My family is an exquisite and complex Irish American amalgam.
A Conway dad married a Healy mom. Both sides of the family date back to the Eire motherland, with Gaelic surnames like Callahan, Maroney, Barry, Clark, Waters, Burns, and Silverstein salting our genetic potatoes.
But the Healy side takes the cake (or soda bread, if you will).
My mom is the thirteenth of thirteen children. I have dozens upon dozens of cousins and second cousins. Alcoholism runs rampant through both sides of the family like a pestilence. Every page of history you turn seems to reveal a new scandal or controversy or tragedy.
All that said, I have a ferocious love for and loyalty to the Healy clan. Spoilt cabbage and all.
The family hub rested in The North Country of Upstate New York, an hour west of the Adirondacks, in the small village of Carthage. Carthage is a declining paper mill town along the Black River, rapid waters bisecting the town into Carthage and West Carthage. As with so many North Country towns, Carthage endures, careworn and age-worn like the rocky hills and bucolic countryside that encase it.
The family hub “rested?” What about “rests?” Great question (you were certain to ask).
My Uncle Deak (short for The Deacon) lost the family home for not paying taxes, squandering the money instead on a gambling addiction after my Grandma Healy died. My father and godfather tried to keep the house by giving Deak the money for taxes, which he in turn also used for gambling. This created a permanent, irreparable rift in family relations. The house was one of the many victims of addiction.
Built in the mid-1800s on a military plot of land originally owned by the Marquis de Lafayette, the Healy family home was a traditional house for its time. Originating in County Cork, Ireland, the wealthy Clark family first emigrated ‘sud’ to The North Country after landing in Canada. Settling in Carthage, they constructed this two-story home with a wide wrap-around porch that greeted you like a weathered but loving smile when you arrived.
The home passed down through several generations of Clarks. As their wealth dwindled over time, the old house continued to wane into infirmity along with the family. A fierce pride of their Lace Curtain Irish heritage stood at odds with the steady decline in affluence and social standing. The house held ghosts and memories of better days. It creaked and groaned, feeling its age.
By the time my mom was born, the house was divided into front and back.
In the back, lived Hattie and Maggie Clark, my Grandpa Healy’s spinster aunts. The aunts protected and coddled him like a fop. He lived in the back of the house with them. For reasons still unclear, the crones limited and tightly regulated his interactions with his wife and children in an assumed effort to maintain some connection to the Clark family reputation and legacy.
The front of the house was occupied by my Grandma Healy, and in varying cycles, thirteen children. The space was entirely too small for so many residents. A single bathroom with a clawfoot tub and a pedestal sink sustained the hygiene of everyone. Grandma was constantly busying herself with the upkeep of her children and the home. She tended the coal furnace in the basement several times daily. She was meticulous and did her best to stay the relentless decline of time and money. All were slowly slipping away.
So, given these physical, social, and psychological barriers, how did my grandparents have so many children? Turns out, they would sneak away and meet for romantic trysts in the third-floor attic. Et voilà! In the grandest of Irish genetic traditions, a never-ending assembly line of children.
When Maggie died, she deeded the home to Hattie. Hattie died with no will, throwing the estate into chaos, with her nieces and nephews clamoring for a piece of any remaining affluence. Think of the Sacksville-Bagginses raiding of Bag End when Bilbo departs for his adventures in The Hobbit. Like that, only greedier. In the end, the house and assets went equally to all the nieces and nephews until they died off, Grandma Healy the ultimate benefactor.
Grandpa Healy died soon after Maggie and Hattie. Uncle Deak was the oldest male and a supervisor at the local paper mill. He lived at home, a bachelor his entire life. As the other kids moved on with their lives and families, Grandma and Uncle Deak continued with their unadorned, simple lives, along with the spirits of the home. For all his vices, The Deacon cared for Grandma, in his own way, until she died.
As I grew up, Grandma Healy was the matriarch of the Healy brood. A petite wisp of a lady, she was maybe ninety pounds soaking wet. A sweet little bird. She gave the best hugs. Her loving talons would grab you and pull you in tight. You could feel her false teeth shift as she squeezed tight and pecked a trembling kiss on your forehead. When she released you from her love vice, you simply craved more.
But Grandma was always busy puttering around, doing something. Cooking bacon in an ancient cast iron skillet, stoking the coal furnace, running errands (she walked everywhere), hanging the clothes on the line to dry in the backyard in the summer. Everything smelled like sunshine and fresh air in her house.
In the harsh, snowy North Country winters, she would hang the wash (she would say warsh, so cute!) in the third-story attic where she and Grandpa had rendezvoused so many years before. Talking to the ghosts, you could hear her clear as day carrying on one-sided conversations with Grandpa or Hattie. We guessed likely not Maggie since she had been deaf in life. Never sure if heaven relieved Maggie of that burden.
I always imagined that was how my mom and her siblings felt about their mother – a deep abiding love and respect, but at a distance. Not because grandma was consciously dismissive. She was just so damned busy all the time. Managing thirteen kids and a husband with aunts who never allowed her the space or time to connect for too long with any one person. The impact was a loved but lonely feeling, wishing she could give you a smidge more, maybe one more amazing hug.
Although living very modestly, Grandma Healy always had a never-ending supply of quarters for us as kids. She would take you to a little coat nook under the front stairs, where her purse hung. So adorable, she would hold her little finger to her mouth and whisper shh shh shh as she furtively found her hasped coin purse and bestowed a secret gift of silver unto you. Oh, the candy cigarettes we would buy with those coins! (hey, it was the 1970s, cut me some slack).
