Articles By: Matt Hennessey

They called him Hambone.

His real name was James, but few called him that. The priests at Assumption Church did, as did the teachers at the Maple Avenue School. At home he was Jimmy. Everywhere else he was Hambone.

As a child I resented my dad’s nickname. I thought it made him seem small, like he was a joke, like they were all having a laugh at his expense. Over time, I came to realize that it was a good nickname. It was a great nickname, in fact, capturing something about Jim Hennessey’s personality that got to the heart of who he really was.

He was a ham. He loved to be the center of attention, whether it was cracking wise in the back of a classroom or holding court in the little bar business he and my mother built over 30 years. His voice could boom like an opera singer’s when he wanted it to. He could quiet a crowd. He could hold a room.

The bar business is tricky. To succeed you need to have people skills. Jim did well because he cared about the drinkers and seekers who gathered in his place. Many considered it a second home. Some treated it as their primary residence.

But it was Hambone’s joint and he ran it his way. If he wanted to give an elderly patron a permanent discount, he did it. The break wasn’t transferable. If, in your generosity, you wanted to buy an old timer a drink, you paid full price for it.

And Hennessey’s wasn’t a place where welcomes were overstayed. When dad felt you’d had enough, he sent you on your way, often calling the cab himself.

“Bye now,” he’d say while washing your glass and mopping up your spot at the bar. “Safe home.”

Some drinkers consider it an injustice when they’ve been cut off. They argue. You didn’t argue with Hambone. It would’ve been like arguing with the priest about your penance. What good could come of it?

If your drinking was becoming a problem, Hambone was someone who could help. He called alcoholism “the Irish Disease.” He knew the cure because he’d taken it himself. He’d sobered up before he bought the bar.

For all his success, my dad went to work six and often seven days a week. He didn’t do it because he loved cutting lemons and pulling pints. He did it because he loved his family. He’d rather have been a historian or an archaeologist, maybe even a draftsman like his own father. He was an insatiable reader and a skilled sketch artist.

“Matt,” he said. “Sometimes when people are talking to me across the bar my mind is a million miles away.”

When I got behind the bar myself I knew exactly what he meant. It’s a long day’s work when you’re paid to be a captive audience. Only then did I understand what he sacrificed for us.

Hambone wasn’t the only Morristown original with a nickname. His running buddies were all called things like Itsy or Snuffy or Doc or Muzz. He spoke of neighborhood guys like “Fooey” Cullen and “Dingy” Foran. All the brothers in the Kenny family were for some reason called “Darb.” The entire Pelligrino family was known as “Green Bananas.” One fellow in town was nicknamed “Bungalow.”

“You know why they called him that?” my dad asked me once.


“Because there was nothing upstairs.”

Hambone loved a good wake. He was what you might call a regular. When he wasn’t hanging out at Hennessey’s, he was hanging out at Doyle’s, the local funeral home that his cousins owned. He loved wakes because he loved people.

He never missed an evening of remembrance for someone he knew, and there weren’t many people in Morristown he didn’t know.

When someone died, dad usually got the news before everyone else. He had the catbird seat in the upstairs office at Doyle’s. Bartenders and undertakers, he liked to say, rarely hurt for customers. People drink in good times and bad. Death comes for us all.

It came for Hambone on April 17. He was 85. As much as he loved a good wake, he won’t be getting one. You know the reason why. It’s a pity. He would’ve had no problem holding the downstairs room at Doyle’s. I wonder if it would’ve held him.

Jim Hennessey was a local legend, a ham for all seasons, a man you don’t meet every day. I was blessed to call him my father.

Bye now, dad. Safe home.

It was only an onion. Half an onion, actually. I was going to throw it away. It had been on the cutting board for a few hours. In the time of pandemic quarantine, Daddy’s work on the computer gives way to dinner time, which gives way to bath time, which gives way to toothbrushing time, which gives way to bedtime and its stories about Billy Hennessey the Famous Tiger Hunter.

When the tigers have all been hunted, lights out gives way to a cold beer and a seat next to my beautiful wife on the couch. Cleaning up the kitchen comes last. By the time I got around to it on this particular night, the half onion was looking tired. Onions do poorly in the open air.

