By Sue Moynagh
I have very few memories of my father, Donald Moynagh. He died in January 1957 at the age of 28 from complications following what should have been a routine operation. I was 4 years old at the time, but I remember saying goodbye as he packed to leave for the hospital. I also remember walking up Harrison Street with my Aunt Helen, heading towards Dirsa’s Funeral Parlor on Providence Street. She asked if I would like to give my father a flower and I said yes. I took the carnation she had plucked from a wreath and placed it in my father’s hand, alongside his rosary. A flag was draped over the coffin. At some level, I understood he would not be coming home again.
Other memories vary in length and clarity, like clips from a video or the grainy black and white snapshots in a photo album. I remember visiting his parents in East Brookfield. Their home was on Lake Lashaway where he loved to swim. I was playing in the shallow water while he swam further out. My mother and grandmother sat nearby, but I decided I wanted to “swim” to him. The next thing I remember was being under the water and feeling two strong hands grasp me and pull me up and back to shore. Another strong memory that I treasure is of the time he took me to a carnival. I remember he held me on the merry-go- round, and watched while I was on the miniature train. He comforted me as I screamed in terror at the (to me) life- sized marionettes, and seemed bemused as I sat entranced by the man sitting in a box covered with snakes. I have shorter memories of the time we spent together, most of them centered in the months after we moved into the apartment on Harrison Street where I still live.
Did I grow up feeling the loss of my father, as if I were somehow incomplete without his presence? At that young age, loss was just a part of life. My mother and older family members keenly felt the changes caused by his passing, but I don’t think I felt that sense of loss as deeply as they did. My mother and I were now a family, but we lived close to her sisters, brother and my maternal grandparents. I had an army of cousins to keep me company, so I was never lonely. My uncle Tony made sure I was included in most of his family’s excursions to the beach, to movies, or to the lake for a quick swim. He was almost like a father in many ways, a positive adult male figure in my life, but still not a full time dad.
When I was very young, I sometimes wondered what it would be like if he hadn’t died, if he were still part of our lives. Would we have had a home of our own? Would there have been siblings? I have often asked family members about my father. What was he like? Where did he work? How did my parents meet? I managed to gather some facts about my dad, but nothing that gave me insight about the real man. I know that he worked as a truck driver, liked to swim, and fish. He enjoyed carpentry, and loved children. I have a collection of facts, but never learned what made my father tick; his passions, his aversions, fears, hopes, mannerisms, quirks, that is, his true self.
For some reason, when a person dies, there is a need to accentuate the positive qualities of this individual, and ignore the not- so positive aspects, even though the negative qualities also made the person a “real,” whole human being. This happened after my father died. I suppose my family meant well, wanting me to have a beautiful portrait of my dad to treasure, but over time, their descriptions of him made him sound as if he were a cross between Superman and Jesus. Glowing descriptions of his personality and exploits were fine when I was very young; they made me proud of him. As I grew older, there was a desire to know more about who Donald Moynagh really was.
There are many gaps in my knowledge about his life. I know almost nothing of his youth. After he died, the family disposed of almost everything he owned, their way of seeking closure and moving on. Most of those who grew up with him have also passed on. It is easy to gather biographical facts, but I will never be able to know him as a human being. For instance, I don’t know how passionate he was about his faith. I remember he tried to teach me to say my prayers at bedtime, but I don’t remember going to church. Did I inherit my love of nature from him? My love of reading? My bad temper? In this sense I sometimes feel a sense of loss, not knowing how we were and are connected a few physical characteristics.
I am currently working on my family tree, especially on my father’s side where records are more complete. I still hope to find some clues to the person he was from these old records. By understanding him, I will better appreciate the man he was, and how his life impacted my own.