Thomas L. McCreight
December 2, 1928–June 8, 2015
This piece was originally published on June 27, 2015.
Until now this space has limited the personal to opinion. That’s by design. Today I’m breaking that mold to write about my father who passed away on June 8. Roman Catholic ritual doesn’t embrace eulogies so consider this his.
Almost anyone born at the start of or during the Great Depression can tell tales of want and fear. Even my mother-in-law, born in 1932 of two college-educated parents, could summon a tale or two. My dad’s tale is a bit worse than many. Born into difficult circumstances he and his brother, who was two or three years older, were removed from their mother’s care and sent to an orphanage run by Dominican nuns. (For those who like a playbill, the Order of Preachers, commonly referred to as the Dominicans, trace their roots to St. Dominic in the 12th century.)
If things were tough for everyone in those years imagine being 4, torn from your home in a Manhattan apartment building and sent upstate (all of 16 miles) to farm country where you got to room with 40 to 50 other kids. I now live within 5 miles of that orphanage and have visited it as an adult in the company of my dad. The group homes of pre-teens and teens that dot the tree-lined campus are a far cry from the Dickensian wards of the 1930s.
Now imagine how unsettling it probably was for your mother to show up at irregular intervals to bemoan the people keeping her from you. Then ladle in stern taskmasters and disciplinarians who had a penchant for physical punishment. Then, just because it’s not interesting enough already, better have the child contract polio.
It’s not a pretty picture. And it’s the one my dad grew up within. That he managed to become a man who got up every day, went to work and came home at the end of the day is remarkable. And he did it without descending into pathology. No gambling. No alcoholism. No drug abuse.
It’s a boring tale except if you live it. The Depression was a global experience. People from all corners of the globe survived. In the post-war US they thrived. And so did my dad. But his fate wasn’t to ever have it easy. My brother, my Irish twin, was born with Down Syndrome and a host of other medical ailments. He died at age 4 of childhood leukemia. My kid sister, the baby, died 3 weeks after her 30th birthday. My mom, his helpmeet of 40 years who was supposed to survive him, succumbed to cancer more than thirteen years ago. It seems like dirty pool to ask one man to bear so much pain.
And yet he did, day in and day out for longer than most of us can imagine.
When my mom died, I spoke of saints. My dad was no saint but he might have been a folk hero. The first time I accepted that proposition was when a childhood friend who’d remained in town told me he was. The occasion for bestowing that label was my dad backing his car over my mother and not getting thrown out of the house. (Mom survived with a broken wrist.)
Like some saints folk heroes are rooted in place. Can you imagine Paul Bunyan anywhere but Minnesota? Or Brer’ Rabbit outside the south? My dad was rooted in the blue-collar environs of New York. And he became. as I like to say, the Philosopher King of those parts.
He earned that title by saying things you really needed to hear in a way that stuck in your head regardless of whether you wanted to hear it at the time he said it. And not everyone wanted to hear it. My mother, who had a strong sense of propriety, was not a fan of his observation about marital infidelity, “Hey, it takes two to bang-o.” And I don’t think it’s unusual for a 13-year old to react strongly and negatively to the idea that, “You’re going to be a lot happier when you realize you have your life and not somebody else’s.”
At the root of it all was the idea that he had good fortune and his good fortune need not come at anybody else’s expense. That was all-encompassing and presented its own lessons.
I recall a Christmas a few years after I started making my way in the world. My dad wanted a flannel shirt. I knew how to do that. I went to my favorite haberdasher (I had discovered an inner dandy) and purchased a beautiful, designer-label flannel shirt. The package was wrapped as if it were intended for royalty.
Within weeks the family triangulation machine had worked its magic. “Who does he think I am?,” I was told he said, “How hard is it to buy a simple shirt?”
The lesson lies past the rebuke which was almost always in evidence. It wasn’t that we didn’t understand each other (which is true). Or that I was capable of screwing up the easiest task (to which there is also some truth). It was that there is nothing wrong with the simple and that the fancier item, with the to-be-bragged-about or silently-doted-on provenance, might even cause some people discomfort.
At the end of it all, my dad hated doing that. While he could work up a good head of steam and righteous indignation it was almost always directed at faceless institutions or behaviors that suggested one was better than anyone else. My dad was a daily mass-goer who volunteered his time in Paris Outreach. He was not a joiner by nature. He did not do things for awards, plaques or accolades. He just wanted to help people.
I think he probably did.
Get some rest, dad.