If I thought about it I’d have to say we throw away far too much good food: bruised bananas, elderly potatoes, cereal that just didn’t get eaten in time. It’s shameful, but only when you think about it. Most of the time you don’t. The great world spins, the fridge fills up and you say, “Soon it will be summer and we can have blueberries for breakfast and watermelon at lunch and won’t that be the snaps.”

So I deemed the half onion on the cutting board not worth saving. There’s usually a bag full of them on the bottom shelf in the kitchen and sometimes when you reach for one it has a green shoot growing from the top. I’m not sure if those are safe to eat or not.

A yellow onion costs what—30 cents at the store? Why settle for one that isn’t perfect?

Then I had a terrible thought. This coronavirus thing has come on so strong, so quickly. Six weeks from now will I wish I hadn’t wasted that onion? A vision came suddenly, as visions often do, of a broken society, a paralyzed economy, of complete chaos, the kind of place where you can’t get a roll of toilet paper, much less an onion.

I’m sure many have had similar visions in recent weeks. But such is my faith in this country’s resilience that I picked up the half onion and launched it toward the wastebasket with a flick of the wrist, like John Starks. Swish.

I wasn’t going to write about the onion. I was going to write about the sabbath, the Lord’s Day, the day of rest. I was planning a meditation on family and leisure in a culture of distraction. I was going to tie the enforced isolation of our pandemic spring to an assignment Clara was given at her new high school, Cardinal Kung Academy in Stamford: Arrange your weekend in such a way that Sunday can truly be called the sabbath day. Now that’s the kind of assignment you don’t get in a public school.

“Whatever you do, try to keep it light,” my wife told me as I went upstairs to write. “People don’t want to read things that are sad and depressing right now. They want to laugh.”

“Too late,” I said. The onion thing had already settled in my brain. Onions have so many layers.

In Italy they are throwing away people. The Italian health system is so strapped that doctors are doing the unthinkable, rationing care and leaving those deemed unlikely to recover—the old, the weak, the already sick—to their fate. Of course, their fate is death.

A trio of health experts wrote recently in the New York Times that we should expect such agonies will be necessary here.

I’m troubled by all this, as perhaps you can tell. My father is 85. He has all the health concerns normally associated with the later stages of this mingled yarn called life. My mother-in-law is 79. Her hearing isn’t so good. My Magdalena has Down syndrome. Society already doesn’t feel like it needs an excuse to throw lives like hers away.

What will become of us in this time of trial, separated as we are from our places of worship, watching Sunday mass on the computer like teenage gamers, kept away from our sacraments and at a social distance from our priests? What will become of our neighbors and friends, our communities, our country? I suppose it’s in God’s hands, as all things must be.

Keep it light, she said. Okay. Soon it’ll be summer. The bans will have lifted and the bars will be full. The shows will all have gone on. There’ll be good news on the radio, sun in the outfielders’ eyes, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. We’ll have a cook-out in the backyard. All our friends will be there, eating hamburgers, hot dogs, and watermelon slices. I’ll have a cold beer in the shade.

And won’t that be the snaps.

At 50, you have the face you deserve. I think I read that somewhere. Probably in a magazine. Remember those?

I’m not 50 yet, but not far off. If what the magazine said is true, I deserve a boiled ham. The kind with a pineapple ring stapled onto it with cloves.

The bathroom mirror at my mother-in-law’s house tells no lies. It’s good for me to check in with it three or four times a year. We all need someone (or something) that will show us the truth about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

Up in New Hampshire, where my mother-in-law lives with her mirror, things are different. The way the trees move in the wind would make the trees at home blush. It’s wilder. Like nobody’s watching. Like the garden before the fall.

I’m glad nobody’s watching as I examine my face in Chi Chi’s mirror. Chi Chi is my mother-in-law. We call her that. You don’t have to. Though I find that most people can’t resist. It’s a great nickname.

My own father we call grandpa, though he has a great nickname too: Hambone. Can you believe that? Looking at myself in Chi Chi’s mirror I can believe it all too well.

