The entire Midwest was in a serious drought when I landed in Chicago, the region’s largest city. I was there for a family reunion, a few days of vacation and then Anne and Al’s wedding at Starved Rock. Ten days in Illinois in July and I arrived the day before the weather report called for 90 percent chance of rain.
Bob said here, take this umbrella.
The sky was blue. I said no, I don’t need an umbrella.
Take it anyway.
I don’t need an umbrella!
Which is why we walked around the Lincoln Park Zoo with folded up umbrellas until we got inside the botanical gardens. The zoo is free. Parking is not.
The Conservatory inside Lincoln Park is 100 years old and home to thousands of exotic plants. Here is where plant life needed for the zoo grounds are grown.
The building is wide and open and sunny because it is made of thousands of panes of glass each about the size of a sheet of paper. These panes leak. When it stormed outside, the rainfall inside was nearly as great. We were hit by a thunderous torrential downpour with instant lightening, no sound separation between flash and thunder clap which meant it was right on top of us. People ran for cover, hid under large leaves, sought respite in the entrance hall from the falling water.
Bob and I were the only ones inside the building carrying umbrellas. I stood in the rain and took pictures. I didn’t realize until I put them on my computer two Sunday nights later that I had caught drops in mid-air falling from the ceiling and they are perfectly round spheres.
This makes sense when you think about it. Early bullets (derived from the
French boulet which means “small ball”) were made round (which, by the way, is the origin of the use of the word “round” for one round of ammunition) by dropping melted hot lead into water which froze them in that form.
The weekend reunion was the biennial Donnellan family get together in Peoria. Mid-week I planned to stay at the Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan with a bunch of cousins. That would be followed by a huge wedding at Starved Rock State Park the following Saturday.
Bob said gas is cheaper outside the city. Fill up before you get to Peoria.
I left Chicago at 5:00 p.m. Friday which is exactly the wrong time and day to drive out of town. It took half an hour to go the fourteen blocks on Lawrence to Lake Shore Drive and another half hour on LSD to I-55 South. I pulled into Dwight for gas and a soda about two hours later and Bob was right. Gas cost fifty cents a gallon less.
As I reached into the refrigeration case, I looked to my right where a man was also reaching for a drink. I asked his permission, then snapped his picture. I call him Supermarket Man.
He gave me a business card which said he is a correctional officer with two sons. When I got home I mentioned this incident to Jerz who listened to my description and said the man was a Sith from “Star Wars.”
It was still Day One of the reunion and I arrived late, checked into the Hampton Inn hotel in Peoria around nine only to find the party was just getting started in the ground floor conference room. The drinking and sing-a-long had begun. Everyone was clustered around Irish born Patrick Kelly and American born Tim Gleason, both on guitar. Cousins joined in ballads sung by everyone: “Whiskey in the Jar,” Neil Diamond’s “Crackli’ Rose,” The Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” but, no, they never sang “Danny Boy.”
I noticed Brendan, Pat’s boy, now a handsome 20-something, sitting between two young women I was certain were not part of the family. Proof came in the form of their reaction to the chorus of “Living Next Door to Alice,” the 1995 version by the Dutch band Gompie which has become a staple at all Donnellan reunions. Everyone in the family, young and old, loudly and lustily joins the refrain: “Alice. Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?”
The two new girls were astonished and laughed, but quickly joined in the song.
Patrick took a moment to tell us his band, Madd Paddy, released a CD recently and, “The turd song on the CD is ‘Heist A Pint.’” Actually, it’s called “Hoist A Pint” and it was written by Gleason for Pat’s band. The real news was it reached number 17 on the charts in Australia. “But did we get any royalties? We got fuck all!”
Odd corollary: Number 17. That’s precisely where Gompie’s “Alice” was in 1995 on the charts in the UK.
Saturday morning after breakfast I punched the button to go up to my room. The elevator slid open and it was already occupied by a woman, obviously Mom, and a boy, perhaps ten who was obviously Son. It was clear something was going on here, but I had no idea what. They stared at their feet the whole while the elevator rose and as I got out, the sliding metal door cut her off, but I clearly heard: “If you ever do that again I will hurt you!”
