More Than an Uncle
By Jack McDonough
I think about Tom Duffy often. Even now. Even years after he died.
He was born in Dover, N.H., in 1902 and I’m guessing he must have died sometime around 1980. I remember attending his funeral in what was then St. Joseph’s church in Dover’s south end. I remember feeling a great sadness at his loss, maybe somewhat equal to that of my father’s death years earlier.
Why, I often wonder, does he hold such a prominent place in my memory. He wasn’t a blood relative. He was married to my mother’s sister, Florence. The two married late in life and never had children. Maybe in some way I represented a son Tom never had. He and my father, who was only two years older, were close friends.
One of the earliest memories of Tom goes back some eighty years. It must have been a family event at the beach, probably York Beach in Maine. I remember seeing my father and some other men walking into the ocean through breaking waves. They’d jump each one and keep going to the next. I was by myself and wanted to catch up. I suppose I managed to clear a few of them but before long, because I was small, the next wave slammed me back into the water and carried me, submerged face down, in toward the shore. Then a pair of hands grabbed my arms and lifted me into the air. It was, of course, my uncle Tom Duffy. In retrospect in couldn’t have been a very dangerous episode. But I was helpless against the power of the rushing water and his “rescue” was wonderful. It made an impression that has lasted some eight decades.
A few years later the United States was at war and Tom was drafted into the Army. Because of his age, by then in his mid 40s, he was assigned to a post in this country. In Oklahoma, I think. I was probably about ten years old and he would write me letters, addressing the envelopes with a rank before my name. I guess I began as “Pvt.” John McDonough and over time I became a “Cpl.” and, finally as I remember, I was a sergeant. It was always a thrill to see those letters, if only for the address alone.
I don’t know what first name he wrote on those envelopes but he was the only one in the family who called me Johnny. When really young I was Jackie. Later I evolved into Jack. I was never called John, except by the nuns in school. But Tom called me Johnny and I loved that no matter how old I became. Betty, my wife, calls me Johnny now and I like that. It’s special. She got it from Tom and it fits nicely.
It’s funny the small things I remember. Tom Duffy showed me the easiest way to count coins. You use two fingers to slide two coins off the table and into your other hand until you get to ten or twenty or however many work easily. Put them in a pile and go back for more.
Another memorable but seemingly insignificant moment occurred when I was older. I was at Tom and Florence’s house on the Dover Point Road and I was playing’s Flo’s piano, just for my own amusement. Tom said, “You really like to play, don’t you?” It doesn’t sound like much in the telling but that comment has stayed with me ever since. He realized that I was playing the piano because I truly enjoyed it and would have done it if I were there by myself. I guess my father was pleased that I could play but he never made an observation like that.
When I was in the Navy and our ship was at our home pier in Norfolk, Va., I received notice from the Red Cross that there was a death in my family. When I made a phone call home it was Tom Duffy who answered. It was he who told me that my father had died unexpectedly. I returned home the next day and was there with my mother, standing in the living room when Tom and Flo came in. Tom walked over to me and shook my hand and kept going alone into the front hall. He was saving me from a display of his own grief — just as he saved me from the ocean many decades earlier.