Monday, September 19, 2016

The Immortal Paul Byrne by Don Henderson (plus author interview!)

 Today I'm excited to add a new feature to my blog, short stories from unpublished or up and coming authors. In today's first installment, I thrilled to share a story by Don Henderson (disclaimer: he's my dad). This is a great example of creative non-fiction that relies heavily on fictional elements. At the end of the story is an interview with the author.

Like drinks at a bar or cereal in a grocery store aisle, we should get to choose our immortals.  Here’s one of mine:  Paul Byrne.

Paul Byrne was a police officer in the Chicago Police Department in the 1950s and 1960s.  For some of those years he was the Director of the Chicago Patrolmen’s Credit Union (CPCU), where my mother worked.  Virtually everything I know about Paul Byrne came from her; she was a keen observer.

Her take on Paul Byrne was that he was a very nice man, but not exceedingly engaged as a boss, and that he had been selected to oversee the Credit Union principally because he was well liked by fellow officers.  Director was something of an honorary title; the women who worked in the office ran it. The Director answered to a Fraternal Order of Police review board and reported on the Credit Union’s status at the annual meeting of the membership, which was held at a downtown hotel nearby the office.

The day-to day functions of the CPCU were supervised by a woman named Harriet Slodoway, who smoked heavily, could be cranky, but knew what she was doing and what the Credit Union should be doing to assist the police officers who came to the office to transact business.  Typical transactions included cashing pay checks, making deposits and withdrawals, applying for car and personal loans, and so forth.  In addition to her clerking, posting, and customer service work, my mother acted as an occasional, unofficial HR person, based on her ability to get along with people which, in turn, was based on her innate compassion and practicality.  If a co-worker needed to be let go, Byrne would prevail upon my mother to perform the unpleasant task of giving the woman notice. Typically, this would have been done by pointing out that the worker had repeatedly expressed unhappiness in the job, experienced several upsetting encounters with customers, was coping with outside pressures that had led to her missing work, etc.  Firing someone humanely requires insight and tact, qualities my mother possessed in unfailing degree, by his own tacit admission, in proportions notably greater than Byrne.

Byrne’s performance as a boss would not get him close to qualifying for immortality on anyone’s reckoning.  But there was something else.

Paul Byrne had been in World War II.  Sometime after returning from the War, when my mother and, therefore, I didn’t know, Byrne began the practice of attending wakes of people he knew who had died.  By which I mean attending all the wakes of all the people he knew who had died. This included not only all the police officers in the City of Chicago, but all of their family members and close relatives, all his neighbors and their families, all the members of his parish church, all the priests and nuns with whom he had acquaintance and all of their family members and close relatives, his children’s teachers and their spouses and families, and so on.

This would not have been easy to do.  Paul Byrne was a sociable man, and, befitting his Irish heritage and large extended family and by virtue of his many years with the Police Department, enhanced by his position at the Credit Union, he knew a great many people.  Keeping track of all the wakes and their locations would have been a formidable task in itself.  As a policeman, he would have known the Chicago streets intimately, but he must have learned all the neighborhood and mortuary parking lots, curb parking locations and time limits, as well.  He would have had to have been aware of the visitation hours for each wake, and calculate the exact best route from one funeral home to the next  to make all the wakes during the times listed in the obituary notices.

My mother assumed there was a connection between Paul Byrne’s war experiences and his practice of attending wakes, but she never asked him and he didn’t tell her or anyone whether that was the case or not.  One could surmise that he saw advantage in it, that he was speculating in the commodity of good will.  My mother’s feeling was that wasn’t so.  Self-interest would, over time, have focused on strategic visitations, the loved ones of police officials who voted on his retention as Director, for example, while skipping visitations that interfered with his own and his family’s plans and pursuits.  Paul Byrne went to all the wakes of which he was aware, three, four, five wakes a night, night after night, week, month, year after year.

Maybe the motivation was religious, to gain grace and commute the purgatorial suffering due for past transgressions.  Such notions were still airborne in the Catholic atmosphere of 1950s Chicago.  Maybe the explanation was psychological, a foible, an eccentricity, morbid compulsion, a convoluted manifestation of the death wish, a psyche shattered by war---behavior, regardless of origin or purpose, which an onlooker might view with bemusement, incomprehension, discomfort, condescension, or countless other assessments.  My response tended toward incomprehension until my grandfather died at the age of eighty seven, when I myself was well past early adulthood.

