The affable, easygoing Irish heritage that Helen Antoinette, my mother, nee Murphy, and known to my kids as “Grandma Honey Bun,” passed on often conflicts with my father’s reserved Swedish demeanor.
Though my parents were divorced when I was 5 and I never got to know my Swedish father Einar Axel all that well (he died in 1955), my mother routinely insisted that I shared many of his traits, most notably my penchant for keeping everything in its place.
In the Irish/Swedish conflict of personality traits, I’m certain the Irish has won more of the skirmishes, mainly due to memories of Grandma Murphy (born Grace Cecilia and called “Mom” by her grandkids) and her younger daughter, my mother Helen, and their love of jokes, stories, witty rejoinders, and laughter they greeted the ups and downs of life every day.
A few examples:
Mom Murphy, a fervent Catholic, had a best friend who was a Baptist. In one of her timeless lines, when her best friend was leaving after a cup of tea and a homemade donut, she would say as her farewell: “See you in church if they keep the windows clean.”
And Helen telling me jokes I didn’t get until I was much older.
And Grandma Murphy dropping in to the neighborhood Baptist church now and then with me in tow, explaining that “the music and singing are much better than at St. Rita’s.”
And Helen telling me: “Life is bound to break an Irishman’s heart before he’s 40,” when I was in a down mood.
And Grandma Murphy wiping the kitchen table with an ever-present dish rag she kept in the hand she wasn’t using to sip her tea. She also mopped the basement floor with the soapy water from the wash machine. Only we veterans of life, sometimes called seniors, remember the washing machines that had to be emptied by hand.
And the time I watched Helen listen to a pitch by a door-to-door salesman offering life insurance with weekly premiums (now I’m really dating myself). When he left without making a sale, she remarked: “There goes a man craftier than a landlord’s agent.”
And Grace Cecelia musing about her five children: “Wouldn’t take a million for any of them but wouldn’t give a nickel for another.”
And Helen teaching my kids to play poker for nickels and dimes when they each reached the ripe old age of six: “Remember, the money has no home.”
And Grandma Murphy exiting the movie theater and taking me by the hand and saying: “Back to reality.” Many years later I took her to see the film “A Thousand Clowns.” I wanted her to see Jason Robards answering his brother’s plea to get back to reality with the words: “Back to reality? I’ll only go as a tourist.”
And Helen singing and dancing around the kitchen at 342 W 61st Place in Chicago to the song “Singing in the Rain,” and splashing us with water each time she went by the running faucet in the kitchen sink.
With all that and more, is it any wonder I love jokes, tend to see the humor in most everything, and consider myself more Murphy than Swede?