Mary wasn’t sure what to ask for this week, so I’ve picked one of my favorites…
In the middle of my freshman year at St. Ignatius, my mother decided that she wanted to buy a house in the suburbs. Rather than sending us to Catholic high schools and spending a fortune, she chose to send my brothers and me to the local public schools. This would be a real change for the three of us. Instead of living in an apartment, where we would have to be quiet while the people downstairs were sleeping, we would live in a house, just like in Leave it to Beaver. Going to a public school would mean that we would no longer have to keep our hair short or be told what we would not be allowed to wear to school.
Of course, it also meant that there would be no convenient bus or train service to take me back to Chicago to see my friends. And there was something else: we would now have to work in the yard. We never had a real yard. Our apartment on Glenwood Avenue had a small patch of grass in front, and a small vegetable garden in the back which belonged to Mrs. Hong, the landlady. The yard was what I went through to get to the alley to go to the train station. But, not anymore. Now, it would be where we were allowed to play, where we would sit on summer evenings, and where we would have to work on the weekends.
We were mercifully spared the task of cutting the grass for the first couple of weeks in Northfield, as the realtor had someone come in and cut it for us. But now, in the middle of July, we were going to have to rent a lawn mower and figure out how to use it.
Tex went out to A to C Rental on Waukegan Road and came home with this bright green Lawn Boy lawnmower, took it out of the trunk of our 1967 Ford Galaxie 500, and set it down in front of the house. I, as the oldest, felt that it was my responsibility to try and get the thing going. Of course, I, as the least mechanically inclined, had no clue what I was doing.
My brothers tried to offer their support. “Maybe you need to turn this thing…”
“I tried that, OK?” Part of the job of being the older brother is not to let on that the other might be correct. So, I continued to pull, and to turn, and to plunge, and to aerate, and to make sure that there was gas in the tank, and to make sure that the cable for the spark plug was in place, etc. etc.
Finally, one of them said, “Come on, John, you’re just screwing it up.”
Having reached the end of my rope with the lawnmower, and the whole idea of living in the house in the suburbs, I let him have it: “SHUT UP!”
My mother was out of the house in a flash, and standing in my face within seconds.
“John Connelly Holton, you get in the house this instant.”
“Do you want the neighbors to think that we’re a bunch of shanty Irish?”
Now I was really confused. “What?”
“You just told your brother to shut up, like some kind of shanty Irishman. Now, get in the house.”
“But, Mom…” I have no idea why I was pleading with her. Had I just gone to my room, I wouldn’t have to screw with the lawnmower, or the yard, at least for a while.
“Oh, SHUT UP!” Then, without any further comment, she stalked away.
There are certain times when you shouldn’t laugh. During your annual review, in confession, and kneeling in front of a casket come to mind. Naturally, those are the times that the urge to laugh becomes almost unbearable. I walked away, trying very hard not to laugh, and avoiding eye contact with either of my brothers, both of whom had heard the entire exchange, and wanted to laugh as badly as I did. Needless to say, no sooner had Mom got into the front door of the house that the three of us burst into gleeful, derisive laughter.
Shanty Irish, indeed.
from The Sound of One Hand Typing