More than three decades after he left this earth, I can still see my father best at Christmastime.
There he is hunched over the wires of the train garden in our living room, sparks flying while he hooks up the transformer so we can make the trains go fast and slow and belch steam while lumbering over and through the mountains and past the U.S. Post Office and the Texaco station and the church and the tiny houses and the felt green grass. Lights shine in the windows of the houses and along the trolley line and inside the passenger cars of the trains. My father’s ever-present Winston glows and his opalescent blue eyes twinkle, at least in part due to the consumption of significant quantities of National Bohemian. This is back in the 1960s, when the Hoffbergers of Baltimore brew the beer and Jerry Hoffberger owns the Orioles and has “10-cent beer nights” at Memorial Stadium.
For us, each Christmas season began after dinner on Thanksgiving evening, with our annual trip to Edmonson Village, not far from the Flowerton Road rowhouse where my two older brothers,my sister and I were born. When the thousands of clear white lights in all the trees and on the storefronts flashed on all at once, my father could hardly contain his excitement. His face would grow flush, his eyes glistening.
“Look, Pal! Look at those lights! Can you believe it? I’m telling you. Have you ever seen anything like it?” he said. He put his arm around me as I sat in the “tut seat,” the fold-down armrest of a brand-new LeSabre with plush green interior from Brooks Buick in Towson, where he was sales manager. That year had been a good one in the car business.
Then, early on Christmas morning, my three brothers, my sister and I would parade down the steps of our house, somebody cradling the baby Jesus in a blanket for the trip to the stable under the tree, others holding lit candles. I suspect the Jesus Parade goes back to at least my father’s childhood home in Irvington, but nobody’s sure. Whatever its origins, I never saw the old man more content than during our annual family ritual. He would film it all with a movie camera that had two blinding spotlights, and just seeing those lights made you believe in miracles. What else could explain all those stars dancing in your eyes, along with colored Christmas tree lights reflecting off the gaudy silver garland laid on heavy and the glistening bows and wrapping paper on five neat piles of gifts?
We quickly dispensed with matters spiritual— until grace and, later, of course, Holy Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help— to indulge in American consumerism on a grand scale, for Bernard Patrick Gately Jr. was nothing if not Madison Avenue’s dream come true. Christmastime was and always would be his time at 7202 Barlow Court, the house with a backyard bordering a field full of cows. That was in Chadwick, the new suburb in Woodlawn where he’d moved us from a West Baltimore rowhouse when I was an infant.
Always, on Christmas, we found piles of gifts stacked at least a few feet deep: an electric football, a talking football, a fire helmet with a built-in microphone, Sizzler racing sets with loop-to-loops, a fire truck you could drive, the first crude toy machine that pitched plastic balls so you could bat them, a catcher’s mitt, a baseball pitch-back, hockey sticks and pucks and skates. One year my mother, Margaret Donohue Gately, got a new yellow Buick convertible with a black leather interior as a Christmas gift.
The money seemed to have flowed as freely as the alcohol had in the family since my father’s grandfather, Thomas James Gately, came to Baltimore from County Roscommon during the Potato Famine and promptly opened a pub on West York Street about two blocks west of where the Maryland Science Center now stands. But even when the money stopped coming, even when he was between jobs, my father would rack up obscene credit card debt and the stacks of toys would still magically appear.
As I got older, I loved Christmastime for all it was and for all it wasn’t. At Christmastime, I felt like we were a real family, even though my parents no longer slept in the same room by the time I was 5. I savored every moment of that feeling in part because it could be so elusive the rest of the year. Christmastime meant none of the screaming matches between my mother and father that came more and more as his drunken rages worsened when he began suffering the slow drowning that is emphysema.
For if Barlow Court at Christmastime could resemble scenes in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we saw the angry and heartbroken George Bailey show up more than occasionally the rest of the year.
And creeping in a bit more, there was this Willy Loman figure, his best days behind him way too soon, sitting in the back pew of church alone coughing loudly. By then, Our Lady of Perpetual Help had moved into a modern brick building on Dogwood Road, and my father couldn’t get over the fact that (continued on page 141) it had no crucifix, unlike the old white chapel down by Bauhof’s Bakery in Woodlawn, and that hippies played “Let It Be” on acoustic guitars at the post-Vatican II Masses. (It must be said that my father was not too righteous to resist timing the OLPH Masses celebrated on Colts Sundays by Father Marty, a season-ticket holder, whose best time came in at 28 minutes.)
When my father would drive my little brother, David, my classmate Jack Milani and me to Chadwick Elementary on snowy winter mornings, some of the kids would ask me if the white-haired man was my father or my grandfather. I knew, then ignored for a long time that I knew, then acknowledged it, finally, again: I was ashamed of my father. I’m not ashamed of him anymore, perhaps partly because I have been acquainted with some of his losses and defeats. And the decades have tempered my judgment and taught me things I never realized in the time we shared together.
In the years after Mom began sleeping upstairs, my little brother and I slept in a twin bed next to my father in the first-floor master bedroom, and every night he prayed with us. For the duration of our prayers, he would take a break from the Winstons, but still he could cough a half-hour straight after years of chain-smoking in a business where smoking and drinking were as endemic as on “Mad Men.” It was always the same. We began, Now I lay me down to sleep… before asking God’s blessings for our family and others, a part of the prayer I remember silently rephrasing, asking him “to help the starving people, the poor, the victims of war, the sick, the dying, the homeless, the poor souls in Purgatory and everyone… and to help us become professional baseball players and to live great, long, happy Catholic lives and at the end of them to go straight to heaven….”
