[this story is dedicated to the memory of Lynelle Sullivan, RIP (1962-1999)]
To say I was a little bit naïve when I made my first summer trip on my own to the USA at the age of 17 would be like saying Michael Jackson is a little bit strange.
The plan for my historic rite-of-passage trek across the pond was to first visit my family’s New England contingent for four days, then head out west to San Francisco and stay with my mother for a few weeks.
My first port of call was to be Boston, Massachusetts. Out in its leafy suburbs was where my grandmother’s two elderly cousins, John and Mary Foley, were seeing out their golden years. He was a retired priest while his sister had been a spinster all her life and was doing her best despite her own frail health to take care of him. This was to be my New England base, and I was to travel on the third day up to Nashua, NH to visit my grandfather’s youngest sister Molly and her family.
And so I arrived at Logan Airport and asked a cab driver to bring me the considerable distance to the Foley’s house, since none of us were able to drive. In Ireland, at least back then, most people got to the age of about 22 before even thinking about getting behind a wheel. The Foleys for their part had all of the ability to drive but precious little of the ability to concentrate.
The cabbie must have really thought he was onto a good thing. Not only was the journey long, it was smack bang in the middle of rush hour. To pass the time, he tried to strike up a conversation. Since I was unfamiliar with the local accent, the chat was extremely short.
“So, whe-ah did ya fly from, kid?”
“Oh, really? So, what do ya think of the CAH-s in BOAAston?”
For reasons I will never know, I was sure he said cows.
“Uh, I dunno, I haven’t really seen any just yet!!!”
A few seconds later I realized why he threw me such a dirty look in the rearview and stopped talking. He said CARS dummy!!! We were in bumper-to-bumper traffic!!! I thought it best not to explain. I swear he slapped an extra tenner on the fare for my supposed sarcasm. A half-hour of quietly straining to hear the crackly sounds of a live Red Sox broadcast later, we arrived at my destination.
To say the Foleys were a little bit reclusive would be like saying I was a little bit naïve when I made my first summer trip to the USA at the age of 17.
They just sat around the house all day listening to classical music, and they didn’t even have a television!!! Oh the horror!!! I was thus forced listened to my walkman in my room for as long as I could bear, though eventually I was driven to join John Foley down in the conservatory, where I would sit watching the pendulum on his grandfather clock swing back and forth in almost perfect synch with his rocking chair as he tried in vain to convert me to militant Irish Republicanism.
After just 24 hours in the Foley house, I was desperate to escape. Though my grandfather’s nephew Chris was meant pick me up on the Saturday morning and bring me to Nashua, I called him a day earlier to see if I could stay with him the Friday night in his apartment in downtown Boston. Unfortunately he had plans so I had to endure yet one more evening of polite nodding and pendulum-watching.
Finally at lunchtime on the Saturday, Chris arrived. He was in his early 30s and was a courier by day, bass player in a local rock band by night. He wore a baseball cap backwards, had Doc Martins, black jeans, and a t-shirt bearing the words “Virgin Prunes” – I now realize that is the name of a punk rock band fronted by the brother of U2 guitarist The Edge, and that Chris was probably trying to make me somehow feel at home by wearing it.
I vividly remember the scene as I went out the Foley’s front door – behind me there was the elderly siblings; ahead of me, my much more contemporary second cousin. They observed each other with equal amounts of disbelief that their respective paths had somehow managed to cross. In a strange sort of way I thought it was kind of cool that I could bring them together, even if it was just for ten seconds of awkward small talk.
And so on the trip up to Nashua, Chris proceeded to fill me in on his family with whom I was to have dinner that evening. He told me all about his mother Molly and his two sisters, Kathy and Laura. After an hour of briefing, I noticed one very distinguishable name had been omitted.
“What about Ambrose? Will I meet him?”
I would pay very little attention when my grandparents would bang on about their respective families back home, but I could not help but notice the curious name of “Ambrose Hossenfeffer” being bandied about several times. Just so you know, although it may be altered for this story, this guy’s real name is just as intriguing.
