George was seven when he first played with fire. "Who had the matches?" demanded his mother. George and his four siblings shrugged and shook their heads. A liar? In Peggy O'Leary's house? A liar would kneel in salt or get an earful of God and His mother. There had to be accountability in Peggy O'Leary's house.
She wasn't a cartoon ogre. She was a splendidly spunky sort—still is—a dandy fox-trotter with sparkling blue eyes and no hesitation about laughing at herself. A woman born to raise boys, all four of them: a classic Irish mom. She pointed to the bathtub and the singe marks made by the matches. "The Blessed Mother's watching!" she cried. Our Lady. Notre Dame. The statuette in the living room. "She'll tell me who did it!" Mrs. O'Leary cried.
George swallowed. He was about to become an altar boy. A few days passed, George tiptoeing around his mother and God's mother until the supper dishes were done. That's when the family always knelt under Our Lady's gaze and said the rosary, the boys machine-gunning their 10 Hail Marys apiece so they could get back to playing ball and dying a thousand deaths as their sister, Margaret, stretched each theeeee and thyyyyy from here to kingdom come.
Then it happened. George reached again for the matchbox above the sink. Every kid played with matches, but George had been warned, and now he was going to play with fire a second time. Mrs. O'Leary burst into the kitchen, grabbed him and banished him to his bedroom. "When your father comes home," she shouted, "you'll be taken away to live in the Home for Wayward Children!"
Dusk fell. Dad entered the high-rise projects where the O'Learys lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A wee scrap of a man, just over 5½ feet tall and 140 pounds, but full to the brim with pep and piss and pun was George the Father. He'd drop to the floor in his 50s to bang out push-ups, clapping his hands after each one, and when he blinked the telltale twinkle from his eye and told his kids that the jagged scar across his gut—the result of an ulcer operation that removed three quarters of his stomach—actually stemmed from his belly dive onto a grenade to save a buddy during World War II, they believed him. After all, he'd been a paratrooper, and who on earth was a more loyal soul than he?
Dad headed to George's bedroom, hotfooted by his wife's glower. He shut the door and confronted his son. Dad was renowned for his brutal honesty, but Dad, God rest his soul, was a pushover. The sight of a forlorn child seemed to mine misery from the ninth year of his own life, when his father had vanished. "You can't play with matches, George," he rebuked his son. Job done, he melted. It wasn't really that serious, Son, and give Mom a day or two, she'd lighten up, and maybe he could sneak young George a bite to eat or slip him a nickel for candy.
George's older brother, Peter, had a high IQ and magnificent wrists, was a .500-hitting high schooler whom opponents would defend with four outfielders. Terry, a year younger than George, was a straight-A student with a grade-A jump shot, a future Suffolk County high school tournament MVP. Margaret, three years younger, was sweetness itself, no worries there. George? Well, let's be honest: George was no slickie. Thick and blunt were the adjectives his family hung on him, a mostly B and C student who couldn't dance or carry a tune in a houseful of hams and who was teased for the half inch of elevation he got on his jump shot. But, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, there was no more loyal brother or buddy in a tight spot and no more hard-nosed bundle of will and self-assurance on a ball field. He'd play two-on-two tackle football on pavement, and then when he wrenched his neck in a helmet-to-helmet collision during his sophomore year in high school, the bedside contraption rigged by the family doctor to hold George's neck in traction lasted two days. "This is bull," snapped George, who dismantled the device, practiced the next day and played the following weekend.
By then there were eight children, and the O'Learys had outgrown the Manhattan apartment and moved to a modest Cape Cod in blue-collar Central Islip, Long Island. But a kid still couldn't hide anything in that home, not with the four boys jammed into one bedroom, the four girls into another, a grandma and great uncle in die third bedroom, George's mother and father in the last one and the church waiting outside the door with hellfire unless you confessed. George didn't even try to carve out his own place. He bunched elbow-to-elbow with all the other males on Saturdays in front of the black-and-white television, hollering the Irish home against the best that the WASPs could throw at them, no one ever saying it, only feeling it: Notre Dame football was everything honest and right, and if that Fighting Irish Catholic 11 could own the American pie, then the dozen crammed in this house could at least have a slice of it.
When the game on TV ended, the boys tumbled outside and lived it all over again, deep into dark. Then came Sunday and even more Irish in the house, grandparents born and bred in the old land, along with aunts and uncles and cousins, gathering in the basement to sing the old songs on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.
So how could the roast beef just disappear"? It couldn't! Out with it, demanded Mrs. O'Leary. Her children blinked at her, all denying knowledge. Well, then, we'll see. For three days she served sad leftovers for supper, waiting for the children to crack, but by then they'd been hardened, known suppers during hard times that were just a plateful of mashed potatoes tinted ominously red by baby-food beets. The Blessed Mother works in mysterious ways, her wonders to perform. Sarge, the family mutt, sauntered in from the backyard with the string from the roast beef dangling from his arise, and the O'Learys at last sat down to some decent grub.