Dear Crossing: Greetings and salutations from the forest.
This in my notes can be explained as a free association brought on by cousin Kelly. My group ended up Saturday afternoon at a winery as did several other car loads, one of which contained Kelly. As she sipped she described how the city of Cincinnati put a warning on a lawn which read “Deer Crossing” and showed a deer in black silhouette.
The next day the city fathers received a phone call from the irate property owner. “I want that sign removed immediately. I don’t want to invite deers into my yard!”
The weekend was raucous. Vast quantities of alcohol and food were consumed which required a Sunday afternoon clean up. Everyone pitched in and it was during this that Billy told how he had come into the conference room late last night, early morning, and found Brendan with one of the two new girls — apparently they were student social workers staying at the hotel — who quickly pulled her shirt down to cover her breasts.
Holding his palms out flat in front, Billy told us he told them, “I didn’t see nuttin’!”
Pat was made proud by this story.
Roberta and Billy hosted the show which was billed as Playing In Peoria. Her father, Dennis, Sr., began the reunions in 1975 and they have been a tradition ever since. Justine, Roberta’s mother and the family matriarch, has attended them all including this one. The reunions have been held in such places as near Minneapolis, outside Cincinnati, not far from Toronto and on Route 66 in Springfield, Illinois, where near his grave I rubbed Lincoln’s bronze bust nose for luck.
Bernadine is one of Roberta’s sisters. She was in fourth grade in Catholic school when the assignment was to write as much as she could about her parents, such as where they were born. After she turned in her paper, the nun called Justine and said, “We have to talk.”
“Is it Kevin?” immediately leaped into Justine’s mind.
The nun said, “It’s about Bernadine. We have to talk. Please come in today.”
At the meeting the nun presented Justine with the essay and said, “I have no idea where the child gets such outrageous ideas.”
Justine read the offending paragraph and laughed. “From her father. All her life she’s been told she was born behind third base at Wrigley Field on Mother’s Day.”
At the end of the weekend reunion, Roberta held a sheet of paper on which the hotel had printed: “Thanks Donnellan Family Reunion – We Welcome You Back.”
She voiced astonishment and said, “That’s never happened before. Usually we’re too loud and messy. What did we do wrong this time?”
* * *
Roberta and Billy put me up Monday night along with at least seven others. We sat on the patio in the balmy Peoria air above a forested hillside overlooking the Illinois River telling stories. Pat told of an Irish woman who lived above a store front and during the war rented the ground floor to a funeral parlor.
One night a friend of her son, both drunken louts, stumbled downstairs and lay in a new casket and fell asleep. The landlady was none too pleased and shooed him away early that morning. He was half way home when he fell in the mud and drowned.
They laid him to rest in that very casket.
Billy’s father Bill arrived. Bill is 83 and in the best of health. A six inch scar describes where his knee was replaced some thirty years ago. As he reached for his second beer, Bill explained he was the tenth child of ten and his father died when he was nine. Not long after, he noticed young men coming to the door of their house and talking to his mother, known as Sis, saying, “Sis, we need you.”
He never told anyone of his suspicions and for some years was convinced his mother was a prostitute. Later, he learned she was a midwife and the men were husbands calling on her expertise at delivering babies.
Then Bill told us his brother was aboard the escort carrier USS Guadalcanal when it captured the first foreign warship since the war of 1812 off the coast of Africa in May, 1944. The German submarine, U-505, is on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and Bill’s brother’s name is on the plaque displayed there.
Patrick saw fit to explain our familial relationship through his mother Stella.
My grandmother, Ellen, was a Davin. Ellen’s sister’s daughter, Stella, is Patrick’s mother. Ellen emigrated to America and married Stephen Donnellan. Their daughter, my mother Elizabeth, was first cousin to Stella who is alive today at age 93. That makes Patrick and his sister, Mary who was here for the reunion and touring America with her husband, Ciaran, second cousins to me.
