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A Song for Mary

Dennis Smith

  Copyright © 1999 by Dennis Smith

  Reading Group Guide copyright © 2000 by Dennis Smith and Warner Books, Inc.

  All rights reserved.

  Warner Books, Inc., Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

  Visit our Web site at

  A Time Warner Company

  First eBook Edition: June 1999

  ISBN: 978-0-446-93035-2

  The Warner Books name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

  Cover design and illustration by Honi Werner


  Bravos and Applause for a Song for Mary

  Also by Dennis Smith


  Author’s Note


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Chapter Thirty

  chapter thirty-one

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Chapter Thirty-three

  Chapter Thirty-four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Chapter Thirty-six

  Chapter Thirty-seven

  Chapter Thirty-eight

  Chapter Thirty-nine

  Chapter Forty

  Chapter Forty-one

  Chapter Forty-two

  Chapter Forty-three

  Chapter Forty-four

  Chapter Forty-five

  Chapter Forty-six

  Chapter Forty-seven

  Chapter Forty-eight

  Chapter Forty-nine

  Chapter Fifty

  Chapter Fifty-one


  Chapter Fifty-three

  Chapter Fifty-four

  Reading Group Guide


  “Atmospheric … a touching tribute.”

  —New York Times

  “A poignant and honest work.”

  —New York Daily News

  “Daring stuff, wonderful stuff … a New York past rescued.”

  —New York Observer

  “A memoir as rich as his family was poor … poignant.”

  — Chicago Sun-Times

  “Loving … riveting … poignantly re-creates life in the tenements … will make you feel good a million times over.”

  —Newport News Daily Press (VA)

  “A moving memoir of growing up in the tenements of New York City … also the record of an astonishing spiritual journey.”

  —Modern Maturity

  “In this life-affirming reminiscence, the author thanks, through beautiful words, his mother for all her sacrifice.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Captivating … a funny but heartbreaking picture … a ‘song’ that’s worth singing.”

  —Albany Timed Union (NY)

  “A clear, wry, entertaining voice.”

  —Roanoke Timed (VA)

  “The deftly told saga of what led Dennis Smith up to the big red doors of his now-famous Engine Co. 82.”

  — Tom Wolfe, author of A Man in Full

  “Richly detailed, lovingly told memoir … vividly re-creates the pains and joys of an impoverished Irish-American boyhood.”

  —Kirkus Reviews

  “A soft look at a tough world … simply and lovingly told … a meaningful book.”

  —William Kennedy, author of Ironweed

  “Tough, tender … heartfelt … genuine and memorable.”

  —Irish Voice

  “Readers will have a hard time putting this down … highly recommended.”

  —Library Journal

  “Clear, vivid, evocative.… The portrait of Dennis’s mother, Mary, is at once unaffected and complex. An honest and admirable book.”

  —Thomas Flanagan, author of The Year of the French

  “Moving.… Smith’s good-natured storytelling makes this book worthwhile.”

  — Greensboro News & Record (NC)

  “Told with elegant simplicity … another resonating memoir from the club of New York Irishmen called the Nine First Fridays, of whom Frank McCourt and Dennis Smith are stars.”

  —Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s List

  “Tough … inspiring.”

  —Firehouse magazine

  “Magical … what all memoirs should aspire to—images poignant and sharp; memories painful and vivid. … If there was a crown jewel for memoirs, it would surely rest here, with this book.”

  — Lorenzo Carcaterra, author of Sleepers and Apaches

  Also by Dennis Smith

  Report from Engine Co. 82

  The Final Fire

  Glitter and Ash


  Dennis Smiths History of Firefighting in America

  The Aran Islands: A Personal Journey

  Steely Blue

  The Little Fire Engine that Saved the City (for children)

  Firefighters: Their Lives in Their Own Words


  This book is not a novel.

  The persons, places, and situations are real, and the dialogue is reconstructed as best as I can remember it actually occurring. I have changed just a few of the names because I am sensitive to the right of privacy within families.

  For my brother Bill

  with love and admiration

  and for Carlin and Henry Patrick

  the coming generation


  Sitting with my brother in the first pew of Queen of Angels Church I can hear the beeping horns and speeding cars and trucks on Queens Boulevard, and I wish it were quieter. I look around the church and into the faces of my five children and my brother’s four, searching for some sign of grief. Do they miss her? I keep asking myself.

  Do they know anything about her?

  There are no flags or draperies on her casket, no brass or silver ornaments. Just a small bouquet of mixed flowers sitting on top, about where her folded hands would be. The casket looks strong and modest, words that apply to her like colors on a drab canvas.

