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As time goes by, family connections endure

February 27, 2002|BY BOB MAGINNIS

The first time I remember seeing my Uncle Harry was on a Saturday morning in the late 1950s. I had gotten up early and tiptoed down the stairs to watch cartoons. I looked out the window to see if anyone was playing yet and there sat my uncle in his car, watching our house for some signs of life.

I woke my parents and in he came, bringing a box of sweet rolls from the Chillum Bakery. While I licked the icing off my fingers, he and my dad talked, then went off to play a round of golf.

Sometimes we'd visit him, and if my father saw Harry was holding an ice bag to his head to ease one of his frequent migraine headaches, the kids were shushed and sent out back to play in a neighborhood very different from the one where the Maginnis brothers grew up.

That was in Girardville, Pa., in what they call the hard coal region of the state. The first time I visited I was amazed by the heaps of slag - waste from coal mining - that surrounded the town. Imagine mountains of dirty gravel, hundreds of feet high and covered with brown dust, with small trees just beginning to grow on the upper slopes.

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The boys were sons of an assistant district attorney with a big family, in a day when lawyering didn't pay what it does now. My grandfather died when dad was just 2, after fighting off an attempt to disbar him for the so-called sin of exonerating a defendant rather than convicting him.

After that, things got really tough and the family ended up in Washington, D.C. during the Depression. The story is told that the three brothers who survived - two others passed away - were so poor that when someone gave them passes to a horse track, they passed one pair of glasses back and forth to watch the ponies run.

But eventually they prospered, two in government service and Harry as a Congressional aide and later a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. It was said at his funeral that he liked the finer things in life, and that was certainly true. The Saturday he showed up in his canary yellow 1963 Impala convertible, smoking a big cigar, half the street came out to gawk at the gleaming chariot.

But his prosperity did not make him selfish. My mother recently reminded me recently that when we were little children, he'd come by a couple times each summer and take us to a carnival. That was something we couldn't afford on our own, though my father was always reluctant to let anybody pick up the check for him.

For that reason, when Harry wanted us our family to go on vacation with his, he called one of his lobbying clients and arranged to have my mother win a contest she didn't remember entering. They sent her $100, enough to pay for the trip.

I compared my father unfavorably to Uncle Harry in those days. It was wrong, but what do kids know? He had all this fancy stuff and was even on radio talk shows, for goodness sakes, at a time when the Washington, D.C. airwaves were open only to invited guests. He played the clarinet, recited long poems from memory and was, to a little snot like me, larger than life, or at least the life we had on 18th Avenue in West Hyattsville.

Sometimes he'd take us out for a Sunday outing at the Army-Navy Country Club, where a splash in the pool was followed by a buffet dinner and ice cream sundaes, all served while a live band played.

One Saturday during those years the two brothers took me along to caddy on Army-Navy's course. It was late summer and the humidity seemed to hang in the air like wet sheets. After 18 holes, my father, who rarely played, was whipped and wringing wet.

When Harry suggested that they could get another nine holes in before dark, my father cringed, then picked himself up and, like a boxer determined to finish the match, walked out to the tee.

At day's end, my father shook with fatigue and fell asleep as soon as Harry's car pulled out of the lot. I didn't realize until years later that dad had kept on playing not because he loved golf, but because he loved his brother.

I saw my uncle rarely in recent years, the last time two years ago at the annual family Christmas party. In his 80s by then, he told me he longer golfed because could only walk on level ground. He died shortly after Christmas this year, outliving his baby brother by more than 10 years. The third brother, Paul, is also gone, but that's a story I'll tell another day.

My sons, who grew up 100 miles from D.C., aren't much interested in my father's side of the family. I'm sorry about that, but I understand it. They didn't go on vacation with those folks or play with them as children. For all the connection they feel, I might as well be asking them to attend my high school reunion.

They may appreciate the family connections as they get older, just as I came to appreciate my father more when my own sons came along. I hope my boys stay close to each other and remember that just because you take different paths doesn't mean you have to leave everyone and everything good behind.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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