We always had really tall Christmas trees at home—so tall they usually reached right to the living-room ceiling of our family’s house in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood of Queens. Every year Mother would say, “Perhaps a smaller one would do this time,” but invariably we ended up bringing home another huge pine. Even in the years when every tree on the lot looked scrawny, we still bought the tallest one. Then we would cut off bottom branches and wire them into the bare spots to create a fully shaped tree.
Every Christmas tree needs a Christmas crèche to go with it, and my family’s Christmas stable was built up gradually. The effort began the year I had four baby teeth extracted without anesthesia. That year the Sister of Mercy who taught second grade in St. Kevin’s grammar school gave each pupil a small limestone statuette of Baby Jesus in the manger. This exquisite object became all the more intriguing when someone discovered that you could lick the statue’s underside and experience a slightly salty, seemingly dangerous taste. Soon thereafter, my mother took my brothers and me to Woolworth’s to buy similarly sized figures to complete our crèche. Jack liked animals and picked out a donkey and sheep. Bobby selected two angels. I chose Mary and Joseph to round out the set. We built the stable from Lincoln Logs. The next year Jack bought a camel and more sheep. Bob picked out a shepherd and two wise men, and I took another king and shepherd boy. Mother had a tiny sheepdog figurine from when she was a girl and she placed that beside the boy. Perhaps that is why we came to think of him as blind.
In later years, whenever our originals chipped, we repainted them ourselves. I have been given other sets over the years, but still, even now, every Christmas I bring out that first set. Each time I see the three-inch shepherd boy, I wonder, was such a lad really at the stable? If so, was he healed in Bethlehem? Was he ever blind at all? What became of him? Did he gain extra courage in life? To be sure, these are heavy questions for a little plaster statue to bear. They remind me that the true purpose of a crèche is not to be a cute reminder of the Nativity, but rather to put us in mind of the first witnesses to Christ’s earthly existence and to help us wrestle with the same issues that troubled them. Sometimes tragedies come early in life.
In 1952 my father suddenly died—on December 15, my brother Bob’s fifteenth birthday. It was so unexpected and so sad. That night we waited and waited for him to come home from work to dinner, but he never came. After several hours, we called around to police stations and were finally told to try the morgue in Manhattan. It turned out there was an unclaimed body of a man about Dad’s age. So my older brother, Jack, and Uncle Joe, who had come in from Queens Village, drove into the city and identified Dad’s body. He had had a heart attack on the subway. His wallet with name and address cards and money was right there with his clothing, but apparently no one thought to call us. He was forty-six years old.
We boys didn’t fully realize it back then, but the postwar years had not been easy for my father. Increasingly, World War II veterans who graduated from college under the GI Bill were being promoted over him at work; his response was to double down and work longer hours. A photograph taken in his office just a few months before he died shows him tired and unsmiling. Our mother always thought he worked too hard. He put in too much overtime, she said, and was forever saving and investing money, rather than spending it on things like family vacations. Years later she would acknowledge that it was his steady purchase of war bonds and AT&T stock that supported our family in the long years after his death. Each of my parents was correct. Dad secured our future, but worked himself into the grave.
Six decades later—as a priest who encounters death all the time—I still wonder why my father had to die so young, when we were only children. I have no satisfying answers. What I do know is that Mother and the four of us led very different lives thereafter. Not worse lives, necessarily, though at times they were quite difficult; just different from what we had expected. I did not go to Notre Dame, as my father had always intended. But good things still came our way. In January 1953 Br. Leo Scannell at La Salle Academy secured a part-time job for me at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company on 23rd Street in Manhattan, and I worked there after school, on Saturdays, and during summers. Jack and Bobby worked for a religious-goods store farther downtown. On school days we three brothers took a morning bus before seven o’clock and then two subway trains to La Salle. It was well past seven at night when we returned home.