Given my grandfather’s age, it was not surprising that those who attended his wake and funeral were exclusively family members who lived in and around Chicago.  My grandfather had retired more than twenty years earlier, had long ago moved away from the neighborhoods of his active working and family-raising life, and all his material needs, since my grandmother died, had come to be taken care of by my mother and father, with whom he lived.  Due to failing health, he no longer attended church, so that even the parish priests were not personal acquaintances. His doctor was his closest friend, and the doctor had said his good byes at the hospital where he died.

Midway through the wake, Paul Byrne appeared.  My mother thanked him for coming, they engaged in a fairly long conversation.  She re-introduced him to me, I shook his hand, he made a few brief comments about my grandfather’s fidelity to his family, his positive outlook on life and sense of humor.  I was impressed and grateful.  Paul Byrne may have met my grandfather a few times, certainly not for many years, but he was accurate in what he said. 

That was all.  I didn’t reflect on any of this for additional years, after my own parents had died eight years apart, one close to my grandfather’s age at death, the other exceeding it by several years.  The circumstances of their memorial services were similar to his, attended almost exclusively by family, plus a few colleagues from my work, some of whom came to the church for a short visitation before the funeral mass, since there was not a separate wake.  It was only after these events that the meaning of Paul Byrne’s mission became clear: his presence stood for all those who were not there.  In the thousands of wakes he attended, there would have been many occasions where the funeral parlor was overflowing.  In this case, Byrne’s function would have been to complete the row, inscribe another name in the visitation book, add to the volume of voices or lengthen the condolence line.  In other cases, however, he must have stood alone, the family’s eyes following his approach to the casket, drawn to the dignity of his demeanor, the respect evident in his facial expression, the movement of prayer on his lips. 

Thank you for coming, Paul. His solicitations and recollections were gestures that soothed and reassured, turned the attention of survivors to the vibrancy and relevance of the deceased’s past, reminding them the empty room was not the measure of their loved one’s life.  It wasn’t that the survivors would be embarrassed by the absence of mourners, rather, that their attentions had been focused on the final stages and the decisions associated with them, the necessary arrangements and attending to affairs.  Byrne celebrated the living years.

On a random night several years after her death, I dreamed a dream of my mother’s wake.  There was a blizzard.  The funeral director was occupying himself somewhere outside the empty room where my mother lay, a rose placed between her thumb and interlocked fingers, the tasteful dark blue dress she had picked out for the occasion quietly elegant in the soft, overhead light.  No one was present when Paul Byrne arrived, including family.  At different moments in the dream, I was Byrne, the funeral director, or myself.  As Byrne, I looked about the room, which had two or three short rows of chairs, and an equally small number of flower stands.  “Loving grandmother,” one said.  I waited, but no one appeared.  After several moments, I made my way to the casket and said my prayers, my thoughts drifting to the Credit Union days.  Eventually, I turned back toward a mounted display of pictures near the entrance.  As I began to look, the director came up behind me.  “Did you have a long drive?” I asked.  “Not so bad, I took my time,” I answered.  “The family was here earlier, they’re stranded right now, but the son called and said he would try to be back as soon as possible,” I continued.  “The son’s name is….” I tried to remember.  I told him.  I began to look at the pictures more closely.  Now I was myself, I noticed how carefully Byrne was looking at the pictures, particularly the ones of my mother as a young woman.  I wanted to tell him who the people with her at the beach were, who her friends were at the dance, who was her maid of honor, but I didn’t know, I had never asked.  I realized that, like all children, my perspective on my mother’s life centered on her life with us, not her life before. I looked behind the pictures for help. There were a few dates, but no names or places.  I was drawn to a picture of the women in my office seated around a table at some restaurant. They were well dressed, each had on a stylish hat with plumes. The girls used to have dinner together before the annual meeting, this must have been the occasion.  I walked to the front door of the funeral home, the snow  I had cleared off the steps 30 minutes before was already another inch or two deep.  “It’s getting worse,” I told the visitor.  “Has the son called you?” I asked.  “Yes, he asked if anyone was here.  I told him one person, you, but couldn’t tell him your name.”  “Paul Byrne.  Tell him I can stay until he comes.  Or, I can talk to him on the phone, that way he won’t have to go out again.”  “Thank you,” I said, “Paul Byrne,” I repeated, “I was his mother’s supervisor where she worked.”  I left and made the call.  I told the funeral director I would very much like to speak with Mr. Byrne, but I was concerned about his safety, he should leave before the roads become impassable whether I made it to the mortuary or not.

