Death should not be the most difficult thing to accept about life because death comes to us all. Victor Hugo wrote “It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.” Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar (Act II, Scene 2): “Of all the wonders that I have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.” And the Greek poet said: “Dear son of Aegeus, to the immortal gods alone belong immunity to eld and death, all else doth all-consuming time devour….”
The most difficult part of life is gaining wisdom and a sense of gratitude for all we do have and for the time of good health we do have. The most difficult thing about life is that we have to, sooner or later, say goodbye to those whom we love. Either they will leave us or we will leave them.
Parting is truly a sweet sorrow. C.S.Lewis said “The death of a beloved is an amputation.” The lesson learned is that life and love are just brief moments in time.
We should love each other and appreciate each other NOW, this hour, this day, this week, this month this year. My mother and father died at the beginning of the 20th century now long ago:
My fayther and my mither
Sleep i’ the mools this day;
I sit my lane amang the rigs
Aboon sweet Rothesay Bay.
“Mools” means dust or the earth of a grave. I grew up hearing Scottish songs and poems that my parents and their friends and relatives listened to and both my parents loved poetry, music and song.
“Oh! there arose my Father’s pray’r,
In holy evening’s calm,
How sweet was then my Mither’s voice, In the Martyr’s psalm;
Noo a’ are gane! we meet nae mair Aneath the Rowan Tree;
But hallowed thoughts aroond thee twine O’ hame and infancy.
O, ROWAN TREE!”
The Rowan Tree is a nostalgic Scottish song filled with what the Gaels call “Cianalas.” It makes a special appeal to all Gaels who are exiled. It tells the story of a man who whenever he sees a Rowan Tree -a species of mountain ash-thinks back to the happy, never to be recaptured days of his carefree childhood when such a tree grew near his Highland Black House. The man has survived to visit the scenes of his childhood but the clachan (Highland village) is probably depopulated and the old home in ruin -perhaps only the outline of the foundations remain. The song captures completely the love a Gael has for the past and the places associated with it.
My father’s mother -born in Oban, Argyll circa 1890- sang it as well as did her sister Anna Sweeney (Auntie Annie to my father). I never met Auntie Annie but she had a big part in our family history. It was she who gave my father’s mother the money to sail to America in September 1927 (on the Transylvania -I have a copy of the ship’s manifest) She meant to come to join us eventually but stayed on in Scotland to take care some elders in her family on my father’s mother’s side. She died suddenly in 1935 and I know this because my father kept the telegram in his book of Burns poems. I remember when he took it out to show it to me one day when we were in his library discussing Burns -this would have been in the late 60’s or early 70’s and while speaking of her -his mother’s sister-his godmother- his voice broke and he cried. He often spoke of his mother and aunt and his cousin Molly Dorian and “Uncle” Johnny Dorian (his fourth grade teacher and later headmaster of St. Anthony’s RC school his many boyhood friends from his parish and his football team -a legendary team- the St. Anthony Ants. So even though I never met these people it was as if I had known them. My father would quote them and tell stories about them and share their favorite music and his favorite memories of them.
I have always loved THE ROWAN TREE. My mother and I used to sing it together and we heard Kenneth McKellar and Anne Lorne Gillies sing this song as well not only on LP’s but live in concerts. We all knew THE ROWAN TREE by heart -like many other Irish and Scottish songs -and sang it around my mother’s Hamilton upright piano or on the way home from trips to the mountains or on long car trips after seeing the Mets or Phillies.
In fact one of my best memories of my mother was the baseball game we never saw. We lived a long way from Shea Stadium and it was a 3 or 4 hour round trip to get there. My father was on a business trip so he couldn’t go to the night game in the middle of the week so my mother said, that she, of course, would drive me, she said, “she loved baseball!” Of course, my mother loved anything I loved. She always wanted to make people happy. That was the way she was. Well in any case it was raining heavily as we came to “Auld Shea” but we could see the lights were brightly shining through the dark and rain. When we got there they took our tickets and we went to our seats. The usher had to wipe off the seats with a town and a mitten! There must have been only about 8000 fans that night. The game actually began and they got in part of an inning in until a torrential downpour made it impossible to continue play. As a small boy I was disconsolate that I would miss a chance to see and big league game and all my baseball heroes. But my mother was very positive. We withdrew under the overhang of the Mezzanine and I drank hot chocolate and she drank hot coffee. We chatted about baseball to begin with. She never once complained or said anything negative in fact all her remarks were very hopeful. But in the end the game was a rainout and we had to get our paper tickets “rain checks” -they were all paper tickets back to exchange them for another day.