Each of us in the family became stronger and more self-reliant. We had to. And that brings me back to the Christmas trees. At my father’s wake, several people had expressed sympathetic doubt to my mother about the requirement to keep Christmas, which was coming in less than two weeks. “I guess you and the boys will just sit quietly at home,” was the message. Little did they know my mother! After the fourth or fifth person offered this well-intentioned advice, she exploded. “We will keep Christmas!” she all but shouted. “My four boys deserve it, and I need it, too!” Christmas wasn’t only a happy day for children, she reflected in a quieter tone; it celebrated God becoming a human being. “I need to celebrate that reality,” she said. “It gives me hope that my John shares God’s joy forever.”
It must have been December 20 when our father was buried. Such a frigid windy day! Our elderly pastor, Msgr. Delea, a kindly Irishman who had built St. Kevin’s parish from the ground up, insisted on coming to the graveside despite the cold. Mother was very concerned about Fr. Delea, out in that weather. I can still see his strands of white hair and full-length black cassock blowing in the bitter wind. A great bare tree; snow-covered ground; a huddling group of praying people; an open grave; and Dad’s body and casket: that was the end, cold, raw, and roughly comforting. Faith can be like that. I do not recall the funeral Mass. Priests, I know now, can exaggerate the importance of their own words when in fact it is the simple gestures that often help families most.
Two days later, after our relatives left, Mother said we boys should go buy a Christmas tree. She was not going with us, she said—maybe she thought we should already start acting on our own—but she would have a warm meal ready when we returned. So the four of us tramped up the long block and down Horace Harding Avenue until we came to the Christmas tree lot, located on the site of an ancient vegetable stand. It was a spooky place, ramshackle and unkempt. The woman who ran it was tall and heavy with terribly swollen ankles and stringy hair, but extremely kind. Naturally, we picked out a big tree. Jack, Bob, and I hoisted it and headed home. We took turns carrying little Donald when he tired. At one point as I was carrying him back down our block, he said the neighbors were looking at us from behind their window blinds. We could almost hear them saying, “The Kealeys are celebrating Christmas, after all.” And perhaps they were in fact paying attention, because when Christmas Eve arrived, a comforting and completely unexpected thing happened. Neighbors and near-neighbors, some of them people we barely knew, brought presents and baked goods. There had never been so many gifts, so many cookies, in the house.
Unlike our German neighbors, it was our custom to open gifts on Christmas morning, not Christmas Eve. We would put up the tree during the day, then add the lights; at night Dad would read A Visit from St. Nicholas to us. Later, after we boys went to bed, he and Mom would decorate the tree and put out gifts. The year Dad died, however, we decided to open the mountain of packages the night before Christmas. We attacked them with wild enthusiasm, throwing paper everywhere. When at last everything was out for all to see, little Donald walked over to Mom, who was sitting on the sofa, and quietly said, “All this doesn’t mean much now, does it?” We all sat silently then, holding one another, staring at the lights on the tree. Eventually we said a prayer, went to bed, and cried ourselves to sleep.
On Christmas Day we went to Mass, and afterward Jack drove us to Aunt Peg and Uncle Joe’s for dinner. My aunt was deeply upset by her only brother’s death, but they were kind and welcoming. Nonetheless, it was strange because we were not in our own home, because Father was gone, because the future seemed so uncertain. Mother was grateful for her in-laws’ hospitality, but when we returned home she said, emphatically and to no one in particular, “We will never, never do that again. Each family should keep its own Christmas, not jump into someone else’s. From now on we will find a way to re-create ours.”
And so we did, year after year, for the next thirty-two years.
My father’s death changed my mother’s life in more ways than I will ever know. She remained friendly and outgoing with neighbors as before, but regularly declined all social invitations, preferring to focus on our little family, on her relatives in Philadelphia, and on my brothers’ wives and children when they came. In summer we took trips to Maine, Virginia, and other places, staying in hotels. Niagara Falls was her favorite spot and we went there three or four times. And later, when my brother Jack’s job took him to North Carolina, we regularly drove there too.
