Dennis Smith's book, A Song for Mary, is subtitled An Irish-American Memory. It is about growing up dirt-poor and on welfare in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. It has been described as "a soft look at a tough world."
Above all, it is a loving portrait of Smith's mother, Mary, and his older brother, Billy, and a yearning for a father trapped in mental illness.
CBS News Sunday Morning Anchor Charles Osgood interviewed the author at his home in New York, where he is at work on a novel.
Out in Southampton, Long Island, where it is quiet and there are not too many neighbors, far from the New York City neighborhood he grew up in, Smith is free now to play the bagpipes. He plays to get the juices flowing so he can write - so he can remember.
"My roots are very Irish-American," says Smith. "Growing up I understood that I was an Irish-Catholic kid, and we had our special songs, our special humor. We laughed at death and didn't mind a good fight."
Smith's book was set on welfare on the East Side of New York in a tough, working-class neighborhood after World War II. "This block has changed radically," he says on a trip back, looking at the now-elegant block on East 56th Street where he grew up. Today there is great wealth here and it is a desirable place to live.
Recalls Smith: "There were six buildings in a row, all tenements six stories high. And they had big stoops where people would sit on the stoops. And we would be out in these streets, this street, playing stickball every warm summer day. Or else we were playing with bottle caps or pitching pennies against the wall. The place would be crowded with kids."
A Song for Mary is about Smith's longing for his father, in a mental hospital, lost forever to himself and his family, and portrays his mother, Mary, now deceased.
"The true epitaph is not the message epitomizing a person that is etched into a headstone, but the memory that resides in the swelling of the heart. Each of you might have hundreds of memories, but you have to make sure you find the right one, the one that speeds the blood."
Their home was filled with secrets Dennis and his brother were sworn never to reveal. Being on welfare was one of them.
Smith reads more:
"'Dennis,' she says, 'you must never tell anyone these things, about your father, or about us being on welfare, or about not having any money. Or anything in our lives. This is our secret. It's our lives. Nobody,' she says, 'should know our business. Do you understand, Dennis'?"
"I felt that the city of New York put an egg on the table when we needed it," he says now. "And I'll be forever grateful to the city for that."
He continues, "On the other side, my mother always hated being on welfare because she thought that it was an ignominious situation. And she did anything she could to get off of it and to spplement her welfare. She was a young woman who was left with two kids, you know, little boys, and all she wanted was to make them young men. And she had, you know, she was dealt a very hard hand of cards, and she played them as well as she could."
So did brother Billy, a good student and athlete who was offered a scholarship to Exeter. But he didn't go, because the monsignor told him it "was a Protestant place, and would not be good for Billy's soul to go there."
"I wonder about Billy's soul, and if being at this place Exeter would make a Protestant out of him. And then, I wonder, what is a Protestant, and why is it so bad to be one? I have never been inside of a Protestant church, and I don't think I have ever met a Protestant person except for the Jehovah's Witnesses who knock on the door every once in a while to give out magazines. I only know that being a Catholic is better."
"'C'mon, Dennis,' Aunt Kitty says, 'give us a song.'...The aunts and uncles all around, and the cousins, Arlene and Helene and Bobby and Freddy and Johnny and Larry and Ronnie and Eileen and Brian and Rosie and Joey and Billy, and my brother Billy, too."
The song Smith sings is his mother's song, Mary's song, "The Rose of Tralee."
"She was lovely and fair
as the rose in the summer,
but t'was not her beauty alone that won me.
Oh, no, t'was the truth in her eyes ever dawning
that made me love Mary, the rose of Tralee."
Dennis went to Catholic school; he even became an altar boy, but he was a troubled young man, he says. He dropped out of school, tried marijuana and worse.
Smith recalls, "I felt that when I got up in the morning and I'd come out on this street, I knew I was going to have a good time. But I'd also come close to being in very serious trouble. Because, you know, we would go from here to Harlem, take the First Avenue bus to 110th Street and get heroin, and take the Second Avenue bus down and hope that you never get caught."
"Looking for a father figure was the compelling motivation in my life," Smith says.
"So I got in with a bunch of guys who I loved," he adds. "I thought they were great, great guys. But they were really the bad side of the apple. And so I began dabbling with drugs, taking marijuana and then taking heroin. I didn't do this a lot, I've got to say. I never became a drug addict or anything."
"I was saved from that, essentially, by ironically a fistfight where the police came and took us all, and took us to court. And the following morning the judge said: 'Listen, young man. If you go into the military, I'll dismiss those charges.' And that was a life saver to me," he continues.
Just before he left for the Air Force, Smith went with his mother to see his father for the first time in a psychiatric hosptal in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"'Do you remember me, John?' my mother asks.
'Hello, hello,' he says.
'This is Dennis, John' she says, pulling me forward.
'Dennis,' he repeats.
'How are you John?' she asks.
'Give me a cigarette,' he says.
'This is Dennis, John,' my mother answers. 'Your son.'
'Give me a cigarette,' he says.
'Do you remember Dennis, John? Dennis and Billy?'
'Hello, hello,' he says.
I grab his hand as my mother begins to walk away.
'Goodbye, Dad,' I say, something I've never said before."
Smith reveals, "I also, at that meeting I think had a kind of rebirth, because at least I saw physically, and there was no longer images. I saw physically the person with whom I was trying to identify for so many years. All of my life, up until that time. Flesh and bones, you know? Flesh and bones."
Smith is a contented man these days. The Air Force helped. So did New York University, and his 18 years with the New York City Fire Department. His Report From Engine Company 82 has just been reprinted. He has five children and two grandchildren, and he remarried recently.
And every Tuesday night, no more than a mile from where he grew up, Smith plays the bodhran at Paddy Reilly's bar.
"I love Irish music," says Smith. "Music is a way to sort of make the culture become alive and meaningful. I'm always very happy when I'm in the middle of these musicians banging on that bodhran."
A Song for Mary ends with Smith about to begin his job as a firefighter.
"So here I am looking up at the towering yellow-bricked building of Engine Company 82. And I'm hoping I have whatever I need to fight the fires that I know will be before me. I guess that is mostly courage, which is not a personality trait you can train for in a few months at a training school, it is like the doors have been opened to a new world, one I have not seen before. God. This is going to be exciting."
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Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.