  These sons and daughters and nieces and nephews of mine have had privileged upbringings and little has been missed for the wanting. But they are the grandchildren of a tough New York life. I study them now as the priest goes through the Mass, all of them young adults, each with a life of his or her own, each with a unique set of problems and confrontations, needs and desires. Sure, they loved her, but I wonder if any of them have found time in their busy and complicated lives to touch themselves with her life, to be anointed with a memory that might protect them or help them or make them more complete.

  Why didn’t I think of it beforehand? There will never be another opportunity like this. I could have written something, the priest could have introduced an oration. But she wouldn’t have approved of that kind of singling out, even at the funeral. No, keep it modest, she would advise. Remember that railroad tracks are plain and ordinary, but they’ll get you where you’re going.

p; Still, I want them to remember this moment, for it should be a monument moment.

  The priest is at the communion, and I go to the altar.

  “I want to say something,” I whisper.

  The priest is shocked out of the usual.

  “Who are you?” he asks.

  The children are lined up behind to receive.

  “Their father,” I say, gesturing toward them.

  I stand to the side until the communion is finished, but the priest goes past me as if I am invisible. He busies himself at the altar, paying me no mind, but I stand my ground. I’ll have my say in or out of his agenda.

  Finally, he looks up to the small group, and says, “A family member wants to say something.”

  I look at the small casket enveloping what has become no more than ninety pounds of skin and bones. There is not a cough or a sneeze or a shuffle in the church. The traffic sounds have momentarily disappeared, and it is perfectly quiet. “Just one thing,” I say, “that I want to ask you to think about as we’re all gathered here trying to commemorate a life. The true epitaph is not the message epitomizing a person that is etched into a headstone, but the memory that resides in the swelling of the heart. Each of you might have hundreds of memories, but you have to make sure you find the right one, the one that speeds the blood. Sometimes, you have to search long and deep within yourself to find that particular memory, and when you find it you’ll know, for this is the epitaph that will stand your test of time. So I ask you to remember Mary like this, and like anything in your life that is worthwhile, there is no time like now to start.”

  Chapter One

  I am seven years old and I know the difference between right and wrong.

  It’s been my job for more than a month to take the erasers out to the school yard at ten minutes to three each day and clap them against the brick wall so they’ll be nice and clean for Sister Maureen in the morning. But today, when we were standing for our afternoon prayers, Peter Shalleski knuckled me in the back of the head. We were in the middle of the Hail Holy Queen. It’s too bad that Sister Maureen didn’t see that. She only saw that I took Shalleski’s ear right after O Clement O Loving O Sweet Virgin Mary and twisted it so that it nearly came off. I should have bopped him right there in front of everyone, in the middle of the Hail Holy Queen, but I know he is tougher than anyone in the class, and I know as sure as Charlie McCarthy has a wooden head that Shalleski is going to get even with me later for the twisted ear.

  I don’t care.

  My head is hurting from where he knuckled me, but I know it is going to hurt even more as Sister is about to give me a whack with the pointer across the back of my pants. I wish I had corduroy pants instead of these thin gabardines. Here I am standing on the bare wood-slat floor, eyes closed, biting my teeth together as hard as they will go, my hands flat against the chalky blackboard, leaning over for all the class to see, as the thin pointer comes swishing down and goes shwitt across my shiny pants.

  The sting goes through my body as I knew it would. I want to scream out, but I can’t. None of the boys ever screams out, even if Sister gives three whacks, which is the most she gives. It is like it has been all thought out and in some rule book tucked in a corner somewhere in the sacristy of the church. The girls never get it, and even if they did it wouldn’t hurt so much, because there is so much material in their blue uniform dresses.

  I can feel the sting now as it is running up and down my body and all the way across my face, and I feel my face becoming red as I turn to the class and try to straighten up.

  “Sit in the back of the class until three o’clock,” Sister said.

  “But what about the erasers?”

  “Never mind the erasers. There’ll be no more erasers for you.”

  It is the first job I ever had, the first time I am doing something the others do not do, something different. She gave me the job because my marks led the class on the vocabulary tests, and to lose it now because Sister didn’t see Shalleski slide a knuckle across the back of my head makes me want to cry.

  But I know you can’t cry in front of a whole class of boys and girls. It would be like screaming out when Sister whacked you with the pointer. They would start to call you Phil the Faucet, or blubber baby, or some stupid thing, and take out their snotty handkerchiefs every time you passed them in the hallway.

  And so I just raise my voice a little bit.

  “Shalleski hit me first, Sister, and I don’t see why I should get punished because of what Shalleski did.”

  “Don’t raise your voice to me, young man,” Sister scolded.

  Mommy is always saying this, too, calling me “young man” in a voice that means being a young man is not so good, and that it gets you in trouble. Maybe Mommy and Sister are related, long-lost cousins or something.

