“As you age naturally, your family shows more and more on your face. If you deny that, you deny your heritage.”
– Frances Conroy
Today is my birthday. I don’t say that looking for birthday wishes, I say that as entry into what follows.
You see, I am smack dab in the middle of my life. I mean right in the middle. And with that comes a fair amount of reflection. It’s not necessarily a crisis, I’m not going to drop everything and get a sports car, I can’t afford it. I’m also not going to grow a mustache or become a reclusive Luddite. I’m going to do what I’ve always done, keep plowing ahead doing the things I want to and doing the things that I feel are right for me and those I care about.
What’s interesting as you get older is how you begin to wonder where you came from. Not necessarily the locale so much as the ingredients that make you, you. Of course, I am able to recognize many of my parents traits in myself, both good and bad, but for the past 15-20 years I have often wondered where some of this other stuff that is hard wired into me comes from.
Growing up we moved around and never really spent any time around our relatives. I never had the opportunity to know my maternal or paternal grandfathers and only saw my grandmothers but once a year. When they would visit, for reasons I can’t fully understand, I always sensed a fair amount of weirdness. That’s hard to comprehend as an adult and even harder to understand as a child. But, truth be told, I was too much of a selfish little kid to actually ask either of my grandmothers about my heritage. Sadly, I’m pretty sure I just didn’t care. And because I had very few interactions with my extended family, I was never privy to the stories and folklore.
My fathers’ oldest sister, my Aunt Alice, passed away recently and with her went some of the stories that provided some history and understanding about my family. On the few occasions my family would visit my Aunt and Uncle and the cousins, I would get to hear some of the stories and they would always shed light onto our family’s gestalt; our love of a good story, our tenacity, our tempers (both good and bad), our love of a good drink and our deep love of laughter.
Yea, we were predominantly Irish.
Certainly, there are some Irish stereotypes that I can accept and am apparently hardwired for, like rebellion. And not in the “I’m a rebel, no one understands me!” James Dean kind of way or the tattooed, motorcycle riding, hard living kind of way (I have tattoos and I’ve owned a motorcycle). For me, rebellion isn’t a look or an attitude; it’s a philosophical belief that stands against any injustice, real or imagined. It’s about having as much knowledge as you can and then believing there is a better way. I’m more rebellious now than I was as a kid, if only because I know more now.
It’s been argued I have a problem with authority (I really don’t as long as the authority figure is smart, reasonable and not an arrogant, power hungry jack ass). I’m pretty resolute when I want to accomplish something (or don’t want to do something), some have argued stubborn. Certainly I have other character traits, but as those have been the most repeated, they quickly popped into my head. I’ve also been made aware over the last 10 years that it’s these traits that are not something that today’s Corporatocracy views as admirable.
Obviously, I’ve had these attributes my whole life and I’ve never seen fit to adjust them and I’ve certainly pushed against any outside effort to change them. They’re part of what makes me, me.
While my Aunt Alice served as our clan’s seanchai when we would gather, it was my fathers’ cousin, Cousin Bill, who took to being the family scribe. I recently received some of what he has written about our family history and while I’m still making my way through it all I’ve had more than one or two “A-Ha” moments so far.
My paternal great grandfather, Denis Murphy, was from County Cork Ireland and came to America in 1892. Like his siblings before him, he made his way to New York City. After a couple of different career choices he became a gardener to wealthy families. Over the course of his career, he worked for three families.
The first family he worked for was Jabez Bostwick family. He was the New York distribution agent for Standard Oil and one of its major shareholders. From there, he went to work for Theodore Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill, with his wife Mary Ann Coakley. Finally, he worked for Clarence Day, a financial guy on Wall Street and the father of the man who wrote “Life With Father”.
According to Cousin Bill, his recollection of Grandpa Murphy, who was affectionately referred to as “Pop” or “Boss”, was that he was “very strong, very hard working with a quick temper but also a wonderful sense of humor…who brought a welcome element of humor and irreverence to serve as a counterpoint to the strictness of Grandma Murphy”. That certainly struck a chord with me.
Cousin Bill points out that Rye, New York then, much like today, was a very wealthy community and populated by the rich and powerful and the people who worked for them. The Murphy clan fell into the latter, but no less prideful. And being Irish meant they were Catholic and pretty pious.
As such, Sunday mass was Sunday mass and all the Catholics, regardless of social status, worshiped at the Church of the Resurrection in Rye. While my great grandfather was a working class Irish gardener for the Day estate, during Sunday mass it’s quite likely he would have been sharing a pew with some of the era’s wealthiest financiers and tycoons. Well, those that were Catholic anyway.
“Pop” apparently loved to chew tobacco, and he particularly liked the brand Honest. Cousin Bill recounts one story that makes me beam with pride. He recalls attending mass one Sunday with “Pop” where he “deposited a wad of well chewed Honest tobacco on the church floor between the kneeler and the pew…prompted by his awareness of the affluence that surrounded him in the pews.” Obviously, I never knew “Pop”, but something tells me we have much in common.
Perhaps church isn’t the best place to dispose of chewing tobacco, but really, who among the dandy Westchester financiers and business tycoons would have had the intestinal fortitude to say something to the man known around Rye as “Mr. Murphy” or “Boss” and was known to be one helluva hurling player?
So today, I celebrate my birthday knowing a little more about my great-grandfather, Denis Murphy, and a little more about myself.