My dad was born on January 15, 1898. Yesterday would have been his 114th birthday. To my considerable surprise, he died in 1983. Up until about 1980, I really expected him to make it to 100.
For one thing, he was never really sick. For another, he was still doing physically demanding labor even as he was turning 80.
About six months before his 80th birthday, I was vacationing in Ireland, both touring and visiting with family. One Sunday, my cousin Denis introduced me to a few of my father’s contemporaries who were hanging outside church after Mass,smoking and joking. Pointing to the Yank, Denis asked my dad’s friend and cousin Cormac McFadden if he knew who “that fellow there is.”
He hadn’t “a clue” and Denis told him “That’s Denis’s son, Joe!”
Cormac asked me “Is Denis still working?” Not “How is Denis doing?”
Is Denis still working?
The question surprised me a little, until it didn’t. Before I had embarked I had stopped by my parents’ house to see if they had anything that they wanted me to take over with me. My dad was out back installing aluminum siding on the house. By himself.
“As a matter of fact, he is. He was re-siding our house last week.”
Cormac took a contemplative draught of his cigarette, processed this information, then looked up and met my eyes and, recalling a time a half-century in the past, said “Ah, you know. Nobody could work like Denis.”
Then he began to regale me with anecdotal evidence of my dad’s legendary work ethic, including the time that “he was plowing a field and the horse gave out before Denis did.”
On another day, my cousin John was driving me around Dunfanaghy. He pointed to a house and said “That’s Bill Durning’s house. Did you ever hear that name?”
I hadn’t. Bill Durning, my cousin told me, was five or six years older than my dad and was the town bully. Everyone avoided him, including my father. One day when my dad was about eighteen years old, Durning confronted him in town. Ever after, there was a new sheriff in town.
When I returned, my dad was debriefing me, asking after everyone under the sun and really enjoying hearing all the news from home. When I told him that I had driven by “Bill Durning’s house”, he figured that I must have heard the story and said “Ah, well. The poor cretter!” Sixty years later, he was still feeling sorry for the ex-bully.
When my dad died, his wake outdrew the 76ers. Everyone was recalling some extraordinary episode of his life. I overheard a bunch of my older brothers’ friends recalling “the time [my brother] Jay’s dad caught that runaway horse!” Forty years later, the memory was still fresh.
My dad was a very modest man, even though he had little to be modest about. His one indulgence: Every year on his birthday, he would unfailingly announce that “[N] years ago, today, a great man was born.”
One-hundred-and-fourteen years ago, yesterday, a great man was born.
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