Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What the Mahoneys Mean to Me

It's Father's Day. The guys are a few paces ahead of me on the homestead, as the languid sunshine propels us toward another family's story. I'm following an informal pilgrimage at the speed of happy toddlers and aging dogs, having momentarily left behind the annual Mahoney Grotto picnic. Our kids moseyed up to the barbeque buffet a few hours before, adding bananas, cookies and tea to the homemade sausage, roasted chickens, varied casual food and salads.

In front of the picturesque log home, I watch a guy whose name I'm unsure of pet a horse and smile shyly towards the camera. Another newly sober friend takes his picture with an iPhone. My heart is pierced by the simplicity of what's going on and the profundity I know it to be --- peace of mind, freedom of movement. Walking down a road among friends, without heroin or its effects as part of today's journey. I may not know his name, but I've heard this young guy impart Christian mercy towards his still-drunk mother on a candlelit Mother's Day. He has memorably intimated a Bush Alaska childhood with every abject sadness that can entail --- followed by the despair of aging out of foster care and directly into the dope house. The loneliness of belonging nowhere.

But not today. Today he's with the Mahoney family. And what a fold to be welcomed into, under the crisp blue mantle of Our Blessed Mother and the Alaskan sky, in a space built to honor their earthly mother.

Car after car parks across the outer reaches of Wasilla's Schrock Road, depositing more smiling faces, absorbed into still more giddy embraces.

Two and a half generations of men play football through rain and shine, with a mix of manhood and gentility that comes from staying close to the earth and each other. At one point, there were haphazard games of Frisbee being played through the middle of the football scramble, and our three-year-old son became fixated on possession of the yellow Frisbee. They humor him for awhile, but then a big boy crouches to explain the rules. "You have to throw the yellow circle, you can't keep it for yourself. You can play with us, but you gotta do the game." The shock of being asked to uphold any standards is immediate. He wails for his mother, allows me to hug him and cluck over the injustice. Then he grows quiet and rips straight back into the action. My role fulfilled, I return to the assembled brothers, sisters and cousins who have invited us for the day.

Back at the towering pod of birch splashed near the grotto, lighthearted Jungian psychology ensues, followed by a dissection of comedian Chris Rock's brilliance, then trading of recent travel stories, updates on work and worship, and an absolute fireside contentment with the human condition. Siblings and nephews check in on family business and health affairs, with tears and triumphs quietly exchanged. Babies wander to greet their grandfathers from perches against tree trunks, low-slung chairs and truck tailgates.

Throughout the afternoon, at least seven pots of coffee are brewed and shared. During this particular party I'd come without diapers for my toddlers, not a mishap new to me, and apparently not one they've never seen before either. In fact, I've never met so many grown men with Pull-ups and baby wipes stashed in the cabs of their beefy pickups. Ten-year-old boys stand stick straight and acknowledge children who are new to the fold with uncanny verve --- grilled hot dog in one hand, the other extended to greet friends with a handshake. Children ride past on the golden bare backs of horses, and a four wheeler crawls by with a dozen bouncing faces laughing from its trailer. My kids are in there somewhere. I overhear James, a local cabbie, asking what a grotto is, and Barney explaining it's Latin for crypt and means a place to pray. James asks permission to add his own rosary beads, from an ACTS retreat in Juneau years before, to the offerings inside. A few times I usher my kids away from the votives and statues, but I eventually give in to the friendly, insistent tones of Mahoney mothers young and old: they are perfectly welcome in there. Please.

I can now include myself in the tender rank of moms-in-need for whom Barney Mahoney has been known to produce dry clothing, diapers and a hot meal. A guy who knows the ropes once confided that it's Mahoney policy to stop for all hitchhikers, regardless of circumstances or disruption to his own schedule. Barney accepts no money for rides, often towing and fixing the stranded vehicles himself. Sometimes a tank of gas is the solution. Sometimes, single mothers are given the bad news that their cars are broken beyond repair, followed by the gift of a used car that runs just fine. I knew a lady who said his treatment of her was the first noble exchange from any man she'd known in forty years.

