An Eternal Incandescence

On the weekend of my senior prom in high school, I took an impromptu trip to Chicago with my mother. For reasons not worth recounting here, my situation with girls was complicated, and I preferred to run away from it all. I had a few other things on my mind, too. The month before, I’d received my acceptance letter to Georgetown, a dream fulfilled; within a month, I’d be out of high school, and my parents’ divorce, long in the works, would be final. I was not exactly in my most stable mental state. I needed an escape, and my grandmother’s 80th birthday party provided a retreat into a safe harbor.

At the party, I had a moment to myself with my grandmother. She proceeded to give me the longest, most heartfelt hug I have ever received. She expressed some pride that I was headed to Georgetown—maybe I’d turn out a good Catholic boy after all!—but it quickly dawned on me that she was saying far more with that hug than a comment on college choice. There are a few people in life with whom I feel deeply in tune, fellow observers of the world passing before us whom I can read and who can read me in an instant. A quick look, even when cryptic, could convey paragraphs. Grandma was one of those people, and it was in that moment that I came to understand the meaning of unconditional love.

Her smile was a window unto an eternal incandescence. Her spirit gushed and overflowed and swept us up, making us forget pity, caution, concern, everything but the pleasure of her presence. -Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

Grandma was something of an expert on the topic. As the mother of twelve children, she shepherded them all through their highs, lows, and all of the tumult that our sprawling clan mustered. If natality, as Hannah Arendt claimed, is indeed the miracle that saves the world, she brought about that destiny time and time again. It all seemed to come with a certain ease. There were, of course, times when it all drained her; times when wayward members of her lineage led her to shake her head and purse her lips. But she knew that the richness of her creation far exceeded its exhaustions, and by the time I came along, she’d seen it all, and knew what we needed in certain moments.

That innate connection appeared once again when I saw her for the final time this past April. Due to the coronavirus it was our first in-person visit in over a year, and she was moving more slowly, thinking more slowly, steadily slipping away into the mists beyond. We both seemed to have the sense this might be the last time we saw each other. We had a long goodbye, and we shared one final significant look that said it all: we would confront what came next, not without a little fear, but also with knowledge, with a certain faith. That was enough to see us through.

Grandma’s death this past week, at the age of 93, came with a characteristic grace. While there were struggles, she always seemed to slide easily and deliberately through life, and there was never a radical turn. When she lost her husband of 67 years, she mourned but moved on, kept up her joyous spirits, tiring more easily but still ready to be part of the endless family party. Unlike Grandpa, she did not crash with age; instead, it was a slow, gentle fade, tinged by the occasional frustration and uncertainty, but never far from her characteristic good humor. My Aunt Mary Beth took her in for the final four years of her life, an act of quiet heroism that made sure my grandfather’s rough decline in sterile hospitals would not befall her. She eased away with a steady stream of family visits and put up with the chaos of weekly Zooms during her final year. When it was time to go, she went quickly, waiting just long enough for Mary Beth to return from a much-needed trip with her son and grandchildren to Cape Cod, muttering a few final phrases in Polish to come full circle, family by her side as the breaths slid away.

Like her husband and so many of her progeny, Grandma possessed a robust mind. This young Polish girl from the city attended the University of Chicago in the 1940s, a feat whose impressiveness did not dawn on me until late in her life. While she didn’t get lost in intellectual tomes and debates the way Grandpa did, she kept herself busy, always ready to exercise a politely judgmental curiosity, whether over some book or movie or adventure of her offspring or in the complete tour of a giant book on art history that she and I once undertook. In coronavirus quarantine I picked up her crossword puzzle habit; toward the end, when that was beyond her, she settled for marathons of Rummikub, which now threatens euchre’s position as the official family game. If Grandpa was the driving force of nature who made their small empire possible, Grandma was its deep guiding core, her mere presence creating a sense that this all should come naturally.

The family Zooms over the final year and a half of her life gave us occasion to bust out old pictures and gifted me a window into the formation of a suburban Chicago matriarch. There were her childhood ventures to Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, an ever-burgeoning clan filling first the house on Ardmore in Villa Park and then the house on Edgewood in Lombard, and later at the homes of aunts and uncles and out in Huntley. The steady string of lifelong friends, couples on a shared journey: Gingers, Gioias, Fanellas, and so on. Catholic masses, chaotic Christmas parties, Cubs games, a few European cruises, a papal mass. Joy filled it all from start to finish.

Grandma fell in love with the Northwoods of Wisconsin, long a family retreat, and I can still see her contented smile on the deck overlooking East Twin Lake. My Aunt Lucy’s transcription of her Northwoods journals early in the coronavirus pandemic were a revelation, a deeper dive into a mind whose contours felt both new and exactly right. Her work inspired me to start a simple journal with posterity in mind, a daily exercise that got beyond the alternating poles of incredible detachment and deeply personal musing that consume so much of my own output, and settled for easy reflection on the passing days. “I try not to feel apprehension — keep telling myself to just ENJOY what we’ve been given,” she writes on day one of the journal. An ethos we can all take to heart.

