Saturday, March 26, 2011

Star Stuck

My wife loves looking at the nighttime stars!

There's only one thing that she loves more than that...dragging anyone in the house outside to look at them with her.

I don't think she's afraid of the dark, as she'll stand out there as coyotes, who are seemingly five feet away, bay at the moon, while bats circle her head.

And, she certainly is not gaining an authority on star groupings by gently forcing me or the boys to join her as, when she questions, "What constellation is that," we always answer the same way.  "It's the Twinkie constellation."

We get "that look," and she states, each time, "There is no Twinkie constellation!"

I murmur, "Twinkie, twinkie, little star....."

"If you're not going to enjoy this, then just go back inside," she commands.

Worked!  Well, actually, I dare not leave.  I quickly point, with a startle, and state, "Ooo, look, a shooting star!"

"That one," she asks, "that's moving across the horizon over the pine trees?  That's a plane!"


I spot a small dot slowly moving overhead, "Hey, a satellite!"

She, "How about another plane?"

Okay.  I'm no expert.  I can spot things moving, but when they're millions of miles away can I be faulted for a small mis-identification?

Back a bit, when it was announced that one could see the space station fly overhead, okay a small bright dot in the netherskies reflecting where it was, we got dragged outside.

Based on what we had seen in the newspaper, my wife had figured out just where and when it would be viewable.  She placed blankets on the ground, had blankets to cover us, brought out a retinue of binoculars, and was ready for space station sighting!

I was bemoaning the fact that it was cold out, it was dark (I'm not so intrepid with the knowledge that coyotes, bears, foxes, raccoons, skunks, bats, mosquitoes, ticks, and rabbits run amok at night...yes, rabbits, they nibble on things and they have big teeth!), and now that I was laying down on the ground, my sinuses were moving about and I was getting dizzy.

I should also mention the fact that it was close to bedtime.  I was starting to doze awaiting the arrival of the astronauts.  Hoping that I could wave to them, I had a flashlight, but that idea got nixed when my very own Carl Sagan told me to "Turn that thing off, I can't see the sky."

Can't see the sky?  There's like eighty million acres of it above us...and billions and billions of stars!

I would have said that out loud, but that would have been considered heresy against her revered Carl.

Then the next statement from her, as I lay there shivering.  "Isn't this romantic?"

Fortunately, I had turned the flashlight off and she couldn't see the look on my face, jaw askew, as the frozen word left my mouth, "Abbbb..soo...luuuut...lyyyy."

Nothing more romantic than laying on frozen ground, holding a flashlight you're banned from using in a pitch black environment, sinus pressure squeezing your brains out, while you scour the sky for six Russian cosmonauts who you have zero chance of actually seeing.  Was that a rabbit that just ran by?

We didn't find the space station.  We're sure it's up there, but there wasn't much to report.  In fact, it got a little hazy and my wife wasn't pleased that her view was partially obstructed.

The moon was shining a bit, and that light dimmed the stars and her enjoyment.  She reported that it looked like it wasn't going to be worth the wait and we should head in.  She was disappointed that she wasted her time waiting to see something special and ending up seeing nothing.

At the moment that she stood and turned for the door, I was taking a last look at the skyline and suddenly a bright arc of light screamed across the sky.  In seconds it gained life, shouted it's existence with a blazing stream of light, and then burnt away.  One could almost hear the crackle of fireworks.

I must have gasped or inhaled deeply, as she heard me and turned to ask me, "What was that?"

We've been married thirty years.  I said, "Nothing, probably a plane."

"With everything in the sky, how come you only ever see planes," she asked?  "Good thing, though.  If that had been a comet or the space station I would have been really upset!?

I love star gazing.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The More Things Change....

The celebration of St. Patrick's Day each year reminds me of our family's Irish roots.

Also, lately, I've been in contact with a cousin who I met many years ago and with whom I recently struck up an Internet conversation.  I was sharing a note that her mother had written to me over a dozen years ago and now we write back and forth, almost daily, questioning each other about ancestors long gone.

All of that had me thinking about my great-great and great-grandparents, their lives before they came to America, and their dreams for their family as they made the hazardous trip from wherever they came.

I do know that some of my relatives came from County Mayo, some from Galway, and some from Donegal.  What I don't know is what life was like for them in Ireland or what their trip to this country was like.

