrast, isn’t it?” Yes, it is, Brandon. Yes, it is.
Many times I have concluded that my life choices were often made in direct opposition to my father. Contrasts: He worked construction; I majored in philosophy. He was unable to read or write; I became a high school English teacher. He faced grim realities head on at an early age; while I happily retreated into the fortress of my imagination—reading books and playing in tennis tournaments, some real, some the products of my own self-invention.
On the night of his funeral, under the light of a streetlamp he may well have installed, I read his mass card poem called, “Afterglow”:
I’d like the memory of me to be a happy one.
       I’d like to leave an afterglow
       of smiles when life is done.
       I’d like to leave an echo
       whispering softly down the ways,
       of happy times and laughing times
       and bright and sunny days.
I’ve always wondered why my mother chose this verse. Was she able to summon enough warm and sunny memories to blot out all the others? Was it a kind of revisionist history? Or, maybe, she was at last taking a page from tennis great Bill Tilden who said, in his classic book Match Play and the Spin of the Ball: “Never change a winning game. Always change a losing one.”
* * *
My father’s been dead for twenty years this August, but we never talk about his drinking or his violence or the constant fear we felt at home. Not even my brother who conquered the demons of alcoholism and anger my father never could, and who has become a warm and loving father to his own children. I consider it one of the great blessings of my life that my brother and I are friends, closer now than we ever could have been as children. Still none of us ever talks about the past. When I tried to engage my sister in the topic once, she said, “The past is past. Why beat your head against a brick wall?”
My mom has moved to an assisted living facility in Wisconsin. The last time I drove by the old house (we’re selling it soon to pay for mom’s bills), I saw two kids playing fast pitch against the wall of the Ice House. They hadn’t even spray painted a strike zone, settling calls with friendship or faith alone. Amateurs.
At first it seemed like a desecration, dismantling Wimbledon and building a baseball diamond? Who would do such a thing? Then I noticed that one of the two kids—the pitcher—was wearing a Red Sox cap. Suddenly I could see it all: This was Fenway Park in Boston. And I could even imagine an epic foul ball, sailing over the Ice House wall-the Green Monster-past the Citgo sign, into the deep black Boston night, and clear into the world of their own personal history.