Looking back, I marvel at my mother and her courage in those hard years. Where did it come from? She had always been an independent person. As a younger woman she had been a suffragette and worked on political campaigns in Philadelphia. She once reminisced that in her first suffragette parade some people threw rotten tomatoes at the marchers—and that the display of hostility only confirmed her resolve. I do not think she ever ceded anything to men or accepted any claims of their superiority. For her, men and women were simply people, neither better than the other. Injustice was the enemy.
Some of her spirit may have come from battling her six brothers, or from having managed her family’s business in its later days. It may have come from her father’s quiet strength, or from the paradoxical example of her mother’s endless hard work in raising ten children. My mother understood that honest work never hurt anyone, and can even be spiritually uplifting—but no one should be overloaded, she insisted. She simply would not have put up with all that her mother endured. She herself had been a flapper in the Roaring ’20s, and rejoiced at having had a successful career before she married.
My mother did not seek a job after Dad died, though some of her friends urged her to. Donald, she insisted, still needed her at home. Instead, she turned her energies to husbanding our finances. My father’s company had no pension plan for survivors. There was a $7,000 life-insurance policy, plus one year’s salary as a death benefit. Together it came to $14,252. Dad also had some war bonds and AT&T stock, and in 1953 Mother used part of the death benefit to buy thirteen more shares of AT&T. Those dividends, plus the Social Security payments for widows and dependent children, carried us through the years ahead. It could not have been easy for my mother, given her vivid memories of people who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929, but over time she became a wise investor.
Christmas 1953, while not tragic like the previous year, was extremely hard for our family. My brother Bobby had left in June to become a Christian Brother. It was the same religious order that his grandfather, my father’s father, had left Ireland to join in 1889, though we did not yet know that. Bobby was just fifteen, and though Mother believed he should choose his own vocation, she was upset, and wondered if the Christian Brothers had captured her son. Indeed, many years would pass before Bob shared Christmas at home again. In warm weather we would drive to visit him in Barrytown, a village on the Hudson River where his last two years of high school and religious novitiate took place, or to Oakdale on Long Island, where he spent part of the summer, or to Washington, D.C., where he went to college at the Catholic University of America. His religious community had become his family, and his Christmases with us were limited to brief afternoon visits.
And soon Christmas would get even harder. In 1958, Jack was drafted and sent to Korea. It was a cold, snowy winter in New York that year. We had several handsome rose bushes and the best one grew right against the chimney beside the dining room window. That year all the other roses faded quickly, but this one bush kept blooming right through October and November. Mother wrote to Jack every day and, as other flowers withered and this one still thrived, bolstered now by chimney heat, she kept telling him of its singular flourish. As soldiers do when they are far away and lonely, Jack read bits of Mother’s letters to his friends. At first Mrs. Kealey’s plant was a bit of a joke. However, as the days grew shorter and Christmas came close and the bush kept blooming, more and more soldiers would ask Jack, “Is your mom’s rosebush still flowering?” Thus did a unique little community of fascinated witnesses form on two continents, thousands of miles apart.
And the rosebush still flowered. The number of blossoms declined, but the bush was never bare. Even the fierce December storms could not destroy its blush of red. Mother kept writing. And Jack and his pals kept asking about the plant. As Christmas drew near the great question became, “Will a scarlet rose herald the Lord’s birth?” It seemed so unlikely amid the mounting snow. Yet, on Christmas morn there it was—a single bright, spunky flower, defiantly red and full of promise. One could almost hear it proclaim, “Glory to God. Here I am, Lord. I come to do your will.”
That flower was the very last one on the bush that year, and in the weeks after Christmas it began to collapse in upon itself, until it became a sad shadow of its former radiance. At one point I suggested plucking it off so that we would remember only the good times and its fair beauty. My mother insisted otherwise. “We should see things through,” she said. She was right, of course. After all, we had been privileged witnesses to the bush’s ascendant beauty, and now we would be equally faithful witnesses to its decline—another, but different, privilege. And who can say which moments are greater?