Some nights after prayers, my father would start talking dreamily and his voice would get a little higher-pitched. The Winston glowing when he dragged on it would light up his face, then the room went pitch black, and he’d speak of going back to Ocean City, the whole family together, maybe to the Yankee Clipper or the Westward Ho, and crabbing at 6 a.m. and fishing and swimming and going to Phillips Crab House. When I was a baby, the family had gone on such trips. I knew that because I had seen the home movies and the black-and-white snapshots and the early color Polaroids. But after that, the closest we came to those trips of old was when my father would drive my Mom and brother and me in a brand-new, smoke-filled vehicle, the make depending on the year, to The French Quarter (now a Days Inn) a block off the boardwalk at 22nd Street in Ocean City. He’d drop us off then turn around and head home. Other times, my mother took her younger children to the beach on the Trailways bus or in a bright orange Pontiac Ventura that overheated one summer, leaving us stranded for hours on a dark stretch of Route 50.
Some nights when we prayed with my father, he would tell us that God listens especially closely to the prayers of young children and he’d ask us to please pray hard for him because he was in the doghouse. This usually meant too many bills and no work. Even then, I knew, he was suffering an earthly Purgatory long before his death. It got so bad at one point that he was driving a cab— my mother worried somebody would shoot him in those scary days after the riots— and instead of coming home in a new Buick or Pontiac, he pulled up to the house in a beat-up black Chevy. It’s one of the many times I recall him uttering one of his favorite prayers, an act of faith, a plaintive plea that began: “With the help of the Lord…”
When we buried him on a gray day in April 1979 at New Cathedral Cemetery, I was 16 and felt like I hardly knew the father my older brothers and my mother had known. By the time he died at 59, he and my mother had been divorced about five years. In those last years, he’d show up on Christmas at our tiny townhouse where my mother shared one bedroom with my sister and my little brother and I shared the other. Nobody ever suggested continuing the Jesus Parade at 6 Balset Court— it could never be the same. Already then, my father was the ghost of Christmas past, the twinkle in his eyes replaced by a sad gaze looking out from a face hollow and gaunt.
Sometimes I feel guilty that at the time I didn’t try to imagine how much it must have hurt him, seeing it all fall apart. But, looking back, I think it took me decades to even begin to try to grasp what it could have felt like. I couldn’t see past a 12-year-old’s anger and heartbreak and tears. In some ways, I realize now, we all inevitably come to know our parents better in death than in life.
When I gaze at the black-and-white photos and the color Polaroid shots of him, a familiar pang gnaws at me: How I wish I had known the hulking, dashing man from Irvington. It is said in his younger days, before he got sick, he could hold his own with the best of them on the ball fields of his alma mater, Mount St. Joseph. And later he could work a party or a showroom with equal panache and polish, convincing everyone he spoke to that nothing else in the world mattered at that moment but what they were saying. He was known to express inappropriate delight in espousing contrarian views. His Irish kin, among others, would try to fathom the unthinkable: how my father, an Irish Catholic, could publicly proclaim this new president, Jack Kennedy, greatly overrated.
He not only loved reading all three Baltimore newspapers— “Where’s the rest of the papers?” he would boom when sections scattered— but knew it was a prerequisite to doing business in his line of work. And he raced through the crosswords and devoured Reader’s Digest condensed books so he could get more reading done and worked six days a week when it was going well and not at all when it wasn’t. If he had the Irish tendency to drink to his detriment— he was an on-again, off-again member of AA, though never a fall-down drunk (and sober his last three or four years)— he also had the Irish talent for bullshitting with anyone about anything. He knew the old Colts and, family lore has it, advised Gino Marchetti to stick to football, what he knew best, and stay away from the new hamburger venture with teammate Alan “The Horse”Ameche that became the Baltimore fast-food fixture Gino’s. For the record and progeny’s sake, my father also predicted— correctly, it turns out— that if somebody could bottle that new-car smell, the smell of success in post-World War II America, that person would get rich.
As years go by, and so much of who my father was slips from memory and thus out of family history for good, I cling to and try to pass along to my sons stories of the grandfather they never knew. I tell Joseph, 8, and Paul, 4, of his infectious joy, especially at this time of year, and his faith, which was a childlike faith in the end, as all faith that is real must be.
I don’t tell them, yet, that in my child’s-eye view of the world, his unadulterated joy at Christmastime seemed to somehow compensate at least a little for the lack of it the rest of the year. Instead, I tell them about sitting in his new car by the Christmas garden at Edmondson Village, where the clear white light bulbs created an instantaneous wonderland that now makes me think wistfully of the line from Barry Levinson’s “Avalon”: “If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better.” I tell them about the annual Jesus Parades at Barlow Court and about their grandfather in heaven, a man I never saw happier than he was at this time of year.
Joseph nods through this sort of talk, but his eyes start to take on a glazed look. “What about the trains?” he asks. “Daddy, don’t we still have those trains from when you were a kid?”
Yep, Pal, I’m happy to reply, the trains and the tracks are up in the attic. Maybe next year we’ll find a way to pay to get them repaired, put them on a board and make space for our own Christmas garden in our Rodgers Forge house.
I imagine me sitting there with my boys, huddled over the trains, and right then, I see him. He’s sitting with the blue plaid robe over his pajamas, pointing a long, bony finger at the steam pouring from a model train engine, sipping a Boh from the bottle, dragging on a Winston. There’s this faraway look in his Irish eyes that shine clear to his soul. And he’s smiling, for it is Christmastime.
Gary Gately is a former Sun reporter and freelance writer living in Rodgers Forge.