What I can imagine is that they left much of what little they most likely had behind and came with many hopes that life would just be easier...some may have thought, as they were told, that the streets were lined with gold, that things would change for the better, there would be many more opportunities, and they'd be living the life of Riley. 

I had heard stories of "the old sod," where there was nothing to do, the crops had failed, work was not available, but they were held together by their community.

One story I did hear is that each night one of the great-great grandfathers would make his way to the local pub, find his compatriots who shared his current life's adventures, toss a few darts, and toss back a few beers.

They'd talk about hopes for change, but soon realized that a better life might be elsewhere.  My predecessors decided to leave Ireland, where things weren't going to get better for sure, and take a chance on having something better over the ocean.

I write these stories down, as I search for the personalities of those who came before us and I like to have them for my boys,  so that they know and appreciate the chances that their great-great-greats took to make a better life for them.

This recent family searching activity reminded me of something I had done.

Last St. Patrick's Day, I decided to put this little story on paper and thought it would be a good time to share it with my sons.

I wrote that their great-great-grandfather's had no jobs, they were living with their parents and most likely borrowing some "airgead," that means "silver," noting that they were headed to the pub to meet up with their friends, where they would be discussing any possibilities of work, life or adventure...anything to improve their lot.

At the pub, they'd play darts (most likely for a bit more of the airgead and, therefore, some more beer) until the wee hours, knocking back a few Guinness Stouts...okay, maybe more than a few...and then head home in the darkness knowing that the next day would most likely be the same as the one that just ended.

At some point, they got up the courage or the need to find a way to leave the island and, because of them, we have enjoyed our position due in part to that early effort.

I was looking for the two boys that were home that day, knowing that they were around the house somewhere, to share this story with them.

They were both recently looking for work and had said that they were getting together to talk over some positions they seemed to have found for each other.

I wanted to share the story of immigration, the dangers of the trip those hardy souls made, the hard work and perseverance that led to some successes, and to let them know that our lives were better.

My wife said, "They went outdoors, I think they're out back by the shed."

"Outdoors," I queried?  "Why?"

"Don't know," she said, "Go find out."

I went out the downstairs door and found that they had moved a dart board from the downstairs room and put in on the side of the shed.  Off to the side they had placed a bench and lined up a few bottles of Guinness.

I watched for a moment and listened as they talked about how hard it was to find work, that they wanted to be out on their own, and that the only thing they had to do that day was throw some darts and throw back a few brews!

At that point, I wasn't sure if I should share the story with them to point out how good they had it or suggest that they emigrate.

What I was certain about was the fact that it was probably a good thing that the great-great didn't live to see that, at that moment, about the only thing that had changed was that the dart game moved about 3600 miles west!

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Adventures of Bart Sweeney

At times, a review of your family history, and discussions with siblings and other family members, can help to explain why you are where you are now and how you got to be who you are.

I believe that while many set out to find out where ancestors came from, and to discover where they hid the gold and find unclaimed family land and treasures, people are on a path of self-discovery and look to take the cumulative information and say, "Got it!  That explains a lot. Now, if only Great-Grandpa So-and-So had only taken an earlier boat, who knows what we could have done!"

I had life changing events.  Happenings that I believe set me off on a career of service to others.

The first round gave me stamina.

Each school day, from 1st grade to 4th grade, I had to ensure that my younger brother made it to school on time.

By the time we set off to walk the mile plus trip to school each day, our mother was on her way to work and my grandmother was at our apartment, as she came down through the alley daily to get us breakfast and out the door, waiting for until the time that school would start before she returned to her home, thinking we might come back for some reason.

While she waited, she might, much to our mother's consternation, prepare to spend the day repainting the place.  My grandmother loved to paint more than clean...guess she figured painting accomplished many things...looked new, smelled new, cleaned!  Can't tell you how many times our mother came home to different colors on her living room wall.

Anywho, the one of us who made it back to the apartment almost daily, while trying to get to school, was my brother.

On the way to school, should I get two steps ahead of him, my brother would run back to the apartment to report, "He's not waiting for me!"  I'd have to chase him all the way back and start all over again.

Some days, we'd put in four miles just trying to go one way!

My grandmother would lecture me on why I had to wait for him and I had to be really, really careful that his stride was ahead of mine.

I guess I learned that I would succeed when I let others succeed.  Only thing is, to this day he thinks he's older than me.  I guess I let him get too far ahead.

