“…He heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

From “The Dead” by James Joyce

On Christmas Eve when I was 5 or 6 years old, I was sent to the basement to find a surprise gift, and there I caught my brothers and two of their friends sneaking a drink from a bottle my father kept stashed in the coal room. Brother Kermit put two fingers to his lips, asking me to keep my mouth shut. I did.

On another Christmas Eve several years later, I was standing in the foyer of the church at midnight Mass when my brother Jim and several of his friends, three sheets to the wind, as my mother would say, came roaring in. My mother scowled at him and motioned for him to take his hat off. He sailed it across the room, and it plopped on the head of the statue of St. Joseph. My laughter turned some heads.

On a rainy September night, near the end of the war and hours after my birthday party, there was a noise on the front porch. There was Kenny, home on leave and in uniform. He was covered with dead leaves and mud from head to toe and was being held aloft by his friend Johnny Werner. Apparently on the way home from Skeeter O’Neil’s bar, they had fallen down Clay Hill, a wooded slope behind the church.

These stories, not even barely hidden in this writer’s box of memories, bubbled up today as I read and viewed the flood of reviews of a new book by former Rhode Island U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, or as he is known to the family, Pat. Pat is in the dog house, and it’s all about this thing he’s gone and done.

“This,” it seems, is that book that Patrick wrote about the family’s addictions.

In “A Common Struggle,” Patrick shines a bright light on what everyone in the universal “neighborhood” already knew about his father, Teddy, “The Lion of the Senate,” and his mother Joan and their “addictions.” That’s what upper class Irish have — “addictions.” To the neighborhood Irish, it’s “the drink.”

The rest of the clan Kennedy, including some with their own “addictions,” are not happy about dragging the family name back to several shelves at your local Barnes and Noble. But there, it’s done.

So now Patrick, recovering from his own well-publicized addictions, is a fully dyed black sheep in a family where it would be hard to find a white one.

I bond today with young Patrick. I’ve been there and done that. Take notice that even today, I hesitate to call them drunks, because it’s such a harsh word to chip in the stones that cover the people you love.

My father was a Navy officer, a proud man who never drank at sea or on duty ashore. Nowadays we would call him a functioning alcoholic. “Nobody,” my mother in later life would say, “ever saw your father stagger.” No. He never did.

His drinking, hidden from world outside and combined with my teetotaling mother’s famous impatience and temper, fueled no end of frightening and wall-shaking fights that often involved the whole family.

Like Patrick, I was the terrified little boy who sat in the dark at the top of the stairs, fingers in ears to soften the shouts and screams, tossed chairs, broken dishes and slamming doors downstairs. I can hear them still.

Days in my family, in that house, were mostly bright and full of laughter and pleasant memories. It was those nights, not every one, but those too frequent dark nights fueled by my father’s drinking and his battles with his demons.

My brothers all had their battles with the bottle. Some survived, some did not.

Through those early tumultuous nights, I was often comforted by Rita Mary, my wonderful, beautiful married sister who would take me to the movies and buy me ice cream sodas. She seemed untouched by all the furor.

I only learned a few years ago that that fun-loving, sparkly woman, suffering an unhappy marriage, spent her later years hiding her bottles of vodka in the water tanks of the toilets in her fashionable home.

So there it is, Patrick, I’ve gone and written the highlights of my future book for all the neighbors to see.

My clan won’t be upset. They’re all gone now. But in case his shadow is behind me as I write this, I should tell Kerm I’m sorry about breaking my silence, but I’m a writer now, darlin’, and I’ve got a deadline.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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