The Path- Winter 2019: Dan's Strawberry Cake

The Path 102 Steven G. Farrell Dan’s Strawberry Cake Short Story It was a gloomy Saturday morning in very early November, 2006 when I received an expected (but dreaded) telephone call about the passing away of my brother Dan. My brother Jim was the bearer of bad news. The family all expected the notification of Dan’s death to come any day, but it was still a gut punch. Another dropped bomb was that I would be delivering the eulogy at the Mass. The funeral would be on the upcoming Friday, giving me a few days to arrange to get back to the Wisconsin. I think I was still in a mild state of shock when I booked my flight, car and hotel online. My thoughts kept on returning to my older brother while my insecurities began to fret over the eulogy. How does one sum-up in a few words about a person you spent fifty-two years with, through good and bad? How could I talk about my dead brother in front of my family and friends? I am a professor of public speaking, so I should be an expert in composing a speech for any occasion in a flash. However, that is far from the truth as I am on the shy side outside of the lecture hall. My mind was still pondering for the correct words matched by the right body language on the flight from Greenville, South Carolina to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where I had a connecting flight to Milwaukee. I was almost relieved to have to put my mental focus into locating my car rental and finding I-94 south bound. I was approaching the exit to Kenosha when my thoughts returned to my eulogy for Dan. The day was sunny and pleasant although the trees were all barren of leaves. I Short Stories 103 had been lonely for my native state since I had left for South Carolina one year earlier. Southeastern Wisconsin’s familiarity made me feel like I was home again. Before I checked into my hotel by the harbor, I found one of my favorite pizza parlors on 39th avenue, and treated myself to a cheese, sausage and mushroom creation that you just never could find in the upstate. I also celebrated my return to Kenosha with a few bottles of Miller Lite. I made a flying visit to the home of my older brother Frank before driving downtown to get my key and to store my luggage. The day was young so I decided to enjoy the Indian summer day and to renew my acquaintance with my hometown. It was a grand way to put off thinking about that cursed eulogy. First, I cruised on the drive through Simmons Beach. Dan and I, our family and half the children on 18th avenue used to walk down there for a swim in the early sixties. The water of Lake Michigan was always frigid, helping to chase away the summer heat. The long walk home was long and thirsty. On the Fourth of July, we brought along blankets and sandwiches so we could hunker down for the fireworks at nightfall. I headed towards the downtown business district that had reconfigured itself since our childhood; now full of upscale dining places, barrooms that served micro beers and a revamped opera house. I saw the long-abandoned Kenosha Theater. Dan and I, along with Rod and his sister Roseann went there many times before it closed in 1962. The last movies I remember watching there were Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula; two Hammer Productions from England. The stakes driven through vampire hearts that caused paint-red Technicolor blood to erupt all over the big screen was to haunt me for years. Of course, Dan never let me forget about how calm he had remained while I had been transfixed with fear by the throat diving of the demonic Count. Not far off downtown was the redbrick Metra station, housing the last deport that traced southward to the Chicago station. The Farrell family used to take the train once a year to see the Cubs play baseball at Wrigley Field on Clark Street. One time a mean drunk tried to start a fight with us, and we were relieved when the conductor put him off at the next stop. We The Path 104 always jumped off at Evanston to walk to the elevated station over on Davis Street. We had to change L’s again at Howard Street. For us small town folks the elevated trains were tricky and as scary as a roller coaster ride at Riverview. Because of the train’s arrival, we always showed up at the ballpark hours before the game started. In those days, true baseball fans enjoyed batting practice and sucking up the atmosphere of a stadium that dated back to World War 1. We watched Willie Mays play centerfield for the San Francisco Giants, but the next year, 1968, we missed seeing Sandy Koufax with the Los Angeles Dodgers by two seasons. One year, 1969, Al Weiss, a weak-hitting infielder, transformed into Babe Ruth and belted a home run into the leftfield bleachers for the Amazing Mets of New York, the World Champions. We saw Jim Bunning pitch once. We had our own heroes: Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Randy Hundley, Jim Hickman, Fergie Jenkins and Glen Becker. I think several of them are dead now as I compose this piece. St. Thomas School and Church, now a charter institution of some sort, brought back memories of long walks on winter mornings, angry Dominican nuns, and dim recollections of children we knew years ago. It was a rite of passage for all ten of us Farrell children to make it through eight prison-like years inside of that place. Dan lucked out and transferred to the Public Schools system, although he still had to go to Sunday religious studies in order to qualify for his First Communion, as well as his Confirmation. Catholic families were strict in those days. With no destination in mind and the sun still bright, I got back on 22nd avenue and drove northward until I crossed over onto 52nd Street and headed towards the lake. A few more turns and I was among the north side taverns that I used in to drink in with my brother Dam, our younger brother Robert and our old group of drinking pals; high school buddies, work friends from the Motors and my Bohemian crowd from the university. We were a grab bag mix of loud talking