The face looking back isn’t all ham, but neither is it all bone. My 20s are there. Eyes still green, hairline strong as ever, teeth still straight. That stuff was useful once. Not sure what good it does me now.

My 30s are plainly visible. There’s a strong vertical crease at the point where my eyebrows meet. That’s the mark of the two degrees I earned while working nights and playing stay-at-home dad. My mother died when I was in my 30s. She’s there in my mouth, the way it slopes down at the corners.

The shadow of a pinprick on my earlobe marks the teenage earring debacle. I gotta smile thinking of the look she gave me after that one.

“There’s no sense in being Irish if you ain’t thick,” she loved to say. Getting the ear pierced, letting it get infected, and removing the thing after two weeks was pretty thick. But every time I see that scar I think of her. Time collapses and I can hear her laughing. So the debacle was worth it. Many are.

The 40s have been the war years. So many kids. So many fevers. So much tuition to pay. Sports. Music lessons. Car issues. Tax issues. House issues. No health issues, thanks be to God.

My bulging toad neck testifies to the barrels of beer applied to therapeutic purposes. The splotches on my cheeks give away my new taste for scotch whiskey. This mirror tells the down-and-dirty truth: You look like a rummy, bub.

Usually when we go to Chi Chi’s I announce my intention to stop shaving: “I want you all to get ready. Daddy is going to look rougher, more rugged than usual. Like Justin Trudeau or Ted Cruz. But you don’t need to be afraid. I am still your husband. I am still your dad.”

Goodness, I oughta just skip it. Such stubble as I’m able to muster is an insult to the other parts of my face. It comes in patchy and soft. Mostly white. After a few days I look like a fuzzy molding ham. The shavedown is a relief.

“Hey kids, daddy’s back!”

“Yay! Where’d you go?”

“Nowhere. Just shaved. Do I look different?”

“Uhh . . . different than what?”

“Never mind. As you were.”

My in-laws moved up to New Hampshire almost 20 years ago. The patch they staked out was pristine, deep in the woods, isolated. We loved going there to get away from all the madness at home, in what we thought of as civilization.

Lately when we go, it feels like civilization is coming with us. Some of those swaying trees have been cleared out. There are houses going up on the street. Now, when the wind blows right, you can faintly hear the traffic on the nearby interstate. In another 20 years, I’m guessing Chi Chi’s patch will seem a little less innocent, a little less wild.

Just like my face.

We had a nice little party. Invited some friends. Among our guests were the Freshies and the Frazzles.
The Freshies are a couple who are older than my wife and I by about a decade. The Frazzles are younger than us by about the same amount. We are all at different stages of the game. My wife and I enjoyed the glimpse that hanging with them gave us of days gone by—and days to come.
The Frazzles, as their fake name is meant to suggest, are still in the early stages of what social scientists call “family formation.” They have two children, ages four and two, and expect to have more. They are exhausted all the time. Nothing adds up and everything seems harder than it needs to be.
“Thank you so much for inviting us,” a sincere Mrs. Frazzle told me while bending over to reattach her two-year-old’s velcro sandal strap. “What a treat it is finally to be, you know, talking with adults.”
She laughed, but I knew she really meant it. As I topped up her red wine I remembered just how desperate it was in the early days. The daily routine of bottles, naps, snacks, strollers, diapers, bedtime stories and midnight pharmacy trips felt like it would never end. And then miraculously it did.
Our youngest is now in big-boy pants and (mostly) sleeping through the night. Our oldest squeezes in volunteer opportunities between texting her school friends and studying her Latin and biology. It feels like we’ve closed the book on that first chapter of family life—the one that leaves you feeling constantly frazzled.
Don’t get me wrong: The current chapter has its challenges. But they’re different. And we’re better-rested.
The Freshies, as their fake name implies, are extremely well-rested. Their skin glows and their clothes are without stain. They appear to get regular haircuts. Mr. Freshie took delight in circling the outside of our house, remarking on its construction.
“I like the shingle work on your roof,” he said, sipping a can of flavored sparkling water and shielding his eyes from the sun with his free hand. “Oh wow, you got three layers on there. That’s unusual. A lotta towns don’t allow that.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about but I envied his interest. Shingles and roofs must be the kinds of things that really grab your attention when you no longer have to do two hours’ worth of dish washing every night after dinner.
Two of the Freshies’ three children have flown the coop. Only their extremely mellow 16 year-old still lives at home. They have nearly run their race. They have kept the faith.
“Do you miss your older sisters now that you’re alone with your parents?” I asked young Ms. Freshie, the sole nesting daughter.
“Uh, no,” she said. “Not really.”
“You aren’t lonely?”
I turned to Mrs. Freshie, who was munching on a fruit plate.
“What about you?” I asked. “You must really miss having the older kids banging around the house.” She wrinkled her nose and wobbled her head in the signal for “yes and no.”
“Of course I miss them, but let’s just say we’ve adjusted to their absence,” she said. The Freshies rested at noticeable ease, as if all—or most—of their troubles were behind them.
Gosh, I nearly forgot to mention the Fratties—the four young singletons we invited to provide what my wife called “age balance.” The only thing weighing on them was where they would go for dinner. Yet they seemed charmed by us midlife people with our alien concerns. One day, perhaps, the Fratties will grow up, get married, and invite me to their own houses. Perhaps I will comment on their roof shingles.
After the party broke up my wife and I convened for the after-action report.
“What fun,” she said. “The little Frazzle kids are so sweet. I could eat them up.”
“Do you think we’ll ever be able to sit back and enjoy a party as thoroughly as the Freshies did?” I asked.
“Probably,” she said. “Though it’s hard to picture.”
I agreed. Then I got to work. All those dishes weren’t going to wash themselves.

