Cover the mirrors and stop the clocks. My dear Frank McCourt is dead.
"Yes I was," she finally said.
The author who changed my life by making me want to write again, who taught my son that a good book is a good friend, who showed us all that no matter how mean or dirty or short your life is, there is always some meaning to the story.
"Imagine if you'd had Mr. McCourt for a teacher," my son said. "I'll bet you'd be a writer then."
That hurt. I was a little bitter back then, believing that I'd settled for editing and a paycheck when I should have suffered for my art and produced a masterpiece. And single parents don't do that. Then there I was, skating toward middle age.
Hey, wait a minute. Frank McCourt's first book was published when he was 66 years old. There were no rules about when you could be brilliant.
"But I did have Mr. McCourt for a teacher," I told the Jaybird. I realized that I'd better get busy. I started writing again the next day.
My mother, who grew up poor and ashamed of it, could not read half of Angela's Ashes. It pained her so. "Those worthless parents!" she raged, and I had to agree in a sad way. After all, I had read all of Angela's Ashes and McCourt's second book, 'Tis, so I knew a lot more than she did about just how worthless the parents were. But those worthless parents made Francis McCourt, just as my parents - who weren't shiftless but did have a rather unconventional approach to childrearing - had made me. Just as my sweet grandmother and her bigamist husband had made my mama.
"You just don't like to think about growing up poor without a father," I told her.
"No, I don't. Who would? But we weren't hungry, or dirty, or dressed in rags. My mother worked hard."
"Then you were lucky," I said.
She looked away so long I thought she wouldn't answer. She was known for that.
"Yes I was," she finally said.
Some people called Frank McCourt a liar, including his own mother. Well, that has happened to me too. And who cares if you lie a little if you write of the absurdity of your position in life with humor and goodwill? I don't. Even the saddest passages in a Frank McCourt book are underpinned with the music of language and the charm of a little laugh choked down behind the sorrow. So he hasn't written a history book. I don't care.
"I did not like the jackdaws that perched on trees and gravestones and I did not want to leave Oliver with them. I threw a rock at a jackdaw that waddled toward Oliver's grave. Dad said I shouldn't throw rocks at jackdaws, they might be somebody's soul. I didn't know what a soul was but I didn't ask him because I didn't care. Oliver was dead and I hated jackdaws. I'd be a man someday and I'd come back with a bag of rocks and I'd leave the graveyard littered with dead jackdaws" (Angela's Ashes).
See what I mean? The beauty is in the telling, and the Irish are famous for that.
Frank McCourt made the world better with his words. He made me better with his words.
Open one of his books anywhere, any page, and you will find something to cry about while you're laughing about it too. Life is hard. We agree on that. Life beats some people down; some people it enriches in the most amazing ways. You're lucky if, like Frank, like my mama, you get most of your beatings and starving and death out of the way during your early life so you have the rest to decide what it all means, if you can. And he did.
I cannot do him justice. I do not have the skills for eulogizing Mr. McCourt. I only tell you how his words ran through our family and caused us to pass our feelings from hand to hand, sharing them and giving them their freedom.
All of Limerick might have once been mad at you, but I love you for that, Frank McCourt.