The man walking up the steep narrow stone stairs in the home movie is dark-haired, and in his early forties. He wears a light raincoat and takes deep breaths, smiling at his fatigue. A truck at the bottom of the narrow stairs backs up in the small space, slowly turning around. The truck could be a large van, but it is hard to see due to the dark nature of the old film. The street slopes down to a distant boulevard, and as the man gets closer to the camera, the film jumps from moment to moment as the truck maneuvers in the tight space and turns to face down the narrow alley. Cobblestones are placed at each level in the long ascending path of steps. Though the home movie stock has faded and the film is grainy, the steps seem familiar. With more stop-and-go breaks in the filming, the smiling man touches the rail and reaches the top of the stairs. Closer now, his face has symmetrical features, the dark hair combed back, the smile genuine. He could be an aging leading man from the late thirties and early forties.
In profile, he examines a plaque. Suddenly, a white church dome comes into focus, and then we cut to another man, bald and dressed in a suit, walking down wide steep church steps. These steps are also familiar. This is the Sacré Coeur Basilica and Paris sometime in 1958. The man observed climbing the narrow stairs is my father, Thomas. The bald man is Emmett, his brother and my uncle. Emmett filmed the first shot, a dramatic walk ascending stairs in Paris to view a cathedral. Though that film clip lasts barely 13 seconds, there is something poignant and spontaneous about it.
My father died in 1970 and Emmett in 1999. The unseen truck driver must have died years ago. They have been caught in this cinema moment. I have always wanted to visit this higher ground in Paris, for certainly the stone steps of the Montmartre, like Rome’s Spanish Stairs, have changed little over the years.
The rest of the home movie footage includes shots of familiar landscapes and sights: excursion boats going down the Seine, a statue of Joan of Arc, the Eifel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral. In Place Pigalle, we see the red Moulin Rouge; my father approaches a streetwalker standing in a doorway. Her hair is blonde and she quickly escapes when she sees the camera. We see her hand raised as a shield. This is meant to be a gag revealing some of Paris’s local color, but Emmett later regrets interfering with the woman’s business.
There is some jaunty Django Reinhart guitar under this Paris section.
They had travelled to Europe to see the World’s Fair in Brussels, but the exciting footage is in Rome and Paris, superior to the giant molecule set-ups of Brussels. Throughout the Paris section, Thomas appears looking at a map, drinking from a fountain splashing over rocks, or waiting to enter the catacombs. He usually has a cigarette, one of many that will eventually kill him. Emmett, always formerly dressed, barters with an older heavy-set woman wearing a headscarf and selling flowers in an open market. The brothers are never photographed together, but each takes a turn walking by a famous landmark, Emmett usually waving at the camera.
Home movies can be misleading. There can be a festive sense that hides a sadness. Home movies can also provide a nice record of a family. Over the years, Thomas and Emmett often appear as comic actors, dancing in the surf, mugging for the camera, usually providing humor. Perhaps all home movies share a certain common banality.
There is something about Father’s climb up those steep narrow stairs, however, that haunts me. My father is pretending to be tired, exhausted, even, but the strain of the long ascension is obvious. They were in Paris, together—two brothers—who would never share a similar vacation again.
The summer after I lost my wife, Karen, I visited Paris. It had been our original plan to travel to Paris and London together to see her daughter. Decades had passed since I had seen Paris as a young man. I was now older than my father when he climbed those stairs for Emmett’s home movie camera. For some reason, I didn’t visit the Sacré Coeur and see the familiar stone stairs which appeared in the French film of Edith Piaf’s life. Place Pigalle is also in the neighborhood, a place I did visit as a young man, escaping the advances of a tough-speaking streetwalker and her muscular pimp in a seedy bar.
Though I am a secular person because of or despite 12 years of Catholic schooling, I like to visit cathedrals and famous churches. No one is completely immune to the glories of Notre Dame. The question remains: why did I enjoy Paris for that week seeing all the usual sights and museums and the mimes and actors performing at Centre Pompidou and not visit those stairs my father climbed? Possibly the answer is simple; I had simply forgotten that ancient home movie.
