Cleveland–my home of homes

porch peggy georgeWhat can I write in one hour about our week in Cleveland?


I have just an hour because that’s been my week—lingering and lounging on the porch with my brother Joe and his family, alternating with a frenzy of fitness: every day a bike ride and run in the metroparks that ring the city; swimming laps in Lakewood city pool; yoga nearly every day; shooting hoops in backyard courts that are everywhere.


And in one hour I’ll be attending the wake of my sister-in-law’s mother, who died at 4am on our second night here, she a 93-year-old matriarch of nine children. That also is Cleveland: this sense of community, the steady delivery of food and cards, the Irish wake that’ll draw hundreds who regard this event as both spiritual and social. Last night many of Lainie’s siblings came over here to her house where I’m staying, and one of the siblings, Mike, brought with him a stack of letters his mother had written to him every week over his two years of service in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. It was an impressive stack, this devotion of a parent. I scanned through them, noting that she wrote a lot of them at 3:30am. She called her son “her hero” and “I love you”s were frequent. Mike said to me, “Never in her life did she say anything about loving me or being her hero, but there it all is, those 3am letters. Sometimes with those letters she’d throw in a couple packets of instant gravy.”


Old parents. That’s Cleveland to me, this generation of parents who wrote letters and added gravy. As I write this, I’m wearing an old suit of my father’s, pulled from the back of my brother Joe’s closet. It looks comical on me—pants too short, broad pants looking clownish—but that’s okay, it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m wearing my father’s suit, even though Lainie said it’d be fine to wear the casual clothes we’d brought with it. No, that older generation wrote letters to their children, they wore suits, they paid their respects at funeral homes.


The funeral home is McGorray’s (not to be confused with another home we passed today: McGrievey’s. Now there’s a name destined for the business of grieving.) The director of McGorray’s is Mary Sue McGorray, who sat in front of me in grade school. Back then she laughed at me when I told her that the dust motes in the air were live animals; she laughed harder when I insisted that the name for hearses was “curses”; and she once said that I should unbutton the top of my shirt because, well, it looked ridiculous. I know these people. I know their faces and their references and their Irish Catholic upbringing. The family who now lives in the McGorray family home on Manor Park—a family that is Lainie’s relatives, of course, since everyone seems related here—went to the paint store with a chip of his house’s color. The paint man looked at the chip and said, “Oh, that’s McGorray blue, we’ve got that.”


This whole place has the ease and familiarity of a porch—which brings me to Joe’s porch. For much of this week that’s where I’ve planted myself, swinging on the seat that is hooked to the ceiling with a rusty cable. From this vantage point I’ve watched Liam leave early in the morning to play baseball with the Coughlin boys up the street, checking back with us occasionally but for the most part, gone all week. You can do that here: have your kids drift away to another home, knowing that this is a safe neighborhood with broad lawns and scant cars, and that other mothers will feed Liam. It was that way for me on Bunts Road as a little boy, and it’s still that way.

From this vantage point I could witness the thick dark clouds rolling in from the west, stopping to dump a deluge for ten minutes, and then move on, taking with it all the steamy humidity that had been pressing down on us. In those ten minutes the temperature drops 20 degrees, and stays that way for the rest of the week for us. I love that about Cleveland, that its weather is so changeable, that it’s worth paying attention to the sky for the story it has to tell.


For the most part, though, this porch has been for conversation. Hour after hour with Joe, and then my best childhood friend George, and then Peggy stops by—this gathering place where laughter and memories come so easily. In the case of Peggy we chat about her driving across town in my Chevy Nova with so much exhaust coming inside that she had to wear the snorkel equipment that I kept as standard equipment on the front seat. With George, there are memories but also references to Poseidon and Shakespeare, calling Joe a Horatio and then quoting the exact words from Hamlet. I asked George to take a guess at the circumference of the earth, which is 25, 214 miles. “Oh, Jimmy,” he said, “I’d say 25000 miles, give or take a few hundred.”


Hours later George sat on the porch—always the porch—deep into the night, chatting with Patrick Breiner, Lainie’s nephew, about jazz drummers and the way so-and-so could bend time, the chord progressions of Charlie Parker, the Village Vanguard. There’s that—the high intellectualism of my circle in Cleveland, of my nephew Jimmy practicing his cello for tomorrow’s funeral, of Horatio and the earth’s circumference, of Joe and me throughout the week chatting about books and the syntax of one of the Bible passages that’ll be read at Mrs. Breiner’s funeral—and there’s this morning, of George showing up at 6am to see us off, of Joe slipping $20 into Liam’s palm.


Have to go. Flight is calling to New York City, to points farther east and away from the comforts of the porch. East east east… for how many miles? George, how many miles?





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