So one might think this would be the worst baseball memory ever. But instead the night was golden. The rainout was not a curse but a blessing. My mother and I spent the entire afternoon and evening talking, singing and laughing together sharing our friendship and love. On the way to the ballpark my mother had talked about my father’s mother and Aunt Annie and “Uncle” Johnny Robertson (killed in the Clyde Blitz in May 1941) and memories of my grandfather (Auld Pop) and his nephew Jimmy Quigley and Father Collins (of St. Anthony’s in Glasgow) and Father Garvey of Sacred Heart parish in New York.
My mother was Free Church (a Protestant) not Catholic so my father’s parish priest an Irishman actively discouraged the union and called her a “Proddy Dog” to my father’s face. My father had to be restrained from hitting “the Irish bastard.” But he hit hard nonetheless and said, “Father -you are no Christian. Just an old, ignorant bigoted Irishman and when my mother -a good Catholic- hears what you have said she will never darken the door of your parish again. God is a just judge and he will judge you harshly I am sure.”
My mother was in tears because she said, “now we can never marry!” But my godmother Katherine (Kay) Brennan -we have a large portrait of her in our living room had an idea. She said, the best thing do do was get married right away. She made a few calls and they made an appointment for the Little Church Around the Corner in Manhattan.
It was really called the Church of the Transfiguration and it had a very interesting history. It was built around 1850. During the Civil War it was place of refuge for African-Americans during the brutal 1863 Draft Riots in New York. The church got its famous nickname from an incident just before Christmas 1870. There was an actor, a certain Joseph Jefferson who had gone to a church to request a funeral for a close friend and fellow thespian, George Holland. But upon hearing the deceased friend had been an actor and was not a member of the church, the rector refused to even consider allowing funeral services. Joseph Jefferson had loved his friend and wanted to have a memorial service for him someplace and so asked around the neighborhood. An acquaintance said, it is reported, “I believe there is a little church around the corner where it might be done.” To which Jefferson replied, “Then I say to you, sir, God bless the little Church around the corner.”
And so my mother and father were married on flag day June 14, 1941 in an Episcopal Church (neither was Episcopalian. Later that evening they returned to my grandparent’s apartment in Brooklyn on old Dahlgren Place (no longer existing.) My father’s mother famously said, “How did the meeting with Father “so-and so” go?” And before she could say any more she saw my mother wearing a gold wedding ring and they told her the story. But she said, “But Tommie and Ruthie you are no’ married in the eyes of the church…..” and it was her turn to cry copiously.
My mother told my father it was best she go home with Kay Brennan and my father said he would work things out.
My father loved his mother and did not want her to suffer so he did not spend his wedding night with his bride!
The way the problem was solved was via the Scottish immigrant community. Now Scots are, generally speaking of numerous religious persuasions. A substantial minority are Roman Catholic, others are Presbyterian, some are Scottish Episcopalian (Anglican Communion), some are Jews, others are “Free Church” (evangelicals) , and many were free thinkers who never ever went to any church and so mixed marriages were very common even in those days. After a few days the solution to their problem was found in the person of Father Garvey of Sacred Heart Parish. He was a Scottish Roman Catholic priest with ties to Govan -he had studied in the Scots College at Valladolid with Father Dean Collins the man who married almost everyone on our family and who baptized my father on March 17,1915 while Auld Pop was in the trenches of the Ypres Salient with the Argylls. But the best part about Father Garvey besides being Scottish was that his mother had been a Scottish Episcopalian so he had many relatives who were of that persuasion and he had no prejudices whatsoever against mixed marriages. He said to my grandmother, “Ruthie is a Christian and a fine, wee lassie. Ye shall know them by their fruits. She loves you and your son enough to get married a second time in the Catholic Church. That’s good enough for me and God. And so let’s plan to do that immediately if not sooner.” So my parents had only one witness to their first wedding (Kay Brennan) and only four to their second wedding the following week (Kay, my father’s mother, his sister and his father-his brother couldn’t be bothered). They had a very simple dinner at home and then went to see MAJOR BARBARA with Wendy Hiller my mother’s favorite actress. By the way my mother was an only child but her mother -she was Free Church (Evangelical) and her aunt did not come to either wedding. In fact my mother had no contact with her mother until after WWII. So deep were the religious prejudices back then. That’s one of the reasons I am strong ecumenical myself. The more pluralism in religion the better as far as I am concerned.
