And One Fine Morning Memories of My Father
Forward: Photograph, 1954
The best way to introduce you to my father is to start with a photo.
He was at the top of his game. It was 1954. His eyes looked straight into the camera. He smiled in anticipation. A new suit added a touch of style. The newspaper had recently described him as an award winning architect. He could not know that in a few months a series of heart attacks and strokes would cut him down, cost him his left leg, impair his speech, and cripple his gift for painting and drawing. Two years after the photograph, one last heart attack killed him.
The suit was the only thing the undertaker got right. At the wake, I remember looking at the open coffin and thinking the smile was wrong. The undertaker knew better. He had known my father since they were kids on the play grounds of Minneapolis’ North Side. The undertaker had never liked that smile. My father was mocking him, he might have thought. He had wired my father’s lips shut and closed in a straight line. Everyone knew my father’s smile sloped up to the left as if he were about to wink. By straightening out his lips, the undertaker gave him a frown. The part in my father’s hair was also wrong. Only the suit and double Windsor knot were right. My father took the suit and tie away with him.
In the photograph, his lips parted in his smile as if he is about to tell another story. My father loved nothing more than to tell a good story. When he said of someone that he had nothing to say, it was an insult. It was a fault that could not be corrected and an admonishment to us. Be polite but don’t expect much of this guy.
More than fifty years later, I can still see my father smoking a Camel, martini in hand holding forth to the smiles and laughter of his friends and family. I loved nothing more than to sit beside him in the living room, on lawn chairs in the backyard, or at the table of Harry’s, his favorite bar and restaurant. I would smile or laugh pretending to comprehend the stories of old priests, his Irish-American boyhood on the North Side of Minneapolis, his days as a man about town when both he and Minneapolis came of age together. Sometimes he lectured on architecture, ridiculing a rival’s work or explaining how the curvature of the woodwork in a certain church conveyed the concept of grace.
Memory is life’s second act. My father’s started on an afternoon in June 1956, the day of his funeral. After his burial, his memory rode home with the crowd that came to our house. I was eight years old. My ears took in everything. There were his friends, a clan of relatives, and all those priests and nuns – all of them laughing and re-telling stories my father told and the stories told about him.
That was when I began collecting the pieces of this story. Throughout my childhood and youth, family gatherings revolved around stories about him. My mother’s stories mixed fondness with a few unresolved issues and provided a counter-balance to his sister, my Aunt Eileen’s undiluted adoration of her brother. In the Catholic schools of my youth, priests and nuns would stop me in the hall. They would begin, Your father was such a great guy, and soon I was filing another anecdote for the story. His things remained in my childhood home. Watercolors and drawings, clothing, diaries, letters, and a navy locker full of memorabilia lived with us until much later when my mother re-married, sold the house and divided his things among her four sons and the Goodwill.
I am now older than my father ever was. My doctor tells me that I have less time left than I had thought. I spent my life searching for things of the past. I made a career out of the pursuit of the past as an historian of a foreign country and another time. All the while, I have carried my father’s memory with me the way my great-grandmother Anne always wore a picture of her late husband, my great-grandfather Michael, set in a cameo tied in a silk band around her neck. Just as Michael remained forever forty and with Anne as she aged in widow’s black, my father is forever forty-something in the memory I have carried as I have become his older companion.
It’s time to tell our story. Along the way, I have opened a few archives, dusted the silverfish off old documents, sorted through legends, letters, paintings and photos, and made a bit of sense out of his life and times.
I had a girlfriend in college who said I had more of a father in my dead one that she had in her living one. She said I should write a book about him. This is it.
It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
In death, there is always hope.
-An Irish Proverb
“There was a time, not so long ago, when Irish Catholic priests strode as giants among men, and when fathers, cut down in mid-life prime, were heroes to their young sons. This affectionate and insightful biography and tribute to Minneapolis architect, artist, and family man Mark Hayes by his son Nick spins a tale of the mid-50s which resonates with warmth and loss a half-century later. The author shows not only the life of a son of Ireland achieving the postwar American dream, but encapsulates the history of Irish emigration to the Canadian and American prairies and beyond. And One Fine Morning illuminates how a man defines himself as a professional, a family man, an American. Although the memoir begins in 1947 in Minneapolis, the sense of time is fluid: everything which made Mark Hayes and his family who they are, and all that son Nick becomes, are vividly and evocatively chronicled in this heartfelt tribute. At once truthful (sometimes painfully so) and loving, we see a complex portrait of a man balancing his artistic dreams and ambitions against the societal obligations of family and community. Nick Hayes draws Northside Minneapolis (and later, the southwest suburbs) with great vividness and energy. Community players spring to life: priests like Father John Dunphy of Ascension Parish ruled their flock with a muscular fist within a velvet glove. Irish-Amercians were held to a high standard in their churches, on the football fields (the section on sports at “D”, as DeLasalle High School is called by alums, is full of rough-and-tumble glory), in their work and service to their community. The Irish had finally made it in America. No longer marginalized caricatures, they belonged in a country which was soon to elect the first Irish Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. Much was expected and much delivered by the sons and daughters of prairie immigrants. We follow Mark Hayes from a farm background, excellent high school education at “D”, a World War II naval career, and a brief but stellar career as the architect of postmodern buildings (some of the most soaring passages are about modern architecture and Mark Hayes’ collaboration with famed Finnish architect Elial Saarinen). Nick’s father died at the age of 47, a life of promise cut short by a combination of congenital heart disease, Camel cigarettes, martinis and a hard-striving personality. His son inherited his father’s eye for detail, wry humor, and the gift of telling a great tale. This memoir would make a great Christmas gift for anyone interested in local history, Irish-Americans, and good storytelling: in short, for anyone.”
SHERRY LADIG, is an Irish traditional musician and former reviewer for the Hungry Mind Bookstore’s newsletter, Fodder.
Photographs from And One Fine Morning.