By Tim McGrath
“Home, home again. I like to be here when I can. When I come home cold and tired, it’s good to warm my bones beside the fire…”
from Time - Pink Floyd
The photos fluttered in the breezy warmth that September afternoon. Each had been carefully chosen and attached to the picture board with multi-colored push pins, or lay scattered on the small table under the board. Faces looked out from them highlighting vacations, graduations, family outings and gatherings. Smiles, lots of smiles. Each was a brief blip in time that chronicled the life of my uncle, the man we’d come to honor and remember; the last of the McGrath brothers. Some in faded color, others black and white, some out of focus or grainy. All telling the story of a life well lived. Then, there was the one I lingered on. I’d seen it before; a black and white portrait of my uncle, his five brothers and sister. Seven young people dressed in their finest. I studied the faces, thinking of how I’d come to know them, and what remarkable people they were. Grateful for what they stood for, in spite of all the hardships they endured. I smiled, remembering this is where I’m from. The place I belong.
Photographed around 1940, the crisp black and white portrait was probably taken at great expense. For a family just coming out of the Great Depression, it’s a testament to the importance they placed on family solidarity. By all accounts, the McGraths of Galewood didn’t have it easy. Money was scarce, and there were no social safety nets to rely on. In the darkest days, when Ma, my grandma, was sick, Great Grandma Lilly, Ma’s mother, came to live with them. She was a tough old bird who didn’t suffer fools easily, and was exactly what was needed to keep the whole operation running. My Dad quietly said out of nowhere one day, “It got so bad we only had one small bag of rice left to eat in the house. I don’t know how Ma did it with all us kids at home. If Grandma Lilly hadn’t come, I don’t know what we’d have done.” That’s also when he started delivering the Grand Rapids Herald, the local daily. Up at four in the morning, every day. Most of his profits going to help out his mother. He was twelve. The older boys by now in the service, sending their monthly paychecks home to keep the rest of the family afloat. The younger ones finding odd jobs where they could; setting pins at the bowling alley, or scrounging for scrap metal and selling it. They counted on each other. It was all they had.
Then came December, 1941, and the war that changed so much for so many. The clan from Galewood was no exception. By the time it was over, all six brothers would be in either the Army, Navy, or Marines. Six blue stars in the window at any given time. All survived. Each came home and went on to lead productive and important lives. All married, had children, worked hard at their various occupations. Teachers, farmer, factory worker, barber, lineman, office worker. They also continued supporting their mother; who, in addition to having survived so many hardships during the Depression and war years, continued her struggle with rheumatoid arthritis and, later, cancer. Every week, without fail, a portion of the paycheck went to Ma. The web of love and care surrounded this gentle, gracious, soft spoken woman. They honored her devotion to them in spite of the grinding adversity she endured.
Not everything was gloomy, in spite of there being an Angela’s Ashes quality to
the family’s life. Just like kids in every time and place, there had to be fun even during the hard times. With a group of rambunctious boys left to create their own fun, the possibilities were endless. Playmates like “Boob”, the proud owner of a coal eating dog; sword-wielding Vic; PeeWee and Nellie added to the joie de vivre. My aunt, the lone girl in the group said, “there was never a dull moment in the house. The boys were forever in some sort of mischief, but, to their credit, no one ended up in jail.” Good thing. Grandma didn’t need any jailbirds thrown in the mix. Kick the Can, homemade bow and arrows and slingshots, scrounging up old tires to be used as the ten-cent admission to The Peanut – the local movie theater. The tires were burned in the boiler in the back to heat the place. Ice skating, sledding, hoop races, cur-dogs for pets, firecrackers, rusty wagons, mumblety-peg, campouts.
Then there was the music. A couple of the boys managed to snag a piano someplace; my Dad, and his brother, Burr. Self-taught, both could play most things by ear. Years later, whenever the clan gathered to celebrate one holiday or another, invariably the music would start. Mostly the old songs. The aunts and uncles gathered around the piano and a grand sing along would ensue. Sometimes Dad brought his battered Gretsch and accompanied Burr. As kids, we’d look at each other, and the eye rolling and giggles would commence when the first chords tinkled from the upright. As time went on, however, those songs took on new meaning. I’d catch myself humming or singing the chorus to Peg O’ My Heart, or a few verses of Shine On, Harvest Moon at random moments. I suspect I‘d become more aware of the lasting impact those times around the piano had on me. With time and age, a bit of wisdom comes, I suppose. Those moments shared listening to the harmonizing and laughter are now cherished. I‘d wager my cousins agree.
I have a copy of that portrait. Seven young people frozen in time smiling out at us, unaware of the things they would face in time yet to come. The lingering effects of The Depression and the war years would forever impact the way they saw the world. There would be many good years where their families were healthy, happy, and well, too. But, sickness, divorce, and the death of loved ones, would also be part of it.
This family had come through so much together, and they’d made it. They had become resilient, courageous, hard-working, self-sacrificing, persistent, and honorable people along the way. And, through all of it, they managed to keep that crazy, dark Irish sense of humor alive. In the end, they’d left us a magnificent legacy.
They are my Greatest Generation.
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