My mother had no memories of her father Eric Anderson because he had been killed when she was a small child but she did know he loved music too -he had played the guitar and sang-and had many records of Caruso and John McCormack. She never knew her father but she knew his favorite hymns were “The Holy City” (Jerusalem), “The Rugged Cross”, and “All Creatures of our God and King”. She knew he had been a sailor, an immigrant to America, a lumberjack, a carpenter and he had worked in the ship-building trade. During WWI he built subchasers. I also know he hated the Kaiser (like everyone in our family) and was intensely pro-Ally even before the USA entered the war.
Thou rushing wind that art so strong,
Ye clouds that sail in heav’n along,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice,
Ye lights of evening, find a voice!
I also know Eric was very patriotic. He died before his 25th birthday. He was a naturalized American citizen and greatly admired Theodore Roosevelt and voted for him in 1912. My mother had a book of Roosevelt’s travels in the Amazon that had belonged to her father. Viktor Frankl, in The Doctor and the Soul wrote: “We cannot, after all, judge a biography by its length, by the number of pages in it; we must judge by the richness of the contents…Sometimes the ‘unfinisheds’ are among the most beautiful symphonies.” We would like to believe this. I don’t know if Eric Anderson was an Anti-Catholic as my mother’s mother but he might have been because he and all his relatives were break away from the Established Church and as they tell me very devout. He belonged to the same church as my mother’s mother and her aunt they were -as far as I could tell-ultra-Calvinists but I don’t really know because we had very little do do with them when I was growing up. I know they called us the “Irish Munros” (even though my family was Scottish) and it was not meant as a compliment. Some of the spinning wheels and furniture Eric Anderson made still exists (some are in folk museums). I am sure (almost sure) all the ships he built are long gone. He is dead, his splinter church is dead (died out) and his wife is dead as well as his daughter. He lives on only in the name of his great-granddaugher Erica. So I never knew him but I know he had good qualities. He was brave. He was hardworking. He was a patriotic naturalized American. He was God-fearing. He loved music and singing. I would like to believe that if he had opposed my mother’s wedding he might have mellowed and accepted it after a time.
My mother used to say, “We are born in one day. We can learn and change in one day because of one intense experience. And we can fall in love in one day as your father and I did. We can marry in one day as we did. And marry again the next week as we did. We can get sick and die in one day. Anything can happen in just one day. Our bodies are fragile vessels for our immortal souls.”
My father used to quote Socrates “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only the God knows.” My father loved the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (the Fitzgerald translation) and so tended toward skepticism:
“Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain – This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies –
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.”
My father was raised a Catholic but by age 21 his faith had withered away and I can only describe him as lapsed Catholic tending towards agnosticism. As an adult he never attended church except to go to wedding or funeral. His favorite line, was, when speaking of heaven, “Personally, I vote yes. But it is too good to be true. I think death is a sleep. They say” ” Death is nothing strange, nor Hell as has been said, Good will not perish, nor evil be unpunished for God is the great Judge.” “Ah, yes! Isn’t it pretty to think so. I wish it were true! I would want to see my mother again. But laddie, it is too good to be true!”