Among the harder things to prepare for as a parent is the raw emotion that pushes up like an oil strike during big family moments. Our Clara’s confirmation got me good.

We earned our stripes with Clara. She is the oldest of our five. My wife and I could teach a masterclass covering all-night fevers, tick removal, car-seat vomit, tween drama, sideline pep talks, technology interventions, pop-star crushes, groundings, un-groundings and the rest.

You’d think 15 years of this dad business would’ve toughened me up. You’d be wrong.

Clara is the pioneer—first to do everything. And at every sacramental rite of passage I’ve had to fight off the ugly cry. At her baptism. At her first Holy Communion. When she made confession.

How could I possibly hope to hold it together at confirmation?

The Hennesseys are on a treadmill. The conveyor belt never stops: work, school, study, banjo, soccer, lunch, dinner, bed, up again, out the door, head count, back home, don’t forget, wash your hands, tie your shoes, go go go go go.

The questions are future-focused. How are we going to get these kids through high school? What about college? When will the mortgage be paid? Will the car make it another year?

So transfixed by what’s ahead. The past gets blurry. Sometimes the present does too. What day is it?

Treadmills break down. Without the conveyor belt moving beneath us, we go at half-speed. For a man of my emotional makeup this is the moment of danger. Call me a mush.

I knew I was in trouble during the procession. The candidates wore white robes, hands clasped like praying angels. The robes were for me what students call a “trigger.” White is the color of baptism. It’s the color of the cloth draped over the coffin.

Birth. Life. Love. Death. Mom. Dad. Eternity. The rush came fast. It gets me every time. Oh, goodness, it gets me good.

It wasn’t my first Holy Spirit rodeo. I knew the pot was boiling over. I took a deep, trembling breath. And another. Our Patrick, age 10, sat next to me, stonefaced, none the wiser, probably his mind was off in the Marvel universe.

For much of the mass I was mostly fine. Bishop Caggiano told us to remember to slow down, to make one good choice at a time. The right message, compellingly delivered. Teenagers, in my experience, want to get to Heaven but live in a world of easy pleasure and cruel temptation.

Well, we all live there.

I stole a look at our Clara while the bishop homilized. She looked so adult it frightened me. I imagined her vulnerable, the way dads do. The wolves will come. She’ll be a target. I’ll won’t be able to keep her safe.

Then, suddenly, she looked young again. So innocent. To be 15 is to feel like a puzzle piece that won’t fit. She handles it well. I saw her in that moment as a walking, talking miracle, the way dads do.

