Authors: Chris Forhan
As a boy, I knew I was Irishâor half soâbecause when I asked my parents what I was, that's what they told me. The other half, they said, was Norwegian and Swedish. By the 1960s, in my family, that meant little more than feeling a frequent hankering for sweet pastries and having a grandmotherâEstherâwho, when a day of shopping had gone on too long and she plopped herself down and rubbed her feet, muttered, “Uff da.” When the mayor said a stupid thing: “Uff da.” When her husband, Lee, played his favorite Bix Beiderbecke record too loudly once too often, then again: “Uff da.” If my mother ever used the phrase, it was a self-conscious mimicking of her own mother. As for us children being Irishâwell, one of my sisters could plunk out, on our borrowed piano, a plodding but recognizable “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” But I imagine a lot of people's sisters could do that.
One of my father's aunts, it turns out, was an enthusiastic piano player; as a teenager, she needed little prodding to seat herself at the family piano and play a rollicking version of “The Isle of Capri,” belting out, “Lady, I'm a rover. Can you spare a sweet word of love?” This was Marie, who would soon give up secular pleasures to become a Dominican nun. Three of her sisters did the same thing. In an astonishing photo from the early 1960s, these four Forhan womenâSisters Dolorita, Lucille, Pauline, and Marieâstand shoulder to shoulder, dressed in full white
habits, rosaries dangling at their sides. Their hair and ears are hidden by white coifs and their foreheads by bandeaus. Each wears glasses and is plump-faced, even jowly, and brims with personality. Lucille and Pauline purse their lips, each hinting at a smile, as if contemplating the love of an inexplicable God or thinking of the same slightly steamy joke. Dolorita looks puckish, her head turned slightly sideways as her wide eyes size up the camera. Marie is a pudgy version of my fatherâor the old character actor Vincent Gardenia. It is as if, with so much of them concealed by white cloth, the sisters' faces appear exaggeratedly filled with life.
Decades after my father died, craving an explanation of him, I searched for answers in the lives of our shared ancestors, the people of whom he never spoke, including those nuns and their six brothers. As if to unsubtly fulfill the Irish stereotype, while the Forhan girls were joining the convent, the boys were taking on work as manual laborersâshipyard workers, meatpackers, mechanics, truck driversâand drinking, marrying, gallivanting, and abandoning their families. Nat, my father's father, was one of them.
I have discovered that weâNat, my father, and Iâare not of the Forhan's toothpaste Forhans, whose popular gum-treating formula allowed them to marry illustrious Nebraska cattlemen and Italian counts and ride out the Depression in sleek Rolls-Royces. We are undescended from the Forhan Boys, vaudevillian strummers and crooners in blackface, nor may we be linked to Simon J. Forhan, the “Killingly Komical Komedian” who, in the 1880s, led the Forhan Comedy Company on theatrical tours of the Midwest and eastern seaboard. Instead, we are of the Forhans who, in the middle of the nineteenth century, driven by famine, fled southern Ireland and, massed and huddled, crossed the ocean to farm and railroad and drink and brawl and barely scrape by, to keep the gasworks going, to blacken their fists as mechanics and steamfitters or keep their hands clean as brides of Christ, to take their stories with them into graves marked only by grass.
These older Forhans, silent now: what can they tell me about my father? They were immigrants, Catholics, farmers, slave owners, soldiers, itinerant railroad workers: labels that say something, but not much. I might proposeâmaybe this is all I can say crediblyâthat these people are recognizably American. The bare facts of their lives, arranged as a narrative, tell of the rough-hewn, makeshift quality of the country, the colliding of idealism, drudgery, sacrifice, promise, chance, and heartbreak. That's the big story, an old tale told in broad strokes. What can that story say about my father, who never knew these people, possibly never heard of them?
Oh, to be like that young woman I met in my twenties, not long after I moved from the west to New England: an American of my own age, an apprentice poet, who spoke easily, knowingly, and not a little smugly of her Irish ancestry. She seemed to slip into a light brogue as she did so, and her blue-gray eyes glimmered like the sun-dappled Atlantic as she spoke of her most dear possession: the cable-knit fishing sweater worn first by an eighteenth-century ancestor in County Galway, cherished by each succeeding generation until it was delivered at last into her grateful hands. Listening, I felt as though I were from nowhere, from nobody. What were my treasured family heirlooms? I could think only of the gilded metal ruler, a promotional giveaway stamped with a local insurance company's logo, that, in 1971, my father had brought home from his downtown office. “Want this, Chris?” he'd said offhandedly. I had taken the ruler, and I own it still. Sometimes my own young sons ask to play with itâa handy stand-in for a light saber or a magic wand, this advertisement for an obsolete business that was my father's gift to me, that one day might be my gift to them.