Nonetheless, though my father was not untouched by tragedy in his life -he lost most of his friends at young age due to his immigration at age 12 and the fact that most were killed at Dunkirk in 1940. Those tragedies taught him not to inflict pain and suffering on others if we can help it. He often said, “This is the only life you have this side of paradise. Don’t be an SOB.”
Yes, the most difficult thing about life is saying goodbye to the people you live and the things you love. Arthur Schopenhauer, a favorite author of my father’s, said” “If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?” My father did not agree with Schopenhauer because my father believed if there was any immortality it was through on e’s children. One of his favorite Shakespearean Sonnets was Sonnet 2
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
So my father believed marriage meant openness to children and though he was not an orthodox Catholic by any means he dislike Planned Parenthood and overuse of artificial contraception what he and Auld Pop called “Dud in the Mud sex” for no purpose. He also believe a man and woman had only so many “good shots” and “good eggs” and it was foolish to waste them. Don’t have children until you are married my father said but don’t put it off too long when you do. He said, “you never know how many years of health your and your spouse will have.” My parents didn’t have any children until my mother was 32 but of course he was in the Army 1942-1946.
My grandfather (Auld Pop) has been dead over 50 years but my cousin Helen Munro and I speak about him often as if he were just with us a little while ago. My mother and father and godmother Kay Brennan and my godparents Andrew Muir Tracey and Kitty (Scally) Tracy are all dead but their portraits are in my house and their voices are in my memory. I still stay in close contact with Kitty’s children Paul Tracey and her daughter Ada (Tracey) Stankard.
And of course if you love someone you never really say goodbye to them nor forget them and it has to feel good to know you will never be forgotten by those who loved you either.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.” Not all of us will become well-known authors or artists and let us remember indeed most author’s produce ephemeral works of art that will totally forgotten in 20, 50 or 100 years. Herman Hesse wrote: “We fear death, we shudder at life’s instability, we grieve to see the flowers wilt again and again, and the leaves fall, and in our hearts we know that we, too, are transitory and will soon disappear. When artists create pictures and thinkers search for laws and formulate thoughts, it is in order to salvage something from the great dance of death, to make something last longer than we do.” If they are lucky one quote or one character or one joke might be quoted and remembered. Some might say then the death of an individual person has no more meaning than the death of a dog or cat or of armies or of nations.
But this can’t be true. Individuals can live and communities can live on even if the Empire or nation is destroyed. This especially true of the Jews who have, remarkably, had a continuous history for 6,000 years and against all the odds the Jews kept alive the memory of their nation and faith in God and have resurrected Israel as an independent nation Similarly, when Carthage fell, or when Numantia fell or Alesia surely some individuals escaped and lived on perhaps escaping individually or in small bands to Britain or Ireland.
I always remember something my father said to me one time when I was musing over my maps of the Roman Empire and setting out my Roman soldiers. Unlike Churchill, I was very lucky to have many memories not only of my father but also Auld Pop, my Scottish grandfather. They read to me, took me on walks, played with me and spent time with me. My father said:”You know, of course, that the Romans were the arch enemies of our forebears. Within the Roman Empire we would be the barbarians to be destroyed or enslaved: for when the beat of the kettle-drum of the steely hard Roman come, taken our own hilltops, one by one. You ancestors were the Celts and the Gaels. Not the Romans! ”
But I replied, yes, “but St. Patrick brought us into the Roman world. And also we come from the Lochlanoch -the Vikings! Not only Niall of the Nine Hostages but the Dane Clan Ranald and Olaf the Tree-Hewer! That’s what you and Auld Pop said!.”
And thinking some more I retorted: “Our ancestors did not have to be enslaved they could have served the yoke and become mercenaries like the Varangian Guard!”
“True”, said my father, “but Vikings and Saxons and Gaels who served the Eastern Roman Emperor were lost to their families and to their nations. As small racial and linguistic minorities in the Eastern Empire they died out or were assimilated over time to the Greek-speaking or later Turkish speaking population. So the exiles survived as individuals but their language and culture was destined to fade away.”
But something of us remains in our nation, our family, “our race and line” as they used to say in the Highlands -our family line within the human race. I believe those who have families and pass on family traditions, values and beliefs never die.