What I will remember forever, however, is her laugh. It had a full spectrum, from a quick chuckling eddy to a deep, full-throated roller, a cycle of the tides to fit any occasion. It was always ready, sometimes delighted and sometimes resigned, but always able to light up a room. The punches have come hard for us Maloneys in 2020: first an aunt and then a cousin and now the woman who birthed it all. At least now we can all be together again in the flesh to send her off. So I will dust off my suit, pour myself a Manhattan, and prepare one final do widzenia to the woman whose easy delight at the world around her made possible a life in accord with the rhythms of her world. We multitudes who follow all carry that light.

Farewell, Aunt Kat

My Aunt Kathleen, aged 69, passed away this past week.

I knew Aunt Kat least well of my mom’s eleven siblings. I’m not sure how different it could have been, a reality that eats at someone ever inclined to probe the depths. She had suffered, her body broken down by some of the demons she’d faced, and she was who she was. I did not know her before any of that. Her story there is not one I know well, and it is not my place to tell it.

By the time my memory of Aunt Kat starts, she had become a steady constant amid the endless party of my extended family. She arrived early to every family gathering and stuck through them, often settling into a corner with my grandmother or a few other confidantes, ever composed and calm, head propped up by her arm as she held forth with her gravelly voice. Even if she wasn’t okay, she probably said she was okay, taking care of things at her deliberate pace, baking her famed brownies and, of course, collecting yet more Peanuts memorabilia. She diligently sent her nieces and nephews gifts and clip art cards for Christmas and for birthdays, her loyalty to her sprawling extended clan unwavering. (The final one I got still hangs in my kitchen, and will stay there for some time.)

Her faith was her solace and her eternal compass through what she endured, her very literal saving grace. Too many people who fall into holes do not have guides back out, but Aunt Kat did, and it kept her going for decades. Perhaps the only memory of her I have away from a larger family gathering comes from a night when I attended a Midnight Mass with her and my mother as a kid. I remember nothing of the service—I was, if memory serves, enjoying a novel excuse to stay up late—but I remember her at prayer.

Aunt Kat got out and saw much of the world, did a few cruises on her own; she kept that going right up until the end, with a perhaps over-ambitious final voyage not long before Covid shut down the world. In her final year she shared some of those memories on what became a weekly family Zoom, putting up past pictures of journeys I’d never known she’d taken. Thanks to those Zooms, I had the pleasure of seeing her more often over the past year than at any other point in my life, and at some point I registered how pleased she was to see me on those calls semi-regularly, perhaps providing a vicarious window after I bought a house or flitted off to St. Thomas. I never tapped it fully, but there was plenty of wealth tucked away in that mind, rich in experience from her travels and the network of friends I knew little about before the stories shared after her passing.

Aunt Kat’s death was not Covid-driven, but the pandemic still robbed us of a vital ritual, that great outpouring of collective grief that has come with other family deaths. I tuned in to the live-streamed funeral Mass from my home office, where I watched the backs of the heads of a few family members scattered about a church in Illinois; after the pallbearers exited, I clicked out of the video and promptly joined a completely unrelated virtual meeting already in progress. This is not exactly what closure looks like.

Thankfully, the family piled on to another Zoom in the evening for a virtual wake of sorts. A few more memories poured out, interspersed with discussions of the estate; naturally, she’d tidied up her affairs and left things in good order. (The tidiness of the house she left her two godsons, on the other hand, is a different story.) There were pleasant drifts in to topics far more mundane. Many were not quite ready to talk, still processing a looming absence in our midst. The eldest of the nine Maloney sisters is gone now, but she is seared into the minds of her clan.

For me, that final image is of her in the Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis. We were in town for a family wedding, passing the time between functions and touring the town I would soon come to call a temporary home. It was a warm summer day, and she’d walked a long way; she was seated on a chair in the shade, resplendent in red, tired, but content. At the end of a road of uncommon perseverance lies grace. She had arrived.

Farewell to the Patriarch

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.

grandpa

My grandfather, composed entirely of pictures of his progeny, now hanging in my hallway.

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.

Farewell, Uncle Jack

This weekend, my Uncle Jack passed away.  He was always a welcome presence in my life, even if I never got to know him half as well as I should have. He was a man of great wit, and always a steadying presence in the midst of Maloney family holiday bedlam. Whenever one needed a breath of fresh air, one could usually find Uncle Jack tucked away somewhere, safe from the crush of humanity and at ease. And when he did move to insert himself into the middle of it all, it was often memorable: I remember the one year when, to everyone’s surprise, he was the life of the Annual Family Thanksgiving Political Debate, and had us all rolling in laughter. He passed with much of his extended family on hand, there for him in the end. He took his final breaths while wearing his bunny slippers, which he will also wear at his funeral.

My heart goes out to my Aunt Mary Beth, my cousin Paul and his wife Laura, and their children Luke and Emma, who didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with their grandfather. I wish I could have offered up more than a farewell card, send along with my mother as she hastened south to be with him this past weekend. This blog also lost a loyal reader, even though I’m sure that Duluth politics and high school hockey were never topics of great interest to him. He was dedicated to his extended family in his quiet, reliable way, and his absence will loom over future family gatherings. We’ll miss him, but we have much to remember him by, and he left a proud legacy.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Jack.