Being Part of It First 10,500 Worda

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First 10,000 words of Memoir Feb 8, 2018
   1 BEING PART OF IT : A MEMOIR PATRICK J. FINN PREFACE Why write a memoir? For me the short answer is I’m a writer who ran out of things to write. I graduated from college in 1959. In the following years I taught English in elementary school, high school, and college. I edited middle school literature anthologies at Scott, Foresman (now Pearson Education). I earned a Ph. D. at the University of Chicago. I taught students preparing to be Reading and English teachers at the State University of New York at Buffalo Graduate School of Education. I published a half dozen articles in scholarly journals and two textbooks — one on teaching reading and one on teaching writing. These were not run-away best sellers, but the year I retired, 1999, I published Literacy with an Attitude: Educating Working-Class Children in their own Self-Interest  , a book I had been working on for the previous ten years. It sold ve ry well, and I published a “Tenth Anniversary” Second Edition on 2009. During that post  -retirement decade I published a few more articles, one that earned an award from The Center for Working Class Studies, and I co-edited a book with my wife, Mary Finn. But a couple of years ago I simply had nothing more to say on the topics I had been writing and speaking on for forty years. What to do? What to do? As a teacher I got paid to talk, and I’ve always thought much of good teaching is telling stories. And of course conversation at dinner and sitting on a porch on a summer afternoon is about telling stories. I love to talk (and I hope listen) in such settings, and I have a somewhat unusual background. I am the eighth of nine children — six boys and three gir ls. All my brothers followed my father’s trade, plumbing. I am the only one of my siblings to attend college. I’m from an Irish Catholic family, and I am the only one of my siblings to leave the fold. Not being one for half-measures I became a Quaker. I lived on the South Side of Chicago; Ft Greeley, Alaska; the North Side of Chicago (4 addresses), Edinburgh, Scotland; North Berwick, Scotland; Glasgow, Scotland; Highland Park, New Jersey; Williamsville, New York; Buffalo, New York; Chautauqua, New York; and Los Angeles, California (at 3 addresses, one in Chinatown). And so, I thought I’d write a memoir, at least for my children and grand children.  I no sooner got started than a question began to loom ever and ever larger: Why didn’t my mother like me? It’s not as though this thought never occurred to me; but it became obvious to me that I could not ignore this question and continue to tell my story. This, as I have learned since, is not an unusual experience for the memoirist, and the answer is frequen tly, “It’s your own damned fault.” And yes, it was my own damned fault.   2 BEING PART OF IT : A MEMOIR PATRICK J. FINN In her 84th year my mother went into the hospital for a somewhat routine surgery, and the doctors found her organs were riddled with cancer that had gone undetected. They stitched her up and told her the surgery was a success but that she would have a long recovery. This was 1985 when doctors frequently lied to cancer patients about the diagnosis that was thought to be too difficult for the patient to bear. I drove to Chicago from my home in Buffalo, New York to visit her while she was still in the hospital. I brought with me my first book entitled Helping Children Learn to Read  . It had just been delivered to me from the publisher. The dedication page read to my mother Alverna Smerz Finn. My mother was born to Czech (what everyone in Chicago at the time called “Bohemian”) parents, Albert and Josepha Smerz. Because she was “Mrs. Finn” in an Irish Catholic neighborhood and had nine children, she gave up bothering to tell people that she was not Irish. In fact, no one called her Alverna. They called her “Mrs. Finn” or just “Finn.” Having the book in my hand provided a reason for my visit  — other than that I had driven ten hours from Buffalo to visit her after what everyone was pretending was a successful routine surgery. I don’t remember her being very excited about my book, published by Random House, no less. I attributed her lack of enthusiasm to the fact that she was, after all, recovering from surgery. My sister Mary told me later that my mother was very pleased about the book and especially about the dedication. Mary said the dedication was “inspired.”   During the hospital visit my mother said, I'm just glad it’s not the big ‘C.’” I t took me a moment to understand that she meant, “I'm glad they didn’t find cancer.” I tried to agree nonchalantly, “Yea, ya’ dodged that bullet!” I wondered if I had been very convincing. After several days in the hospital my mother went to stay with my sister Mary believing that when she was well enough she would return to her own place where she lived with my brother Jack. After a couple of weeks, and against her doctor’s advice, my brothers and sisters gathered in her bedroom to tell her that indeed she did have cancer and that she was not expected to live more than a few more weeks. She was pretty unhappy about the deception, but in a little while she understood what motivated it and suggested they send out   3 for Popeye’s chicken! My mother was ver y smart, and I think she probably knew all long