Today my father (Charley, as Mom called him) would be 108 years old. Virtually nobody lives that long, so there is something almost fictional about the number. He was born in a house on Tennessee Street in San Francisco, back when that area (now called Dogpatch) was primarily Irish, Italian and Jewish—all working-class people. My grandfather was a coppersmith, and for a while he and my grandmother ran a grocery store on the corner of 22nd and Tennessee; that building is now a historic landmark. Although he was born in the twentieth century (1911), his parents were born much earlier, in the 1880s, also in San Francisco. And their parents had arrived in San Francisco in the 1870s. Irish generations are long. (Dad was forty when I was born). My mother’s parents were also born in the nineteenth century, in the East, but moved to Southern California in 1900.
I have always felt visceral tie to nineteenth century California, despite having born into a wholly new and transformed world in 1951. The nineteenth century came streaming into my post-War, futuristic 1950s childhood. It all gives one a sense of the whiplash of historical change, of how rapidly things crash from one world into another; yet, how there are also continuities. I used to muse that, if everyone bred at the slow pace of the Crowleys, we’d only be thirty generations out from Jesus. But I later discovered that the Crowleys were anomalies, and that most families were far more active in the generation department.
Dad was on the poetic side of the Irish spectrum, with nary a practical bone in his body. But he taught us to love life, its beauty, the wonder of plants and animals, music and art, nature, California redwoods and San Francisco treasures—the kinds of things that can deeply sustain a human life. He once stayed up nursing a dying guinea pig with little doses of whisky. His faith was quiet, internal, deep, but unheralded. He was not a joiner; naturally ecumenical. At home, he was in there pitching in the house long before men had to be coaxed to the kitchen sink; he was way ahead of his time. Brought Mom coffee in the mornings and fixed the breakfast so she could get ready for work. I could never fully express how unusual, very special, he was.
I’ll never forget his saying, long before I entered the Jesuits, that on his deathbed, he wanted a Franciscan to come hear his confession. He imagined, rightly so, that a Franciscan would be gentle with him. He deserved such gentleness, because he was a gentle soul. His death was a huge blow—my first really big one. There was no Franciscan when the time came, but God was gentle. I still miss him so. He left me with the gift of Irish tears, a living tie to him and to generations past.