  Sister waits for a few seconds before she answers me.

  “If Shalleski jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?”


  “So next time don’t hit back. Turn the other cheek. Think about what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, and pray for anyone who you think is mean.”

  I am not so sure about this turn-the-other-cheek thing, because I know Shalleski, and, just as I am praying for him, you know what Shalleski will do? Shalleski will clout the other cheek, too.

  Chapter Two

  I think about telling my mother all the way up the four flights of stairs at 337 East 56th Street. I count the gum blotches on the twelve marble steps of each flight to keep from crying. No one ever told me about how to keep from crying, but I figured out that if you just thought about something else, concentrated on it, the tears wouldn’t come. Thirty-one gum blobs, each a square inch or so, mopped over a couple of hundred times so that the edge of the gum looks like it’s blended into the marble.

  There is an O’Dwyer for Mayor sticker on the windowpane at the fourth-floor landing, and I begin to peel it off. I want to wait for another while before I see my mother, to relax a little. I always tell her everything, and I want to get it right about Sister Maureen, about being put up in the front of the class and getting it with the pointer. I can feel my eyes begin to get tight, and I stretch them wide open.

  One of the doors at the front opens and Mr. Gentile comes out to walk his dog. There are two apartments in the front, richer people than us, because they have a view of the street, and everybody knows the apartments cost more to rent, probably more than thirty dollars a month. Mr. Gentile must have money in the bank, because he talks to himself and never smiles. Mommy told me that people with money in the bank never smile and they talk to themselves. The dog barks, and Mr. Gentile raises his hand toward me, and I flinch backward.

  “Leave that alone before I give you one.”

  I feel stupid and embarrassed to let him make me flinch like that. I want to curse at him, but I know that I will meet him again in the hall and, like Shalleski, he will want to get even. So I run the length of the long dark corridor back to apartment 26.

  “Goddamn kid,” I hear him say as he pulls the dog down the stairs.

  Chapter Three

  Mr. Gentile cursed at me.”

  “Don’t pay any attention to him.”

  She pours a bit of Karo syrup onto a piece of white bread and places it in front of me. The table has a piece of red linoleum across the top, and the linoleum is cracked and splitting apart. The wood below is rotting out.

  “Why shouldn’t I pay attention to him?”

  I am now picking at the linoleum.

  “He’s just one of those guineas who don’t know nothing,” Mommy says as she slaps my hand away from the linoleum.

  “Sister Maureen must be a guinea, then.”

  “Why do you say that? What happened?”

  Mommy can always tell when something is a little off, not quite right.

  I again begin to feel a tug of the skin around my eyes, and I want to stretch my eyes out to get rid of the tug, and so I begin to make the dreaded face as I tell Mommy the s
tory, pulling my chin down and stretching my eyes upward. It feels good. It gets rid of the tug.

  “Stop making faces.”

  I do it again because I can’t help it, and my mother reaches for the strap. I freeze, because I know I can’t run. The three rooms are each not more than eight feet long, and the kitchen is about five. Not much space to run.

  “Mommy, no.”

  The strap comes across my shoulder, stinging. But I don’t flinch. Flinching from Mommy is like running. It gets you nowhere.

  The strap is a piece of belt an inch wide and a little more than a foot long. It has a slit at the end which opens to fit over the back rung of the kitchen chair.

  The faces are hard to control if I think about them, and so I put all my energy into the story about Shalleski, but before I can get through it I begin to feel the tears building up in my eyes, and my nose begins to run. I don’t want to cry. I am not supposed to cry about such things, but I can now feel the tears on my cheeks. I put my head on the table and let my shoulders heave up and down.

  “It is so unfair, so mean of her to take the erasers away from me.”

  “She was right to punish you,” Mommy answers. “Stop the crying, alligator tears. Sister Maureen was right.”

  “She wasn’t. And, anyway, I don’t know what alligator tears are, except that they’re phony, and I’m not being phony.”

  “Don’t correct me. You have no control. You have to learn to control yourself or you’ll never get out of trouble.”

  Chapter Four

  Ilove the way Mommy always finds a way to the back end of a situation. If there is something on her mind, and she does not know how to speak it head-on, she goes around it to get where she wants to be. And so she begins to tell a story that I suppose is about Sister Maureen, but I know she isn’t going to mention her by name.

  “When you were fourteen months old—this was just before your father went to the hospital—you were sitting in your stroller. Your father was holding Billy in his arms. You leaned forward and the stroller tipped over, and as you fell you put your little arm out to block your fall. Well, your little hand went out, and the stroller handle hit your little thumb, and then your little thumbnail just popped off your finger.”