Gimme Shelter: The baby of the family

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO

This column appeared in a slightly different version on Memorial Day 2014.

He was the man I never knew, the man who gave me my name.

He was brought closer to me through a phone call I got one afternoon. An editor at the Washington Post, where I freelance occasionally, phoned to say a man who lived in the D.C. area had called and wanted to know if I would contact him. The name Timothy Donleavy didn’t ring a bell, but I called, and when a man answered I identified myself.

He asked if I was related to an Ambrose Clancy who had grown up in Ridgewood, a neighborhood straddling the Brooklyn-Queens border.

My uncle, I told Mr. Donleavy.

“I didn’t think there were too many Ambrose Clancys around,” he said. “When I saw the byline last week, I thought I should try to get in touch with you.”

My uncle, my father’s brother, had been the youngest of five, just like me. But to me, Ambrose was just a framed high school yearbook picture on my grandmother’s dresser of a smiling, handsome teenager. He was real for me only as quickly spoken, affectionate memories, related mostly by my mother.

My father, who had been the oldest in his family, rarely spoke of him. But his name, said by my mother as she recalled him, always produced a bright smile from my father, but little more. He did tell me how his youngest brother, “the baby” of his family, hated that designation as much as I did.

Another connection was his nickname, Amby, which I inherited and also hated by the time I was 11 or so. By 16 no one called me that at my surly insistence, except my father, who got a pass. The sound of the nickname was different in his voice, something tender, more intimate.

My father said the name to me on his deathbed the night before he died — just that, with no other words attached.

For my mother, Ambrose was a wild, good-hearted boy, a brother-in-law 15 years younger than she, who was always around the house, she said, an eager babysitter for her three little ones. (My sister Liz and I came along later, so Liz never met Ambrose, either.) It was obvious from my mother’s stories that Ambrose, who adored his older brother, had also been more than a little in love with his vivacious sister-in-law.

Mr. Donleavy said he had grown up with Ambrose in the old neighborhood, elementary school boys at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in the 1930s. Then both boys got scholarships to Regis High School, the private, Jesuit college prep in Manhattan, where some gifted Catholic boys from all over the city got a free ride. The long subway rides to Manhattan bound the two even closer, Mr. Donleavy told me.

“He was my best friend, the one who makes you laugh, who cheers you up, who shares difficulties with you,” Mr. Donleavy said.

The scholarship boys also went to Notre Dame together, in the fall of 1943, but their academic careers were cut short. “Along with a lot of other fellas our age, we felt we had to be in it,” he said.

“It” was World War II. “So Amby and I enlisted in the army together on the same day.”

They were sent to basic training at Camp Upton in Yaphank. Mr. Donleavy laughed at the memory. “The fellas thought he was crazy. He never moaned about basic to them. But he did with me.”

The two boys shipped out to England in early 1944, where they were finally separated, with Ambrose going into an infantry regiment, and Mr. Donleavy headed to a tank company.

Ambrose went into France on the second day of the invasion. Six weeks later, Mr. Donleavy got a letter from him. “It was upbeat, but near the end, he wrote, ‘I hope you never have to come to this place.’ By the time I got the letter he’d already been dead a few days.”

Timothy Donleavy served with honor, fighting all the way to the Rhine, until May, 68 years ago. After the war, he moved away from Ridgewood, and my family went to Illinois. Connections were lost.

My father, my mother told me years later, became a bit unhinged at his baby brother’s death. He pursued government officials maniacally to find out, in every detail, exactly how Ambrose had died. He was making plans, at great expense with money he didn’t have, to get his body back to New York for re-burial, but my mother finally convinced him to stop.

In the 1970s, my parents and Liz went to Paris one winter for a week and took a long day trip to the American cemetery to visit Ambrose’s grave for the first time. Liz, in her early 20s, said the experience produced one of the shocks of her young life.

My mother had spent the train trip recalling happy memories to cheer up my father, who was trying to be good company, but had finally retreated behind his copy of the International Herald Tribune.

At the gravesite my father did shed a quiet tear or two, but it was my mother’s reaction that astonished my sister.

“She was livid,” Liz told me. “So angry. It was his grave, seeing his name, and all the crosses, the whole madness of wars.”

She raged on bitterly until they were on the train back to Paris, when my father’s comforting finally took effect.

The shock was that my mother was consistently even-tempered. She never spoke of war or politics, except to give a brief shake of her head at the mention of either. That was my father’s territory.

But that winter day in the graveyard, my mother crossed a line. She grieved by spitting her fury at what had been done to her young brother-in-law, dead at 19, and all of his comrades buried around him. And then she stopped, and remembered him ever after for his optimism, his joy in living, his love and bravery.

This Memorial Day we remember the dead, and also the families, as we should, of veterans everywhere. Nowadays we sympathize with veterans and the difficulties they face: Fighting in ill-defined wars, and for too many, coming home to heartbreaking problems caused by their service.

But we should also remember that finding a way to live in peace with others and yourself after combat isn’t just the lot of many modern day veterans. That search has been there forever.

My uncle, though, was spared those troubles. The man I never knew, who gave me my name, will always be 19.

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