There is a lengthy coda to my family’s Christmas tree saga. Around 1960, shortly after he began teaching, Bob—Br. Celestine Robert, FSC, as he was known in religious life—joined in a program of the federal Department of Agriculture. From Washington hundreds of tiny evergreen seedlings were sent to his students to plant all over the Bronx in an urban reforestation project. Bob brought home one little seedling, and we planted it in the backyard. Year by year it grew, full, tall, and fragrant. It was extraordinary, handsome in every respect, and gave us continuous delight. Eventually, some twenty years later, Mother decided that the tree had grown too large for the yard. I suggested that, rather than chopping it down, we cut off the top and bring it in for Christmas. She agreed, and I cut ten feet. It was undoubtedly the best tree we ever had, its beauty dominating the living room. Out back, however, the remnant was a pitiful sight—a huge flat-topped bush, robbed of its noble crown—and I winced whenever I looked at it.
To our astonishment, over the winter, spring, and fall, a new arm rose upright from the chopped-off trunk and re-formed, on a slightly smaller scale, the outline of Bob’s magnificent tree. To us, it was an incredible occurrence—to this day, in fact, I have never heard of anything quite like it. So impressive was the total effect that the next Christmas I suggested we cut the new top, as we had its predecessor. Again it was a spectacular tree, much more than just a branch. Outside, meanwhile, another branch gradually rose to recreate the original tree, and that became our next Christmas tree. Each succeeding year a new branch repeated the marvelous feat. In total, we enjoyed eight Christmas tree branches, each one of them a miracle to us.
I think about how our family coped in the early years after our father’s death. Bobby went off to the Brothers and a new life. Jack and I were in prep school and working, but my youngest brother, Donald, was at home and growing up without a father. In many ways, Dad’s death had proved hardest on Donald. Only decades later would it all come out. Donald was a father himself by then, and watching his own son made him realize that—in some way he himself did not understand—he had always partly blamed Mother for Daddy’s death. It was not true, of course, and he knew it, but somewhere in his being he held her responsible. Looking at his own son had healed him of that lifelong hurt, giving him peace. He finally understood in his heart, as well as in his mind, that Mother could not have been responsible for Dad’s dying—and at her kitchen table over the course of one long afternoon he poured out his heart to her. Mother later described that afternoon conversation as one of the deepest moments of her life.
I am ashamed to think that I had no inkling that Donald was upset in this way, that he ever blamed anyone for our father’s death. As a priest I see how young children react to the loss of a parent—how often blame is misplaced, how much reassurance they need, even when they seem to be handling things well. In our family all of us tried to reassure one another, but Donald’s special need escaped us entirely.
Years later, at a wonderful Lenten mission in our parish, I gained further insight. One segment was presented by Fr. Michael Holzmann, one of the finest men I know. Michael related how his father had died of a heart attack when he was only five. Since he hardly knew his father, he did not deeply miss him during his own happy childhood and young adult years. In his early thirties, however, he belatedly felt overwhelmed by his loss. In the end, he came to peace with it on a spiritual retreat in Arizona with Fr. Richard Rohr, the great Franciscan preacher. Michael reported that Richard made a distinction between a bloody wound and a sacred wound. He reminded everyone that when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, he still bore the marks of his wounds. The injuries were no longer bloody, messy, and mortal, but they were wounds nonetheless—the marks of his passion on Christ’s glorified body. So too, Michael continued, does each of us have wounds, and they remain painful and messy until raised to sacred status. And that can take a long time. Indeed, it had taken twenty-eight years for Michael’s own wound to become sacred.
My brother’s wound had festered even longer, but it too had finally become sacred; he was healed, and his healing had also healed Mother. Every death is a killer who keeps taking a toll, again and again, until grace, the spirit of God, enables us to raise it to a better status, without ever forgetting its ghastly pain. My ignorance of my brother’s agony remains deeply unsettling to me. I feel I should have been able to perceive and address it. Yet I cannot control Donald’s wound any more than I can control his life. We each stumble on, with God’s help, trying to do our best. Surely that is enough; at any rate, it is what we have.
