Friday, March 21, 2008

909 Howard Ave

It isn't there anymore. It's been replaced by Yale buildings. But it's where my great-grandfather Dr. McGuire grew up, the son of Jimmy McGuire, Postmaster of the NH Post Office.

As I dropped off some groceries for Grandma tonight, we sat and chatted for a bit. The bulbs are pushing up higher in the garden now, she remarked. And isn't it nice that it's lighter so late at night now that we've sprung the clocks ahead? I asked her if any photos existed of Jimmy McGuire. In classic Irish fashion, her nose went up a bit as she said,

"No. Not that I know of. They were never really happy Dr. McGuire married Eleanor."

"Why? Because she was divorced and had a son?" That son was my grandfather, Paul.

"Yes, I would presume so. I think as far as looks and charm went, he couldn't have done better. But they were never really happy about the rest."

The rest.

Eleanor, my great-grandmother, was the only daughter of the wealthy attorney JD Lynch, a roughneck for Teddy Roosevelt. She was from Springfield, MA, and when she was 19 she married Jeremiah O'Sullivan, a wealthy attorney from Lowell, MA, whose family made a vast fortune in its patented rubber heel and subsequent O'Sullivan Rubber Heel Company. Less than two years later, when my grandfather was just six months old, Eleanor left Jeremiah for reasons still unknown. Within a year or so she married Dr. McGuire. And so...

Anyone close to me knows my family's lifelong wrestling match with mental illness and addiction. (Not that it makes us special. It just makes us a little more like everyone else.) In between suicide attempts in his golden years, Pa (that's what I called my grandfather) recalled a memory, according to Grandma:

"Well, he was older than Nolan. Maybe Sean's age, about six. And he was playing at the house they had at that point on Park Street. Dr. McGuire had his pediatrician's office downstairs, and his parents lived upstairs. Pa was playing around in the backyard on a tree, and he fell and broke his arm. And no one came for him. The grandparents were upstairs and must have heard his cries for help, but he laid there a long time before Dr. McGuire realized he was out there with a broken arm. He always saw that as a real rejection of him and his mother, even though he didn't know until he was 18 that Dr. McGuire wasn't his real father."

Kapow! How's that for a kick in the head? My poor Grandfather. I mean, really. In the condensed version, it goes like this: He never remembered a time with his real father, who by all accounts was kept from him by Eleanor, who abused her father's connections to powerful lawyers. In turn, Jeremiah O'Sullivan blocked Eleanor's attempts to annul their marriage, since he was the nephew of a Boston Bishop.

Dr. McGuire was by all accounts a wonderful father, popular in the community, beloved by his patients, and all in all a great man. Eleanor was deeply in love with him, and he cared well for her and for my grandfather, whom he treated as his own son (he and Eleanor never had any children). Still, he was in on the big secret that Eleanor kept alive. Not until JD Lynch managed to pull strings and keep Pa out of the draft during WWII did Pa stumble across records and discover the truth. According to Grandma, when Pa went to speak to JD Lynch, distraught over the news, that great old man broke down into tears. It might have been the first anyone had seen JD Lynch cry. "I always wanted her to tell you," he wept. "I don't know why she didn't. I'll never understand."

Years later, in 1952, Dr. McGuire died and left Eleanor pretty broke, all things considered. "She had never wanted for anything," Grandma remarked. "Every day he left money for her on the dining room table. They had the beach houses until they were destroyed in the Hurricane of '38. And, of course, they were members of the Pine Orchard Club, where Pa learned to play tennis and had lots of friends."

But when Dr. McGuire died, Eleanor--who had never worked a day in her life--was at a loss. "She was heartbroken," Grandma said. But she was also Eleanor. As one of her good friends remarked to Grandma a few years after Dr. McGuire's death, "God only said 'No' once to Eleanor, and that was when Will died."

She wasn't penniless, but there wasn't much left in the kitty, considering most of Dr. McGuire's patients were the children of the Great Depression and WWII. After his death, Eleanor was clueless as to how to run a household and pay bills. St. Raphael's Hospital, where Dr. McGuire was a professor of pediatric nursing in its now-defunct nursing school, gave her jobs out of sheer kindness but for which she was totally unqualified and would frequently call in sick.

"He served in WWI, came home, and could have made quite a living as doctor," Grandma said. "But he was such a generous man, and he rarely charged many of his patients, especially the ones in the immigrant and black communities. He wanted to help those patients, those families. And in those days, you paid your doctor when you saw them. If they didn't pay him, he wouldn't send a bill. It's just not who he was."

Eleanor died on March 29, 1958 in their pretty Forest Rd house, which they had built in the 20s. She died 50 years ago next week. Before her death, she had planned several times to sell the home, but when it came time to list it, she couldn't bear the idea. Instead, she who had never drank much in her life, drank herself to death in that house when she was only 54.

"That's young by any standards," said Grandma. "To think, they had only been married 23 years when he died--that's really not very long. And most of that was during the Depression and the War. And then he was gone. And she couldn't function. She was never an alcoholic. But she sure knew how to medicate herself in the end. Her friends--she had LOTS of friends--tried to help. But she didn't want it. She was heartbroken."

On March 1, 1999, my grandfather died of pneumonia in Donegal, Ireland, where he moved after two unsuccessful suicide attempts and then divorcing Grandma in 1990. The headstone of his grave, where he's buried on top of another corpse from a century ago, reads "O'Sullivan".


Later, I came home, put away the groceries, picked up around the house (Legos! Star Wars toys! Star Wars Lego toys!) and poured myself a big glass of wine. The most amazing moon rose up right where the sun rises each day, and I grabbed the video camera to capture it. Billie Holiday crooned from kitchen, which backlit the nightshot on my camera.

After a while, I called in the dog and put away the dishes.

I cleaned my engagement ring from Ian. I missed my children, who are with their father tonight.

I arranged the potted flowers I purchased for all the mothers this Easter, including Ian's mother, who loves my children dearly and who is babysitting them tomorrow night.

Oh, Eleanor. I wonder how heavy your heart might have been as a young bride or a middle-aged widow. Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was always about you. Either way, I am happy to have learned more about my messy family from Grandma tonight. In all honesty, it makes me love them all even more.

Tomorrow I'm going for a run. I had planned on one today, but I didn't feel like running in a seaside headwind on a March day. So tomorrow's the day. The first run of Spring. The kids come home at noon. Not a moment too soon.

And this, to lighten the mood. I heard this the other day in the car, and for some inexplicable reason, I liked it.

Just forgive me and enjoy it for a minute. C'mon. You KNOW you like this song. I bet you even know all the words to it...

...all hail the 90s.

Man, am I glad St. Paddy's day is over.



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