I now have another reason to go back one last time and climb those stairs in honor of the man who left me in the care of my grandparents when he joined the Navy in World War II, returning to resume my care since my mother had abandoned us. (They would remarry years later but that’s another story.) A photo of Father in his navy uniform with a postal emblem on his sleeve survives. He is smiling, handsome in the manner of the young Montgomery Clift or Tyrone Power.
My earliest memory of my father finds me at four years old sitting atop a slide at a boys’ camp and seeing a handsome sailor home from the war walking across a windy playground; I recognize him and know he is coming to take me home. His face became the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night from my early childhood to my late teens. We took summer vacations to the Russian River and Clear Lake, sometimes bringing my Irish cousins. He herded us to Mass every Sunday. One summer at the Russian River, he saved a man from drowning.
We had left the open hot beach of Rio Nido and were walking across a crude wooden bridge with a low railing. A woman was calling for help, looking down at the green river. My father ran ahead and looking over the side, yelled, “Which one?” Two men were struggling in the water, one bald man going under while the other man floundered in the current. Father hit the water with a splash and when he came up, the heavy-set bald man embraced him in a deadly smothering grip, pushing him under. Father’s feet touched the sandy river bottom and he walked, carrying the man to the narrow shore, dropping his wet heavy body on the hot sand. Father then pushed on the man’s back, water running from his mouth. The other swimmer waded out of the river. “I tried to help,” he said. “I’m not much of a swimmer, myself.”
Later, the lifeguard took over and seemed annoyed.
“You did my job,” he said.
“You weren’t there,” Father said.
That night, we walked around the Rio Nido plaza with its tennis court, arcades, and many bars. We saw the man Father had saved having an ice cream cone with his family but he didn’t see us. We walked on. A sign over the square read: “Rio Nido. Memories that linger.”
When I began college and started reading the classics, Father read them to keep up. When I contracted viral meningitis, my father visited me daily in the hospital, his eyes above the face mask reflecting genuine fear. As I came of age in the turbulent 60s, it was clear my father and I had different views of the world. He was a staunch Catholic which kept him from remarrying a woman other than my mother. I loved the work of Albert Camus and his revolt against the absurd. Father worked one job all his life: the post office. I would have many jobs. Father admired Bing Crosby and I admired Bob Dylan, though my father found Elvis and the Beatles amusing, especially Paul McCartney whom he called “Lefty.” So typical of our Irish tribe, we both liked to drink. In our culture, there was no such thing as a “bad drunk.” Though an Irish cliché, alcohol remained a sacred beverage.
Eventually, I took a teaching job in Idaho.
When my father had his first heart attack while visiting Lake Tahoe, I suspected he would not survive a second attack. Years of heavy smoking and drinking, though he dried out for eight years to raise me, had aged him and weakened his body. His once handsome face was now older-looking, and he seemed fatigued, frail, though the rich voice was still resonant. I did visit him in the hospital that summer after they put in a pacemaker. He wanted me to light a cigarette and blow smoke into his hospital room.
On another occasion, we had a long walk in Dolores Park. There seemed so little time to reminisce and catch up on our lives. We could discuss some things like growing up in the house with my grandparents, Thomas Sr. and his wife, Agnes; they survived the depression until the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed everything. Christmas and Easter meant huge family dinners. There were the summer vacations and Father’s love of swimming. In my memory, Father forever glides through the water, swimming with ballet like strokes—in pools, lakes, rivers.
Some memories we did not discuss, like visiting his brother in Modesto and taking Emmett’s powerboat out on the wide San Joaquin River, dodging huge cargo ships, docking nightly at a small harbor where I fished oily water for catfish, using a flashlight and drop line. Father spent time with a mysterious woman, that summer, staying out late. He didn’t drink, then, but perhaps they went dancing. I don’t remember her name, but at 15, I sensed the electricity between them. Did father share a moment of love with this “fair creature of an hour”?
We walked back to the house his father built and sat in the front room. My father’s library, which included the complete works of Shakespeare, sat in a corner. It contained photos of famous actors in celebrated roles. As a child, Shakespeare’s plays fired my early fascination with books.
In one of our conversations, Father suddenly reached a philosophical level.
“What happens after we die?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the lights go out? I hope you don’t find out too soon.”
“My father died in my arms in this house. It was a bright Sunday morning.”
I remembered that day. For a moment, I saw again Grandfather’s face turning blue when the cardiac arrest hit.
