Contrary to popular belief, I have no penchant for philological congresses. I much prefer visiting the strikingly beautiful state of Montana, where I am now, spending time with a friend, Barbara, a pianist/philologist, though not a professional musician. She, in turn, has another good friend who is a member of the Crow tribe (Apsáalooke to outsiders; Biilooke to their fellow Crows). That Crow friend of my friend, by the name of Aaron, as well as being a cultural anthropologist, is a philologist, too. Here in Montana I had the pleasure of hearing him as he offered an impressive lecture on the Crow language and an understanding of the nation’s origins and religion.
The way I meet these philologists, Crow or otherwise, is quite accidental and probably stems from or is at least mildly associated with my reading of Alexander McCall Smith’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which is one of my favorite light reads—I’m due to read it again any day. If you’ve not read it, I commend it to you. I once discussed that very book with its author over dinner and drinks. But that’s another story; needless to say, Smith was surprised when I told him I knew so many philologists (actually, it’s not that many; but they do have a way of meeting me). Indeed, he was surprised that I even knew what philology was. (Now, just in case you don’t happen to know this word that is so esoteric these days that even the American Philological Association, to the chagrin of many, changed its name; it is the love of the logos, which in the case of philology is language.) In the case of Easter, I imagine it could be something else, something indebted to the first chapter of John. But that is the subject, yet again, of some other blog some other time, even if this is the appropriate weekend in both the Roman and Orthodox calendars, the first time in a long time those calendars have aligned.
Nonetheless, all that is well off topic, for I opened by mentioning about how beautiful Montana is; yet I don’t want to write about that or even how delightful Portuguese Irregular Verbs is or even how complicated Portuguese irregular verbs can be, but rather about a particular philologist of blue-collar Irish descent from Boston by the name of O’Reilly. Instead, I want to write about his father. For at this congress the younger O’Reilly happened to tell me a story over a beer. And that story is the subject of today’s blog—the story of his father, James, if names can be true.
I believe it all began in the second grade when James met Sarah McGillicutty, a fair skinned first-grader with red Irish hair and freckles enough for two. Now James, the future father of a fine philologist, loved her all through school, from Dorchester Grammar School to Dorchester High. But they went their separate ways at high school graduation, he to enlist for war, which by then was raging in Europe, she to secretarial school. Now just before they graduated that selfsame future father of my philological friend found his philological moment, writing a lovely sonnet to the girl, a poem she would treasure her whole life, like herself, a thing of beauty, a joy forever.
James married, had a family, but lost his wife to cancer some fifteen years ago. Sarah, though she was a beautiful woman, she never found true love. By age 22 she had a job in the police station as a dispatcher where she flirted with all the handsome young cops, one of whom (not the one she was hoping for) proposed—the “good match” had been encouraged not a little by her working-class father—even though he was a man easily ten years her senior. He was a certain Michael Thomas O’Mally, the stereotypical “Officer O’Mally” who walked a beat down by the docks. Before their fifth anniversary that selfsame O’Mally would be punched in the face and sadly die when trying to break up a fight in one of those rough bars that one finds all too often near the docks. Poignantly, Sarah took the call that reported an officer down.
As if to avenge his tragic death, Sarah, radiantly beautiful at age 28, went herself to officer training school, a rarity in that epoch, and became a good cop—a damn good cop, she used to say—for quite a long time, though she stayed away from the docks, working instead in a Boston suburb, Lexington being its true name. But disaster would visit her again, as she held a young man as he died, struck and abandoned by a reckless motorist. In her arms, a man whose death left her with no optimistic prophecy, no hope.
So she resigned from the force at about age 35 and moved to New Mexico, where she became a painter and met David Bowie. I did query my friend thoroughly about this, but he insisted it is true, though he did not know all the details—just that it something to do with art. Sarah became so close to that singer, staying in touch with him throughout her life, that he even once gave her two (undoubtedly expensive) oil paintings that he himself wrought. There, in lovely Santa Fe, she married a friend of Mr. Bowie, a wealthy rancher, and now nearly 40 years old even had a child by him. But tragedy struck once more, and her Irish eyes went from smiling to weeping, as she discovered, yet again that mortal things touch the heart. Her second husband also died in a bar fight that she sadly witnessed, for they were on a date to celebrate their third anniversary—such are the vagaries of life in the wild southwest.
Perhaps it will come as no surprise to learn that she moved back to the Boston area, never to enter a bar again, with or without a date. Specifically, she moved to the norther section of Cape Cod, where James encountered her when he was visiting the Cape with his church group. Managing to break away from the group, James and Sarah found a few minutes together to kindle their erstwhile romance afresh, sustaining it by a furious epistolary exchange worthy, my O’Reilly the younger would no doubt say, of the Ovidian double epistles.
And soon James took the local bus from Boston to the cape at least once a week to spend time with Sarah. On one of these trips, the loving, elderly couple tottered off to the beach, a short walk from still lovely Sarah’s lovely beach home adorned with artwork by David Bowie. After a lovely dinner and ample exchange of life stories—hers was of course the more interesting, for her son had turned out to be a diplomat, whereas James’ son is a mere philologist—the two of them took a lovely stroll along the beach, coming to rest on two Cape Cod style wooden beach chairs where they found momentary repose. A kiss, a hug, and then they reclined together, two old bodies entwined in love and friendship with the hope, perhaps of a new marriage. The sea and shore bore witness to the evening that was harbinger of such a hope, stardust zigged and zagged above them, the wind sang Ave Maria, the moon providing its face as if of a priest to pronounce them man and wife. They kissed again to seal their unspoken vows that were reflected in a brief recitation from memory by Sarah of a poem written some fifty years ago.
All this would have continued on the romantic course were it not for the fact that two uninvited guests wandered into their fantasyland wedding. As they reclined there two skunks began to rub their feet and ankles. At first they thought that the soft and furry feeling was that of a cat, but lo, the smiling moon’s light proved otherwise. These skunks were quite calm and affectionate, almost domesticated by visitors, as they often haunted this beach. (The larger one, they found out later, was named “Jay” by tourists). They laughed, stayed calm and so avoided a malodorous misadventure. And that is the moral of the story, a tale of two old people’s modern love that triumphed in the end over the guiles of a skunk named Jay that, on that romantic evening, failed to make their long-lived love stink.