Memo To: Mom & Dad
Re: A Good Idea
Here it is, June 17, the 63rd birthday in my long and happy life. What a great idea it was for you guys to get together back on September 2, 1935, get married at St. Mary's in Minersville, Pa., and decide to have kids right away. I was lucky to be No. 1, in the Pottsville, Pennsylvania hospital. (A few days later, we went to the home you built with your own hands in Jonestown, a few miles away.) Dad, if you are looking down at me now and then, I hope you are happy that I still try to make good on my namesake, Saint Jude, patron saint of hopeless cases and lost causes. You not only decided on the name, but made sure that when I was little I would know I had to stick up for the folks who were on the outs, not the front-runners. I stuck with the Brooklyn Dodgers for ten years until they finally won it all, so I also learned I had to be patient when giving my loyalty to a long shot.
You were one of 13 kids -- 7 sons, 6 daughters of a Polish-Ukrainian couple who showed up in Minersville, Pa. (one mile from Jonestown) more than a century ago, your dad Andrew going to work in the anthracite coal mines, where you wound up at age 13. Before you left me and Mom, Terry and Ruth and our families in 1988, when you were still an incredibly youthful 86, I know I thanked you many times for all you taught me when I was little. I don't remember you exactly teaching me right from wrong, but I don't remember you ever doing anything that you didn't think was right when you did it, so I learned a lot just by your example. As I recall, you only had to spank me twice! And you only really got mad at me when I told you, when I was 18, that I decided to be a socialist. (Look at me now.) Teaching me how to read a newspaper by the time I was four was one of the best ideas you had. I remember reading from The New York Times when you were showing me off to Uncle Jack, and he thought it was a trick, that I must have memorized what I pretended to read!
One thing I never thanked you for, but which has been on my mind in the last few years, is how a black coal miner saved your life in the coal pits, when you were still 13. Some of your brothers never got used to the idea that blacks and whites were equal, but there's probably nothing you could have told me when I still was in short pants that would make me think it was my responsibility to help close the racial divide as best I could in the life you and Mom had given me. Sometimes I think I'm making a difference, but it is not an easy thing to accomplish. Some people say I go too far in that endeavor, but I know I have to go further than anyone else is willing to go if I'm to make a difference. You are always nearby, Dad, after all these years, encouraging me. Funny how old we can get in years and still be little boys inside.
How lucky I am that you, Mom, are still with us. Remember when I was in short pants, you would ask me if I would still love you when you were old and gray and bent like a rusty nail? It was awful to think of that happening, but now you are old and gray and bent, and I still love you like I did when you were my young Mommy. What a great mother you were to your little kids! You made me take care of myself, put on warm clothes in the cold, wear galoshes in the snow, and brush my teeth and eat good stuff, and say my prayers and learn the Catechism and practice the piano, and do my homework, and you never seemed to get mad at me for anything. When you tried to show me how displeased you were with some little thing I did, I only had to laugh and you would start laughing too. You even stuck up for me when I told Dad that I was a socialist! Of course your dad, Grandpop John to me, was a socialist, maybe even a communist. Hey, when I graduated from high school he gave me Karl Marx's Das Kapital as my graduation present. And on his deathbed at Coney Island Hospital in 1975, he made me promise that I would re-read Marx and that I would write a book myself. That was the last conversation I had with that old Lithuanian coal miner. How nice it was that God would arrange for him to leave Lithuania at the outbreak of WWI and travel to Scotland to work in the mines outside Glasgow, and then send for your mom to follow him, to marry, with your older sister coming first, then you, before they decided to hike across the Atlantic... ending up in Minersville, Pa.!!! What a coincidence! How else could you and Dad meet? And fall in love and get married in 1935 and have me 63 years ago, on June 17. What a good idea it was. How great it would be if everyone from now on born in the world could have a Mom and Dad as good as you. Happy birthday to me.