October 8, 2000
It was Grandma and Grandpa’s 60th wedding anniversary. Dad got together with his two brothers and they rented a Knights of Columbus Hall for the evening. Dad’s side of the family was pretty small and we were condensed into two tables. The rest of the tables were filled with Grandma and Grandpa’s friends and acquaintances in the right-to-life movement. As a result, I knew more people there than my brothers and sisters did. They looked on awkwardly as I made my way around the room, shaking hands and greeting familiar faces.
That was yet another sticking point with Dad. We were all raised Catholic, but I was the only one of his six kids who participated in fighting the good fight against abortion. I went along to all the rallies and protests. And the praying. Jesus, the praying… after a while the rosary was starting to grate on me. My interest in religion was on the wane, and I was growing impatient with a movement that stubbornly kept bringing religion into a secular issue. They had no PR, no media-savvy, and no sense of snark. One day Dad presented me with an “Abortion is Mean” T-shirt. I dangled it between my thumb and forefinger like something dead. Did he really think I was going to wear that? In public? It sounded like it was made up by a twelve-year-old. What was next, a shirt emblazoned with “Abortionists are Poopy-Heads?”
Nonetheless, praying outside abortion clinics was always fun. People driving by held down their horns and flipped us the bird. They hurled obscenities, rocks, produce, and Big Gulps – the latter of which prompted me to wryly observe that if only there were more big gulps then there would be less unintended pregnancy and abortion. But I was careful not to voice any such thoughts aloud. Many of the pro-lifers I met were very touchy about even saying the word “damn.”
Over time I started feeling out of place. I was not comfortable having to constantly watch what I said. I didn’t like being talked to like a child when I was fifteen years old. Some of them would even refer me in the third-person, asking Dad questions as if I were either not standing right there or somehow incapable of answering. And I didn’t like the constant bombardment of Catholic guilt about sex. Some of their attitudes on the subject were completely medieval. One woman who came to our rallies drove a van sporting a bumper sticker which read: “Real Men Don’t Have Sex.”
Even for Dad that was a bit too much. He bristled at the idea and said, “What, so my father was not a ‘real man?'” According to Dad, his father was very much a real man. In fact, we were about to find out just how much. He and my two uncles each planned to toast my grandparents at their anniversary party. Dad spent the week before working on his speech – scrawling notes on yellow legal paper, looking up Bible quotations, and consulting his dictionary and thesaurus.
The night of the celebration came and my uncles Tim and Chuck got up and gave eloquent and moving tributes to my grandparents. Then it was Dad’s turn. He stood there fumbling with his notes and ended up going completely off the rails. He rambled on and on about the Church and Grandpa’s dedication to the pro-life cause. Finally he wrapped things up over fifteen minutes later (longer than my two uncles combined). “What can I say… he’s my hero,” Dad concluded, choking up over these last few words and hurrying off the floor.
People applauded for him as they did my uncles, but it was somewhat muted and punctuated with muttering and chuckling. I felt compelled to defend Dad’s honor and told the people nearest me that that wasn’t what he planned to say at all, that he had a whole speech written out but he must have gotten stage fright. It wasn’t until later that I realized that what people were remarking about was the fact that Dad hadn’t said two words about his mother. Not only that, but Mom was flabbergasted that in all the time she knew Dad, she’d almost never heard him say two words about Grandpa, let alone that he was his hero…. where did that come from?
Later on there was music and dancing and much food to eat. One of the priests in attendance got up to bless my grandparents and say grace before we ate. He reminded me and my brothers irresistably of the priest from The Princess Bride and it was all we could do to not burst out laughing. That wouldn’t have gone over well in the middle of that assemblage.
Eventually the night starting winding down and we posed for a family photo. It turned out to be the last time we would ever all be in the same room or photo again Especially after what happened a week later…