Mine was an American family, whatever that might mean, and a northwestern one at that, putting down roots in the fresh soil of a city settled only a century earlier by errant, enterprising lumbermen for whom cultural heritage meant little and profit meant almost every
thing. By the time the Forhans had meandered their way to the far upper-left corner of the country, and by the time my parents were raising a family there, the Irish in usâor the external cultural signifiers of Irishnessâhad become lost or attenuated. The Catholicism remained; that is, we went to church. But the religion was more important to our mother, who had been baptized into the faith after she married, than to our father; his participationâas, ultimately, some of his children'sâseemed perfunctory, drained of meaning. The immigrant's habit of hard work remained: the absolute doggedness, as if the continual labor that once had meant the promise of a life of leisure, or at least of comfort, had become the life entirely. But the workâthe diligent attention to whatever was the task at handâseemed sometimes to arise from an unthinking sense of duty, or, rather, it seemed a distraction from thought. We had rituals of pleasure, real pleasure. However, our special meals meant not ancient family recipes but bags of burgers and shakes from Dick's Drive-in or Mom's famous spaghetti sauce, the flavors taken from a store-bought envelope of factory-mixed herbs and spices. We celebrated Christmas and Easter, but a holiday that made us children feel equally in accord with the eternal and inscrutable was the annual telecast of
The Wizard of Oz:
that opening of a farmhouse door to a Technicolor elsewhere, that giddy dancing toward a dark wood. The culture we were steeped in was the culture of things newly brewed: a half hour of TV each evening (
My Favorite Martian
on our lucky days), hula hoops, Gary Lewis and the Playboys'
, capsules filled with astronauts splashing down in the Pacific, lime Jell-O dotted with floating pear chunks, backyard badminton, report cards in slim golden envelopes. The part of our lives that was olderâthe part that had been passed down to us stealthily, ineluctably, through generations of anonymous ancestorsâwas our personalities, those impossible things.
My three oldest siblings could have been sisters in a fairy tale. Unless they had been triplets, it hardly would have been possible for them to be closer in age: when the youngest of them was born, the oldest was only two years old. As small children, they were always together. Family photos from the 1950s show Terry, Patty, and Peggy, as toddlers, sitting side by side in the park grass in identical sleeveless summer dresses; kneeling together in a half circle on the carpet at Christmas, grinning in identical flannel nightgowns; standing stiffly, pretty maids all in a row, in identical rickrack-trimmed dresses and bonnets and ankle socks, their white-gloved hands gripping identical Easter baskets.
Yet, from the start, they were very different: three points of a triangle joining to make a single shape but straining in separate directions. Terry was the only blond among usâthat bit of our Scandinavian ancestry, a gift from our estranged paternal grandfather, blossoming just in her. Ten years older than I, almost to the day, she was the firstborn, with a first child's ease and confidence and ambition, the kind of girl whom teachers praised as having leadership potential. She signed up for things. Whirling around the maypole of Camelot in her high school's musical, she sang bold and clearâthe only one of us who could truly sing. I see her sitting in the spring sunlight of our backyard, guitar in her lap, her long blond hair glowing, a collection of her high school friends around
her, all of them joining in, earnestly working to harmonize, maybe on some Peter, Paul and Mary song. Terry had a clean-cut, likable high school boyfriend, Brian, who wouldn't last, who couldn't, because she was off to college, happily headed toward a shining horizon.
Patty couldn't shake us, though she seemed to try. She was dark-haired, as the rest of the Forhan children would be, delicately pretty, and, unlike her siblings, diabetic: she shared our father's disease. When she was very young, she suffered from chronic problems of the skin, which erupted in rashes and cracks and scabs; my mother could not hold her without hurting her. Maybe that early isolation, that sense of being different fromâand distant fromâthe rest of the family, contributed to Patty's painful adolescence. With the wild inconstancy of her teenage moods intensified by insulin instability, she tangled continually with Terry and raged at our parents, becoming so erratic and unsettling and unhappy a presence in our household that she fell into the habit of running away, finding sanctuary in the homes of her boyfriend or of schoolmates. Eventually, at a loss for what else to do, our parents agreed that Patty should live in another home, with a foster family. Nonetheless, when she lived with us, I was happy to have her there: an older sister who seemed to promise that there was another life, one filled more with fun than with responsibility. She is the sister who, when I was seven and she sixteen, gave me a summer Saturday on the town, the two of us boarding a bus and traveling the eight miles downtown for a burger and cotton candy at Seattle Center, where the World's Fair had been; for a monorail ride to the middle of the city, where at Woolworth's we posed for a strip of black-and-white photos in a booth, Patty with the sly hint of a grin, her straight dark hair hanging low and flat along her brow, I with a wide, toothy smile, my plaid shirt buttoned to the topmost button; and for a walk along the waterfront, where, as a grand finale, we wandered through Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, gazing at whale bones and totem poles and shrunken heads brought back from the Amazon and a pin that had,
we were told, the Lord's Prayer carved on its head. Patty is the sister who returned from school one afternoon and surprised me with the offer of a piece of chocolate and then, when she saw that I'd tasted the grasshopper hidden within it, shrieked with laughter. She is the sister who began to go steady with a mysterious boy we rarely saw and then, at eighteen, married him, then had a baby, making me an uncle before I'd finished fifth grade. That marriage didn't last, nor the next one, nor the next, and Patty, at fifty-one, became the first of my parents' children to die, collapsing in the kitchen of her small apartment while readying herself for another day of work. In her final years, she had begun to speak of the value of family, claiming that there was nothing more important in a person's life, saying she regretted the years she had wasted being angry for no reason. She took a late liking to poetry; she wrote to me with questions about a Yeats poem that bewildered her. For years, she had many steady, loving friends. At her funeral, we met them.
