John and Mary Treacy were off the boat Irish.
Coming to America in the 1920’s they found a small house on the
south edges of what is now called Wrigleyville in Chicago and raised
two children; my mom and uncle John.
Grandma and grandpa took well to the American
ways except for a few. Grandma never got used to having a
refrigerator and made a trek to the local stores each day for that
evening’s meal. And Grandpa John, although fluent in English, had an
Irish brogue so thick that sometimes you weren’t sure what the heck
he was saying.
Grandpa was a big man. Standing six foot one or
more and probably 245 pounds, he was what we would say was a
barrel-chested man with arms that were the size of most men’s
Grandpa worked laying the huge drainage and
soil pipes that the growing city required and it was a tough,
physical task that brought him home in the evenings looking like he
had been in a fight.
We lived about a mile from their house so that
wasn’t much of a trip for me on my bike most evenings when I was
really hungry and needed a big, good meal.
Now I want it made clear that I am certain my
dear mother is in heaven. I am also certain that she has nothing to
do with kitchen duties in the great beyond. Grandma Mary was a great
cook, my mom only knew one way to cook something and that was burned
to a crisp. Thus, when given the opportunity, I biked on over to
grandma and grandpa’s
My clearest memories of Grandpa are of him
sitting at the dinner table in his tee shirt with a towel draped
across his neck. “Michael, a person isn’t eating if they don’t break
into a sweat” he always said
I will never forget grandma pulling grandpa’s
steak out of the oven: a steak that actually was a roast for eight
people. Then there were the huge mixing bowls of cooked onions,
mashed potatoes, green beans or corn and a loaf of Irish soda bread.
Grandpa had given up heavy drinking many years before but allowed
himself one quart of Millers at the evening meal.
I remember those meals and grandma telling me
not to be shy and eat some more of the 5 pound piece of meat she had
prepared for me those nights.
Sometimes there was a leg of lamb instead of
steak and it was a LEG of lamb, not just a portion of one. I
remember kidding that when the night called for fish, grandma just
brought home a whole tuna for grandpa to devour.
Although I have many fond memories of those
days, one that to this day gives me great sadness is grandpa’s
Just one month after grandpa retired at age 62,
he passed out and was taken to the hospital for the first time in
his life. Grandpa, like many from across the seas, had been born at
The diagnosis was leukemia and within just a
short month he was gone. Dr. Loftus said that grandpa had the
Leukemia for a long time but he was such a strong man that the
symptoms didn’t get the better of him till it was far too late to do
anything about the disease.
I recall at the time being mad at God for
taking Grandpa John. I had looked forward to his seeing me graduate
from high school and I recall feeling cheated when I received my
The years have given me at least some wisdom
and I realize now that God called grandpa at that time because there
was something impossible that needed to be done in heaven and only
grandpa could get the job done.
And that leads me to the story.
When grandma and grandpa bought their small
house on Seminary Street, the house had one normal size bedroom and
2 smaller ones that were for mom and Uncle John.
[to top of second
There was no garage and only a crawlspace under the 65 foot by 20
foot house so grandpa had nowhere to keep tools and other things
that a fix-it-upper has to have.
Mom said one day grandpa decided he was going
to dig a basement under the house and Grandma Mary agreed they
Grandpa, of course wasn’t going to have the job
hired out. Nor did he have the money to rent any special equipment.
So every night after a full day of hard labor, grandpa would dig
into the crawlspace using a shovel and a few big, galvanized buckets
to hold the dirt.
Filling the buckets, grandpa would walk them
out to a mound he had started in the yard near the alley. As time
went by, the mound of dirt by the alley got so large that after dark
he would carry buckets of it across the street and scatter it in the
Everyone in the neighborhood who needed fill
also were invited to take as much of the dirt as they wanted.
My mother said that for 3 years grandpa, with
weekend help from Uncle Pat, dug and carried and tunneled their way
under the house.
In the end, grandpa then carried concrete
materials into the hole and poured walls along the perimeter.
I always marveled at hearing this story when I
walked through the 65 foot by 20 foot basement with a 7 foot high
ceiling as a youngster.
To this day, I use that story when I find
myself challenged by something I have decided to take on that
initially seems impossible to accomplish.
I think what must have gone through grandpa’s
mind that first night when he opened the crawlspace window and
shoveled out his first scoop of dirt.
Surely he knew what the goal was. But just as
surely he couldn’t have focused on how hard and how long it would
take to accomplish the task.
Instead, shovel by shovel, he worked to make a
difference in getting towards his end result.
And so I keep that lesson with me when I find
myself biting off more than I can chew. I forget about thinking
about how hard something will be: or how long it might take. Instead
I go at the problem one shovel full at a time, concentrating on what
I am accomplishing this minute with worries about what I will need
to do tomorrow to wait until tomorrow.
Sometimes when I get frustrated or think things
are impossible, I think about grandpa. I think about how he did
something unfathomable just because he never gave up: he never quit.
And I find my second wind.