Volume 79, Number 29 | December 23 - 29, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Silent night and Frank won’t be calling this year

By Alphie McCourt

H.L. Mencken described a bar in a poor neighborhood as “a clean and well-lighted place.” For us, on Christmas morning, the church was all of that, and more. My father was forever gone and my two oldest brothers, Frank and Malachy, would soon emigrate. My brother Mike would leave when I was fourteen. In memory, and to this day, the Christmas season in general brings on a yearning. But Christmas Eve? Christmas Eve was, and still is, the best part of Christmas.

Tommy Drennan, our local-hero boy soprano, soared beyond heaven when he sang “O Holy Night” at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I will hear him when I am older. For now, at age eight, just past the age of First Communion, my pals and I are too young for midnight Mass. “O Holy Night” and midnight Mass are for the grownups. We are shut out but we find a way to mark our Christmas. Like fugitives, with only tacit permission from parents and elders, at four a.m. we rise up out of muck and misery, bid so long to the fleas and, in the blackness of the December morning, hike on up to the Redemptorist Church. This is the Church of Saint Alphonsus. I can feel at home here for isn’t the church named after me, or so I tell my friends. And we laugh in the fugitive dark.

At this time of year, the stars hang low in the sky. We pretend to follow one, as the Three Wise Men are said to have done, and allow it to lead us to the earliest Mass, the five a.m.

After the crowd and the riot of music attendant upon the midnight Mass, the five o’clock Mass bestows its own serenity. Even the priest, in his short sermon, offers no rebuke for our burgeoning sins, spares us the customary castigation and delivers the simple Christmas message of peace on earth to men of goodwill. Among the sparse congregation of oldsters, sleepless in their piety, and us few younger ones, with our own brand of sleeplessness brought on by excitement and by the freedom of our dawn-breaking escapade, the message is readily embraced.

At compulsory Mass on a Sunday, we would wait impatiently for the “Ita Missa Est”; the “Go, the Mass is ended.” Now, on Christmas morning, we are sorry to leave the warm, brightly lit church and head on home to the snoring indifference of our elders. I will stay outside as long as I can, then go inside and try to amuse myself, without making any noise, while I wait for Mam to wake up. Maybe there will be something special for breakfast, something other than bread and tea.

That’s as much as I remember, or maybe as much as I want to remember, of the Christmases of my childhood. It may be as well, for aren’t we the only family in history ever to have had pig’s head for Christmas dinner, as chronicled by my brother Frank McCourt in his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Angela’s Ashes,” although I don’t remember that particular dinner either. I must have been too young.

When we first came to New York, my brothers Frank and Malachy and Mike did their best to create a family Christmas, with mixed results. We did gather for Christmas, all of us, or some of us. But, somehow, someone would always arrive very late, or a little drunk, or with a partner who didn’t fit in. I don’t know about other families, but our expectations, after so many miserable Christmases, were very high. At least mine were. Still, even with all my expectations, I was sometimes the offender against the ideal, but the gatherings worked out, more or less.

Until one Christmas dinner in Brooklyn, hosted by Frank and his first wife, Alberta, which went in seventeen different directions. Someone said something. Someone else was offended. A guest fell down the stairs, was not injured but still managed to have a fit, and as I have often been reminded, I threw a paper cup across the room, at no one in particular and then declared, “I hate violence.”

My mother’s friend, Violet, was from Europe. She sat in her black dress and black Oxford shoes, in silence and in a state of complete bewilderment. Finally she made her pronouncement: “Ve never do these things in Switzerland.” And the party ended. It all happened because the turkey was very late in emerging from the oven. One wag observed that the turkey stuck his head out, took one look around and slid back into the oven. He felt safer there.

That dinner has become part of the family lore. Frank wrote about it in one of his pieces and we often laughed about it. In the beginning, I had a nagging feeling that maybe we shouldn’t be laughing, that we should do better at Christmas. It would take me many years to realize that the ideal, or the idealized Christmas, is all too often framed in someone else’s window.

Frank left Brooklyn a good many years ago. At the peak of his popularity, which was brought on by the phenomenal success of “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank derided his own celebrity. “Mick of the Month,” he would say. “That’s what I am.” And, later, “I’m a Mega-Mick.” During his last illness, when he was in hospital, he was stoic. His only complaint was that he was in the wrong hospital, that over in the other place, the big cancer hospital, they paid attention to celebrities and that he was not getting his due. And he would laugh.

December 21, 2009, will mark fifty years since he met me off the boat and brought me over to Malachy’s apartment. He died on July 19 of this year. I would see him only occasionally during the dozen years which have elapsed since the publication of what I have come to call “A.A.” His celebrity took him all over the world. During those years when he was “only the teacher,” as he described it, he used to say that he wanted to mingle with powerful men and beautiful women. He certainly got his wish. Even so, even when he was traveling, he would call us on important days, Christmas being one of them. This year he has undertaken an even longer trip.

He has always been there, our Frank, but not this year. And he won’t be calling. Powerful men everywhere will miss him. So will the beautiful women. And so shall I. I am tempted, almost, to rustle up a pig’s head and serve it for Christmas dinner, in memory of him. But I never did like pig’s head, a local delicacy in our Limerick. And some people might be offended. Besides, what would I use for stuffing?

Anyway, he hardly needs a commemorative pig’s head. There have been a number of memorials, most notably the one for family and friends, about two hundred of us, at which former President Bill Clinton spoke with eloquence, warmth and humor. When someone organized a Month’s Mind Mass for him up on the West Side, Father Brian Jordan, the celebrant, welcomed all of us to the church, saints and sinners alike, and gave out Communion. When I told him that I hadn’t been to confession in a hundred years he gave me absolution right there and then. He was as kind as the priest had been on that long-ago Christmas Eve. I am almost tempted to go back for more. Almost.

And there will probably be a few more such occasions. But maybe by next July, by the anniversary of his death, they will come to an end and Frank will be able to get some rest. About ten years ago, we were talking about death, burial and cremation. “I won’t be buried at all, or cremated,” he said. “I’m going to be stuffed and mounted.” 

After all this time, he must be tired of standing on tiptoe in hopes of catching a glimpse of the speaker and maybe an echo of what is being said about him. Let him him sit down, now, and let him take his ease. 

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