Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see
Singing a song
Nothing but blue skies
All day long
_ Irving Berlin
Bill McDonough slipped into my life, and he slipped out of it in August.
During the course of his colorful, no-holds barred journey, Bill had a habit of disappearing. If he felt like moving to Florida, he did. Colorado? Not too far. Old Forge? Why not?
He would depart a gathering suddenly, a family tradition that was called “pulling a McDonough.” He was here, then he was gone, but when we got back together, it seemed no time had passed.
The McDonoughs have been part of my life for many years, and I consider them my family. Macaire and Sean, Bill’s niece and nephew, were both my roommates. When I met their Uncle Bill, he became mine. It was like passing down a treasured family heirloom. Of course, the heirloom was transported in a well worn blue pickup named “Desperado,” replete with a Grateful Dead license plate.
Our first meeting, as Bill reminded me on August 9 during my notation of the death of Jerry Garcia, was after a group of my friends traveled to Buffalo for a concert featuring Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Dead. It was post July 4, 1986. When you meet a guy who drives with his real nephew and college friends to a Dead show in a vintage Volvo station wagon, it’s the start of a great adoption. And, oh, the lessons.
The caper grew thicker when Uncle Bill opened a deli, Culinary Adventures, in Wilkes-Barre’s East End. It became the place where college kids went to learn a life skill. Many of us cut our teeth under the knife of Billy, way before cooking became a television drama industry. We made things from scratch, including salad dressing and clam chowder. A fanciful chef (he had the checkered pants), Billy would quietly seethe when some East Ender on a bender wanted hot dogs instead of Chicken Gumbo Ya Ya or any of the other specialties he planned for the more highbrow crowd. After we threw out the customers and cleaned the pots and pans, we were allowed to drink Rolling Rock. We listened to The Kingston Trio, The Dead, The Pogues, The Ramones and Willie Nelson’s “Stardust.” That’s the cassette I associate the most with Billy, hence the above Irving Berlin song that Willie so masterfully covered on that standards record.
There were evenings spent at McKenna’s, owned by Billy’s brother Ed and his wife, Colleen. Ed McKenna was another larger than life figure who left earth way too early. He was known for his annual Irish wake, a tradition that involved keening over the “deceased, “Steve O’Donnell, and more Rolling Rock, sometimes with a sidecar of scotch. My birthday is March 16; St. Patrick’s Day is March 17 and Billy’s birthday was March 19, so you can do the math on that shift.
On May 20, 1989, Billy drove me to St. Gregory’s Church in Clarks Summit. Since I was getting married, I’m pretty surprised that my dad didn’t pay him to bypass the church for the turnpike. Not ready to let go, the McDonough/McKenna clan spent "our" wedding night in the Radisson Lackawanna Station with the couple, dancing to Blue Sparks from Hell and raising considerable cain until the hotel staff insisted it cease.
Billy left for Florida again after that. He did spend an engaging Sunday afternoon in the Bahamas the following year with the Henry's. I was gifted with “the book,” Billy’s family recipes, which I brought safely back to Wilkes-Barre. Thankfully, I photocopied every last one, even the heirloom chili sauce recipe.
Billy eventually returned home, settling in Old Forge, where he would host intimate group dinners with random members of our extended family. He loved to not only cook, but would order everything on the menu from soup to nuts, demonstrating that living well was the best revenge.
On May 30, 1999, I called Billy to ask him what he was doing. “Looking at your father’s picture in the obituaries,” he replied. We made a pact that no one would ever get taken by surprise like this again.
Billy did the most of the calling, unfortunately. There were calls about his brothers. The cruelest blow came on Christmas Day of 2005 in the early morning hours when he called with the news that his beloved nephew, Christopher, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage after a family gathering on Christmas Eve.
When I had phone calls on my caller I.D. from Billy’s sister Teresa and sister-in-law Colleen waiting for me on August 27, I could only assume the worst. Billy slipped away on us again at the age 55, gone much too soon.
The wave of sorrow that followed was indescribable. Heavy rain fell that night, but it paled in comparison to the tears shed by real kin and those of us who didn’t need a blood bond.
I went back over the text messages and emails.
Here is our birthday exchange:
Happy Happy Happy Birthday!
I often think about how lucky I've been to have your family as my family.
Also, I have challenged a student to a reuben making contest and will kick his (butt) thanks to you!
Thank you. Let me know if the student wants to make a wager. You'll kick his (butt) like you did Tony (Bartocci of Entercom) at air hockey. Just saw that there will be a "Super Moon"tonight. Best time to see is near sunset. Kiss the chitlins for us.
Love, Uncle Bill
These punk kids just don't get it. They have no idea what kind of training I went through during my youth.
Thanks. Tell them you lived through "The Great Cheese Steak Caper" and nothing was a challenge after that. I know you are not partaking, but will still appreciate this. Scotch in glass, Sarah Vaughn's "Send in the Clowns" playing, candles burning. Uncle Bill Happy!
So, when I cry these days, which isn’t as much, I cry tears of gratitude for having such an uncle. And, when I have to wait weeks during a relentless time frame that included half a semester of school, work and a large flood, I needed to tell you the story of my uncle. I know he’ll understand. Heck, he’s probably busy at the eternal family reunion.