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On behalf of the Canning family, I welcome you to St. Boniface and thank you for being part of this mass of Christian burial. Having family and friends assembled in God’s house is Dad’s idea of bliss – and it is ours.
I want to complement this morning’s impending liturgy with a profile of Thomas A. Canning, a/k/a/ TAC, Tom, Tommy, Uncle Tommy, Tony, Dad, Pop and Pop-Pop. Just as he had these many and actively used noms de guerre, there were multiple aspects of his terrific personality through 78 ˝ years:
Let’s pretend that this jewel of a man had but four primary facets and reflect on them.
A few biographical facts for context. Dad was born at home in Babylon, Long Island when its economy still revolved around fishing and clamming on the Great South Bay. His dad, however, worked at the General Post Office on West 33rd Street and he commuted on the LIRR. (An aside for the grandchildren: Pop remembered Civil War veterans marching in Babylon’s annual Memorial Day Parade when he was a youngster.) When Dad was 10 his family moved to the West 140s in Manhattan where he attended Our Lady of Lourdes grammar school. He excelled academically and went on to his beloved Regis High School where he was part of the class of 1942. After his freshman year at Fordham College he was called up , despite being in the ROTC, to serve as an enlisted man. He saw action for two years in Europe including landing on the Normandy Beach on D-day plus 1 and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
When he returned from the war he married the most excellent Margaret Theresa Martin and finished his bachelor’s degree. After living for ten years in Roslyn, in 1960 they discovered the magical square mile of Sea Cliff and the large and welcoming Victorian house overlooking Hempstead Harbor. There they were surrounded by warm, colorful and welcoming neighbors. The Hendricksons, Fioris, Heslins, Jays, Maisie Jonas, the Majers were then on the “front lines” – the first of a galaxy of great people he lived with in Sea Cliff Grove, including the neighbors that Dad and John enjoy today. It was not long after Dad moved to this enchanted village that he resolved that he wanted to live here for the rest of his life and to die in the house Grandpa John Martin named Sea Cliff Hill. He got his wish. He loved the village and her people and apart from four terrific years in Toronto, Canada in the late 1970’s, Pop has lived here since March of 1960.
… Back to the four facets...
So, yes, his writing gift – his ability to make the complex understandable, dull material come alive and bad news in the CEO’s letter to shareholders come across constructively (today we call it “the spin zone”) – was a key skill set for his career. But over time his writing was a gift he used away from the workplace.
It started with moon-lighting: We remember the fun he would create on a weekend afternoon writing witty dialogue for fictional characters discussing novel merchandise –ads that would run in The New York Times – above the tag line, “Don’t say you can’t find it till you’ve shopped at A&S.”
And then we recall he used his talent as an editor as a parenting technique. If one asked him for help in a school writing project, one would get terrifically valuable assistance but it was also a certainty that the child had to do his or her absolute best work and before Dad would be satisfied with the product. And there inevitably would be butt-kicking and tears and a valuable learning process, before earning his approval. No wonder that there is a long-standing tradition of strong bonds between the Canning kids and Daddy’s work colleagues.
In the mid-1970s, inspired by Samuel Pepys and Tom’s oldest brother, Bill (another gifted writer), Pop began keeping a journal. He filled tens of notebooks with accounts of the day’s events, comments of what was happening in the world, reviews of what he had read and seen on stage, screen, TV, or heard in the way of music. The Journal was where he summarized the way he saw the world. Now Mom had a different take on his continuing opus; she called it “the book of lies.” Tony was amused by that dismissing characterization.
It was his labor and time-intensive Journal work that led him to focus on verse, as he called it in his modesty, but it is indeed poetry. On a wide range of topics: love, death, faith, drinking, weather, sons and daughters, and walking 31st Street, to name but a few. In his precise, witty and beautiful language he went for and usually hit the bull’s eye. A number of his pithy and humorous verses were published in The Metropolitan Diary column of The New York Times; others were written to mark births, birthdays, engagements, weddings, retirements, anniversaries and deaths. Still other writing was done just to capture the moment, to spear the truth, to blow the whistle or to celebrate life. He left us with many volumes of his Verses In A Paper Dummy and Connie led the effort to select the writing that we thought representative and of interest and put it on display at Whitting’s. Doreen did a great job of laying out the material and integrating it with photographs.
