Jim mended slowly from leaving his marriage; we lived apart. However, when a school district offered me an administrative position, Jim said, “Let’s live together.” We did. Then, after Jim’s divorce became final, we married in a judge’s law office. Romantics that we were, we both had gone to work in the morning and celebrated by dining out that evening with Ellen, my daughter, the other important person in my life. Over the years we celebrated birthdays and anniversaries with dinner or lunch at a restaurant.
A sensitive soul with demons and self-doubts, Jim was a respected administrator, who worked hard and fostered loyalty. If school began at 8:30, Jim was there at 7:00. He served the teachers and the principal, who considered him his consigliere. Not only did Jim work long days, he also worked long weeks. When I met him, he had his day job, his night job and his weekend jobs – one at a Yeshiva – and when he quit the weekend job, he immediately became an adjunct instructor at a local college, where I taught also.
Jim cared about making a difference in education. One piece of advice he gave me when I stepped into my first administrative job was, “Do everything you can to help teachers improve, but be prepared to make a decision one way or the other the very first time you observe them.”
He had a beautiful voice, was soft-spoken and mild-mannered. Only once do I recall his losing his temper at work. Those of us who heard his raised voice were stunned. Jim Tierney shouting? I mustered the courage to ask him what had happened. He winked at me. He said, “I wasn’t angry. It was meant for everyone to hear.” He grinned and said, “It’s important that people think you’re a little nuts.” He was right. We all toed the line after that.
When I became a supervisor, college lecturer, assistant superintendent, trainer, writer, speaker, whatever, I turned to Jim to help solve problems, because his skills, gut, patience, good sense and wit were invaluable.
For example, in my new district, the superintendent delighted in using my shiny, new doctorate as a wedge among his other administrators. Divide and conquer, I supposed. Each quarter the superintendent evaluated us with a ‘motivational document’ he had developed. On each of over 200 items, he gave a ‘C’ for commendable, ‘S’ for satisfactory or ‘N’ for needs improvement. After each evaluation the administrators would gather and ask each other, “How many Cs did you get?” Jim had suggested that, after the evaluation, I innocently ask my colleagues, “How do you get Cs?” I did. Immediately, my colleagues became solicitous. With one strategic question, my guru had diffused the tension.
While Jim had a Machiavellian, sardonic sense of humor, he was also a self-effacing loner, who frequently said, “I’m not good at small talk.” Despite that opinion, people were struck by his intelligence, humor and enviable command of language. He had a mellifluous voice and a wonderful laugh. But he struggled with a sense of inadequacy. Believe it or not, he was loath to change a light bulb for fear of breaking it. He would ask me, half in jest, what I saw in him. He said, “I am an old man, and you are 16.” Not quite, we were 10 years apart. I was 55 when he was first diagnosed with dementia; he was 65.
As for his physical health, nothing unusual, he struggled with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney stones and, eventually, poor hearing. Ironically, once he became ill, his blood pressure was perfect.
His insecurity probably stemmed from his childhood, about which he often spoke. A Leo, he was born in the Bronx, New York, on August 19, 1932, of an Irish mother and father who had immigrated to the United States. According to her death certificate, his mother, Anna, died of a postpartum hemorrhage on the day of his birth – a fact that colored his life. His father returned to Ireland, and Jim was left in the care of his grandmother, who eventually brought the toddler back to Drimnagh, a working class neighborhood in Dublin, there to be reunited with his father – and his father’s new wife.
Jim often said, “I felt I didn’t belong to that family.” When Jim was a young teenager, he found a Mass card with the name Anna Geary Tierney on it. Only when he confronted his father with it was he told of his mother’s death and learned that his ‘mother’ was his stepmother and the other children, stepbrothers and stepsisters. Only then was he introduced to his mother’s family in Aglish, County Waterford. When I met Jim, he spoke with affection of his Uncle Jack and seemed removed from the rest of his family – particularly his father.
According to Jim, his father was impatient and frustrated by Jim’s lack of manual dexterity and by his love for books. A voracious reader, Jim talked of ‘mitching’ (cutting) from school, strolling along the used bookstalls by the River Liffey, or biking into the Dublin hills to read, or hiding under the covers at night with a book. Jim won a scholarship to the prestigious Synge Street School in Dublin, where, like his father, the Christian Brothers beat him.