The funeral director put us in contact with each other.  “Thank you so much for coming,” I said.
“I wouldn’t miss it.  There was no one like your mother,” I replied. “She truly enjoyed her years at the Credit Union,” I said. “I understand your father died several years ago.” “Yes, he was 86,” I answered.  “I died a few years ago myself, I was 91.”  “I’m sorry to hear that.  My mother was 91, also.”  “I would be 95 now, of course.”  “Your funeral must have been quite the occasion.  Did they rent out the United Center for your wake?”  I smiled.  “No, most people I knew were already gone.  That’s what happens to us old folks.”  I was tempted to ask why he attended all the wakes, but didn’t want to offend him.  He had his reasons.  I thanked him again for coming, “It was extraordinarily kind.”  “I wouldn’t miss it, your mother was a wonderful woman,” I answered.  I escorted the old man down the stairs to a waiting car.  “I cleaned these steps fifteen minutes ago,” I said, “I’m glad you have someone to drive you.”  “My great granddaughter.  She’ll drive anywhere,” I informed him.  When the funeral director got back to the parlor, I told him he should close up.  “No one else is coming from the family,” I told him, “I can’t imagine anyone else coming out in this weather.”  “I’ll call the priest, he was going to come for a final benediction, but he asked me to call him.”  “We’ll do it at the mass,” I said.

The dream faded after that. I realized I hadn’t asked questions I now, once awake, considered relevant, but that is the nature of dreams.  Byrne’s secret was laid to rest with him. I decided that, in the end, the reason didn’t matter.  It was then the conviction formed that Paul Byrne was an immortal.  It’s no more complicated than the idea that it is within the capacity of each person to do something which deserves never to end, a quality or contribution which might reach as far and fast as light itself. One shouldn’t have to be a god to influence and be remembered by the conscious universe forever.  Why else are we so equipped to contemplate it?

I prefer immortal to hero.  Nothing against heroes, although I admit to never having one.  Hero, to me, implies emotional dependence or allegiance, a hierarchy of virtue, the act of looking up, emulation, awe.  We were taught to respect everyone and defer to no one.  Acknowledge authority yes, but that is for the right functioning of the polis.  You don’t need to worship power, in fact, it is dangerous to do so, and demeans yourself.  You are as good as anyone, not better, certainly not worse.  However, there are some people who are extraordinary.  That’s how you pick out your friends and whom you love, if you are lucky.  There is a circle beyond yours.  Like shooting stars, some people stand out; it is worthwhile considering and appreciating why.  Shooting stars bring inspiration and pleasure, just knowing they are out there and seeing them, if only rarely, if the night sky is clear and you’re in the right place. Immortality is in the heavens and the earth, in society, and, I submit, in us.  If you don’t believe it or recognize it in yourself, get with someone with an artistic, philosophical or historical sensibility, someone looking for meaning or beauty, someone alert to memorable events and those who participated in them.  The point is, most ordinary people wind up doing extraordinary things in their lifetime, in some respect,  if not every day, if only on rare occasions, or once. Like the shooting star.  We pretty much can’t help it.  It has to do with our brains, our life spans, our social natures, our opposing thumbs and the fact that we walk upright, the individuality of our personalities, the times we live in, and other things, I’m certain, as well.  I would go so far to say that you are probably an immortal yourself, much like Paul Byrne.  In what way?  I would need to know more about you.

This reflection cannot end without a return to the subject of my mother and her death.  It may seem lugubrious, but she stood for something of value, which this forum gives me the opportunity to illustrate. Here is the relevant portion of her obituary:

     “Born Sept. 25, 1915, in Chicago, she was the youngest of three children born to Charles and Agnes Dubach.  She grew up in Chicago, except for a few years in Hartford, Conn. She attended Aquinas High School. She later worked for All-State Insurance Co. and for 28 years at the Chicago Patrolman’s Credit Union, where she was a valued bookkeeper, teller and unofficial office manager.

     In 1940, she married Donald Henderson.  It was a union spanning 59 years and became an
inspiration to friends and family for the couple’s mutual devotion and love.  They had two children, Brian (Sarah) of Buffalo, N.Y., and Don Jr. (Judy) of DeKalb; six beloved grandchildren, Liz, Jeff, Sam, Carrie, Charlie and Anna; and four equally adored great-grandchildren, Jacie, Owen, Elijah and Adelaide. 