Along with another young lady, our Clara took to the lectern to read the prayer of the faithful. In her long white robe she was beautiful, self-possessed, her voice clear and steady.

That’s my girl, I thought as the treadmill came to a dead stop. That’s my little baby girl.

I should have been ready for what happened next, but of course I wasn’t. The boil was roiling again. Throat closed. Eyes welled. It was coming strong, coming fast. I had to act.

I made a noise as if clearing my throat. Patrick glanced. I pulled a tissue from my jacket pocket and blew. Fooled you, Iron Man.

“What’s the big deal if the boy sees you cry? It’s a happy occasion. It’s 2019. The Great Depression is over. You don’t have to be such a stoic. Dads aren’t like that anymore.”

To which I say, go pound sand. I can do what I like, when I like. I’ve earned my stripes.

Spring is here. The season of new beginnings. Of baseball and baby chicks. Of Cadbury eggs and confirmations.

We are involved in something entirely new—new, that is, to us. Our Paddy (10) and our Sally (6) are trying their hands (and feet) at the ancient game of Gaelic football.

This year at the Hennessey homestead Spring is the season of hand passes and Sperrin Ogs.

Gaelic is best described as soccer mixed with basketball plus a touch of violence and a pinch of volleyball. The goalposts are a mixed marriage of soccer net and football upright. It’s a sport mainly played in Ireland, but wherever Irish migrants settle in large numbers they are apt to form local associations of the county committees that govern the game back home.

Gaelic is quite popular in our new neighborhood of Southeast Yonkers, an honest-to-goodness enclave bordering the northern Bronx neighborhood of Woodlawn. Green, white, and orange tricolors easily outnumber the stars and stripes here, and not just during the month of March.

Mrs. Hennessey is consistently delighted at the preponderance of broguish speech she hears in the pews at St. Barnabas and the aisles of the Acme on McLean Ave.

Paddy and Sally have been learning this new game with the underage teams of the Tyrone Gaelic Football Club of New York—aka, Sperrin Ogs. I know from reading a bit that the Irish word “og” is a suffix meaning little or, in English parlance, junior. The Sperrins themselves are a mountain range in Northern Ireland that have been officially designated an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”

The thing is, the Sperrins are quite low-rise as mountains go. Add the suffix “og” and you have a translation situation leaving the youth squad’s name as something like Pretty Little Mountains Jrs.

That may not be the right handle to put the fear of the Banshee in your opponent’s heart.

Last year, on the Tonight Show, the Irish comedian Chris O’Dowd described Gaelic football for Jimmy Fallon. “It’s played a lot by farmers, people from the countryside, very rural, very rough, brutal but beautiful like a big wave,” he said. “A great sport. You should try it, if you like wrestling or death.”

Things are not so smash-and-grab at the youth level. It’s good exercise with a lot of running and the kids are developing a fair amount of ball-handling skills. I can see how it could be beautiful like a big wave, when played by people who know what they’re doing.

The best thing about the Gaelic experiment from Paddy and Sally’s point of view is that their old man has no idea what’s going on. I wish I could help them. I really do.

Yes, my family tree has roots in the auld sod, but I never played the game. Until recently I’d never seen it played. I’m unfamiliar with the ground rules and don’t know the names of the positions. The points and scoring regime are a mystery. Couldn’t tell you what’s a foul and what’s not. I wouldn’t be able to name a single famous player, or even say if there are any.

I can Google though. A little research shows that Gaelic was first played loooong ago. Irish history records the accidental stabbing of a football player at a match in County Down in 1308. This is the kind of game we’re talking about.

Things went dark for a few centuries due to the meddlesome influence of a certain neighboring imperial power, but the Gaelic football—and other indigenous revelries such as hurling, which is basically baseball where everyone gets a bat—played a significant role in the Irish national revival of the late 19th century.

Soccer, if you didn’t know, is an English game. Playing a purely Irish game was a weighty symbol to those who’d grown tired of the oppressor’s yoke.