My father smiled and his small eyes glowed when he said these things. My father had the bright face of a jolly soul with long deep laugh lines underneath his black glasses. My father was very private and had suffered losses and disappointments in his life but generally speaking had a sweet and sunny disposition. On the faces of the aged there are wrinkles made by laughter and sympathy. When my father was in his forties he gave up smoking and he could have passed for 35 and when he was in his sixties he could have passed for 45 and when he was in his vigorous seventies he could have passed for 50. He had all his hair till the day he died and he was just a few months from his 90th birthday. The chief evidence of his age were his dentures. By his 70th birthday he had lost all his teeth not having any dental care at all the first 20 or 30 years of his life.
By contrast, I knew someone close to our family who was exceeding beautiful from her late teens to early thirties when her figure began to go. It is not an exaggeration to say she was as beautiful as a Hollywood starlet and a knockout in a bikini in her late teens and early twenties. She was about 5′ 6″ and I would guess 115-120 pounds. She liked the ski, swim and sail and so was reasonably athletic as a young woman. As a young boy I greatly admired her and was happy to spend time with her and meet her older friends. I suppose I was a little bit in love with her although she was 12 or 15 years older than I. She had many gentleman and squandered her youth with wild Spring breaks on this coast or that island. She was still attractive in her thirties but by that time ridiculous in a bikini and not favored by tight blue jeans. By the time she was in middle-age her face was drawn and lined into severe, inharmonious contours. She was not a happy woman. She did not have a successful marriage mostly -from what I gleaned from her sister- a series of worthless lovers who took what they could from her and dumped her when she lost her figure and most of her looks. She also let her mind go and I don’t think she read a single serious book after age 35. She gambled, she smoked, ate and drank with abandon and by the time she was 50 weighed over 300 pounds. But it wasn’t just her looks she lost. By neglect she lost the love of my father, my mother -and they were very loving people and also those of most of her immediate family members. I realize and I am sure others did also that we were drawn to her, in part,in the beginning because of her synthetic charm and physical attractiveness. But she was one of those persons that if she could not get something out of you -free chores or money- she had zero interest. Some people are like that. This person, I came to realize, was a shallow, selfish-hedonist but proved the old statement by Orwell that at 50 you have the face you deserve. Nature gives everyone some youthful charm and beauty in the late teens and early 20s but by 30 or 40 your beauty is shaped by your life choices, life habits and life experiences. I have noticed smokers and sun worshippers seem to age the fastest.
I never dated a smoker for very long nor any dame who who drank more than I did. I cried when I was young, when the young woman said, “I like you but there is no chemistry.” I came home and was unconsolable. How could I not be loved if I loved? How can I not be loved if I were kind and thoughtful took a girl out to dinner and gave expensive presents?
My grandmother was very practical. she said, “Dinna fash yersel’ Ricky (that’s what she called me). “There are lots of fish in the sea! And now you think she is so beautiful so perfect so slim! But remember in another 30 years she will just be another fat old woman like me! ” And she made me laugh. And it is true. Most of the beautiful young women I knew 40 and 50 years ago are dead and, if they are lucky, old and fat grandmothers.
My father loved Proust whom he read in the original French (my own French is small) : “Now there is one thing I can tell you: you will enjoy certain pleasures you would not fathom now. When you still had your mother you often thought of the days when you would have her no longer. Now you will often think of days past when you had her. When you are used to this horrible thing that they will forever be cast into the past, then you will gently feel her revive, returning to take her place, her entire place, beside you. At the present time, this is not yet possible. Let yourself be inert, wait till the incomprehensible power … that has broken you restores you a little, I say a little, for henceforth you will always keep something broken about you. Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more.”
I feel like this. But of course, Man proposes and God disposes.The sun in the sky today will set; each day it sets and each day it takes some with it. I remember the day my father died, many thousands of miles away. As I drove home the sun was setting. I stopped the car to watch. I hadn’t heard the news yet but somehow I knew my father was gone. And he was. And I knew all the tears in the world could not restore to you those who have gone from you.
Not this side of paradise, anyway.