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Remembering Joe

March 22, 2018

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When I was growing up in Scotland and then England, whenever I thought of Sag Harbor on Long Island I could only imagine  a blue aerogramme letter on the mantelpiece, the address almost indecipherable in the hurried scrawl. The writing was no better inside the letter – could someone’s address really be “My Blue Heaven, Garden St”?

My Uncle Frank wrote to his brother, my dad, Paul, every week – so there were lots of letters – but, back in the fifties, far fewer pictures. However, when pictures came, they usually featured my cousins – two pretty girls, with undeniable Irish American good looks, and their  brother – a sharp suited business type, who looked to me every inch an American. I suppose today’s generation might want to envisage the style of TV’s “Mad Men”.

I had actually met Marie when I was very young, and Eileen in the sixties when I was a teenager, when they had come on European tours – but their brother Joe’s European business had been with the military in post war Germany,  and I had only ever seen him through these pictures sent by his proud father.

So Joe was a cousin kind of “removed” to me as I grew up, partly because I had never met him, and partly because of his  movement round the US – taking him from “Repo Man” to Vice President at General Motors.

As I got older I eventually got to see Sag Harbor for myself and stay with Uncle Frank at Garden St and meet all the folks. Inevitably, I fell head over heels in love with the place, as well as the extended family and their friends.

But, because it’s the way that lives go, it wasn’t until Joe had retired back to Sag Harbor and after he’d lost both his son, Stephen, and his beloved wife, Claudia, that we finally got to meet.

I have a fairly limited family circle,  and my three American cousins have always been very important to me, so flying the Atlantic to meet Joe for the first time was kind of a big deal. In addition, Rosie and Patrick would be meeting that part of the family for the first time. It’s fair to say I had some nerves as we flew the Atlantic at Easter 2001.

Joe was to meet us at JFK, and we exited the Arrivals area looking for the sharp suited cousin I thought I knew well from decades of photographs. We never found him – instead, we found Joe McPartlin, about to become, for real, my “Cuz”.

We had been delayed in the baggage hall and only one guy was waiting. We looked at each other:

“John?”

“Joe?”

Before me was a very fit looking man dressed for going out on his boat, or playing golf, or clearing the yard! In an instant I realised I was meeting the real Joe rather than the corporate version.

We talked easily all the way out to Sag Harbor, a warmth was established immediately. As our dads had been so close, maybe this was something that had been handed down.

In many ways, we were different. For me, a beach is somewhere to walk thoughtfully or sit and read a book, for Joe it was a venue for sports and challenge. My house is overloaded with books, Joe’s garage is overloaded with adventure equipment. In retirement, I am quite happy to follow the route the day might take, Joe was an organiser and planner.

The beauty was – and all who loved him must have found this – because he made things happen, you inevitably enjoyed every minute in his company. The twinkle was never far from his eye – when he threw some corn at me before  a meal on his deck and attempted to show me how to “shuck”; when Patrick and I reduced him to tears of laughter as we attempted to throw an American football on the beach, and the great day when we went clamming – and Joe plucked the shells out of the water with the air of a magician, while we struggled to find a solitary sample.

Equally, to go out in the bay on his boat, his thoughtfulness in letting Patrick steer, the joy he showed out on the water, the ease of our conversation – all of this stored love and memories.

Family meals at his house were particularly special. He was a brilliant host, even taking care to ask in advance – what would you like to eat? The hospitality was easy and genuine and it was not difficult  to see it as descended from big family meals shared by our grandparents and our fathers in Buccleuch St in Edinburgh. This was the closest we would ever get to that, and I loved every minute sitting at the McPartlin table.

Inevitably at such occasions, our other great “difference” would be discussed. Politically, Joe and I were apparently miles apart. However, being Joe, for all his “liberal baiting” when we were around – a sport greatly employed against his niece, Kathleen, who also delighted in setting the hare running, behind Joe’s politics was a “need to know and understand”. He didn’t condemn my politics, he asked me to explain them – and though he was often mystified by my left leaning views, he never sought to dismiss them outright. As in so much, his question was always: “Why?” He saw politics as a means of making people’s lives better, and when that failed to happen, he wondered. Often, latterly, our chats would end with him shaking his head and musing: “Well, what are we gonna do?”

One epic meal at Tredwell Lane included a discussion on the USSR which Rosie had previously visited. The two of them got on well, Joe appreciating Rosie’s forthright views, and the discussion was good humoured but seeking insight  and information, and totally without  rancour – which displayed the affection between us all.

At the end, with a broad grin, Joe proudly displayed the campaign acknowledgement letter he had received from John McCain. As we left, he hugged Rosie and twinkled: “Thank you for your input, Rosemary!”

It was a typical Joe McPartlin moment, reducing us all to laughter. We treasure it, and still use the phrase at the end of every hard fought discussion!

I think it’s the measure of a man when he can differ from your views but still value your opinion – one of Joe’s many rare qualities.

In his Faith he was uncompromising – a trait passed from our grandfather through his own father, and his mother. Inevitably, being Joe, his Faith was translated into action – with his counting the money each week at St Andrew’s and fundraising for the church refurbishment – showing all the persistence gained in his first employment as a “Repo man”! But, in reality, his Faith in action was in his love of humanity, his devotion to his family, and his care for them and pride in all their exploits.

To know Joe was to love him – it’s a trite phrase but it carries the truth of simplicity. The expectation of his company brought a lightening of the spirit.

My favourite memories of him are simple and quietly demonstrative. We would be sitting in the yard at  Marie and Al’s in Joel’s Lane, enjoying breakfast and family conversation. A couple of times it was a Monday morning and we would be leaving for home later that day. The side gate would open and in would come Joe, coffee cup in hand, “just passing”, having been at the church.

There would be a few minutes chat, before a brief goodbye – but we would all recognise the affection in Joe’s calling in to greet us. He proved you can convey love without being overly demonstrative, another measure of the style and quality of the man.

Of course we will miss him dreadfully – though I cannot begin to imagine the size of the love-shaped hole his passing will leave in the daily lives of his beloved family – Marie and Al, Pat, his children, and his grandchildren.

We try to console ourselves with the knowledge that we had time together, we shared our love, and we got to know this very special man.

On hearing he had lost his final battle, I shared the news on social media for friends and family. The words I wrote were my first reaction and I cannot better them now:

I’m quite heartbroken to share with family and friends that my cousin Joe McPartlin, of Sag Harbor, New York, has finally lost his last and bravest battle.
Joe and I waited fifty years to meet for the first time but I like to think we’ve made up for it since.
It was an instant connect and I loved him dearly. He, in turn, as all who knew him would expect, returned that love to me and Patrick and Rosie. His hospitality, joie de vivre, concern for others, and, above all, love of family, was legendary, and I am so proud to have been part of it.
He was an inspiration to many, a family patriarch like no other, strong in Faith, high on humour, driven by integrity and honesty, most of all he was a good man who loved life.
He is irreplaceable and my heart goes out tonight to his beloved family – his “troops” – for whom holidays will never be quite the same again but who will hopefully gain comfort from a million wonderful memories of his love, and to Pat – a soul mate if ever there was one.
There will never be another Joe McPartlin – I’m just so glad we were able to know and love him.
How typical he would arrive in Heaven between the feast of St Patrick and his own feast day of St Joseph. He welcomed so many so well to Tredwell Lane – now it’s his turn to be welcomed.
Go well, Cuz. We love you.

 

 

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