drinkers, pool shooters and poker playing dudes. Thinking of those days always gave me a lingering hangover. Where were they all these twenty-five golden years later? Some were married, others relocated to other cities. Sadly, some of us were no longer on speaking terms or some of gang were dead. I could almost hear the jukebox blaring Short Stories 105 Meatloaf, Boston and 10CC. I vaguely remembered a fistfight in Union Park and as my lips began to sting, I realized I was one of the galoots throwing punches. Dan was blessed with an inner alarm clock that mysterious went off whenever trouble was brewing, warning him that it was time to be off before things turned rowdy. There was a bit of a countryside view before I reached the University of Wisconsin-Parkside on the northernmost edge of the city. My Grandma McNamara grew-up on a farm nearby back in the 19th century. I never tilled the land in my life, but I did attend the university for four years, graduating in 1979. I remember taking a class with Dan and two of our motley crew in the spring of 1977. Once we all dressed in derbies and IRA trench coats for no apparent reason except that we were under the influence and crazy. I think Dan dropped out after earning twelve credits while maintaining a 2.00 GPA. I circled backwards to the abandoned train station on 29th Avenue where a mob hit had gone down in about 1963. Close by was an abandoned stretch of land with long unused railroad tracks where a teenage girl was murdered and dumped in a tireless hearse. That would have been in 1968, I think. The murder is still unsolved to this day, and the location is still sad, haunted and deserted. Even a city the size of Kenosha has it sordid past and murderous history. I said a prayer for their souls, remembering that both victims had belonged to our parish of St. Thomas. I turned on 18th Avenue, between the long-closed Brass factory and Lincoln Middle School, a place where I had spent most of my childhood pounding the pavements, dreaming and chasing baseballs. I had even worked briefly in the collapsing plant shortly after high school. Dan had worked there, too, grinding brass and wearing steel-toed shows. Good pay for the times, but monotonous to the point of being soul crushing. Factory workers in those days used to flock to the 63rd street taverns for their lunch break and after at the end of their shifts. A shrill whistle blew to signal the end and start of new shifts. I slowed down as I passed our old house where we had resided from 1959 to 1977. I had x-ray vision that penetrated through the barriers of the door, windows and walls into the The Path 106 Farrell’s long-time and long-lost household. My vision could only see what had been there in the past and not was now there in the 21st century. The front room upstairs was where Dan, Robert and I shared a bedroom before Dan moved into Jim’s room. We would talk late into the night, discussing the Zodiac Killer, The St. Valentine’s Massacre and the possibilities of a real live Godzilla emerging from Lake Michigan to crush us all under his feet or melting the neighborhood down with his radiation breath. We all took off for greener hills when the crime rate began to climb in the burnout cinders of our childhood. Lincoln Park, sixty acres of green grass, trees and a lagoon, blanketed with the red leaves of autumn. The tennis courts, baseball diamonds and playground were empty with the anticipation of the approaching winter. In the old days, children skated on the ice, went sledding on the hills and had lanterns parades during the summer. I parked by the flower garden and searched for a tree where Dan, Robert, our sister Barb and I craved out names in the bark with an old penknife. I found nothing but more memories. A few blocks to the south was Sunnyside School where we went to a Halloween Party and were frighten by a teacher dressed up like the monster from the Frankenstein feature films. I then found the makeshift baseball diamond we made use of when all of the regulation ones were in use by the Little Leagues or Pony Leagues. We were the last of the sand lot sluggers who had their day and were gasping for air among the stuck-up kids in uniforms and who had real-live umpires. We all had batting averages of around .500. Shuffling through the dead leaves, I emerged on 67th street and 20th avenue. A tiny little building on the corner caught my eye. I crossed the street and looked down through the window into the basement filled with large boxes and crates. The building was now an extra storage space for a new retail furniture store after serving many years as a horse of worship. Through the years, the edifice had passed on like a baton from congregation to congregation. My memories had me mesmerized, sucking me up into a twisting time tunnel that swirled me back to 1959 when I was five and Dan was eight. It was a blazing hot Sunday morning. We had attended Short Stories 107 Mass with our parents and then departed to play in the park. However, Dan was full of mischief and wanted to hang out at the tiny Protestant house of worship where the colored folk gathered on the Sabbath to praise the Lord in their own fashion. AfricanAmerican or black are the correct terms to use nowadays. Many of us white children were forbidden to utter the dreaded “N” word even back in those days because of the hateful connotations it contained. We spied upon the strangers and their strange they would sing, sway and shout to their off-key organ in ways that were completely different to the ceremony we were accustomed to in the Roman Catholic Church. Our mother had warned us about not pestering those people as they honored the Lord in their own way. Religion was a private affair in the Fifties. The way other folks worshipped was not a source of amusement. We could never understand the ways of others, so we let them be. However, Dan would not always obey our parents….and I usually played follow-theleader with my older brother. I dreaded his taunts more than the wooden paddle of my mother. Dan pointed to the tables