Wednesday, January 18, 2012

BE Double R I GAN Spells Berrigan

I had (as all of us have) two grandpas.

 One, Pop Cunningham (Dad's dad) was something of a wastrel: 8th grade dropout, hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-living in general...part owner of a NYC trucking one point in the 1930's, Pop "disappeared" for a couple of years to Chicago (tax problems, apparently). At another point, his kneecaps were broken in a shadowy incident involving money owed. Colorful as a set of 96 Crayolas, Pop was, to me, quite a character, fascinating but pretty unlovable.

Grandpa center, the Bambino to his left

 Enter Pop's polar opposite: Mom's dad, Jack Berrigan. A role model, an inspiration. Fiercely loyal, friend to all he met. The original self-made man. Jack worked his way through college playing minor league baseball for the Bronx Giants. In later years, he had many a tale to tell--he once lost 20 lbs. during an August double-header in St. Louis; by the end of his baseball career he had broken every finger, at least twice. I have a photo of him with Babe Ruth. When he courted my Grandma, Rose Smith, she swore she would never marry a ballplayer (income too uncertain!) So Jack went to Fordham Law School, shortly after graduation partnered with his brother Jimmy in a wild new profession: insurance. For some reason, this plan got the Rose Smith seal of approval, and they wed.  Berrigan and Berrigan Insurance grew to be a most successful NY firm with many prominent clients.

I was only 9 when Grandpa Berrigan died. I have strong memories of him to be sure--cutting roses from his garden for us to take back to Manhattan after a Sunday visit to Larchmont, devising clever ways to baffle the squirrels (the bane of his existence), cheering baseball games on his black-and-white TV, mocking that new-fangled sensation, The Beatles (I wish I had a tape of his "I Wanna Wring Your Neck").

 Grandpa battled asthma all his life, back in a time without inhalers and other sources of relief. He would literally pass out trying to breathe. Indeed, when he died, it was because his heart exploded from his herculean efforts to get oxygen. At his wake and funeral, people from all walks of life, from bigwig executive to the elevator operator, talked about his kindness, his interest in their lives.

So I was proud of my Grandpa. But what sealed the deal were the never-ending reminiscences of his offspring, my mom and uncles. The picture they painted was not of a saint--he was somewhat strict, and Saturday morning chores could last all day long. He was sometimes impatient with my rather wifty mom, his only daughter. He struggled to relate to his son Don, born with Down's syndrome. But they REMEMBERED everything about this man, this towering personality, this sterling character. Even in recent visits, his children, now past the age he was when he died, waxed eloquent about Jack: "a piece of work," but one they adored.

I miss you, Grandpa. They broke the mold when they made you.
Only photo I have of the 4 grandparents, at my first communion (Grandpa Berrigan is on the left)

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