A few weeks before Christmas, my dad, a big freedom of mind fan who is currently enjoying the new ebb-and-flow surreality of his advancing Alzheimer’s, made a request: Jerry Walsh wanted to have dinner with his wife and kids and no “interlopers,” as he occasionally (affectionately) refers to his three sons’ and three daughters’ spouses and his 12 grandchildren.
Great idea. Just the eight of us. Something we hadn’t done in decades.
Emails flew, calendars flipped, a date that worked for everyone was found and, given the dark days of December and the various personal, political and communal cataclysms of the past bring-you-to-your-knees year, I think I speak for the lot of us when I say we were all happy to have something to look forward to.
I know I was. As 2012 wound down and the dinner date approached, I found myself relishing the idea of this rare chance we’d been given to revisit the laboratory our lives were launched out of (“Home is where your story begins” sings the plaque hanging in the kitchen of our friends Steph and Steve Smith and their four lads), and hell if I didn’t feel lucky to be breaking bread with the people I grew up with, am growing up with, five decades yon.
Dad never said it out loud, but what the Minneapolis-born Irish-American Korean War veteran photographer wise man writer ultra-conservative lover of stories and songs wanted in the winter of his 84th year was a reminder, if not a return, to when we all sat around the dinner table at 5512 S. Grand Ave. and 5104 S. Colfax Ave. and talked for hours about the news of the day, our budding interests, dreams, dates, desires and ideas.
During the ’60s and ’70s, we yelled and laughed and fought and laughed and poured our hearts out, and sitting at opposite ends of the table every night were two well-read and forever-curious Catholic kids-turned-parents, a liberal-conservative opposites-attract match made in Incarnation-Annunciation heaven who were genuinely interested in what we were doing with our lives.
No wonder the old man wanted to feel that feeling again.
It took some juggling to make it happen, especially when a snowstorm cancelled flights out of Indianapolis, where my sister Minnow and her family live. Finally we decided on Saturday night at 6 p.m., which would give us a couple hours before my brother Terry’s band The Belfast Cowboys had to hit the stage at Kieran’s Irish Pub, a 20-minute drive from our folks’ home in West Bloomington.
I got there early and distributed the last CD copies of some digital transfers of reel-to-reel tapes of the family my dad recorded in the ’50s and ’60s. A few nights before the big dinner, I heard the sound of my grandfather’s voice for the first time, and that and the sound of my dead aunts, uncles, and grandmother harmonizing with the sounds of my mom making chicken, rolls and salad and my sisters getting dolled up for our dinner date further convinced me that we’re part of an ongoing conversation that doesn’t end when the mortal coils get shuffled off.
One by one everyone showed up, wearing the same pinch-me grin. Dinner was served. We talked about the Newtown massacre, music, the Vikings, our jobs, our kids, and my Uncle Joe Holzinger’s funeral and wake last week. About 15 minutes in, my dad weakly got everyone’s attention to offer a toast and thank us for coming, and for being who we are.
“We did good, mama,” he said, which inspired wisecracks and clinked water glasses. “I want to say that I’m proud of you all,” said my mom, Ann, who immediately self-quibbled with her use of the word “proud” as she has all her life when it comes to her children, as if to be proud of her kids is to be overly egotistical.
I suggested “blessed,” which proved too elitist for some in the bunch, but it’s the word I keep coming back to, especially when looking at the picture that happened a couple hours later, one I expect I’ll be looking at for years to come.
It’s one of my all-time favorite photos: With the clock ticking and the Cowboys due on stage in less than an hour, the six of us squeezed into a corner and took some shots. The result is a team photo of adults and parents with adult and parental concerns who still get along, still talk to each other, still check in on each other, and, for one memorable night, got to be kids again.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.