Jim needed to read every day: newspapers, magazines and books. He read a daily paper, preferably The New York Times and, on Sundays, he savored his favorite section, the Book Review. Until the editorial changes, he looked forward to the arrival of The New Yorker and read it cover to cover and missed the Saturday Review. Jim’s idea of a good time always included a book: Friel, Parker, Yeats, Wilde, O’Neill, Synge, Shaw, McDonagh, O’Faoláin, Higgins, Trevor, le Carré, Kinnell, and Ellman.
In time, Jim’s father re-immigrated to the States with his family. Once again in New York City, Jim attended Power Memorial and went on to Fordham University. He worked; he studied; he married. He said to me, “I married in part to get away from my father.” Jim had four children.
While he was in school, he had a part-time job at the now defunct men’s clothing store, Rogers Peet. An Irish-Catholic in a predominantly Jewish business, he referred to himself as the “token goy.” Clothing and appearance mattered to Jim, and Ireland and Rogers Peet influenced his style: herringbone tweeds, moleskin slacks, silk rep ties, Johnston Murphy shoes or his elegant Ferragamo loafers. An Irishman, he probably would have worn his Sunday best when he gardened if I hadn’t introduced him to the notion of wearing blue jeans and Rockport sneakers.
Rockport shoes and Rockport, Massachusetts – Jim loved the sea, to travel and have ‘adventures.’ With the extra money I earned from seminars based on my dissertation on the use of the novel in the training of managers, we rented a house in Rockport, Massachusetts for the summer. There, we walked along Marmion Way, along Back Beach into town, up to Bearskin Neck to look at the water, the lobstermen and their boats.
He also loved gentle hill country. One weekend we went to Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts. On the drive back to our rental apartment near the city, he suggested we consider buying a house in Columbia County in upstate New York – it reminded him of Ireland. And, he said, “A house would be a great tax write-off.” Irishman that he was, Jim preferred owning rather than renting.
So, on another weekend, we went to look for a house. On the way, we played ‘Which House Would YOU Buy.’ Near the realtor’s office, we saw a little white Cape sitting on about an acre of land. We both shouted, “That one!” We described the house to the realtor who said, “It’s for sale and has a low bid on it.” We looked at the house and made an offer: one afternoon, one house, one offer – a few phone calls later, a mortgage application, help from my dad, and we were homeowners.
We had a weekend house. There, our cat, Mulligan, roamed about the yard, stalked deer, caught garden snakes, brought field mice to the doorstep, pounced on falling leaves and was nearly savaged by an enraged blue jay.
Our neighbors, Peggy and John Simpson, were kind, generous and, unknowingly, anxiety-producing. If Jim saw John driving his tractor mower, Jim would laugh and say, “Oh, God, I have to get out there. I can’t have our grass a quarter of an inch higher than John’s.” And off he would go to mow.
Jim planned and farmed a patch of land; he grew tomatoes, corn, grapes and asparagus. He plotted revenge on Japanese beetles, deer, woodchucks and rabbits. He cleared raspberry bushes and reclaimed land. Meanwhile, I worried about his blood pressure and overexertion, as I watched him pushing his mower up the back hill. He was delighted with the used, red Ariens tractor mower I bought him for his birthday.
In essence, life was easy. On Sunday mornings we headed to the Bakery for pancakes or French toast. When Jim wasn’t mowing, raking, pruning or weeding, he was in the hammock reading a book or The Sunday Times. In the winter we read by the fire and walked in the snow.
Like most weekenders, we delighted in the scenery, the fresh air and the quiet. Soon, we decided to leave on Monday mornings at 4:00 am, rather than drive back to our apartment on Sunday afternoons. That way we had a few more hours in the country before heading back to work. Jim drove. I was the deer lookout, and the threat of a snowstorm didn’t stop him from making that two hour and 10-minute drive each way every weekend. In all, we may have missed only one or two weekends a year.
Another extract from Part One of DIGNIFYING DEMENTIA will be published next week.