Gotham Diary:
My Ireland Problem, cont’d
10 June 2015

We lived in the house on Hathaway Road for five years, from 1955 to 1960. But I was seven when we moved in and twelve when we left — the equivalent, I feel, of at least two decades’ worth of time as I now experience it. My deepest impression of these years is not that so much happened, but that so much happened ages ago. New friends became old friends very quickly. A treefort built one summer became a medieval relic by the next. Life was boring because everything mattered.

When, during this time, did the Kayes move into the house at the north end of the road? I have absolutely no idea. I do remember that they moved in after we did. I might very well be wrong, but that is what I recall. And I recall that the Kayes were an odd family of three. There was a mother, but no father. Was the father dead? Or was he simply not talked about? Then there were two sons. John, the one that I knew, was the younger.

Not that I knew John well. When I think of him now, I see a man, not a boy. The man is perhaps twenty-five years old. John was a year or two older than I was, but no more, and yet I see a man, with very pale skin and thin, reddish-blond hair. Physically, he is a less robust version of me in every way, but he possesses an intensity of will that is far beyond my grasp or even understanding. He seems always to be nearly dressed for Mass, wanting only a tie and a jacket. There is nothing casual or comfortable about his appearance.

I see us standing in front of his house. With our bicycles, probably. I seem to be asking John to do something that his mother will not allow him to do, such as, maybe, riding bikes down the hill of Hewitt Avenue, or perhaps all the way to Chester Heights.

Mrs Kaye was certainly not like the other mothers, all of whom were homogenized by the comparison. Was she an invalid? Did I ever lay eyes on her? These questions are my memories.

The Kayes were Irish. Not Irish-American — not quite yet. John may have been born in America, but he spoke with something of the lilt of a brogue. Was it the case that he didn’t say much, or that what he said didn’t interest me? I don’t remember him as explicitly pious, but he was always serious, even when he laughed. Life was a grave business for John Kaye. He had tasted misfortune and disappointment in this vale of tears. When I think of him looking at me, I see his eyes telling me that my allergy to the idea that this world is a vale of tears was naive and foolish. I’d find out soon enough, they seems to say.

The Kaye house sits, in memory, in a miasma of joylessness that brings “The Fall of the House of Usher” to mind. Was I ever in the house? I have a memory of dark rooms, wood floors and paneling polished to a gleam, and an odd smell. Not a bad smell, but a smell that I didn’t care for. Pressed, I would say that it was the smell of airlessness, a stale, overinsulated smell. It was the smell of the house, and therefore probably one that the Kayes never noticed. It is possible that I have made all of this up — that I was never in the rather forbidding house.

As I said, the house looked something like a rectory, but what rectory? What rectory had I been in? It occurs to me now that I might have been reminded of the Foundling Hospital, which, in those days, was a cluster of Victorian buildings in the East Sixties. My sister and I were taken there at least once. I remember a room with lots of toys but no other children, and, somehow, playing with the toys was not encouraged. Perhaps I was young enough to suppose that any toy on view and unclaimed by another child was being presented to me — not the case here. I was wearing a jacket and a tie, and my sister was in a party dress. Much was made of our being “all grown up,” but we can’t have been older than six and four. Again, memory is fragmentary. I remember a visit to a place full of black-habited nuns that was also said to be a place where babies came from. I don’t, however, think that I yet knew that I had been one of those babies, and my sister as well. (That wouldn’t happen until we were seven and five.) But I knew something. I knew something that I couldn’t remember: my sister had appeared out of nowhere, as a toddler, not an infant. She laughed and got everyone’s attention; I sulked. I was not yet three. Two maiden aunts, who took me off to a cabin in the country for a few weeks, later told me that my sister’s sudden arrival put my nose “out of joint.” That was another thing that I knew but could not remember the why of: I loved those aunts. I was, quite literally, crazy about them.

Whatever the root of the association, the Kayes’ house (whether I ever stepped inside or not) and John’s gravity forged a link in my mind between Ireland and an austere Catholicism — a Catholicism that was a rebuke to our assimilationist pseudo-protestantism, which was also pretty austere. The difference was that where we turned the flame of Catholicism down to the lowest possible setting, so as not to attract attention in a town where Catholics of Northern European extraction were the only minority (and in which Catholics of Mediterranean backgrounds did not figure at all). The Kayes’ Catholicism turned the flame all the way up, with Mass every day and memberships confined to organizations sponsored by the Church. Life was conducted as it were almost entirely liturgical. Later, I would read that the Ireland of those days was regarded as “a vassal state of the Vatican.” My problem with this formulation is that Irish Catholicism never shared in the papal exuberance of the Roman baroque. The rosary beads were all potatoes.

How much of this am I reading back into a threadbare swatch of memory? It’s not important. I don’t know why I came to back away from the idea of Ireland just as I backed away from John Kaye — for we did not become friends. I don’t know how I developed an idea of Ireland that was absolutely devoid of leprechauns and lucky charms. I don’t know how much the Kayes contributed to that gloomy prospect. But they did, because I was never to think of Ireland without thinking of them.