Time plays its music, memory does its dance; and now I am an older priest with scattered hair—older by half than my father was when he died. Some years back, while going through old folders, I came across a yellowed page from the Sunday News, dated December 23, 1945. It contained Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas, and I realized it must be the very copy Dad read aloud to us, year after year. A few years before that, among Mother’s papers, I came across the police report listing the personal belongings found on my father’s body. His wallet contained his identity cards and $62 in cash. There was also a silver bracelet with his name on it. His death is long past now, but it still hurts.
My mother died in August 1985. I remember her as a deeply loving, no-nonsense woman. Give everything you can, she would say, but do not let anyone take advantage of you. Be honest, forthright, and courteous. Don’t worry about what others think and don’t second-guess your own decisions. Pray regularly, but don’t mistake the church for the whole of life. Have fun, but do good. Be your own person. These were her codes, and all my adult life I have tried to make them mine.
That winter of 1985, four months after my mother’s death, I cut down the annual upright branch from the tree in the backyard and decorated it for Christmas as usual—partly from pure sentiment, partly because Jack and his family were coming up from North Carolina to stay in our home for the holidays. On Christmas Eve, after everyone had gone to bed, I sat alone, looking at the colored Christmas lights. It was a major moment in my life, full of prayer, change, and hope. The next day we all had Christmas dinner at Donald’s home—only the second time I had celebrated Christmas outside our house in all the decades since our father died. Bob, by now a dean at Manhattan College, came out to join us. Donald’s in-laws were also there. Toward the end of the meal, in the lull before we rose to do the dishes, I seized the moment to make an announcement. Nervously, I told everyone that—after many years of being a historian and college professor—I planned to enter the seminary the following September. A long moment of shocked silence followed; then everyone talked all at once, excited and happy for me.
In some obscure way, those Christmas tree lights had helped me make the decision; and afterward, on Christmas night, they gave me renewed peace. A glistening fir tree symbolizes ever-renewing life and ever-expanding ideas. And twinkling lights towering above a little crèche produce wondrous effects. One’s eye darts back and forth between the Holy Family scene and one’s own family mementos, sparking cherished memories.
And so Christmas 1986 found me in the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, in Huntington, Long Island. Each seminarian was assigned a room on a long corridor—a wing of the building, called an “alley,” equipped with a common room. An imposing Christmas tree stood in the refectory dining hall, but none in our alley’s common room. That would not do for me, so one afternoon I drove back to Fresh Meadows and cut down one more gigantic branch. I gathered our family lights and ornaments, carted them back to Huntington, and set everything up in the common room late at night. No one noticed me at work, but the next morning all were amazed. The branch tree was marvelous, as always, and offered a welcome opportunity to tell the tree’s great tale.
Seminarians could go home for Christmas. I thought it would be wrong to leave the tree all alone, so I removed the decorations and brought everything back home, where I proceeded to set the tree up all over again. I did so using the same collection of ornaments I still possess today. They are large red, silver, and green ornaments that Mother bought when we first moved into our house. There are also glass ornaments that date to World War II. Each year a couple of them break, or fade beyond usefulness, but others persevere. I have a habit of recycling tinsel strands, pulling the remnants from the tree branches and saving them in a bag. They often need supplementing, but I like to fancy that some of the tinsel, like many of the ornaments, may have graced our trees for more than sixty years. This is more about memory than thrift. The very oldest ornament in the collection is a tiny red heart, smaller than a half-dollar. As a little boy I thought it ugly. Now it is a beautiful reminder of continuity.
That Christmas of 1986, a seminarian at home in the house of his late parents, I sat alone for several nights just watching tree lights—reliving old times, wondering about the future, often just sitting and pleasurably thinking of nothing at all. One night I went out into the yard and thanked the faithful tree for all the happiness it had generously given us, both while it was growing up and in its dismembered maturity: top and branches, eight times over. It might seem odd to be standing in the snow, talking out loud to a tree, thanking it for its life’s beauty, but the gesture felt right. The pine never raised another limb skyward, and my Fresh Meadows Christmases were over. Remembering them brings immense peace.