Sunday, March 17, 2013

Clifford John

I barely knew him. I was only 11+ when he died and can't deliver a eulogy. But I do remember a few things, and thinking about him gave me an interesting observation about life, well my life anyway.

Clifford John Branigan was a typical handsome first generation American, Irishman. I've pictures of him from the 30's standing on the stoop of "gramma's house"; A fine, dark, pinstripe three piece suit set off by the white stucco background, one foot up a step or two, leaning forward as if to rest on one knee or perhaps kiss some child's forehead as a candidate for public office. He appeared a perfect John Dillinger, dapper and crafty and as Irish as his name would portend.

He'd been a jeweler when young and one of my prize possessions is an ad torn from a 30's newspaper, yellowed and curly now, but there he is representing his firm in public. Why he stopped that line of work I'm not sure, but he became a postman and ran from hungry dogs for the rest of his life.

I really only remember one time that he and I were together alone. I'm sure there were others, but I am thick as a brick. Memory is not my strong suit some days.

They lived within 3 blocks of a massive park, Powderhorn, complete with a small lake and island, ball fields and a fine park headquarters building sporting a concessionaire and 24 hour toilets, not that the two have anything in common...or do they? In any case it was the site of my first urinal usage, a proud moment for any young man.

This was the gathering place for 4th of July fireworks, a magnificent display dwarfing the humdrum that that we call fireworks nowadays. It also was picnic heaven with WPA built concrete tables and benches dug into steep hills, massive elm trees shading every blade of grass and thick stands of shrubbery that served as cover while playing war with a few of the scores of kids that would always be available.

The lake became an oval track in winter where Olympic speed skaters practiced at times. Until the mid fifties a pair of horses would chain pull a wide blade, the driver standing on its upper edge, steering with his feet to shave the ice into race condition; perhaps one of the most dangerous jobs in America.

It was here that Cliff took me to fish. It was my first attempt at the sport; I was maybe 6 years old. We walked from the house up, and then down steep hills to the edge of Powderhorn Lake, poles and tackle box in hand, and a goodie bag that Grandma had packaged for us. I was far more interested in what the contents of the bag were than in catching fish no doubt. He may have been as well.

A three foot concrete wall built just after the depression bordered a small strip of sand littered with the fallen branches of nearby cottonwoods, and a few dead bullheads mingled with seaweed and everyday refuse stood between the waters and the grass. We sat on the lip of the wall where, in a futile gesture, he showed me proper knot tying.

Ready for anything, weapons charged, worms attached we jumped from the wall stoop to the beach. I should say I jumped, his enthusiasm likely tempered by his arthritis. Luckily I had scouted ahead because monsters lay in wait below.

I've never seen these since but I remember them as plain as day. Tiny spiders, opaque specks with legs really, ran up my legs by the thousands, all aiming for my tender spots.

Within seconds I'd been smothered in arachnid and I was screaming bloody murder, running up and down the beach looking for a way back onto the grass, within range of my holy protector, Clifford John. I probably thought that they would all leap off me once seeing their beloved beachfront home pass from view, only to run back to the sand to burrow, their hunger soon building for the next fool who might trespass.

It doesn't matter what my intentions were, my avatar was not going to help me defend from these 8 legged villains. He was busy. He was rolling on the ground, arms wrapped around his gut, knees up and laughing louder than I thought humanly possible.

I was crying, overcome with fear, ripping my clothes off in case one of these icky things had found its way to the inward side of my jockeys, and grandpa was laughing his Irish ass off. So much for Lord High Protector.

I cried at his funeral, nearly all day in fact. But honestly, I didn't have a clue what death was yet; I was far too busy crying about life and its trappings to care about the final crossing of the river. I cried because my mother wept, she being the love of his life and mine, and he being her hero, and therefore mine as well.

I cried because grandma was crying and she was a German, if she was crying there must be a reason as a good German never showed negative emotion. Little did I know that once the fourth child had been born Cliff had been excused from fertility duty, tossed from his shared bed, never to be touched in "that way" again. I'd had no idea that any conversation the couple had was only what was necessary to sustain life, pay bills and keep each other at bay; though perhaps I should have understood about an elder male's unreasonable crabbiness being most likely a mirror of his sex life.

I cried because my aunts were crying, my sisters were crying, pretty much every female in my life that I loved.
What's interesting to me now is the thought that my grief had become an empathy cry, an innocent teaming with those who needed comfort and expressed it visibly. I had no idea why I was sobbing really, I barely knew the guy, grandpa or no. But I felt the need to add to the chorus, to join my family, my sadness adding to their comfort, their need to not be alone. It was a good cry, perhaps my last of that ilk. It was devoid of all the taint I'd smother grief in now, knowing what I know, cynicism poised to strike.

I didn't even need to consider that he’d been a barfly flirt, once retired from active sex, making friends with all the ladies that would give him the time of day, and they all would because he was...well, he was Irish. Not that he did anything with his buddies that I know of, but adultery is measured by each of us with our own tape. At 11+, who knows what my line would have been. No matter, I didn't know and once he'd died and God Himself had absolved him of his sins, who was I to hold him to account.

I'd never have known of my Hibernian ties had I not found my past important to my future; few of the Branigans have ever made issue of our heritage. But I did; it's as much a part of who I am as my Norse and Germanic characteristics, and the most romantic I must admit. Even the locale of his father's birth, "The Parish of Kilcoo, County Down" is enough to make my eyes glaze in green, and set me to dreaming of tiny, paved roads weaving past a thousand boulder bordered plots of Emerald Isle, one of which was worked by those whose blood runs in my veins. I would give a day of what's left of my life to just breathe the air they breathed, to touch a single blade of the grass they walked on. Not because I worship them in some ridiculous way, but to pay them tribute for persevering, for having the strength to leave all they knew, that their children would have a better chance at life. They deserve at least my written thanks for that.

I think about Clifford now through the tinted glasses of that history. His father John, was born near Belfast an Irish catholic, and as was their lot, became a farmer eking out a modest living on a small plot of rock and dirt owned by Protestant landlords.

I imagine that brilliant green sod nestled within walls of unmortered stone, carefully sliced open and sown with hope for a winter free from hunger. I picture John Branigan, John's father and his father before him, leaning against the walls of a crudely stuccoed, flawlessly white house; sharing a toast, glasses filled with thick stout capped with white/yellow foam.

I see the wives and children singing Gaelic tunes, entertaining their mostly hard working, sometimes honest, always presentable men.

Then all revelry stops as the crowd turns, a figure approaching from over the rise to the east. It's Clifford, young and blindingly handsome, witty and unbearably charming, tall and slender, a workin' man to be sure. He's a duffel over one shoulder and waves to his family as he walks toward the "green, green grass of home".

They meet, shout, hug and cry in joy, glasses clinking and refilling as he takes his rightful place beside those he loves, those that love him dearly. He turns in my direction, finding me standing quietly across the glen and he smiles, then chuckles a bit and feigns casting a line from an imaginary rod and reel.

Then he steps back a bit, moving the stout into his left hand and dropping his right arm toward the ground. He opens that hand, palm outstretched and moves it left to right slowly, all the while staring a smile into my heart. I know exactly what he means and as the thought strikes me, John and the others turn and add their approval to the gesture. I barely knew him, and never the others. But I am loved, wanted, family above all else; and I love back, smiling my acknowledgment and thanks, doffing my hat and bowing low as is the custom.

There is a space for me here...when I'm ready. A place to call home.

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