I spoke earlier of his candor. He recognized that although his wife was one of the world’s great people that he failed to cherish her enough during her lifetime. He had faced up to that shortcoming in these 14 years since Marge’s death and has been so grateful for her gifts including the legacy of 5 children, 13 children, one great grandchild with the second on the way. He has carried the cross of this insufficient gratitude with humility. That has given us another reason to love him and he has inspired us to learn from our own mistakes.
An old one: In discussing with army buddies in WWII the allocation of the war-ship market by the U.S. government between shipbuilding giants Todd and Kaiser, Tom relied on his knowledge of scripture to settle the matter: “Render unto Kaiser the things that are Kaiser’s and to Todd the things that are Todd’s.”
Circa 1965: Days after seeing the circus at Madison Square Garden, we sat behind an older man at mass here at St. Boniface. His hair was like a monk’s tonsure only rather long and almost unnaturally red. I whispered to dad, “Might that man be a clown? Without skipping a beat Daddy replied, “No.But his barber surely is.”
July 1976: On a hot summer night at an ice cream store on Younge Street in Toronto, a fussy older patron was outraged to find that not one paper napkin remained. She made known her displeasure to the clerk. Her dudgeon was further heightened when Dad handed her a franchise brochure from a rack on the wall and suggested to her that while not absorbent, the coated paper would be efficacious for scraping away any errant dab of melting ice cream from her face.
New Year’s Eve -2002: “Daddy, I’m calling from London to wish you all the best.” “Well, Thank you. But the first guy who wishes me a Happy New Year is in trouble! Now … if the wish is for a happy death in the new year, that would be a greeting I would welcome.”
His was an active imagination and he used it to add to the fun – almost anything was fair game.
No one loved a party more than Pop and our home was always open to guests. Mom and Dad were warm and welcoming hosts whether at Christmas, Memorial Day or times in between on the porch or singing around the dining room table.
Dad came a long way in his vision of what constituted appropriate fare at a social gathering since his days immediately after WWII when they lived with other young married college students. In a notable dispute in 1947 Dad had suggested that the North Brother Island married student community Christmas party budget was not sufficiently robust for any proceeds to be used for food – he recommended that it all go to booze. P.S. he and Bob Marien were outvoted by the medical students and the women on this one. A related aside: Pick recalled yesterday a Manhattan outing in the early 1970’s when Uncle Tommy agreed to the solicitation by a panhandler. The money was given but only under the clear stipulation that it would be spent on strong drink and not on food.
But even more important to Dad than the laughter and kidding and frivolity was that a gathering have focus. He saw it as his mission to provide that focus with a talk, a toast, a verse and to call on others to sing or recite or remark. His touch helped to make parties and celebrations that much more special.
His strong faith helped him to tackle adversity whether it was life in a foxhole, the death’s of Marge and others close to him, or tackling illness. As he dealt with each health challenge over the last dozen years culminating with the liver cancer that ended his mortal life, he took on the challenge knowing that God, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the communion of saints was with him.
He knew that he would have the strength to face death and he did not shirk the challenge. No. He embraced it.
In mid-January when Dad’s energy was still reasonably robust, he, Constance, JW and I were having dinner together at home and it was his turn to lead us in grace. As part of his prayer he thanked God for his many blessings and concluded “…and Lord, I thank you for this illness that has brought me even closer to my children and, moreover, closer to you, God.”
Daddy’s faith allowed him to look forward to the eternal afterlife with eagerness. Each day in the last six months he would carve out time in the morning for devotional reading before relaxing with secular literature (likely to include Evelyn Waugh) or watching news or sports (he focused on his beloved Yankees in spring training) on TV. Among the religious literature was Butler’s Lives Of The Saints. He recently pointed out the volume and with a twinkle in his eye said, “I hope to be meeting them soon and I do want to be properly briefed.”
Like the GI and soldier in Christ’s army that he was he was ready to go over the hill. And he did with humor and grace as well as fortitude. And in so doing he leaves us with a final lesson.
That was one that they can’t take away from us.
Thank you, Dad!
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