“Oh, yeah, you’ll meet Ambrose alright” was all Chris had to say about him, which made the guy sound even more mysterious.
He was Molly’s partner – her husband walked out on her ten years before, and Ambrose seemingly came into her life shortly afterwards, and for the record he has since been a crucial rock for a family that has seen some extremely trying times. One day soon I want to fly over to Nashua myself to shake his hand personally and thank him on behalf of my grandfather for all he has done.
And so we arrived at Molly’s house at 146 ##### St, Nashua, NH, the house where my grandfather had been born. I’ve always liked to go back there; it truly is the epicenter of my family. Molly was there to greet me at the door, as was her daughter Kathy. They led me into the living room, and as soon as I rounded the corner, a loud booming voice almost knocked me over from the settee “AH SO THIS MUST BE MAURA’S KID!!! NICE TO FINALLY MEET YA!!!”
To say Ambrose was a little bit loud and eccentric would be like saying the Foleys were a little bit reclusive.
We sat around the living room waiting for the bird in the oven to cook. As Molly did the hospitality thing and asked me all about how her big brother was doing over in Ireland, Mr Hossenfeffer kept firing detailed questions at me about Ireland’s political situation, questions which Chris had to keep tactfully reminding him I was probably too young to care about, which was very true.
One other early topic of conversation was the whereabouts of Laura, Molly’s youngest daughter. She was supposed to be there that morning to help prepare for the dinner, but seemingly it was no surprise that she had not kept her word. My only memory of her was when we had stopped off in Nashua on the way over to Ireland; she would have been about 14 to my 8, and she was pretty, so I guess being a teenage boy at this stage, I was curious to see how she looked. It seemed like that was not to be.
And so the conversation flowed for about an hour, or at least it did from my hosts; I was always a “speak when spoken to” kind of kid, and no doubt they found it hard to get me talking. Maybe a beer or two would have done it, but since Ambrose was a member of the state’s House of Representatives, encouraging minors to drink would probably not look too good.
Then all of a sudden, Ambrose turned toward me and drew breath. Here comes another question about the Catholics and the Protestants, I thought. I really wish it had been.
“So are you gonna stay way over there? Why don’t you come sit over here beside me” he bellowed from beneath his thick-rimmed glasses, as he patted the seat beside him.
Silence fell over the rest of the room.
“Aw, come on, don’t be shy! Come on over here, sit down beside me, I’m sure not going to bite you for crying out loud!!!”
OK – the others all rescue me when he asks political questions but NOW you can hear a pin drop???
“Listen, this is a family conversation here, and we can’t have one with you all the way over there. Now stop being ridiculous and come over here beside me!!!”
This guy is not gonna give up, I thought, as I squirmed with absolute terror in my armchair. I think Molly said dinner was almost ready, so maybe if I went over for just a few minutes, then said I had to use the bathroom, this uncomfortable sweaty hell would be over once and for all.
With that I swallowed hard and began to rise from the chair.
“Oh, alright, Ambrose!!! For God’s sake do you have to embarrass me in front of our guest???”
And with that Laura, who had been (extremely) quietly leaning against the door directly behind me for the past fifteen or so minutes, stormed into the room and plonked herself beside her mother’s partner. And yes, she was still quite appealing to the eye, which of course only served to add to my adolescent awkwardness.
I froze half way up from my seat. Molly tried to rescue me, God bless her.
“Did you want some more 7UP there, Jeff?”
“Uh, yeah, please, do you mind?”
Unfortunately, Chris had taken full advantage of being over the legal age to have a few beers.
“Hey, you thought Ambrose was talking to you, didn’t you?”
“Yeah you did! Look, you’re totally sweating bullets!!! Oh my God that is so funny!!!”
And so the room erupted with laughter, though through all the merriment, I could just about make out the faint sounds of a Boston cab driver chuckling to himself in the distance.
To say I was a little bit embarrassed would be like saying Ambrose was a little bit loud and eccentric.
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