To me there was something irresistible and magical about the hall. It offered a fragile harbor from the threat of my parents’ conflict. Instead of concentrating on avoiding the front hall, I concentrated on avoiding Grammy. Most often I was alert enough to escape a confrontation – if I heard her door open, I scurried back inside my apartment, knowing she would never enter our flat.
I don’t remember when Grammy stopped coming to our apartment. She hated my father and the feeling was mutual. But it wasn’t just my grandmother who refused to step through our door. No one in the family ever came to our flat. Unlike my grandmother, whose conduct was accepted as the privilege of her status, my father’s conduct alienated everyone. He didn’t mind. He had as little use for any Catholic O’Toole as they had for his Protestant ways. I grew up watching the two sides of my family recreate the streets of Belfast in a new geography, the new Irish homeland of Boston. The hatred they felt for each other could never be confined by anything as abstract as latitude or longitude. But I wondered what had been the final offense that caused them to draw a line through the middle of the house, making a no-man’s land of the second floor. I guessed that it had something to do with my father’s tendency toward stormy mood swings and uncontrollable fits of rage. These fits were underscored by my mother Molly’s inability to really bond to him, or anyone who was not an O’Toole.
The entire clan was there, laughing and merry, interrupting each other, catching each jocular remark in mid-flight and tossing rebuttals into the air like the plate twirlers I had seen at the circus. My grandfather came out of the bathroom in a white tank tee and dark green pants.
“Hi, Pa,” said all the smiling uncles and they went to him and slapped him on the back. Grampy took a cup and saucer out of the cupboard and I sidled a little farther into the corner. He poured himself a cup of tea and lit a cigarette. He placed the smoldering white thing carefully in a glass ashtray and reached his hand into his baggy pants pocket. It came out holding something silver and I stood on my toes in a futile effort to see what the flash of reflected light was. He put it to his mouth, took a breath, and began to tap his foot on the floor. Music spilled from his lips and leapt into the air like a genie being released from a bottle. His mouth ran back and forth along its edges and it mattered not one whit whether he was inhaling or exhaling. The joyful sounds entered and left his body with each sweet breath.
“Dance a jig for me now, Helen Coyle,” he said to my great auntie. “You were a beauty then and you’re no less a beauty now, me girl, and ye dance as fair as any miss in County Kerry!”
“Listen to himself,” said Grammy. “So full of the blarney it’s sinful.”
No one was offended, and Grampy winked at me. I was amazed and delighted that he noticed me. Auntie did a jig that was exhilarating and complicated, but my grandmother was right. Aunt Helen was no beauty, and all the blarney in the world wouldn’t make it otherwise. She looked like an old bullfrog as her body bounced up and down on the kitchen floor. Her torso was rigid, fixed in space; her arms were glued to her sides, but her legs were flying all over, kicking, double jointed at the knees, and I couldn’t tell where they were going next.
“Diddle dees” and “ey-tee-ty-tees” were coming from every corner of the room as my aunt continued pounding the floor with her black old lady shoes, breasts heaving and sweat flying. All of a sudden she didn’t look like a bullfrog any more. She looked like a lady having fun, and I laughed along with the others feeling like a small part of something for the first time. The floor began to heave up and down, creaking in time with the bobbing of her extraordinary breasts, when there was an abrupt pounding on the door which rivaled the banging of Auntie’s clogs.
“Shut’tup in there you O’Tooles,” came the muffled and outraged voice of my father. And Grammy immediately started in on Grampy.
“Look what you’ve done, you old fool! He’ll have the landlord put us out on the street, and then what? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and all the saints, stop it now! Ye’re daft and you’ll bring us all to ruin!”
Grampy was still in charge of the mood and it remained unchanged, only now they were like children, all laughing and shushing each other. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the laughter from his eyes. “The Divil with the landlord, may he rot in hell.”
Gasps came from all the aunts who said in unison and without punctuation, “God forgive you Pa dear Jesus he doesn’t mean it poor Mr. Stanton God bless him he’s a good soul and God forgive our Molly’s man he’s a good soul too.”
That was going too far for Grammy. “A good soul indeed!” She glared at Grampy.
He grinned back, ferociously. “Sure and I’m goin’ down there and give that good soul a sound rap on his noggin’s what I’m doin.”
We all knew he was just codding. It was part of the game he played with Grammy and we loved him for it. It offered permission to all of us to play along.
“Please, Pa,” said Margaret, who wasn’t as sure as the rest. “Please don’t shame us all by acting like a hooligan for all the world t’see and on a Sunday, yet!”
“Shut tup now Peggy,” he said to her. “Stop your complainin’ now. Little Chief Yellow Hair has a song for us.” He nodded to my beautiful cousin Bridget and began to play again. The party was soon back in full swing.
My father banged on the door again. “Listen, you O’Tooles! My girl Alice better not be in there or I’ll tan her hide! And all of you stop that noise before I call the police!”
Through the door I could hear my mother pleading with him, “Awww, c’mon! They’re just having a good time. We could go in and join them. Have a drink or two.”
“Shut ‘tup, you! I’m not being with the likes of them. Your mother is an ignorant goddamned meddling old farm hand and every one of your brothers is a brawling, potato eating drunken Irish pig.”
On my side of the door the aunts gasped, and at the sound of a scuffle going down the stairs, my uncles poured unsteadily out the door.
I still remember how impressive Father Dunn was in his black robes. He had a rich deep voice that resided somewhere inside his rib cage. Before uttering intelligible words, his voice would rumble inside his chest like a dragon waking from a deep slumber.
Despite his substantial height, his voice didn’t seem to belong to him, and he was aware of this fact. He was never quite comfortable with its sound and always appeared to be somewhat startled by the resonance of it, as though he was hearing it for the first time.
In the face of a family crisis, Father Dunn was so woefully unfamiliar with the intricacies of marital terrain that he assumed an autocratic role purely in self-defense.
“Divorce is simply not allowed in the Catholic Church, Molly; we went over this years ago.” He spoke to my mother with the arrogance of one who had been given authority by God and the Church to represent Jesus on earth, and the spokesman for Jesus waited to hear what my mother might say next.
“Father, you don’t know how hard it is. It’s very, very hard.” She hesitated and recomposed herself to begin again. “He works less and less. I’m waiting tables to make ends meet. He hits me and the children are aware of what’s going on. He hits our son and my girl here is high strung and nerved up all the time.”
Father Dunn’s concern for the life of this little sheep of his parish was no match for his concern with the law and order of church doctrine. Aware of his position, he spoke to her as a child and thought it proper to do so.
“Mixed marriages are bound to be difficult.” He said this knowingly and with regretful compassion.
My mother had carried a faint and fragile embryo of hope to Father Dunn. Maybe she entertained, just for a moment, the possibility that Jesus wouldn’t want her living her life in a perpetual state of humiliation. I later wondered if my mother hoped that the very issue which kept the Church from blessing her marriage to begin with would be the loop hole which might work in her favor.
“A union of two souls is exactly that, and not reversible.” The black frocked priest looked meaningfully at me, to be sure that I understood this point. Then he stood and said to my mother, “I’m sorry, Molly,” indicating that the counseling session was over.
Divorce was not available to her. A mortal sin. She was not strong enough to face the fires of hell or the disapproval of her family without her Church behind her.
Dismissed from his office, mother rose to her feet, took my hand, and went home.
Father Dunn went to his quarters. He sighed heavily and poured himself a snifter of brandy and sat down in his favorite upholstered chair. He picked up the evening paper and sat, shielded from the frailty and mistakes of the world, as night came on.