what the game was. I visited her again for a weekend after she knew she was dying. She was mostly sedated at this point but she did wake up and talk for short periods of time. She said that she had had a good life and implied (but did not actually say) that she was ready to die. As I sat by her bed I wondered if there were something that I would wish at some time in the future I had said to her and I could think of nothing. I took her hand when I thought she was sleeping and after a while she awoke and withdrew her hand gently and said, “I like holding your hand, Paddy. It’s just uncomfortable.” I think of that from time to time when remembering her, and when feeling a little morose, which is not all that unusual for me, I think how that sums up so much of our relationship. My final visit came a few weeks later. I had lived in Buffalo since 1972 where I was on the education faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The semester was coming to an end and I decided that when classes ended I would go to Chicago and stay until she died. The day after my last class I was scheduled to do a presentation to a group of Buffalo school principals at 8:00 in the morning. I did that presentation, left for Chicago around 10:00 a. m. and got to my sister’s house around 7:00 p. m. When I entered her bedroom my mother was conscious and said, “Hello, Paddy.” I believe those were her last words. For the remainder of the evening my sister Mary, my brother Jack, two of Mary’s daughters and I [check on who was actually there] sat at the kitchen table just outside the bedroom where mother lay in a coma. We drank tea, discussed preparations for her funeral, listened to her breath, and listened for her to stop breathing. The nurse supplied by hospice arrived around midnight, and thinking my mother would surely live till morning, Jack and Mary’s daughters went home and I went to bed in the basement dormitory where Mary’s [5? boys] slept when they were children. Only Mary remained awake. About 4 a. m. she called me from the top of the steps to say the nurse believed my mother was dying. Despite the need for hurry, I had to stop in the bathroom before going up stairs. It was the gallons of tea that we drank the night before. By the time I got to the top of the stairs mother had been gone for a while. She had never regained consciousness. At my mother’s wake my Aunt Bess, my mother’s sister, asked me if I had my book with me. My mother had told her about the dedication. It did not surprise me at all that mother had told my sister and my aunt that she was delighted that I had dedicated the book to her,   4 and that I had referred to her as Alverna Smerz   Finn, but she had not actually said that to me. I don’t remember even feeling sad. There was a distance between us that I was quit  e accustomed to. My wife told me once that she thought there was a strange formality in the way my mother and I related to one another. She was right. <> There is a Carl Sandberg poem containing these lines This here phizzog — somebody handed it to you – am I right?    Somebody said, “Here’s yours, now go see what you can do with it.”    It was like a package marked: “No goods exchanged after being taken away.”    In this poem  phizzog   refers to a person’s physiognomy — their general appearance, their “presence”— but more than that it refers to the reaction others typically have to a person with that presence. The physiognomy someone handed my mother was no bargain. She had a very pretty face, but she stood ab out 5’ 3” and she was fat— very, very   fat. In our society, obesity, particularly “morbid obesity,” inspires some really bad reactions. Probably the most harmful of these is ridicule. People make fun of fat people and fat girls and women are victims of ridicule more often and more heartlessly than fat boys and men. I doubt my mother ever entered a room of strangers where you would not notice people noticing her. But she dispelled forthwith any idea anyone had she was intimidated by them or by the occasion. She was not apologetic. She was self-assured. She was admirable. She came on like gangbusters. In a situation that seemed to call for a little formality or decorum, she was likely to say something just a little crude —saying in effect, “Let’s cut the crap.” In fact on many occasions she said precisely, “Let’s cut the crap.” And if the occasion was particularly thick with pretentiousness, she was likely to say, “Let’s cut the bullshit.” People loved her.  And so my mother was a character. She was smart, fun-loving, proud, assertive, gutsy, intelligent, ambitious, interested, interesting, and combative. I don’t think anyone ever laughed at her openly, and certainly not for long, but I think it took a great deal of energy on her part to face the public and stay in charge. Many of us who loved her and knew her well came to believe that underneath it all she was angry and depressed about what life had handed her. The battle she felt she needed to put up in public took its toll. When she was out for the day and I was home I sometimes would do some little extra job — like cleaning the area around the burners on the stove that did not get done every day, or straightening up the back stair entry-way that could become sort of a catch-all for discarded newspapers and pop bottles. I always expected her to comment
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