Grandma loved the New York Yankees. She would sit in an upstairs front bedroom, dark room dimly lit by the yellow streetlights below, cold Budweiser in-hand, listening to her radio, nodding in and out of sleep. I would peek around the corner of the doorway and watch her, thinking how much she had earned this simple pleasure in her life. A moment of rest in a life full of frenetic motion.
Her big treat when we would visit was to have dinner at the West Carthage McDonalds. Every time, she would order a hamburger, small fries, and a coffee. Like the little bird she was, grandma would luxuriate in her meal, savoring slowly, never finishing even half the burger. No wonder she was so little! But such seemingly small gestures provided her with such deep contentment. Another sigh in a long life of short breaths.
Grandma died in late May 1993 of natural causes a few days before her 89th birthday, twenty-seven years ago this week.
The family converged on Carthage for her Catholic wake and funeral to pay their respects. For those unfamiliar, Catholic funeral rites include three parts: the wake, funeral Mass, and committal (burial). Since the wake — also called a vigil or a viewing — is the first of these rites, it’s also the first opportunity to offer prayers for the deceased the day before the funeral.
For our purposes, let’s add one part: the Irish hooley, in between the wake and the funeral Mass.
Bundy’s funeral home did their best to make grandma look presentable at the wake. I have always felt uncomfortable viewing the dead in an open casket. We lie to ourselves to say how good they look. But they don’t. They look dead. I guess it gives some people more closure to see for themselves that the person is, in fact, dead. Not sure why a death certificate from the funeral home cannot suffice.
Grandma’s wake lasted several hours, and hundreds of people came to pay their respects. At least half of them were the extended Healy clan. With absolute impiety, after paying our requisite respects to our dearly departed grandmother, the cousins spent the next few hours scheming, planning, and hyping up the party we would have that night to celebrate grandma – the hooley.
By definition, a hooley is “a lively party.” But it’s so much more than that. It is storytelling, singing, music, dancing, and some mighty craic, enveloped in alcohol consumption at such a level it reinforces the Irish stereotype of overindulgence, burning itself into the annals of folklore and legend. And that night was legendary.
Van Halen came to Carthage that night. Figuratively. No chance Eddie would ever come to a backwater town like Carthage. And not the syrupy Van Hagar version either. Oh hell no. We are talking about the kind of crazy that only a drugged-out, nutty David Lee Roth version of Van Halen could bring, with all the destruction and ruination implied.
The evening began at a local pub. Packed with Healys and assorted other family surnames, the music blared with tin whistles and banjos. The exuberant energy pulsed rhythmically after spending so much time with so much solemnity all day at the wake. We laughed and told stories. We drank shots along with our pints. And more shots. And still more shots.
Then someone pulled out their penis and showed it to the bartender. Neither impressed nor happy with the direction of our inebriation, the bartender bounced us all from the bar.
Someone yelled AFTERHOURS!!, and dozens of us headed back to the Pineview Motel, a backwoods, rat hole dive that should have paid you to stay there. Total rundown dump, now out of business, ideally demolished. A few of my cousins and I stopped to get some beers for the afterparty. By the time we arrived, all hell had broken loose.
As we entered one of the two adjoining rooms, my aunts were all sitting on a bed, throwing bottles of empty beer against the walls, shattered glass everywhere. Laughing wildly every time a new explosion cut through the noise of the bedside clock radio blaring…something. Had to be Van Halen. Only makes sense. “Running with the Devil” feels apropos.
What followed was the single greatest party I have ever attended, even after surviving the Bridge Street Run at SUNY Oswego. The night resulted in thousands of dollars in damage that, once again, my dad and godfather paid for. But it was so worth it.
Still a blur, I can only provide a highlight reel of events. Some version of 3am Conway vs Healy basketball (yes, the Pineview actually had a court in the parking lot out back), so drunk it devolved into some bastard pugilistic hybrid version with punching, kicking, name calling, dirt throwing, and biting. No one left the court without a little blood drawn.
Inside the motel, the rooms were in utter devastation. Debris was everywhere. The bathrooms were unusable from all the vomit and flooded water. A cousin lay passed out in a dirty puddle, blood flowing out of his nose from the beating he earned on the ball court. I pulled him by the hair out of the water so he would not drown. He smiled and hugged my calf. Carpet was smoldering by the back door.
I stepped out for air and ran across my dad smoking a fat doobie. In a brain-damaged, primal father/son bonding moment, we shared some Mother Nature as the birds began to greet the earliest dawn with songs of glory to the revelry and debauchery they witnessed that evening. I wish I spoke bird to hear their recounting. But I was too high.
On cue, my naked brother pedaled feverishly by us on a stolen Big Wheel, laughing insanely.
The next morning, we woke up like rock stars for the funeral Mass. My cousins and I spent the thirty minutes before Mass puking up our sins behind the church, forming a small river of peccancy that drained down the hill toward the gutter. But we posted. Proud pallbearers for grandma’s casket, we did our duty with split lips bleeding, black eyes forming, scraped heads banging with vicious hangover.
Grandma Healy would have utterly loathed how we celebrated. She had experienced more alcohol abuse in her years than most people could in several lifetimes. But she would have loved knowing her family was together, united in love for her, celebrating her life (albeit too raucously) and honoring the importance of family.
After the Mass, as we headed to the cemetery, one cousin looked at me and said, “Cathargo delenda est.” Carthage must be destroyed.
Marcus Cato spoke these famous words to the Roman Senate at the conclusion of every speech prior to the Third Punic War with Carthage, Rome’s great adversary.
We should have made t-shirts.
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