PHILADELPHIA — This period between the yearly ritual of breakfast in bed for Mom and that new spring tie for Dad prompts some to pen nostalgic memoirs.
The results of my recent attempts were discouraging. My memoirs seemed as spiritless as a teetotaler's fruitcake. Then I remembered what the author of a well-received memoir said when asked about her next book: "I'm thinking of writing about my family, which is just crawling with dysfunction - they're like a gift for a writer."
Aha! I thought - that explains everything. Mom and Dad are the secret behind my lack of success as a memoir writer. Sure, the Walsh and McGinley clans, though a few generations removed from the old country, were as Irish as the McCourts of "Angela's Ashes."
But instead of being an unemployed, gregarious-when-drunk alcoholic and family deserter like Frank McCourt's dad, my father persisted in working double shifts to support his family of seven throughout the prosperous '50s and '60s. Dad was like John Wayne in "The Quiet Man," only shorter and quieter.
My mother was just as bad, memoir-wise. Here she was a homemaker and part-time secretary at a Catholic rectory during the tumultuous '60s and '70s. If running off with a guitar-playing priest didn't appeal to her, couldn't she at least have screamed at her messy kids? Or, disheartened by her insider's view of rectory life, couldn't she have joined an anticlerical sect?
No, with nary a thought of her youngest daughter's future frustration as a memoir-writer, my mother sang '40s popular standards as she did housework, threw Halloween parties for the neighborhood kids in mid-July, attended Mass daily, and deflected any criticism of the priests - whom she never called anything but "Father" - with the soft comment, "They're only human, too."
Okay, so my childhood is a kid's picture book at best. Throughout my teen years, when other memoir-writers' parents had the decency to spend their midlife amidst the rubble of detonated marriages and ditched careers, my parents remained boringly faithful to each other and their life choices.
Then, as my older siblings and I married and started families, Mom and Dad neglected opportunities to sow strife or to be controlling in-laws, being too busy indulging their grandchildren. Even in that arena, they refused to go too far, passing along instructions on life to their grandchildren with a light touch.
As I remember, Dad's counsel usually boiled down to "keeping your eye on the ball." My mother's favorite advice? "The nicest words I know are these - thank you, excuse me, and if you please."
Once I told both my parents how well the courtesy message had sunk in with my kids: After I caught my then three-year-old hitting her five-year-old sister, I separated them and said to the younger one, "You know you're not supposed to hit your sister. What do you say?" She thought, then said, "You're welcome." I can still hear my parents' rueful laugh.
But again ... moments like that make nice memories, not bestseller lists.
In their later years, Mom and Dad once more refused to go for drama, opting instead to accept the inevitable changes with grace and humor. After my mother's death - she died in her sleep - my father slipped deeper into a confusion that seemed to protect him from fully realizing his losses. He remained a gentleman always, smiling at each visitor, whether he recognized us or not. His death was dramatic only in its timing - in the early morning hours, exactly two years to the day of my mother's passing.
So, you see my dilemma. As a person, I would say one thing to my parents about their legacy: Thank you, and excuse me, if you please, for not being able to say it enough. But as a writer?
Dysfunctional families produce boffo books and movie rights. Our family, like most, wasn't perfect, but it worked. My parents lived lives not of quiet desperation, but of quiet devotion - to God, family, and each other. Now, I might have a shot at a self-help bestseller, if only I could package what they did in 10 easy steps. But wait, I believe someone has the copyright on that already.
*Elizabeth McGinley, who lives in Philadelphia, is a homemaker and freelance writer/editor specializing in family issues.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society