     Jane was known to everyone who met her as an honest, caring and optimistic person, someone who was understanding and not judgmental; she was practical and generous.  She had a keen intelligence but preferred action over contemplation. She was outgoing but unassuming, curious but unobtrusive, always encouraging. She was a lifelong caretaker and was never more fulfilled than when maintaining a busy, happy household. She was master of numerous domestic arts, including cooking, baking, sewing, knitting, canning and gardening, all of which were in full flower during 15 years of idyllic retirement with Don Sr. in Belgium, Wis. They moved to DeKalb in 1995 to be closer to family.

     Her tastes were simple but with a sure sense of style.  She enjoyed reading, bridge, bird-watching and movies, particularly dramas and musicals like “Pride and Prejudice,” “Random Harvest,” “State Fair” and “The Music Man.”  She was a lady, a confidante, ever the peacemaker. She remained young at heart despite the ravages of time. Her loss is compensated by her example, her goodness contributing to those qualities that make our species, at its best, noble and dear.  She was a practicing Catholic.

     She was preceded in death by her parents; her husband; and two siblings, Robert Dubach and Dorothy Heinrich.”

Author Interview:

Q: How long have you been writing?

A: Ever since I was praised for something I wrote in grammar school.   Early on, praise was probably my main motivation for writing.  Gradually, I came to realize that writers have the ability to influence society for good or ill.  Being recognized for expressing ideas that are helpful to individuals and beneficial to society would be the ideal scenario for me.  I also think that writing---putting words together in a distinct fashion---is rewarding in itself.  I thrill for children who realize for the first time they have the ability to do this and grieve for people who lose that capacity, or have never had the chance to try it.

Q: How/where do you get your inspiration?

A: I’m not a professional or particularly dedicated writer, so an idea for a story just has to occur to me to get me started.  I’m much more apt to get such an idea soon after I wake up or when I’m driving in a car or, when I ran, while running. There’s something about transitions, changing gears, that must free the brain to go in directions that are unfamiliar and unguided. While I acknowledge that mind-altering substances can enhance creativity, by and large, I think their effect is exaggerated.  I suspect people who drink or drop something to feel creative are creative individuals anyway, and could find activities other than drugs that would allow their creativity to come forward.

My experiences as a lawyer have not been the principal source of my stories, although it has in a few instances.  An attorney friend of mine read a short story I wrote in which the main character has interactions with a lawyer.  My friend said he liked the story except for the lawyer part. He told me he hates stories involving lawyers.  I tend to agree.  Stories where authors flaunt their knowledge of the law are usually tedious.  Even worse are memoirs by famous lawyers who brag about their biggest and most noteworthy cases.  The inevitable impression created is that the legal profession is about lawyers; it isn’t, it’s about clients, litigants, and the effort to resolve disputes under the guidance and strictures of the law.

Q: Tell me about your inspiration for your new story The Immortal Paul Byrne.

A: Everything about the story, except for the dream, is as truthful as I could remember it. It always stuck in my mind for some reason. A few years ago, I happened to ask myself why, and that led me to seeing if I could write about it, and that led to the idea that immortality is not a quality that should belong exclusively to the gods.

Q: How long do you usually work on a story before you are happy with it?

A: It depends.  I’d like to say I sometimes can write a whole story in a single sitting, but that has never happened.  Leaving and returning to a story hours later or the next day or longer often helps me overcome or get around problems that stopped me from proceeding in the first place.   Some stories are in a state of animated suspension.  Recently, I plugged one of these onto a story that was moving along close to an undetermined ending.  That was probably a bad move, but every time I think about it I come up with reasons for sticking with what I did.  I like editing things I’ve written, meaning finding a better word here or there, cutting out unnecessary phrases, maybe even changing the order of a couple of sentences.  Redoing a story entirely, re-envisioning it, strikes me as an impossibly difficult task, so I’ve never tried.  

Q: What is the biggest challenge you have as a writer?

A: I’m bad at research, lazy being the more technical term.  Also, in writing in a focused way for the first time in my life at my age, I’ve had to accept the reality that much of my frame of reference is 30, 40, or 50 years out of date.  Hopefully, some of my writing can escape this time warp, but I’m sure a lot of it speaks to generations passed.  There is a kind of freedom in this, however, and, in any event, there’s nothing I can do about it.

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