In Northern Ireland, which, if you didn’t know, is part of the United Kingdom, Gaelic games took on an explicitly political bent. This is a place where politics and religion are sometimes indistinguishable. Gaelic sports, tied up as they were (and are) with expressions of Irish nationalism, were (and are) mostly played by Catholics.

Long way of saying: A Gaelic football family is a family that eats fish on Fridays. It marks you as papists.

Thank goodness these religious and political undertones don’t enter into Paddy and Sally’s weekend games at Van Cortlandt Park. America is a land where such ancient complications can be forgotten over a generation or two. Yanks like us are lucky we can still try something new, even if it has been around since 1308.

Sperrin Ogs Abu!

We’re having some work done on the roof of the new house. The chimney is twisted and needs to be rebuilt. Friends gave us the number of a guy we could call to fix it.

McNulty is from Ireland. He told me he did “finishing work” for Guinness. I know what Guinness is. What finishing work is I have no idea. McNulty came one windy weekend to asses the chimney’s twist. We stood together in the driveway, eyes on the sky. We both saw the problem but McNulty saw what I couldn’t: How to fix it.

I only know how to fix sentences.

The meeting took five or ten minutes. “It’s no good Matchoo,” he said, pronouncing my name in what I took to be Dublinese. “You don’t want one of them bricks coming loose and falling down into the driveway while the kids are playing and all.” We agreed that was something I did not want. “I’ll talk to my brick man—Billy from Kildare—and we’ll get you sorted straight away.”

We shook hands on the sidewalk and parted ways. As I watched him leave I thought, “My goodness my hands are an embarrassment.”

McNulty is a slightly built man but his hands were like cinderblocks wrapped in sandpaper. Shaking my hand must have felt, to him, like meeting a man-size chinchilla with opposable thumbs. I am inadequate in the hands department.

Pinkish, uncalloused, and prone to cracking in winter, mine are the hands of man who has only ever worked indoors. My palms are like pillows; my fingers like sausage links. Ever see a tree that has grown around a chain-link fence? That’s what my wedding ring looks like.

Years ago I worked in bars. I sliced lemons with sharp knives. I tossed around kegs and dunked pint glasses in scalding hot water. The enemy then was small nicks and cuts, which were annoying and could let in bacteria that could get me sick and unable to work. No one wants a drink served by a bartender with a scabby hand or a runny nose. I used lotion and other manly emollients to care for my hands.

These days my hands do nothing more dangerous than hunting and pecking. My desk is ergonomic. My keyboard has a wrist rest. I still get little nicks and cuts, but mostly from the sharp corners of Post-it notes. I have one callous—on the tip of the finger that does my most aggressive deleting.

When I was a kid the joke was that plumbers made more than guys who worked in offices. Now I hear you can make a good living as a welder. My hope for my sons is that they have manlier hands than I do. Maybe I’ll send them to welder’s college.

Jesus was a carpenter’s son. Some scholars say the Greek word tekton, usually translated as “carpenter,” really means “builder.” It’s possible that Joseph was actually more of a stone mason. Either way, if Jesus worked alongside his father, his hands must have been rough. Like McNulty’s, not like mine.

Jesus swung a hammer. He knew his way around a workbench and a toolkit. He was fit for a job using chisels. So many familiar images of Our Lord convey a different vibe. Arms outstretched and surrounded by divine light, the Jesus of our time is a softie. We see him in hippy robes, cuddling a lamb. He hammers out justice, not stone blocks.

We see Jesus sad-eyed at the Last Supper. We see his thin, broken body on the cross, his hands bloodied by the nails, his lean torso twisted. But Jesus was a working man. Yes, the message of his public ministry was mercy, but his day job was building houses.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see an icon of Our Lord that makes him look like what he was? Some artist should render his misshapen fingernails and tough, calloused palms. If he needs a model, I can give him McNulty’s number.

I’m a student of pubs. Maybe it’s because my dad owned one. Maybe it’s because they smell so good, especially that front-door bouquet of stale beer, hamburger, air conditioning, and disinfectant. The flavor profile at my dad’s place included the unmistakable overlay of nicotine, but even without that, the pub smell is a sensory experience beloved of the truly cultured.

