Authors: Michael Patrick MacDonald
But these were not stories for the social worker's docket. Before long Ma would offer to play the social worker a few tunes on the accordion. Of course she knew that would help to hurry our visitor off to the next inspection in her caseload, since most social workers had no hint of fun in them. So off each one went with Ma's threats of jigs and reels. Finally I could get on with my day, eating toast, blending shakes, and watching TV programs in full color.
I was five, the youngest at the time, and my mother and I were often alone in the house. Kevin was eight and had gone off to school with the rest of them. I was close to my mother and was called a mama's boy by all my brothers. I spent my mornings watching cartoons cross-legged on the floor, while Ma talked on the phone, sitting on the legless couch behind me. She talked for hours to her cousin Nellie. The two of them were born hell-raisers. They'd laugh hysterically, talking about their relatives or other people in the Irish circles. They had a nickname for everyone. Their Aunt Hannah was called “the neuro,” short for neurotic, and Grandpa was “Murphy.” Their boyfriends had nicknames too. In later years Ma's boyfriend Coley, the father of my two little brothers, came to be called “the little man” because he was short, and the African American father of Nellie's youngest daughter was called “Blackie.”
After rambunctious conversations with Nellie, my mother took on deeper discussions with me. She'd try to engage me in spiritual topics like God and nature. I knew she really did think that I had some kind of insight, being the seventh son to her. One day, while I was glued to the TV, she decided to tell me that I was “different” from the other kids for another reason. I ignored her and kept watching cartoons. She told me that I had a different father from the other kids. I turned and looked at her for a moment, then looked back at the TV. I'm not sure what the word “father” meant to me, and I remember thinking,
Why's she bothering me with this stuff?
She said his name was George Fox, that she liked him because he was handsome, had a good job, and was much more intelligent and decent than the other kids' father, Mac. I was suddenly relieved that I had nothing to do with that monster Mac, and I couldn't wait to tell the other kids that I was special because I had a special father, and that he had a job. But I acted as if it all meant nothing to me, shrugging my shoulders and staring at the TV. All the while, though, I was thinking about how I might use my new special status in the world. I had a good father. Then I wondered where he was and what he looked like and why he wasn't there if he was so decent.
I never asked these questions. I chose to work with the good news I'd received, and to elaborate on the fantasy that I had a great father. I soon told all my friends in the neighborhood, as well as their Irish parents, who told me in quick murmurs to hush up about it, that there was no such thing as one family having two fathers. My best friend Tony's parents asked me to leave the house so their kids wouldn't hear of such nonsense. I knew something was wrong then. But I kept bragging. I bragged to all of my brothers and sisters when I was mad at them or couldn't get my way. Soon everyone knew, but what my friends said they all knew was that I was illegitimate, a bastard. The bastard part I didn't take very kindly to, but “illegitimate” I had to have Kevin look up in the dictionary. Kevin said the dictionary also called me a bastard,
, he added, “unlawfully begotten.” I didn't know for sure what begotten meant, but I didn't want to go any further with it, especially if it was unlawful. I never again spoke of having a father at all. In fact, when people asked, I said I didn't have one. This too raised a few eyebrows, especially when I started school, but at least I wasn't called a bastard. The teachers just looked a little confused at first, and then changed the subject quickly. I was thrilled to hear at church that God was my father, and I started to imagine that probably something like the Immaculate Conception had created me, no sex at all, no unlawful filth, and no bastard was I.
I wasn't technically the seventh son after all, since that would probably require one consistent father. And God knows we never had one of them. But my mother kept up her spiritual conversations with me. I used to draw pictures while I was home and the others were off at school. One day I asked Ma what I should draw. Looking up at our velvet glow-in-the-dark picture of the Last Supper, she said to draw a picture of God. What I gave to her vaguely resembled a face, but the features were made up of the elements of nature: the earth, the sun, the moon and stars, trees, birds, and other animals. She jumped to her feet and said she couldn't believe the thinking of a five-year-old. She carried the picture around all day and in every conversation she had, she talked about my drawing and said that I must be some kind of genius. This gave me the biggest rush of pride that I'd ever known. She said she knew there was something different about me and that it must have something to do with my replacing Patrick Michael. She thought he must be very close to me, kind of like a guardian angel. She said that she'd had me to replace him in a way, and that when she was pregnant with me, she'd had a vision of exactly what I'd look like, and that a voice had told her I was a “child of light.” I thought then that God might truly be my real father, and the praise I got for deep thinking made me want to do more of it.