The apocryphal story in the family is that Grandfather Stephen Donnellan, born in 1871, was to be hanged by the British for having stood up to the local landlord. He was sneaked out of Ireland and moved to Chicago where he met and married Ellen.
Patrick and his wife, Eilish, their two sons, Brendan and Martin, now live in Toronto where they have a Sunday night ritual: the family dinner. The first rule is at six o’clock if the phone rings, don’t answer it.
They heard it ring and waited for the answering machine to take it, but it rang and rang and finally Patrick picked up. A young woman’s voice immediately began pitching an HSBC credit card.
As Pat tells it, she was explaining the benefits, how the interest rate was low, you get cash back and a ten thousand dollar credit limit. He couldn’t get a word in until he blurted out in an anguished voice, “It’s so ironic you would be calling about credit cards because that’s what broke up me family.”
Patrick’s Irish brogue is liltingly soft and pleasing. He can be dramatic and flowery and whining, but here he turned weepy and grief-stricken. As Eilish and the boys sat at the dinner table and watched his performance with a jaundiced eye, he said, “Me wife left me and took the kids and got a restraining order keeping me away at least a hundred yards or she’ll have me arrested and it’s all because of me extravagant extension over the limits on all our credit cards.”
Eilish wagged a silent finger while the boys sat with forks half way to their open mouths which no longer anticipated food so much as reflected astonished surprise.
He continued: “And now I’m about to be evicted and I’m living on those self-same credit cards when you call me up and offer to sell me another. Have you ever heard of such a ting?”
There was a brief silence before her own tears started to flow and she replied, “Yes! That happened to me! My boyfriend dropped me after I ran up his credit card and he got mad at me and I don’t think he’s coming back. Ever.”
They wept into their phones and she said it was so nice to be able to tell this to someone, she was extremely grateful he listened and was sympathetic to her and she wished she knew him better and he took that opportunity to ring off.
The next morning Billy was in his suit and ready to hit the office. He is a financial planner and over coffee he explained his firm was purchased by American Insurance Group a number of years ago. He had nothing nice to say about the company which instituted a sales policy of fifteen percent return on all accounts. They created financial instruments they wanted him to push and generally stopped working for the customer and began working more to increase their bottom line.
When his office was slated for closure, Billy was offered a position far from home. Instead of taking it, he and some friends decided to open their own firm locally. He has done quite well for himself and then he explained why AIG was too big to fail in the Panic of 2008.
“The press never said it like this, but if the government had let AIG fail you wouldn’t have been able to go to work in the morning. They had their fingers everywhere and insured all the buildings in downtown cities like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles. None of those buildings would open, no one could go in them because they would not be insured. It really was too big to fail.”
* * *
My grandparents, Ellen and Stephen, came from different counties in Ireland, Laois and Clare. They met and married in America. Both counties were represented at the reunion in Peoria. The Kellys hail from Laois which is the east coast of Ireland.
At the reunion, the Clare side of the island was represented by Michael Jones who grew up on a meat cattle farm in O’Callaghan’s Mills near Ennis. Michael is in his late twenties, was studying to become an accountant and was quite aware that he fails to pronounce the last letter of most words.
Michael was my navigator from Peoria to Wheaton. We chose highway 39 instead of 55. For miles and miles we saw corn fields on one side and soy beans on the other. The crops looked perfectly good, lush green on both sides with ears of corn visible on the tall stalks. Soy plants are much shorter and at our speed passing it was impossible to see whether or not they had beans growing, but they certainly looked healthy.
Television news, however, said drought plagued the state. The nightly news featured farmers peeling back corn husks to display stunted ears of crummy corn.
One observation I made was that popping up in all the soy bean fields were idiopathic stalks of corn. They showed up tall among the pygmy soy plants singly or in clusters, never many but plentiful enough to bear remarking upon. I mentioned this to someone and was told they are the result of crop rotation. Corn fields are plowed under and soy is planted every other year. The corn among the soy are from ears that were plowed under the previous rotation.
We were an hour outside Peoria when two signs caught my eye. One was for Morris, the other Streater.