The other adventure regards the choice of my confirmation name.  I had completely forgotten part of the story, but when visiting my brother recently he said, "Hey, what happened to Bartholomew?" 

The mention of that name brought out memories that were long buried.

We attended Catechism classes at the local Catholic school, as our mother couldn't afford the Catholic school tuition, going once a week for a very, very long time.  During that educational process, we were faced with Confirmation, a process where one finalizes the baptism process, committing to being a follower and picking up another name to place between your middle and last names.  I thought it was for better Catholic identification processes.

Turned out you chose the name of someone you wanted to emulate.  I did my research.

The events that transpired at that time had clouded the memory of my original choice, Bartholomew.  However, I really do remember the pain associated with his replacement.

First of all, we'll start with that particular Catholic school.

My mother was divorced.  Big problem.  She had attended the school where we had our weekly Catechism classes.  The nuns that ran the school when my mother was a student there were still there when we showed up all those years later.

They knew what happened to her marriage.  They knew us.

I arrived one day and, as usual, the nuns were lining the hallways greeting their once-a-week, yet to be saved, students.

We greeted them first, "Good afternoon Sister Immobilizia." (I don't remember their names, made that one up, most likely due to trauma).

"Good afternoon Mr. Sweeney."

I jumped back to confront the mistake, at age 8.  "Excuse me Sister, but my last name is Cunningham."  Her retort, "Not while you're in this school.  Here you're a Sweeney!"

I just move on.

Confirmation day is looming, choices to be made, and I had been reading and studying.  I wanted to succeed.  I had read about the exploits of St. Bartholomew and think that most likely Sister Immobilizia had "suggested" that someone choose that saint's name.

St. Bartholomew
I announced to my mother that I had chosen the name of Bartholomew.  "What," she shot back?  "You can't pick that name, it's too long.  You name is all ready long enough.  Pick something else."

Oh no!  I had one day to come up with another name!

Hundreds of thoughts ran through my head, mostly about forgetting all of the studying I did for my presentation, as we had to announce in front of the class what name we had chosen and why.  I settled in to a long night, as D-day was the next day.

Watching TV that night provided me with my out, as I saw and heard a name that fit with a respected saint and I quickly tried to come up with what to say.

That didn't go well.

I got the name right, and was on the right track, but honesty took over and I was more afraid of lying to a nun than I was presenting a made up answer.

"So, Mr. Sweeney, what name have you chosen," sounding almost cherubic, uncharacteristically, queried the nun?

Pat Garrett - Lawman
"Patrick," I stated.

Sister Immobilizia responds.  "Ah, Patrick.  Good choice.  Please tell us a little about Patrick and why you chose this name," the good Sister said almost lilting out the sentence.

"Umm...I picked the name Patrick for Pat Garrett.  He's a sheriff and he did good things and he shot Billy the Kid," I proudly announced.  Of course, I had to add, "He's on TV every week!"

I don't remember moving from my desk to the hall, but I was there in a flash.  The big pointy finger of the nun was in my face and I was dutifully instructed to go back into the class and tell all that I made a mistake and that I chose Patrick to honor St. Patrick of Ireland and I had better go home and study about St. Patrick and be prepared to come back to class with a full presentation next week, and confess this awful thing to the priest at Saturday's confession and be prepared to spend 1000 years in purgatory for having such thoughts.

At that point, I was just concerned about getting out of that school alive.

I did due diligence and studied up on the saint that ended up costing reptile zoos in Ireland a ton of money for serpents that they now had to import!

And, I learned stuff.  I learned that you are who others think you are, that you should go with your gut and generally stick with your first choice, especially when the boss (the nun) made the suggestion in the first place, that you need to study your material, write a script and stick to it, and when confronted with purgatory relax, it's not forever!

The genealogist in me wonders what I would be today had I stuck with Bartholomew.  As my brother wrote to me recently, "okay, so where art thou Bartholomew?"  I don't know.  As I told Sister Immobilizia, or whatever her name was, that's not my name!!!

But what if I was Bartholomew Sweeney?  Would I be in a different place?  Learned different things?  Don't know, but I still would have had to get that brother of mine to school every day for five years...there are some things that names don't change.  Did I mention that my brother used to jump in mud puddles all of the time, to and from school and that it was my fault!  More on that next time in "The Continuing Adventures of Bart Sweeney!"

Hmmm...maybe Bart is the writer in me...