My great honor occurred Memorial Day morning as I stood beside my Uncle Martin, Mackin, as he’s known in what he calls “the clan,” and we shared solemn ground at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in the sacred Minooka section of Scranton, home base for generations of my father’s side of the family.
A few months ago Mackin, 89, made it clear that he didn’t want a birthday party.
“Wait until 90,” he said.
Yesterday he made the long trek up the hill with the aid of a cane that he used more as a decoration than a necessity to stand by the flagpole and bow his head as the priest led prayer and song among the faithful whom each year get fewer and more far between.
Growing up in Minooka, Mackin – whose nickname’s origin remains a mystery – was my confident uncle who, like my father and two other brothers, served in the military during World War II.
Five sisters rounded out the Corbett family that anchored their precious piece of Cedar Avenue, a place loaded with life, fresh garden tomatoes and the Sunday chicken or goose ready for slaughter on a special occasion.
Five boys and five girls lived in that little company house that eventually served as the home to Mackin’s family, a tight fit for a tight-knit piece of the clan.
All my father’s brothers and sisters distinguished themselves.
Little Ann died as a child, a joy of a little girl who succumbed to Scarlet Fever and whose coffin decorated the bay window facing the street for her viewing.
For the record, forgive me if I get a detail wrong here and there. These are my long-ago memories of my long-ago stories that my father, Shamus, told me after I finished my prayers he tucked me into bed as a boy so very long ago.
Among those many Minooka tales, the saga of his younger brother, Mackin, found its way into my head and my heart.
Shamus, by the way, died 15 years ago today at 78.
Mackin didn’t say much when he returned from the war, Shamus said. Mackin saw too much pain to foist that despair on anyone. So he carried it himself. That bravery exemplified Mackin, Shamus said. That courage is there anytime you look in his eyes, my father told me.
I looked yesterday and there it was.
So much experience glistened yesterday in My Uncle Mackin‘s eyes.
Courage, pride, love, loss and the long, hard road from yesterday had taken him to the soft green grass of St. Joe’s, where the names of family and friends are carved into the stone of weathered tombstones.
After the service - with Mackin telling me that he had put the priest “on the clock” and that the Father could have done a real Mass, including communion, rather than a few Hail Marys and a sprinkle of water here and there – Mackin, my wife, Stephanie, and I walked to where so many have walked before, to the spot where his mother and father, my grandmother and grandfather, rest in soft earth of a dangerous promised land that welcome “Pa” from Ireland when he came from there to here. As the song says, indeed, it’s a long, long way from there to here. But here is where the heart is.
“You proved me wrong,” Mackin said as we stood by one of the plots that holds the remains of so many young and old – each as special as the last - who went before.
Yeah, I thought, after saying goodbye to the coal fields and living in California for five years, Stephanie and I came home. Apparently nobody thought we would return. Because Shamus was a state trooper and we lived elsewhere, I hadn’t grown up here as did most of my aunts, uncles and cousins. But I came back to my roots because I needed the roller coaster of emotion that will likely always define Scranton – particularly Minooka - and its people.
Had I stayed in California, among other blessings, I would not have shared this magic moment with the last of the 10 Corbetts who believed with all their heart that nothing compared to their little town and the often chaotic tribal life that went with it.
I’m partial to chaos myself.
So welcome home.
Mackin and I talked about Ireland and unions and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, about how people who understood the sometimes bitter trials of life treated him like “a messiah” during the Depression. Mackin spoke of when “my father brought his farm” with him from Ireland and planted and tended his many vegetables like a master when the work day was done underground, where he worked his way up from laborer to miner and retired with black lung after 45 years in that black deep hell hole.
Yes, yesterday was Memorial Day, and Mackin had a lot of memorializing to do.
As he stood by my side, he never flinched in the sweltering sun. Sweat glistened from his tanned ski, seasoned from the time he puts in planting his own garden and the hour he spends each day picking up litter and cans around the cemetery road. In his red tie and white shirt, his features made him look like my father’s twin. I tried to keep courage glistening in my own eyes.
Mackin hit the beach on D-Day, helped liberate the concentration camps and helped people all his life, Shamus told me. As a labor leader, Mackin called strikes and settled strikes, Shamus said. Mackin understood the value of fairness and did something about it.
My Uncle Mackin stood up for what was right.
And yesterday I stood with him - home, where he and I both belong, surrounded by the spirit of all that is holy, strong, right and good, committed to do our best whenever duty calls.