On Sundays, Ma sent us all off to St. Thomas's Church at the bottom of our hill. She'd give us pennies for the poor box, which I thought must be called that because we were so poor we only gave pennies. I figured that this must be another way of keeping the social workers from thinking we had too much. Maybe they'd be watching from behind us in the pews to make sure we could only afford to give a few pennies. Actually, we usually ended up giving nothing at all, because Bob's Spa was on the way to St. Thomas's, and it had the greatest penny candy counter in Jamaica Plain. Most of the time we spent all our money there. When the poor box came around at mass, I'd feel so guilty with penny candy in my mouth that I'd motion my hand as if I was dropping a coin into the basket. When my invisible coin didn't make the clinking sound that the other churchgoers' coins made, the collector would look at me as if I was going straight to hell. Some of the families around us would look at us too, and knew exactly what we'd been up to, but I kept giving my invisible penny anyway and stared right back at them.
The other kids had their parents with them, and I wondered why Ma never came to church with us. When I asked her, she told me it was because she was divorced from Mac, and anyone who was divorced wasn't allowed to receive Holy Communion. I thought the church was wrong for wanting my mother to stay with Mac, broken ribs and all. I often thought that my mother should come to church with us, and walk right up to receive the Host. But I knew that the other kids' parents would whisper and stare, and news of it would be “all over Ireland.” I later found out that my mother had her own spiritual life, away from St. Thomas's. While we were all off eating candy at mass, she was finding her own secluded spots down by the park, where she could be alone in nature and pray. She considered herself Catholic. She prayed through the Saints, and mostly through the Blessed Mother. But there was no point in going to mass if you couldn't receive Our Lord. Naturally my mother's beliefs shaped my own. Even as a kid I always felt torn between the Catholic Church and its rules for who's in and who's out with Jesus, and a deeper relationship with God that might be found anywhere.
We went to summer camp every year. The camps were run by Morgan Memorial and the Salvation Army, and were for city kids, who all seemed to have the same stories about bright orange blocks of cheese, social workers, and no fathers. The charitable organizations that ran the camp figured what we all needed was some fresh air, away from the city. Most of the kids in camp were black and would try to jump us, thinking we were like the white people they saw on TV programs like “The Brady Bunch.” Kevin would spend the first day proving himself all over camp, beating up anyone who looked at him wrong, and taking the canteen money that the kids' mothers had given them. The grown men who ran the camp used to put us through all kinds of punishment when we broke the rules, like speaking out before being spoken to by an adult. We'd have to do fifty pushups or leg lifts, or when we were really bad, we'd have to go into a quiet dark cabin deeper in the woods. At first, Kevin would get all of these punishments. But he could do way more pushups and leg lifts than they imposed, and looked very much at ease at the end of them, offering to do more. He also loved the dark cabin, and would move right in, finding the light circuitry and making his own pad to settle into. In the end, they all loved him and put him in charge of doling out punishments for the others. Kevin ran the country paths like he did the city streets, and I was terrified the summer he took off from camp and found his way back to Ma's doorstep. I was left to fend for myself, and had to keep promising the black kids that he'd be back any minute now to knock their heads off if they touched me or tried to get their canteen money back from me.
One summer we all came home from camp to find the house rearranged and very tidy. There was a stranger sitting on the couch. He was scrubbed and sober, but Ma hadn't gotten rid of him yet. At first we thought we'd walked into the wrong house, and he thought we must have too. Ma came out and introduced us to the man she'd married while we were away. His name was Bob King, and she'd met him downtown while he was bumming spare change in the Boston Common. He seemed decent enough. We got used to him, and he got used to us. He was our new father.