Many of the best pubs are decorated with framed Irish blessings. “May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back”—that kind of thing. Here’s a good one: “May those who love us, love us. For those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts. And if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may He turn their ankles, so we will know them by their limping.”

A lifetime of study has taught me that roughly 72 percent of the Irish pubs in New York feature a toast ending thusly: “May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”

We talk a lot about the devil, even if we don’t usually think much about what we mean by the word. Sometimes we use it as a kind of synonym for temptation, or a catch-all excuse for our own bad behavior. “The devil made me do it the first time,” sang Waylon Jennings in 1973, before adding, “the second time I done it on my own.”

The idea of the devil is a bit of a cartoon to us now. If you’re my age, you remember that great line delivered by Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects”: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The devil most certainly exists. From the grand jury report exposing the shocking sexual abuse of 1,000 victims in Pennsylvania over seven decades to the New York Archdiocese review board’s finding that the allegations of sexual abuse against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick were “credible and substantiated,” this summer has reminded every Catholic that the enemy always has the one true Church in his sights.

My wife and I, like all parents, have always wondered how to approach the problem of evil with our children. When to tell them about the worst things in the world? How to keep innocence from descending into ignorance? No one wants to place vile ideas in clean hearts. No one wants to sully what’s pure. Our love for our children makes us, naturally, protective.

Then again, no one wants a child to end up in a vulnerable position because they’ve been kept in the dark about the filth in the world. We love our children, and we are compelled to keep them safe, but there comes a point when you have to lay it on the line: The devil exists, and he’s working hard to defile everything that’s good, true, free, and holy.

Watch your back. The devil has nothing better to do than try to keep you out of Heaven. And he’s got more than 30 minutes to do it.

My wife and I homeschool our children. This has afforded us the ability to regulate more aggressively than is typical our children’s exposure to the funkier stuff. But we know that it also makes it more likely that they will find out later than their peers that the world can be a terrible place. We worry this will place them at a disadvantage. We know the devil lurks in wait.

The priests of the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford solved our problem. They kept alive a tradition that had lately gone lax—recitation of the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel at the end of Mass.

“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly hosts, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan, and all evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.”

When we first started attending Mass at St. John’s, this prayer was a mystery to us. It had fallen out of favor during the last few decades in the life of the church—probably because of its unrelenting insistence on the presence of true evil in the world and its clear reference to the existence of the devil.

We learned that prayer. Our children learned that prayer. Now they pray it every night before bed on the principle that it’s better to be safe than sorry. In his wisdom, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano has decreed that in response to the abuse scandal all parishes shall recite this prayer after Mass. I hope it catches on in other dioceses.

Evil spirits seeking the ruin of the souls? Yes, kids, and if St. Michael does his job, you will know them by their limping.

My mother hated the house on Speedwell Avenue. She may have had her reasons. The kitchen was small, the sink was too far from the stove, there was one bathroom for six people, and the whole place drooped slightly so the bedroom doors wouldn’t close. Then again, it was home.

We moved there in 1979. I was six. Before that we’d lived in the house where my dad grew up. It was built in 1886 by my great-grandfather John T. Murphy. My dad told us that John T.’s ghost still lived in the attic. I don’t think my mom liked that house much either.

I didn’t hate those houses. I loved them, especially the Speedwell house, which was quirky in the best way. I loved the sounds it made; the creaks in the floorboards; the squeaks; the little bell my mother hung on the doorknob so she’d know when some late-night sneaker let himself in.

I loved the staircase landing where the laundry baskets piled up; the bathroom with the light switch on the outside; the living-room window that gave the whole neighborhood a view of our Christmas tree; the ancient and faded wallpaper; the decorative Tuscan columns in the living room.

I loved all of it in the way of a child. That’s the way that doesn’t see your parents struggling to pay the electric bill. That’s the way that doesn’t know how annoying it is to have a lawn with grass that just won’t grow or a white picket fence that’s missing a few pickets.

When I drive by that house now I’m shocked at how small the property looks. As a kid I thought it was plenty big—practically an estate. We played every sport imaginable in its friendly confines, with eccentric grounds rules covering Wiffle balls hit over the porch roof or off the side of the house.

