by Mary Kate Skehan
In 1956, my grandfather had just gotten out of the Army, and was living with his family in Brighton, on the west side of Boston. He wanted to marry a girl he’d met at Boston College—he’d been writing to her from Fort Hood—but he couldn’t get married without a job. Union Carbide had an office in Boston and his first-round interview went well, so they put him on a train to corporate headquarters in New York.
He interviewed alongside a number of engineers, but my grandfather wasn’t an engineer—he was a natural businessman, with a quick wit and a wily grin, a knack for seeing an opportunity, and the tenacity to realize it. He wasn’t leaving New York without an offer. He convinced the brass to put him up in the Sheraton in Flatiron so he could meet his otherwise-engaged would-be boss the next morning.
So he was strolling down Fifth Avenue in late 1956, and he stopped at a traffic light, when he noticed the man next to him in clerical attire. It was easy to recognize him; he was very famous at the time: it was Fulton Sheen, on the way to the T.V. studio to broadcast Life Is Worth Living.
“Monsignor,” said my grandfather, before correcting himself, “I’m sorry, I mean Bishop!”
“That’s all right,” said Sheen magnanimously, “New title, same boss.”
“Well, I’m hoping for a new job myself,” said my grandfather, explaining his situation.
“And do you want the job very much?”
“I do want the job.”
“And why do you want the job?”
“I met a lot of people there today, and they seem like good people. A lot of Catholics.”
Sheen considered and said, “Tonight I’ll pray that you get this job.”
He got it. My grandfather married my grandmother and they had my father, then six more children, moving every two years for three decades at the behest of Union Carbide. Everywhere they went, this unruly family with unintelligible Boston accents, they lived in rambling Victorians, which my grandmother had no patience for keeping and my grandfather no interest in maintaining, and usually they had another baby. In Westchester they lived in Frank Nelson Doubleday’s house; in Indianapolis, they lived in Kurt Vonnegut’s. They lived on a chicken farm in Maryland; they lived near a hillside in San Juan Capistrano where Basque shepherds kept flocks. There was no money and too many kids and a lot of angst over Vatican II, but my grandfather is naturally sanguine: every day, a new adventure.
My grandmother’s disposition wasn’t so sunny, which is mostly another story, except for this part. She had seven sisters back in Boston, and a few had become nuns, including my great-aunt Jean. It had been a touch-and-go affair for poor Jean, a heavy smoker plagued by health problems and an unstable personality, but after trying a few different orders she’d seemed to find her place with the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx in the Eighties. The family was very proud.
Mother Teresa herself came to New York a few times to check on the new outpost, which usually involved a ceremonial welcome Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. My grandparents, Sister Jean’s next of kin, were invited to one such Mass, where they were told that Teresa had requested an audience with them afterward, back in the Bronx.
My grandfather’s chief memory of Saint Teresa of Calcutta is that she was diminutive. An impossibly tiny, quiet, ancient woman; hard to imagine my great-aunt Jean accosting her in the halls of the convent, as Saint Teresa privately explained to my grandparents, because she was dissatisfied with the location of her sleeping mat. Impersonating her trembling Albanian accent, my grandfather quotes: “I believed she was going to strike me!” What a way to meet a living saint.
Saint Teresa was a class act about the whole thing, as you might expect. She felt that the order wasn’t a fit for Jean, for obvious reasons, but she’d found her another job and a place to live, effective immediately. This is where my grandparents came in: to move her out of the convent and settle her in the new place.
The story of my grandfather’s meeting with Mother Teresa was somewhat distorted through the years, a family game of telephone. I thought, as a child, that my grandfather had heroically saved her life from a violent attack, and then later, as an adult, that no version of this story could possibly be true. What really happened wasn’t the superhero rescue I’d imagined, of course, but something much more precious: an intimacy; a shared suffering; an offer of help.
Around the same time, in the mid-Eighties, my grandfather had finally gotten tired of moving around for Union Carbide. He learned of a small family business in Pennsylvania that sold industrial gases and welding equipment. The owner wanted to sell and retire, and my grandfather saw an opportunity. He placed a call from a payphone to my mother, then a college student in New Hampshire. He persuaded her to convince her betrothed, my father, to move south and join the business: after all, a man couldn’t get married without a job.
The family flourished in Pennsylvania, mostly. My grandfather lived in a canary-yellow Victorian with a Marian garden and a rope swing. He only drove Cadillacs. He never wore jeans. In 1996, he buried my grandmother. Many years later, he remarried.
For our part, we grew to 40 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren and counting, all Catholics, safe not from hardship but from that one estrangement, the spiritual kind, that seems to be the most difficult to avoid. Whether the Church officially recognizes it or not, I credit that as a miracle to the saints he met in his lifetime.
My grandfather has lived longer with stage four lung cancer than you might think a person could, but then his whole life has been rather charmed. He’s at the point now where he’s giving away his things with an air of extravagance: he’s made my uncle promise to create a card catalog for his enormous library so that all of his descendents can borrow his books. He gave my brothers his vintage tuxedos. He gave me his easy chair. He tells us his stories, about the Army and the moon landing and his old friends from Southie and his pilgrimage to Guadalupe. He ignores the warnings, and goes to Mass, where he returns a very old favor by praying for Fulton Sheen to get a new job. This time, it’s a job for which he’ll be applying, too: new title, same boss.
To read more articles like this one,
subscribe to The Lamp here.