It didn't last long. His cleanliness didn't amount to much. He never went looking for work, and before long he was back on the booze. By November Ma started noticing money missing from her pocketbook. Then the stash of Christmas money she'd been saving for our toys disappeared. One day while I was watching morning cartoons, I heard a loud crash in the kitchen. When I ran in, Bob King was on the floor bleeding. Ma had smashed his head with the wine bottle he was drinking from, knocking him off his seat. I started shaking, and she told me to go grab the Kotex pads from the bathroom so he could sop up the blood. She sat him back on his seat and tore into him about stealing her Christmas money. When she was through, she sent him on his way, and off he went down Jamaica Street holding the Kotex pad to his head. That was the end of Bob King, except that Ma liked the name Helen King and has kept it to this day.
I started attending college with Ma when I was five years old. She was going to Suffolk University on financial aid from the government, but didn't have a babysitter. I would sit in the university library with comic books. The librarian kept an eye on me. She was a black woman who said she had four kids herself, and had gone back to school and had been able to get off of welfare. I felt safe with her, and had never been anywhere so quiet in my life. I loved finding something to whisper about to her, so that I could show that I knew just how to behave in a library. So I kept whispering that I had to go to the toiletâevery ten minutes. She finally realized that I didn't have to go to the bathroom at all, and would divert my attention by bringing me gifts of books, paper, and Magic Markers. I loved my days at Suffolk University, and was sad to stop going.
My Aunt Theresa had agreed to take me in while my mother was at college. Theresa had two kidsâSean and Kathleenâwho were home days. It was hard to get used to being away from my mother. I had an overwhelming fear that while I was away my family would be plotting to leave me for good. I learned to love being at Theresa's, but my fears never really went away. I knew my family would be leaving me someday, and sometimes I'd cry about the day it would happen. They'd leave because of some fault of mine, which I couldn't put my finger on. Whatever it was, I figured it must be the same reason my real father wasn't around.
But there was more freedom than fear for me in those days. Itseemed the traumas were in the past, coming out only in Ma's stories that made people laugh, or else wonder at her strength.
I wouldn't trade my family for all the fathers in the world
, I thought. I was learning from Ma's example to ignore what other people thought. Ma had told me that when she was fifteen, she'd thrown open all the windows and screamed “Fuck the neighbors,” working her parents into a panic. Every night I was surrounded by a huge family. I'd play Kevin on the new pool table that became yet another draped table when the social worker came over. I'd sneak downstairs to hide and watch the older kids smoking cigarettes without Ma knowing. And I'd sit with Davey and Johnnie, who were good artists, to draw more pictures that made Ma proud. Ma was looking happy too, working toward her college degree, and bragging to the neighbors, “Imagine, with all those kids.” Those were happy times, until Davey ran away from home.
Davey was the oldest in the family. He excelled in school, so it was no surprise when after taking the exam he was accepted in the ninth grade to the prestigious Boston Latin School. As the oldest, though, he had borne the brunt of his father's abuses, getting beatings when Mac came home drunk. Sensitive and deep thinking, he carried the weight of all the havoc he'd seen at home. It had been Davey who discovered baby Patrick dead in the crib. And one day on his way to Boston Latin, Davey dumped his heavy stack of books into a trash can and ran away.
For months I watched my mother on the telephone talking to police to find out if her boy had been found, fearing he'd turn up dead. One morning Ma hung up the phone in tears. They'd found Davey. He'd gone to California and was stealing to get by. He'd been arrested after breaking into a house, and was being held by the police out there. The authorities agreed to release him to be sent back to his mother in Boston. When he got home, he continued to get into trouble and wasn't easy to have around. Ma figured what he needed was a change of environment, fresh air, and hard work on a farm in Ireland. She sent him off to her cousin Danny Murphy in Kerry, and Grandpa gave Danny Murphy a little money to look after Davey for the summer.