Uncle Eugene

All through her childhood, when her father died when she was 10 leaving the family nearly destitute, through her marriage with nine children to raise in the Great Depression, through the founding and loss of a paper company and another founding (successful the second time around), Nana always prayed to the Blessed Mary. Unlike Mary Tyrone, she never lost that faith.

Poor Uncle Eugene, it’s hard to know if he ever broke free of the dark currents of loneliness and despair in “Long Days Journey Into Night.” It’s hard to know if he retained some level of faith and hope in the end.

O’Neill died on November 27, the same day my own father died at age 56. I did not know this until I wrote this essay, but even in college I appreciated O’Neill’s own deep understanding of grief. Of course I felt connected to the playwright not through blood, but through our shared humanity, an infinitely more satisfying and real tie to be sure.

While driving to a tea at my daughter’s high school, where the English Department planned to honor her and other top writers in the junior class, I chatted with my mother about our long tradition of authors in the family, including, of course, Eugene O’Neill.

“Oh, I’m not sure that’s true,” she said. At 86 she rarely minces words anymore.

“But I thought the family lore claims that Nana’s family were O’Neills from the same Irish line but had just dropped an L.”

“No, no. We are related to Crosby. And to Barry.” She paused. “That’s why Jim [my brother] is James Barry. And Joyce.”

“Joyce! As in James Joyce?”

“Yes,” she said, her eyes filled with certainty and pride.