Morris is a town that looms large in the Donnellan family history. Aunt Sal and Uncle Bernard were farmers and it was on their spread that the first family gatherings to which I was invited as a child took place.
Streater, on the other hand, had world wide historical significance and I thought it might be a good idea to introduce Michael to the birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh.
In 1930 Tombaugh discovered Pluto which was immediately hailed as the tenth planet. These days, of course, Pluto has been reduced in stature to a “dwarf planet,” whatever that is, and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has generally been blamed.
My old friend Ray has a son, Max, who became an astrophysicist. Last time I talked with Max he said he was working on a project in New York and his office was down the hall from Tyson’s. Tyson hosted a “Nova” episode where he visited Streater and interviewed Clyde’s wife Patricia who passed away this year aged 99.
Tyson had shown viewers a mural dedicated to Tombaugh on the wall of a building in Streater. I had to get a picture to send to Max.
The first gas station we came to had a convenience store. At the counter, Michael paid for a candy bar and I asked directions to the city museum, if they had one. One woman said she didn’t know where it was, but yes they had one and the guy coming through the door right there oughta be able to tell you because his mother was on the organizing committee. She asked the guy wearing Can’t Bust ‘Em bib overalls who looked like he’d just finished working the fields for the day where the museum was. He immediately took out his cell phone and said, “Ma? Yah. Where’s the museum located at?”
I had the address and directions which were rather simple, when I overheard how Michael’s transaction was going: none too well.
Another woman behind the counter was helping him. She said, “Yer not from around here, are you?”
Perhaps his Irish accent gave him away; perhaps it was his misuse of American paper money.
“The price for the candy bar is a dollar forty-three. You give me a dollar and a twenty dollar bill. I presume you want to pay for the candy bar out of the twenny? So here’s your dollar back.”
These people were friendly and honest as the day is long.
Charlie is married to my cousin Dinah. He’s a pilot, flies a Beechcraft for fun but said the cost of fuel is prohibitive. At the reunion in Toronto in 2004 he took me up and we circled Niagara Falls at 3,000 feet. Charlie said he expects private aircraft to be a thing of the past in the near future. His business is pest control and he said bug zappers don’t really work, are useless against mosquitoes, but they do attract all sorts of flying insects.
Charlie had this bit of advice for patio living: Buy a zapper for your neighbor and the bugs will go over there to die.
After the reunion, I did not see Charlie during the ensuing week’s gatherings. However, we were seated next to one another at the wedding the following weekend. At one point, Charlie asked, “How is San Francisco doing?”
I was the only West Coast representative at the reunion and probably at the wedding as well. Although not everyone in the family is a registered Republican, I can say with some certainty I am the most liberal and probably the only lapsed Catholic. So when the opportunity arose, I had this to say:
“San Francisco is doing extremely well. When Bush said, ‘God doesn’t want us to do stem cell research,’ San Francisco said, ‘God must want us to do stem cell research.’ As a result we are experiencing a building and biological boom.”
I don’t think this went over real well with Charlie.
I stayed in Waukegan Monday night and Tuesday we drove to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I just love saying that: Sheboygan. I have a friend named Shasha. No, not Sasha, Shasha. I told her how I just like saying her name. Now I say, “Shasha and Sheboygan, Shasha and Sheboygan,” as an internal chant.
We checked into the Blue Harbor Resort on Lake Michigan exactly half way between Green Bay and Milwaukee. The hotel’s big draw, I soon learned, was the interior water park which includes two chutes you ride down on colorful giant inner tubes. Use of the water park is included in the hotel room rates.
Looking at it from outside, the exterior of the building is three stories and square with two tubes that look like donut halves poking out from the top floor. The tubes drop a floor, then re-enter the building and are reminiscent of saline and medical drip lines tethering a patient to a hospital bed. Or maybe alien breathing tubes.
My West Coast attitude, a general disdain for anything that smacks of mall life, was overcome by this thrill ride which plunges you into the dark and hurls you through the tunnel wet and fast. You have to hike with your raft to the top of a long series of stairs to ride down again.
I rode it five times.