Mysteries of My Father
In the multilayered memoir Mysteries of My Father, Thomas Fleming presents the tale of his parents’ troubled marriage, his own growth as a man and a Roman Catholic, and the struggles of both lower-class and middle-class Irish Americans to gain acceptance in a Protestant-dominated society, against the background of ward politics in New Jersey.
Fleming, a prolific author and noted historian, began his quest to understand more about his family, especially his father, after an intriguing e-mail message was forwarded to him in 1998. The message had originated in France, where photographer Gil Malmasson had found a ring inscribed “From Mayor Frank Hague to Sheriff Teddy Fleming 1945.” Hoping to return the ring to Fleming’s family, Malmasson had tried for years to learn who Hague and Fleming were. An article he found on the Internet about Hague’s long service as mayor of Jersey City led him to contact the city hall. Coincidentally, the city’s director of communications had attended high school with author Thomas Fleming and knew he was Teddy Fleming’s son.
The ring had been lost by Thomas Fleming three decades earlier, when he was in France to write an article for the fiftieth anniversary of the bloody World War I battle of Argonne. Fleming returned to France to reclaim the ring. Upon his return home, he delved into his family’s personal history and did extensive research into the ward politics in which his father had been involved. With both his mother and his father dead, he relied on his own recollections, conversations with relatives, and diary entries by his mother. He expected that confronting his past would be painful, but he found that doing so enabled him to realize the depth of his father’s love.
Fleming begins his story by re-creating the lives of his parents’ parents, both from Irish American families but of vastly different classes. His paternal grandfather, Davey Fleming, was strong, illiterate, hot-tempered, and unbending in his hatred for the English. From County Mayo on the impoverished West Coast of Ireland, he raged about the Great Famine and the heartless English landowners. His wife, Mary Green Fleming, a petite, cheerful woman, wanted her three children to grow up American rather than focus on the tragedies of the old country.
A poorly paid day laborer in the United States, Davey saw his fortunes sink further in 1893 when the country suffered an economic collapse. To avoid moving his family to the unsanitary, overcrowded almshouse, he began working for the Democratic political machine, voting several times under fake names and intimidating voters who favored the other side. His two sons worked also; Teddy, the author’s father, sold newspapers before school from the age of ten and was known as one of the toughest fighters in the neighborhood. One reason for the family’s continuing poverty was widespread discrimination against the Irish. Many Protestants refused to hire Irish Catholics; when they were hired, it was often at lower wages than other workers received.
Teddy’s rise through the ranks of Sixth Ward politics was interrupted by World War I. The courage and nerve he had exhibited in the ward translated into fearless but compassionate leadership in the Army. His service at the battle of Argonne, one of the decisive battles in France, won him promotion to lieutenant and made him feel validated as an American, but the carnage and random death he saw there weakened his faith in the loving God in whom he had been raised to believe. The horror of the battle of Argonne, as seen through Teddy’s eyes, is brought vividly to life in Fleming’s hands.
Fleming’s mother, Kitty, grew up in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood of mostly Protestants. Her father, Tom Dolan, was born in the United States to Irish immigrants; her mother, Mary Dolan, had emigrated from County Wicklow and worked in a mansion before marrying her father. Unlike the Flemings, the Dolans were educated, spoke standard English without a brogue, and had little interest in U.S. politics or the situation in Ireland. Their life seemed charmed, until their first three daughters died in a typhoid epidemic in 1889. Tom began drinking heavily, refusing to quit even after the births of two more children, Kitty and George. Only help from Tom’s relatives enabled the family to maintain their comfortable existence.
Tom and Mary’s marriage was...
(The entire section is 1810 words.)