The Mahoneys don't fit into any prescribed camp: they're at once sincerely humble and born orators. A five-minute chat reveals them to be philosophically airtight, but with cowboy swagger and grammar to match. They are both wild-eyed and utterly serene. Their devotion, workmanship and credentials make heads swivel. I've seen them diffuse borderline psychotic, volatile characters with a reprimand and a hug. There would seem to be little place for saccharine piety among them -- considering the unflinching duty to truth and mercy they personify -- yet their poetry rings 100% sentimental Irishman. They are trappers, miners, steel workers, storytellers, musicians, entrepreneurs, hunters, fishermen, blacksmiths, woodworkers, bikers, builders, and farmers. (And those are just the six or seven of them that I know...) They are here to honor their mother and their father. They all know how to cook. On this day, they're willing to roast marshmallows for a continual stream of children, provided each one have dinner first and mom's permission.

Photo by Bill Hess
The two brothers I'm closest to share the story of their father's final days, including over six years spent building the grotto by hand, with random stones and statues being deposited by unknown people from all over the world, in hopes of helping the project. The mysterious Canadian squatter who came out of the woods long enough to roll a hulking, man-sized boulder (which became the grotto's roof, after being split lengthwise a few times) down their mountainside in order to contribute. The force of their father's passion for the Eucharist. The quiet heroism of their mother's twenty years of successive pregnancies in the wildnerness. Her fidelity to the establishment of a Catholic church in Wasilla --- a dream dismissed by many, considering there were parishes already built in Palmer and Eagle River. The patronage of Saint Jude.

I spend a lot of time with a lot of people who talk a lot of shit about faith, hope and charity. If the greatest of these virtues is love, why does this day look so different from most stuff I read or hear? The Mahoneys make it look easy. Joyous. Immediately possible. Their sacrifice and toil on each others' behalf is borne without calculation, shrill preaching, or pecking order. They just love. This family overflows with love, heaped on with human frailty, God's strength, and more love. Even though this isn't my first visit to the grotto, and I've logged hundreds of hours with Patrick, Paulie, and Barney, I'm thrown off kilter by the whole experience. Their rough-hewn setting and elegant hearts are healing people, through the grace of God. This is the grit that social workers, municipal food banks, SWAT teams and prisons cannot touch. I feel silly for ever wanting to buy a tapestry with the corporal works of mercy woven into it.

Since becoming a wife and mother, I've been increasingly drawn in by chatter about the Benedict Option, and set out with a hunger for it, visited often by the idea as life unfolds ~ for a fleeting sunny day in June, we were immersed in the fruits of precisely what Alisdair McIntyre describes in the final paragraph of After Virtue. My favorite depiction is contained in John T. Goerke's recent analysis: "The Benedict Option then is not a retreat into a cave, but an advance down the barrel of a shotgun."

Paul and Iona's descendants are indeed preserving their traditional culture, yet standing at the ready to receive the walking dead of modern culture, with a greased wrench in one hand and a rosary in the other. Their good-natured, fearless proclamation of God's Kingdom is magnetic. I felt like a fellow traveler, even among the dozen-plus Mahoneys previously unmet. Supernatural forces were unmistakably present. Part of me wanted to stay forever.

Another part of me knows that I witnessed nothing more than a hardworking bunch of people, hard at play on their family ranch. Let their welcome not be wasted on me, I pray. The good life is within reach --- of anyone who's willing to reach out to the guy next to him.

Surely I'm flattering myself, but I'd like to think the Mahoneys are my kind of people.

Photo by Bill Hess, 2012

"The most extraordinary thing in the world
is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman
and their ordinary children." ~ G.K. Chesterton

1 comment:

  1. I believe the spiritual tapestry of Anthony and Tiffany and their little stepping stones are reflected in your prose as much as the richness of the Mahoney spirit.