“Don’t your precious French Existentialists have the answer? What does Al have to say?”
Father loved French and could read Albert Camus in the original.
“You should know. Life is absurd and it ends in death. The only solution is to rebel.”
“Rebel? I lived through a depression. I fought in World War II. What have you got to rebel against?”
“Everything,” I said.
“I think students who stage antiwar protests on campus should be given scholarships—somewhere else.”
He then observed that I was drinking too much—the “good man’s failing.”
“What else is there?” I asked, taking a drink of wine.
“Work. The only rebellion I recognize is a strike organized by a union.” He lifted his glass as a salute. “Never cross a picket line.”
Thomas looked out the window, quiet for a moment, his lined face in profile. “I am tired,” he finally said.
On 2 November, Father died in his sleep of a heart attack. I returned to San Francisco for his funeral at Mission Dolores church, the same church where he had watched the funerals of his parents. Emmett attended Father’s service with two sisters, Mary and Veronica, and a younger brother named Jim. Mother enjoyed the post funeral party, and everyone seemed almost too cheerful, including Aunt Veronica or Vee who had shared in my upbringing. It seemed so real and surreal. The old house with its faded blue front stairs was full of the living and the dead. Jim had turned Republican, treason to the rest of the family—except my mother.
“I am not a Democrat,” Jim declared.” I think the Kennedys were pigs, all of them.”
Father was not there to argue, but he admired short of worship the Kennedys, and even met one. Shortly after I recovered from meningitis, I photographed the campaigning Robert Kennedy at the corner of San Francisco’s 18th and Castro Streets just four days before Kennedy’s murder. Candidate Kennedy stood in an open convertible with football player, Rosey Grier, standing behind him; Kennedy seemed tired and vulnerable. I felt even then that he needed more protection after King’s assassination and John Kennedy’s tragic murder. I remember my father, Thomas, reaching up to shake Robert Kennedy’s hand before his car pulled away. I did not photograph that special moment. To him, the Kennedy family was a great Irish dynasty promising future greatness. An assassin ended any “once and future” greatness.
Now at 53, Thomas was gone. All conversation would cease. His face and voice would fade with the passage of time as we continued with our lives. My mother, whom everyone called “Fran,” would insist that “Tom died “drunk and happy” and it was time to move on.
A black and white photo shot in May of 1924 shows my father at age seven, pigeon toed and smiling, posing on the front stairs with his parents and siblings. Two months before he died, we posed for a photo on the same blue stairs, Mother wearing bell-bottoms and a cape jacket, Father in his short-sleeved shirt, slacks and wing tip shoes. I am in the middle, my hair absurdly long. We look happy. They were leaving for Sunday Mass. Twenty-five years later, I would visit Father’s plot at Holy Cross cemetery to scatter my mother’s ashes across his weathered gravestone—her request, despite years of complaints about their difficult marriages.
I felt a connection to my father who danced a mean Charleston and acted the ham more than I did despite my interest in theatre. Fran was theatrical too, but her behavior was more enjoyable if seen in a film or a play. We lacked the same connection. A Jewish writing instructor in college, Wallace Markfield, once counseled that I had to “enjoy my parents” before I could write about them truthfully. “After all,” he said, “I had a real Jewish mother.” Years later, a friend into genealogy discovered that my mother and her sister as little girls spent time in an orphanage despite the fact their parents were living. Perhaps that brutal experience explains my mother’s disturbing lack of empathy. One day, I might research her history as I did my father’s in a hybrid memoir, Confessions of a Shanty Irishman. As memories fade in and out of focus, a bittersweet reflection can soften ugly moments.
The time finally came to transfer old home movies to a DVD and there it was: Thomas and Emmett in Europe, images preserved on old color film: Emmett formally dressed waving at the camera; Thomas lighting up a cigarette while walking past the Eifel tower or the Roman Coliseum or the Paris catacombs; Thomas taking a drink from a street fountain or walking gingerly across hot sand to swim in the blue Mediterranean—Thomas, the eternal graceful swimmer.
Father walks into his close-up slowly climbing those Paris stairs near the hilltop Basilica, showing a slight smile when he glances at the camera. I ran that sequence a few times, almost memorizing the images and camera angles. I tried to put myself in the scene.
One day, if I am lucky, I will retrace those steps.