22 July 2009

A Man in Full

I found it quite distressing to hear that Frank McCourt died a few days ago. Unlike most of his readers, my first book of his was not Angela's Ashes. I read 'Tis first, his memoir of returning to America from Ireland and establishing a life in New York City.

I loved the book, and have read it multiple times. His last book, Teacher Man, seemed a bit forced, but was worth the effort. Frank McCourt was a great story teller.

I will remember McCourt as the author of 'Tis above all else. The book fits into my memory nicely, of the many times that I listened to my father tell me about his father, who came to America in the early 1920s from the Irish county of Kerry. My grandfather died when I was eight months old and has lived forever in the words of my father and the images they created in my mind. Dad was incredible at bringing Grandpa to life. In my world, I can hear him speaking; if he were to suddenly appear behind me, I would recognize him by the voice.

My father was first generation Irish-American, and he dove into the history of the land where his parents came from and some of his family still remained. He sang songs of rebellion when he was bored, sometimes to the entertainment of my friends in another room. My father died without ever having visited Ireland, and it wasn't until after his death that I understood why he never went: he had a vision of Ireland in his own mind from his father (my father's mother died when he was ten), and had he actually gone to Ireland he would have found things very different. I used to think it a shame that Dad never went to Ireland, but I have since realized that a part of him always lived there.

Back to McCourt: he became a version of my grandfather. I read his words and pictured my grandfather talking to me about his journey to America and the struggles he found here as he made a new life for himself. It was comforting. I have always been a little angry that I never got to know my grandfather, despite the wonderful job my father did of personifying him. I have compensated for this in a small way by identifying with certain Irish authors, none more influential than Frank McCourt.

I've been to Ireland five times, each trip better than the last, and the Ireland that I have experienced is nothing like the Ireland that McCourt wrote about nor the Ireland that my grandfather left behind. I have romanticized Ireland, which is ironic since the Ireland I have read and heard about was about as unromantic a place as could be.

We paint our lives in the colors that we see fit.

McCourt only wrote three books, and I can't believe that I will not be reading anything else of his. I went through this a few years ago when I discovered Pete McCarthy, who had the temerity to die shortly after I finished his two books about the joys of being named "McCarthy" (note to contemporary Irish authors: you should consider writing stuff that I don't like if you crave longevity). It's an ending, though not written, and not expected. I saw McCourt about two years ago at a local bookstore, and I asked him if he was working on another memoir. He said that he was not, that he "was tired of talking about himself", and he said it in a way that made everyone laugh.

On the dedication page of Teacher Man, McCourt lists the next generation of McCourts, and tells them to "Sing your song, dance your dance, tell your tale." It's bittersweet to read this now, knowing that McCourt will tell no more tales, and I feel like I am saying goodbye to my grandfather again, to my father again, and to every Irish tale that I have been told.

There is a new story teller out there somewhere. My search has already begun.

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