in the back of the hall behind the foldout chairs full of worshippers. Each table was laden with cakes, pies, donuts, brownies and all sorts of delicious objects covered with bright and sugary frosting. There were pitchers of milk (chocolate and white), orange juice and grape drink. Silver coffee pots, all shining and bright, reflected the sunlight. The musical talent of these good people was something to hear, but the brunch in the back was a bountiful pleasure to look at and was effective enough to make us converts. Our daydreams stopped with the sudden appearance of an elderly heavyset Church Lady dressed in her Sunday best. She beckoned for us the follow. Dan did as he as instructed because adults were minded. I bolted home to rat him out to my mother. Ma turned over the cooking duties to my sisters Pat and Barb as she bolted out the door clenching my hand. She was worried that Dan had started a race war in Kenosha, Wisconsin on hot August Sunday morning in 1959. We reached the church in about five minutes flat. We cautiously peeked downward into the church as the dignified reverend lead his flock into the last hymn of the The Path 108 meeting and there was Dan waving his arms and singing up a storm to keep in time with everybody else. A freckled face Irish boy paying homage to the Almighty just as though he had been doing it in this fashion his entire life. Ma or I had never seen that lad show so much fervor or devotion as he was displaying with these kindly strangers. He was surrounded by elderly, heavyset black women who seemed to be amused by the little Celtic Mick in their midst. Saint Patrick and Martin Luther finally shook hands that day. Amen. After the final note from the out-of-key organ died off, Ma and I hurried down the steps to claim our wayward Danny boy. We met with nods and smiles. We both apologized profusely for Dan’s intrusion but our protests met with good cheer. Dan became defiant when Ma grabbed his hand and tried to pull him away. “I want a piece of strawberry cake!” proclaimed Dan Farrell, figuring he sang for the Lord so now he could honor the Lord by eating a piece of strawberry. A frosted pink front covered the cake from top to bottom. The cake, decorated with plump and juicy strawberries, was a masterpiece of baking. Even the crumbs were pink and drenched in the aroma of freshly picked strawberries. In a flash, a massive morsel of the prize cake found its’ into my hand. Somebody had mentioned giving some to the little fellow and soon I had a gigantic piece for myself. The cake was sure to spoil our appetite for our large family Sunday repast, but race relations were more important. Even our mother accepted a helping of the mountainous strawberry cake. The white-haired and elderly minister came over to wish us a good day and Dan and I said, “thank you, Father.” The old man smiled and nodded at my mother. Then we walked on home as Ma warned us not to annoy those good folks in the future. Religion was a private matter between people and God. “That strawberry cake was sure good,” intoned Dan as Ma and I agreed. That night when were in our bed, Dan called over to me, “when I grow-up I’m going to join that church. I could feel God’s spirit in there!” There was no response from me. Short Stories 109 Now it was forty-seven years later and Dan was dead, those wonderful people were long gone and the church was now an extra storage space for a furniture company. I wondered if God’s spirit still dwelled down there below the street level. The sun was slipping away to the west and the dusk was turning chilly. I decided to have another pizza before I turned in for the day. Dan’s funeral took place at a Catholic Church on the north side of town, many blocks away from St. Thomas, 18th Avenue, Lincoln Park and our old stomping grounds from prehistorical times. My brother Jack had hired a bagpiper to play a lonely dirge as the mourners arrived to wish Dan farewell. It was mostly relatives rarely seen, survivors from the old neighborhood, a smattering of former co-workers from the automobile factory, and a gallant or two left over from our drinking days. It was a desolate feeling for me alleviated only by the presence of my surviving four brothers and three sisters. Dad had long since departed and our sister Collen had passed away only three or four years before. Ma was still alive if not kicking, confined as she was to a wheelchair. I accounted myself well with my eulogy that revolved around the theme of memories I shared with my brother Daniel Martin Farrell. I drew the most chuckles and positive feedback when I recounted the story of Dan Strawberry Cake. My mother laughed the loudest and the longest because she remembered the incident and nobody ever forgot the recollections that made-up the collective past of their own clan. It was then off to the cemetery on Sheridan Road for the final rituals of our ancient faith and the final ride for Dan. The quiet place had a history of its’ own that dated back to the Civil War and even further to a time when Wisconsin was still a territory and Kenosha was called Pike’s Creek. It was the resting place of our ancestors. The Farrell, McNamara, Kressin and Block families had left behind Ireland, Germany, Austria and Luxembourg for the rich farm soil of the Kettle Moraine. The priest made the final sign of the cross and the Irish singer from Chicago hired by my sister, Joan, began to sing a woeful version The Path 110 of Danny Boy. We left Dan’s gravesite as the bagpipes kicked in with a final lament. I think my brother Dan would have preferred a huge slice of strawberry cake served to him by those sweet folks from all of those years ago. I trusted that Dan strawberry cake was waiting for him when he arrived at his final destination fifty-five years after his journey had begun at St. Catherine’s Hospital in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I hope we meet again in the cloudy future. Love from your brother, Steve.

Excerpt from Issue #18 Layout (1).pdf.

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