By the time I was nine years old, my grandfather’s suit, a chocolate-brown pinstripe with big shoulders and baggy legs, had already gone a lifetime past its prime, the elbows and knees turned paper-thin, the cuffs frayed, the seams beginning to split. For all its many and obvious flaws, though, it remained his most treasured possession — ripe, he liked to claim, with the flavors of every significant moment he’d ever known, the gloriously sunlit days as well as the most tearful ones.
My mother hated the sight of the suit, and was forever at him about getting rid of it.
“We’re the talk of the place,” she used to say, shaking her head in exasperation. “Tramps don’t look as far gone as you do. There can’t be anything more than dirt holding it together.”
But such arguments were lost on him. He’d worn it to a dozen weddings over the years, and to a hundred dances; had it on him the first time he stole a kiss from the woman who’d become his wife, and when each one of his six children (my mother being the last) were dragged into the world; and he’d stood broken-hearted in it at gravesides for the burials of his parents, siblings, and friends. It was even the suit he’d been married in, and the solitary photograph that survives in memory of that day depicts him in his prime at 24 years old, standing tall, broad and handsome beside my grandmother and looking ready to take on all comers. And so, he was not for parting, because what was a bit of grime when measured against such proud and illustrious history?
Every Sunday morning, he made a ritual out of getting dressed for Mass, and I’d sit on the corner of his bed and listen while he remembered aloud in between snatches of old songs he used to hum, until that too became part of the ceremony. The suit’s original tie had long since been lost or given up, and the shirt had many times changed color and cloth, but the jacket and trousers, infused with decades’ worth of snuff, lineament, hound stench, and porter fumes, were the ones that had carried him deep into old age and, he often said, would see him out.
That year, 1984, Bonfire Night, a Cork tradition going back to ancient times and the best night of the entire summer in those days, fell on a Saturday. We’d earmarked a patch of waste ground in Hoggie’s Field behind our park of houses and had spent most of June going door to door, begging and collecting anything that people had stashed in sheds and could be coaxed into giving up. Because of the magnitude of our salvaged hoard, the actual construction of the pyre proved an immense undertaking, stacking into a huge, stable wigwam shape all the scrap wood, dry branches, old newspapers, the wide and varied miscellany of junk, and even three old car tires that we convinced ourselves would ensure a long and ferocious blaze. And when it came to building a fire, everyone, it seemed, wanted in on the action. Men from the estate, remembering days spent around their own Bonnas, came out to watch our progress, and the father of one boy said he’d bring along a canister of petrol on the big night to start the thing really burning, which got us all excited.
The dummy was very much a last-minute decision. I don’t recall who came up with the idea, but cheers went up in response to it and everyone immediately agreed that the fire would be so much better spent if we had a body to burn. One of the boys ran home and returned with his sister’s doll, a fair-sized Raggedy Anne-type thing so far gone in terms of age and attrition, and so filthy from having who-knew-what done to it, that torching it would have been a mercy; but we all quickly agreed that it just wasn’t enough to give us any real satisfaction. And that was when I had my epiphany.
An hour later, the first match was put to our bonfire’s kindling — cautiously, because of how everything had been doused to such ridiculous excess in petrol. Anticipating carnage, all eyes immediately fixated on our man-sized scarecrow of a dummy, who we’d christened Mr. Meade after our school principal, a natural and unanimous choice, impaled high up on the centre post: an old brown suit sporting a punctured orange rubber football for a head, bound in twine at the cuffs, neck, and ankles and stuffed to bloating with great wads of straw and newspaper.
No one heard my grandfather coming until screams rang out from an outer edge of the large gathering, in response to the first connecting pucks. And then, there he was, wildly swinging the hurley stick that back in May I had so lovingly and liberally ribboned in metal splicing, wading into us, not caring who he clouted or where his lashes were landing. Men, women and children scattered in a gale of howls and charged away in all directions, many of them in their gores, the rest desperately rubbing the pain from skinned knees and shocked elbows.
I ran, too, of course, but once I had made it to a safe distance, almost to Hoggie’s gate, I stopped and looked back and from there watched the old man, now finally alone, repeatedly trying to brave the fire until suddenly the suit high above him caught and exploded into flames, forcing him back. For a few seconds, he just stood there, reddened by the great glow, and then he dropped to his knees and buried his face in his hands.
He didn’t hold it against me, and after a day or two we went back to the way we’d always been with one another. “Forget it, Bill,” he said, when I tried to bring it up. “You meant no harm. And sure, wasn’t I a boy myself, once upon a time, and up to devilment every bit as bad and likely worse besides?”
I was grateful for those words, but they were a kind of punishment, too. I had not been intentionally cruel, but I had been thoughtless, and irresponsible, and it was harder to forgive myself than to be forgiven for just how much I’d hurt him. Knowing I was capable of this, well, it changed me. Because I had to live with what I’d done.
As far as summer goes, growing up is the very worst thing that can happen to us. I suppose it’s why we cling to memories and make such precious gems of them. When my grandfather eventually died, a few years later, that Bonfire Night was all anyone could talk about. Someone even said that we had right to cremate him, so that he and the old brown suit could have been finally reunited. People stood around in the graveyard, and in the pub afterwards, shaking their heads and laughing at the thought of that, and more than a few of them couldn’t help but reach to rub again at old remembered bruises.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now