The third child, Peggy, was Patty's opposite: quiet and mild-Âmannered, a beaming girl in a plain pageboy haircut, content to exist in the midst of us, happy to live in the family home, not bothering anyone or feeling bothered herself. When, at twenty-one, she moved out of the house to an apartment she shared with a friend, she had to be nudged, gently, by my mother to do so. No burning ambitionâfor a career or adventureâseemed to drive Peggy. She was a calm, solid force in the family, a peacemaker. To Kevin, Dana, and me, she became a partner and confidante, joining us in Chinese checkers and tick-tack-toe and creating, with me, a secret code, a cipher, by which we communicated, slipping notes beneath each other's bedroom doors. “We meet for a game of gin rummy in thirty minutes,” my message might say. Hers: “As to your question, the capital of Delaware is Dover. You are hereby charged 25 cents for the use of my brain.”
I looked up to my three older sisters. They were old enough to seem of a separate generation. They had their own experiences of our father,
certainly, and their own feelings about him, but I wouldn't have known what they were. I had arrived late, born into the family after the best of my father's years. The father in my older sisters' minds was someone I'd never met. In the years when they were teenagers, when they must have been grappling, as teenagers do, with their relationship with their parents, redefining it as they redefined themselves, I was elsewhere: in my younger child's head, in my younger child's life, attending more to my toys and coloring books than to whatever distant, mysterious experiences my sisters were having. Each night I slipped into bed long before they did, before the kind of conversations between older children and their parents that take place in the darker hours of the evening.
During these years, when Kevin, Dana, and I were in elementary school, our father often had good days and good weeks; he was home with us and acting as we had heard a father acts. On a warm Saturday, as our cousins and we scampered and squealed through the backyard, he stood at ease, beer in hand, monitoring the burgers sizzling on the fire-pit grill, chatting and chuckling with Bob and Earl, my uncles: mustered, the men who had married the three Peterson girls. On a Sunday, Mass attended, the paper read, my father fiddled at his workbench in the basement and paused to show us how to grip a hammer properly and aim squarely for the nail head. He wiggled a rotting fencepost out of the ground and replaced it. He sharpened the mower's blades, greased the axle, and made short work of the backyard grass. (We noticed his labors; we defined him by them. In my eighth year, for Father's Day, I presented him with a handmade card, a crayon drawing on the front depicting him in a father's uniformâfedora and tieâand me, in a striped shirt, leaning in to his shoulder, red hearts floating all around us. Inside, I wrote, “Dear Dad I hope you have a nice time today. Me Kevin and Dana moad the lawn for you.”) Occasionally, he drove us kids in the station wagon a couple of miles down to the railroad tracks near the shore of Lake Washington, to the blackberry thickets, and handed
each of us a bucket to fill. He drove us to the local Elks clubâwe had joined for the use of the poolâand held us up in the water, tugging us along by our fingertips, teaching us how to stay afloat. He filled the car with camping equipmentâmusty rolled-up tent, Coleman stove, cooler, and sleeping bagsâand drove us a few hours to the rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula. On one of those trips, Kevin, Dana, and I had helped him set up our tent at a public campground and lay out our cooking gear. Dad was pacing slowly, smoking, perhaps contentedly examining a job well doneâthere had been this to do, and he had done itâand I was traipsing through the nearby woods, among the monstrously large moss-covered Douglas firs, their roots knuckling up from the ground, the bouquets of ferns bursting out of the dirt. I was barefoot. I was Peter Pan. I was Huck Finn. I was shriekingâI had stepped on something horrible: slimy, thick. My father sprinted toward me in long strides, while a dozen other campers, strangers to us, stopped what they were doing, turned, and gawked. I had planted my naked foot on an enormous slug, bigger than a roll of quarters, yellow-green, its antennae waving blindly, its sloped back moist with juice.
“Look,” I said to my father, and pointed. “That slug. I stepped on it.”
In an instant, his concerned expression melted into the look of someone who would be relieved not to know me. “Grow up,” he said. “You embarrassed me. Don't do that again.”
A half century later, myself a father, I understand his annoyance: my scream had promised a danger greater than a slick slugâit had stirred in him a parental concern that turned out to be unwarranted. But why, after all these decades, do I recall the incident so clearly? Maybe because it is among the few moments when my father seemed truly to reveal himself, with me as the sole cause and the sole audience. I saw him reduced, perhaps, to something fundamental, to a code he lived by: whatever unsettling feelings you express, you'd better have an unassailable reason for expressing them. You'd better be in an emergency.