A couple of weekends ago on, really, the most glorious Fourth of July weekend I can ever recall, I put my invitation to Juanita Gallagher’s 90th birthday bash at Gethsemani Cemetery to good use. It was July 5, the day after the area east of the cemetery’s executive director Dan Gallagher’s house on the grounds was literally ablaze in patriotic “Star Spangled Spectacular” red, white and blue.
As I got out of my car parked beside Dan’s house and walked around and behind on the narrow road leading to the epicenter of the party, the maintenance building to the east, I saw a bee hive of activity on the greensward, one book-ended by Dan’s domicile and the building serving as party central. The younger versions of this large Catholic family were engaging in the pleasant paradox of being hard at work while playing.
A whiffle ball game was in full swing on a field that had mowed base paths, pitcher’s mound and home plate area. The cornhole boards rattled with the distinctive sound of bags filled with beans hitting wood, and there was a whole lot of bumping, setting and spiking going on to either side of a volleyball net.
As I made my way to the party while listening to the music and a whole lot of laughter that got a little louder with each step, I paused in front of a tombstone that said, “Grindrod,” the final resting place of only the mortal remains of my parents. Their souls, I firmly believe, moved into another realm. My pause was brief, however, for to tarry too long would be to risk some tears for a father now gone 36 years and a mother gone 26. And, when you’re headed to a party, that’s hardly the time for tears, right?
Reaching the maintenance building, I was spotted and warmly greeted by the other local Gallagher besides Dan, Denny, aka No. 3, who prompted me several months ago to breathe some life into his family’s rich history. Ten siblings had returned home to honor Mom on an upcoming November 90th birth date.
Denny handed me off to Mark, No. 6, my Lima Central Catholic classmate in the great Class of ’69. Of course, Mark was more than a classmate, rather someone who joined me on several rather dubious escapades, some of which breached certain prevailing legalities. And, as Mark ushered me around the large room and introduced me to brothers and sisters I had interviewed via email so that I could now attach names to faces, I was immediately struck by what we all first notice about people, which is their physical appearance.
First, this attractive collection of people certainly are vertically challenged. And, two, and as one who lost a poorly fought battle to retain my hair in my early 30s this one infuriated me, the next Gallagher to lose even one strand of hair will be the first!
Mark also introduced me to a couple of husbands and 10 wives, all the original versions of what Bob and Juanita Gallagher’s kids picked out years ago, and a whole passel of kids, both grand and great. Collectively, these diminutive people whose veins course with the same blood were indeed a hale and hardy lot.
Some are now retired while some are still slugging it out in as wide an array of careers as one might expect if you gathered 12 people off a crowded sidewalk. There are and were careers in commercial real estate and engineering and business proprietorship and counseling and, even for No. 5, John, a career as a corrections officer at the infamous San Quentin Prison. It was John who said he could tell me stories that would keep me up at night. However, I told No. 5, this surely wasn’t the environment for such tales.
Juanita, buoyed by the presence of her 12 birds who’ve long ago left the nest, and, of course, the abiding memories of her husband, Bob, was, I’m happy to report, radiant. And, as would be expected, all these Gallaghers were as thrilled as I was that the story ran on the previous day’s Fourth, when all were in town and in full party mode and got the front-page treatment. I told them, when you’re a writer, it doesn’t get much better than that!
I was also so very pleased to hear from many who took the time to either speak or email me about the story, especially those who hail from the large families who evolved in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Paul Illig, one of nine children who grew up in Landeck, told me of the time he broke his glasses and went to his dad with the bad news. In such a large family, Paul told me, there wasn’t a whole lot of extra cash in the budget lying around for such unexpected misfortunes. Yet, after an initial stern dad-like response, I’m sure one designed to tell the young Paul that he needed to be more careful, as in, “What do you want me to do about it?” within a week, somewhere, an extra $40 was found and a new set of specs rested atop Paul’s nose.
And, for Putnam County’s Kathy Burkhart, one of eight children, who told me in a wonderful email that the story of the Gallaghers resonated on so many levels, it was a front-page story that was neither sad nor bad, she said, a welcome respite from what front pages often include.
Kathy remembers the pride her mom and dad instilled in all eight of their children and told me that, her favorite octogenarians still remain active both physically and spiritually. They walk in church six days a week while praying the rosary and still find time to attend about all of Miller City High School’s boys and girls games.
Said Kathy, “My parents taught us all to do a lot in life but do everything in moderation. They’ve practiced what they preached, except, of course, when it comes to praying, which they do in abundance!”
So, here’s to all those large families of mostly yesteryear and especially, to those parents who, once upon a time, long before Crosby, Stills and Nash ever musically encouraged such a notion, decided to teach their children well.
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