John Maloney, the co-founder of a family that included a wife of 68 years, 12 children, 20 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, passed away over the weekend. My grandfather ruled his clan from his suburban Chicago roost, and in his later years from a lake home in northern Wisconsin as well, always a welcome meeting point for the Duluth-based branch of his family. His obituary spends over half its words listing offspring, a fitting tribute to an expansive legacy. He was a true patriarch, a throwback to a now-rare masculine ideal of a father, a breadwinner, a man of faith, and one whose larger-than-life figure left an indelible mark.
My grandfather had a certain curmudgeonly quality, the sort that intimidated me as a young kid but delighted me as I grew into a person who had more than a few things in common with the man. We shared strong literary interests, fondness for baseball on the radio, pleasure in hosting large parties in spite of our introversion, enjoyment in holding court on weighty affairs, the occasional need to escape to a lake, and some skinny ankles. At the most profound level we both aspired a quiet but firm sense of righteousness stemming from an intellectual worldview, and a desire to leave something that lasts. I don’t aim to copy him, either in his unflinching faith or in his reproductive prowess, but his life is evidence that something akin to what I aspire to can be done, and he is as much an inspiration here as anyone I know.
It wasn’t easy to break through the crust with Grandpa. He was firm in his beliefs and set in his ways, a product of both his times and his faith. While he was rarely one to open up or acknowledge that things were not always right, he did live by example, and set a standard whose consistency said what words sometimes could not. Grandpa lost his own family fairly early, and wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to him. The son of an accomplished PR man whose employers included the Museum of Science and Industry before an untimely and alcohol-driven death, he attended the University of Chicago, where he met my grandmother, and married her at age 19. By the time he was 30, he had nine children. He settled into life as an actuary, became an iconic midcentury father figure who put twelve kids through college, and with his wife instilled in so many of them his fondness for letters, music, liquor, and the finer things in life.
Central to Grandpa’s kingdom was the kingdom of God, and his robust Catholic faith was the foundation of his life. That faith produced remarkable marriage, and all of his certainties on family life the he lived out until the end. He savaged me for going to Georgetown—“that’s a Jesuit school, why aren’t you going to a Catholic school?” he asked when I was accepted—but it was all in good fun; perhaps he even hoped Georgetown might guide one of the wayward members of his flock back into the faithful fold. (I think he thought I should have been a priest, which, given my fondness for sermonizing and asking big questions, might well have been my fate in a different era.) The last substantive conversation I remember having with him before his decline was about a former professor of mine who wrote in First Things, a densely intellectual and traditionalist Catholic journal that he read. His belief was profound, both spiritual and intellectual, a totalizing force that left no room for doubt. I never shared it, but I certainly admired it.
The last chapter of his life was not an easy one to watch. Grandpa never did recover from the effects of prolonged anesthesia two years ago, and most traces of his once formidable intellect faded away. His final years were spent slumped in his recliner, or rolling about in wheelchairs through hallways of several homes for the elderly with increasing levels of care, the institutionalized prolongation of desperate dreams that old age has become. I only had glimpses of this life, but it was still a shocking window into this sad decline; a sort of pain and loss of faculty that I cannot fathom and doubt I’d be able to handle without going insane.
Fortunately, though, we can choose what to remember of those who leave us, and with Grandpa, that means focusing on the rich first 85 years instead of the feeble final two. It’s a string of memories that begins with him forcefully squishing his grandchildren, and shaking our hands with his vice-like grip. It has him sitting at the head of the table and carving up the meat at Thanksgiving at the Lombard house, or seated at the piano to lead carols at the Christmas party. It features him heading out on East Twin Lake in his fishing boat or telling tales over drinks and cards late at night to the tune of the loons of the Northwoods. It meant classical music blasting on a Sunday afternoon as he devoured some large tome; Viennese waltzes on New Year’s Day and Garrison Keillor on Saturday nights. Popcorn at four, happy hour at five, bedtime in the little twin beds he and Grandma had side by side. Mumbled blessings before every meal, and the Cubs on a lazy summer afternoon. What a life well-lived. So I’ll toast my wine, pack my bags for an Irish wake and a funeral mass, and bid farewell to a man who built a family to endure through the flux of modern life. We descendants have big shoes to fill.