I had dinner on Friday night with my cousin Bob, who grew up in Kearny, NJ, in an Irish Catholic family just like I did. Bob and I are actually second cousins: our grandmothers, Annie and Mary, were sisters. Our mothers, Alice and Margaret, were cousins. Bob and I are seconds. He’s a few years younger than I, but in the ball park. He’s still working; I’ve passed the threshold into retirement. But a lot of water that’s flowed under the dam for both of us had its start in the same small place: Kearny. Kearny was a Scottish town in northern New Jersey, nearest big city Newark. The town had Scottish butchers that sold haggis and blood sausage and potted head [don’t ask — I have no idea.] We had the Kearny Cardinals high school football team, the Observer to keep residents up on the local news, the Argyle restaurant that had the best fish and chips imaginable, a lot of Protestant churches with a couple of Catholic thrown in and one pretty robust synagogue. The latter, on my last Kearny drive-through, is now a Hispanic evangelical congregation. The times, as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan would sing, are a changin’. Kearny now has a significant Portuguese demographic, families who improved their lot enough to move from Newark’s tough Ironbound section to a place where they could have yards and their kids could walk safely to school.
Bob has had a brilliant career with a Paris-based beauty conglomerate, and both he and I left Kearny behind well and for good. But there’s something fun about having roots in the same place, both geographically and culturally. We talked a lot about the silence in Irish Catholic families over pretty much everything: if you didn’t say it, it wasn’t true. That covered alcoholism, abuse, the priestly pedophilia scandal, and even what seem perfectly innocuous facts. A friend of my mother’s lost her first husband in the war and never mentioned it to her daughters by a second marriage until one day, at the family plot, one of the girls pointed to a strange name on the headstone and asked “Who’s that?”
Bob and I have left the silence behind as well. His life as an openly gay man hasn’t impeded either his career or his happiness. My memoir is out there, and as ruthlessly honest as I could make it. We’re happier for it, although the Irish Catholic relatives may be spinning quietly in their graves.