Catholic guilt is real. It stems from the Sunday obligation bestowed on you from your parents. Standing in the back of Our Lady of the Wayside, half listening to a sermon, watching for prescribed rituals to signal the socially acceptable moment to say Sayonara! As you make your way to the paneled boat of a station wagon, escaping the contract your parent’s made with God on your behalf. Whew.
The every-Sunday-guilt-you-till-you-get-it-church-thing didn’t speak to me as a kid. If we found ourselves away from home, Dad, being the obligatory Catholic would page through a local newspaper trying to locate a mass for Sunday services. Mom, on the other hand, would suggest that we commune with nature, say a few Hail Mary’s and find The Holy Spirit out and about. We always liked Mom’s version of church better. So, we hit a trail or two, throwing caution to the wind!
Then, in my twenties, between chain smoking and Bud Light, I wandered into Old St. Pat’s an odd Sunday or two. At the time, my brother Matt was living in the apartment above mine, just down the street from our blessed watering hole, Will’s. Weekend drinking met Sunday mass. Fondly, I remember settling into the pew, as Father Cusack presided over a packed house. By the end of the homily, I had tears wetting my cheeks. Turning to Matt, I said, “Holy shit. That whole homily was about dad, wasn’t it?”
Wiping his eyes, “Yea. It sure was, ” shaking his head.
So the homily did not say, “Jesus Christ, Joe Arndt this one’s for you!” But what was said, was true for my father, for our family.
Father Cusack retold a story from his time in the seminary. The young men would cobble together a few beers, sit together in the early evening and talk about life. One such evening, a very quiet seminarian who had just lost his father, started talking:
“I remember, this young man, let’s call him Pat, telling us that he didn’t really know his dad because he was always working. In that moment, profound sadness met our group. We didn’t really know what to say, but we knew enough to let him talk,” he said reminiscing.
He continued, “Many of you here today, work. You work hard. You might see yourself in this young man’s story. You spend most of your time at work. Some, because you have to, others because you want to…When you walk out of this church, when it is your time…when you have a choice..Ask yourself, how do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be remembered as a worker? As a man or woman who really worked hard? OR do you want your wife, your kids, your husband, your friends to remember YOU? If so, what do you want them to remember most about you?”
Time and time again, I have recounted that story. Our father worked because he had six kids to put through college. And yes, it was work he LOVED. Building roads and bridges, is work of engineering, numbers, and precision. Life at home was more messy, harder to compartmentalize.
Today, Father Cusack’s story is more about being mindful of one’s legacy, of moral obligation to me. It is said that identity is made up of the stories we tell ourselves. True. It is also about those stories others tell about us. In our family, stories have become a way to maintain our legacy, as one of our key storytellers, Mom, no longer holds those memories for us.
It follows then, that Dad has become quite the bearer of knowledge now. If telling a story to or with him, a couple things hold true:
1. A search for Joe’s glasses interrupts your story within 2 minutes because your story likely involves some aspect of space, time, travel, so..
2. The oversized calendar that hangs in the pantry will likely come out as Joe checks dates, his cryptic notes of place, time.
3. If your story involves travel outside of Arlington Heights, you will find yourself confronted with a plastic bag of maps that my father will rifle through until he finds the appropriate one that matches your story. Unfolding the map just so, until it takes up half the kitchen table. His fingers tracing your route(s) as you speak. which means that likely..
3. You MUST have serious patience because you will be asked to stop. rewind. clarify. Multiple times.
4. You might want to bring your sense of humor because things get REAL. Quick. And I say that with such profound love it’s crazy.
Asking dad to retell a moment via the phone requires similar steps–and becomes ever interesting-especially when inquiring about an event that took place some sixty-five years ago. The year–1959. While he doesn’t have the actual paper calendar, he Googles “April 1959” just to be sure he is giving me the exact date his caddying began.
“I have those questions you emailed me-somewhere, ” he offers.
His voice trails off, left hand likely excavating envelopes from the multiple non-profits, right hand, unearthing a Golf Digest-still in the plastic, various copies of The Nation, and notes upon notes to himself-reminders of ALL the work he has to do. I detect a twinge of annoyance with himself. Blessed it is the art of shuffling papers, which my father has mastered.
“Here they are. Ok. So, the caddying question. Can you believe it, Jodi? I Googled it. Just to be sure I had the correct Saturday. I started caddying on a Saturday right before my 11th birthday, April 4th 1959. For an old dinosaur that despises technology, good ‘ole Google comes in handy now and then.”
I imagine the search for his glasses preceding his adventure to the wood-paneled basement to confirm the exact date was directed to lie to secure his first job.
His father, Joe Sr., sanctioned the lie, encouraged it.
“But, dad I am only 10. You have to be 12 to caddy,” he offered after his dad pressed the issue.
“You are going to ride your bike up to Park Ridge Country Club today and start caddying,” his directive unwavering, as he made his way down the front steps to begin his day carrying other people’s mail.
My dad, a slight 5’4, looking as small as he felt, grabbed his bike from the side of the house and pedaled to meet his father’s demands.
That day, my dad couldn’t lie to the caddy master when asked his age. Standing in a row of boys on 18th hole, many at least two years his senior and inches taller, his size dictated a dismissal.
Now, as I head toward Basin street, to Marais, dad is laughing, as he thinks back to that day in 1959.
“Of course, when that caddy master dismissed me, it wasn’t the end of the story. My dad made sure of that. I was shepping bags around two weeks later. The bags weighed more than me.” I can see him shaking his head through the phone.
“So, how did you do it, dad?” I ask.
“What do you mean? I just did it. I didn’t have a choice. You do what you have to do because you have to do it,” he says.
Continuing, “My dad suggested that the caddy master bended the rules for me, but I am pretty sure, dad never made that call and the caddy master never made that allowance. He just expected me to go and do it again–and I did.”
After a round of golf and drinks, he’d often wait in the parking lot to carry bags, delivering them to the trunk of cars, knowing tips were larger when patrons had a few. My dad would eventually go on to get an Evan Scholarship to Marquette after 4 years of walking, bag totting, divet replacing, umbrella holding, and ball washing. He fell into the scholarship four years later; learning of it from a friend-after failing a test for ROTC. That Chicago summer, he was laying brick, his hands caked with wet concrete, when he wore his only suit-a wool sport coat and pants-to interview for the scholarship. Four years later, he’d marry Mom.
As Mom’s alzheimer’s has progressed, I often wonder if those physically demanding jobs helped to prepared my dad for what has come. Persistent, demanding work requires a certain mindset, a card deck of resolve, humility, compassion, and a sense of humor. Such is the work at home.
Heading off to O’Hare last time I was home, Dad, in response to Mom’s confusion reminded her, “Rose, we are like glue. You know what glue is? Even if you want to get rid of me, you can’t. I am not going anywhere. We are together, kiddo. I am your shadow and you are mine.”
And so, that is their collective legacy I suppose. A different kind of hard work, but hard work nonetheless-together. It has become less about the work of life, more about the love of one’s life. What a beautiful lesson to give us, Mom and Dad.