In my earliest memory, I am part of a joke. It's true.
My mother knew the details. She said that I didn't walk until I was almost two. She was distraught that I was speaking in complete sentences and still crawling.
As Mom would tell it:
The doctor said, “Look, Mrs. Holleran. I hate to say it, but your son's lazy. And smart. There's nothing wrong with his legs. He'll walk when he feels like it.
You were always entertained by the TV. We'd have it on for you for hours; it would keep you calm. We didn't know that you were memorizing commercials.
So, your father would take you to the market. The cigarettes were up front at the register. Daddy would lift you up and say, “Hey look. My kid isn't walking yet, but he can read.”
At first people would scoff. Dad would let them. Then he'd point to a pack of cigarettes and you would say the brand: “Pall Mall … Viceroy … L&M.” People would be astonished.
That was my father. Dinny, as folks would call him. I never thought of him as funny. He was just Dad. But the older I got, the more I realized that humor wasn't an odd occurrence in the Holleran house. It was a staple.
He had special horn in his Ford; he would activate it with a foot switch. Usually he'd wait until an elderly person was crossing the street as we pulled up to a stoplight. A well-timed step and “AOOOOGAH!” at a pre-Hendrix volume level. When people turned to look, Dad would be brushing his hair or executing some sort of “dunno, my hands aren't on the wheel, must be somebody else” business.
Afterward, he'd allow a slight chuckle. One of the best things was that Dad never guffawed at his own jokes.
One of my biggest identity crises as a kid was the mystery of why other kids' fathers weren't funny. One day, when Tommy Schulz's mom got new linoleum in the kitchen, I asked him, “Is your dad all set?”
“Doesn't he have the fake vomit ready?”
All I got was a bewildered look.
The gags were many. To my brother: “Eat your vegetables. Don't you want to grow up and be big and strong like your mother?”
He had a realistic-looking woman's hand, made of rubber. It had polished nails and even a ring. There was a flap at one end that would be hidden. The best mounting place was a refrigerator door. When we went visiting and I heard a shriek from the kitchen, I wasn't surprised. My father would just wink as my mother would throw him a mean look, saying, “Dennis!” It was a tone we kids would hear often.
Dinny made friends nearly everywhere we went. If we were at a restaurant, he would meet and greet every family within earshot. Sometimes total strangers would end up sitting with us over coffee. I thought all of this quite normal.
Dad enjoyed his little jabs, too. One target was my mom's brother Doc, who was far from the world's best carpenter. One day, as Dad arrived home from work, Mom said, “Oh dear, Doc fell off another ladder today. But it wasn't his fault. He's gonna sue.”
“Really? Whom is he going to sue, Issac Newton?” Dad was a stickler for grammar. So you can blame him when I berate poor syntax.
My brother was Dad's best sidekick. Once, when we were on our annual jaunt to the town where I now live in Coal Country, we stopped at a diner in Jersey. The walls facing the lot were all glass. Perfect. My father would park as closely as possible to a window and cue Tom as we were getting out of the car. He just ducked down on the car's floor.
My mom was oblivious to all this. My father gestured to me—with plenty of onlookers—to go back to the car. I would open the rear door and my brother would fall out onto the macadam, his tongue out, seemingly injured … or worse. I would go shove him back into the car and close the door. The entire side of the diner stood up, gasping and pointing. One woman spilled soup all over herself.
My father would go in and get food to go, and we'd repair outside to a picnic table on the other side of the building. Soon enough, my brother would sneak out of the other side of the car and come join us.
Life wasn't a cabaret for Dad. But it was a pretty big damn party.
It wasn't unusual on a summer Sunday to arrive home from church and have Dad announce, “It's gorgeous today. We're cooking out.”
He would then make a couple of phone calls. By about 2 or 3, our backyard would be mobbed. Beer, food, grills, what-have-you seemed to materialize from nowhere. Tons of kids, playing dodgeball and throwing water balloons. Uncle Frank Burba, my godfather, would arrive with his guitar, a battered axe with at least three strings, and lead ham-fisted sing-alongs as twilight stole. I was saddened when I smelled the percolator; I knew people were leaving.
On my first day at Villanova, our Bel-Air cruised in a queue up to Corr Hall to deposit my things. When we were stopped, Dad flagged down a passing Augustinian. "Hello father," he said. "I'm Dennis Holleran of Bridgeport, Connecticut. In the back is my son Tim, an incoming freshman."
I said, "DAD!"
The priest was nodding and smiling when, out of the blue, my father grabbed him by the front of his cassock, almost pulling him into the car. Dinny exclaimed, "Please, father. MAKE HIM A GEM!!"
Dad must have delivered one of his patented winks to the cleric, because they both got a good laugh out of this.
I was on the road in West Palm when my father passed. July 4, 1973. I flew home the next day, angry and confused. When I reached our crowded house, my mother just said, “I'm through crying.”
It two days to wake Dennis William Holleran out. Politicians, musicians, more cops than I had ever seen. Red-faced Irishmen dabbing at eyes.
Back in the lounge, Luckies and flasks were produced. I could hear the laughter as men, supposedly grieving, were telling Dinny stories. Somehow, this seemed fitting.
I don't remember the funeral Mass. The clot of cars that stretched up to the cemetery required hordes of extra police escorts. From two towns.
All I recall of the graveside service was Father Sean Flynn, remarking in his thick brogue, “An' all mourners are invited back t' the Holleran house at tree farteen Midland Street to pay their respects.”
My brother, all of 19, looked at me and said, “Holy shit, Tim. We didn't plan on anything afterward.”
In the limo, my mother comforted us. “I wouldn't worry, boys. I'm sure everything is taken care of.”
And so it was. There were already tons of cars parked around our Cape. In the backyard, groaning boards full of food. Charcoal fumes shimmering in the blue perfection of the afternoon. A skatey-eight-foot-long aluminum tub held a largess of lager.
Somebody ran up to St. Ann's to get more folding chairs for the masses. By midafternoon, no sentient passerby would know that this was a post-funeral gathering.
As Father Flynn, hoisting a jar of his own, said to me, “This is a celebration of a life, Timmity.”
My old friend, Lynda Johnson, stood by me the whole day, making sure I was fed—and pleasantly drunk. I will never stop thanking her for this.
Uncle Frank whipped out his guitar and began to bellow. I stood along with the grown-ups and sang, “Heart of My Heart” and “It's a Sin To Tell a Lie.”
I don't remember the party ending. Is it morbid to have a favorite funeral? This was certainly mine.
Rather than regret the laughs and drinks I could have shared with Dinny, I cherish the ones we did.
POSTSCRIPT: It is no accident that, after my father died, my mom came out of her shell and took on his role as humorist, emcee and entertainer. Read about it right here next Sunday, Mother's Day, in “I Remember Maga.”