The driveway was only wide enough for a single car, and bounded on one side by a hedge, so we played quarter-court basketball. There was room for a layup on the right, but you could only launch jumpers from the left. The hedge led the league in rebounds.

My mother eventually achieved her dream of leaving that house, but before she did 234 Speedwell served as the setting for many great moments in the life of the family. Graduations, birthdays, homecomings, and holidays, of course, but also the unpleasant stuff—the hard Christmas when I dropped out of college, the frightening day my mother fainted and was taken away in an ambulance, my father’s heart attack.

One day I was coming home from high school and found Onyx, my sister Mary Ann’s cat, dead on the side of the road. She’d been hit by a car.

I buried Onyx using a garden spade near my mother’s rose bushes. Mom called Mary Ann to deliver the bad news.

“Mare,” she said. “Onyx bit it.” My mother wasn’t sentimental about pets.

The surprise party for my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary was a famous hooley. A platoon of friends and relatives who’d gathered up the block were led in by a bagpiper. Mary Ann’s 21st birthday party featured a keg of beer that she and her friends couldn’t quite drain. Me and my teenage friends tried to finish the job the following afternoon.

I did the lion’s share of my growing up on Speedwell Avenue.

I tell you all this because we moved recently, leaving behind a house—and a community—that we had grown to love. My son Patrick got emotional when I told him we’d be moving. He’s about to be 10, and probably thinks of Millport Avenue the same way I think of Speedwell Avenue.

Patrick didn’t know the house was too small for us. He didn’t know the long commute was poisoning Daddy’s soul. He didn’t know how badly his parents wanted a house of their own. Millport Avenue was just his home, the setting for his family memories, and he didn’t want to leave.

“I’m gonna miss this place,” he told me, his eyes brimming with tears. “I’m gonna miss all my friends.” I promised he’d make new ones. He didn’t care. All that mattered was that we were going and we weren’t coming back.

How much would I love to walk through that old house again—to hear the bell ring as I come through the door and the stairs creak as I take them two at a time, to flip that hallway switch on my way into the bathroom, to sink a jumper from the left side of the driveway? I’d give anything to look up from the kitchen table and see my mom again, or to hear her sigh because the sink’s too far away from the stove.

I put my arm on Patrick’s shoulder and, pulling him to my side, said, “I know, bud. I know.”

The thing about spring is you forget how great it’s going to be. Life can be a drag. Winters can overstay. But spring is about hope, and hope is the thing that pokes its way out of a robin’s egg.

We take family walks. By the pond in the cemetery we happen upon a pair of turtles that are, um, trying to start their own family. I turn it into a teaching moment, but biology isn’t my best subject. The best I can do is sing.


Our Billy is a growing boy. He had his first birthday over the summer and has recently taken up toddling. He’s also an early riser, and wants his breakfast on the tray about two seconds after his butt hits the high chair.

Did I mention he’s a yeller?

I didn’t always have five children and a wife. It wasn’t that long ago that I had no children and zero wives. On TV, they make bachelorhood seem a paradise of freedom and adventure. Not for me it wasn’t.

The missus and me just blew past our fifteenth wedding anniversary—a mini-milestone. Not to be glib…oh, never mind, glib it is…I’d rather be in jail than be single again.

We made a family confession. I know that sounds like we subjected ourselves to some bizarre public humiliation ritual. We didn’t.

The director of religious education at our parish graciously arranged for interested families to come for the sacrament together on a Saturday morning. Our priests graciously gave their time. The Hennesseys graciously dragged their carcasses out of bed.


I know a guy. I can’t tell you his real name. Let’s call him Joe Boots. He’s a great fellow. One of the best. Joe Boots works hard. He’s up early every day. Sometimes he’s at his desk by sunrise. He gets the job done—and done right—with a smile on his face.


Twelve year-old Billy Scheyd of St. Ann Parish in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport got polio. It was 1952, and the country was in the middle of the worst outbreak in its history. Nearly 58,000 people fell ill. More than 3,000 died.