Birthday Gifts

The greatest gift you can give your child is another sibling. –Pope John Paul II

Recently my wife Claire asked me what I would like for my birthday, besides books.  It was hard to answer, because I didn’t really need anything except massive debt forgiveness and a Bruins Stanley Cup.  So on the way home from work on my birthday I bought three bows, one pink and two blue, for my wife and two sons, the greatest birthday gifts ever.

As I was driving, looking at these bows, this gesture made real the joy of these three people in my life, and I must admit, I got a little emotional.  I also thought about how I had made it this far, had been this lucky.  I thought about Pope Johns Paul II’s comment about siblings as gifts, and the influence of my own siblings in helping me become worthy of my wife (an ongoing project).

My Three Gifts
My three gifts with their bows, Charles, Claire, and William

So let me start in the middle.  There were two things I wanted to write about while getting a Ph.D. in the Classics.  The first was a book on leadership and organizations based upon Homer’s Iliad and Hesiod’s Theogony.  A popular book, The Art of War for Executives, had just come out, based upon Sun Tzu’s ancient wisdom, so I figured there was a precedent.   The other idea was a book that would look at ancient Athens as a corporate entity, a mercantile consortium of households who owned their own means of production, with each household’s vote essentially acting like voting stock in a publicly held company (Athens), a different idea than our modern concept of suffrage.

It soon became clear that I would not have the opportunity to write about these things, nor was a career in academia developing the habits of heart and mind that would make me a suitable husband and father.  Not that there are not excellent husbands and fathers in academia, I just wasn’t going to be one at the dilettantish rate I was going.  So I looked elsewhere for a vocation, and found that I liked teaching and coaching, and was fairly good at both (I continue to work on those other writing projects in any event).

Liz the executive

While starting a school in Maryland with my uncle, my sister Elizabeth called.  She had just started her MBA at Wharton and said, “You should get an MBA, you would love this. It’s more than just Finance.  It’s leadership and ethics, about how organizations work best; about motivation and guiding principles that you think are so important about the Greeks.”

I did end up getting an MBA and like most of life’s milestones; my younger sister Liz did it before me.  She rode a bike before me and started playing sports before me.  Without her pushing me from behind I might never have bothered to pick up a basketball.  She knocked out two of my front teeth once. She went to Fugazi shows, listened to Ska and wore Doc Martens before me.  She got married and had kids before me.  She was always driven and followed through on her vision and her mission.

Liz started volunteering in high school (before it was mandatory) taking care of geriatric patients in nursing homes, her drive and ambition to care for others led her to nursing and then an MBA, at the suggestion of the University of Pennsylvania’s President at the time –to bring the caring side to inform the business side of caring for the elderly.  Liz is determined to have her three children know and visit their cousins regularly; no matter the distance that needs to be travelled, be they on our side of the family or her husband David’s.  This is a blessing to all of us and an amazing sacrifice of time and energy.  I admire her drive and her loyal dedication to her siblings, she was the first birthday gift from my parents, born in October, a year after me.

The second gift came a few years later when my sister Catherine was born.  Liz and I had dark hair and brown eyes, Catherine was blonde with blue eyes.  We of course told her that she was adopted.  But she was just so beautiful, we had to do something!

One particular moment that I will remember was when she asked me to come home from college to escort her to her high school’s homecoming court.  Catherine showed that McPherson’s could in fact be elegant.  I was lucky to see her field hockey team play in the state championship near my college (they were robbed!) and I had fun lobbying the Johns Hopkins administration to offer her a full scholarship because she was so awesome.  They did –because she was and is, but alas Hopkins’ loss was Princeton’s gain.  I remember the Dean of Students opening his window and yelling across the quad, “is Cat coming?!”  My father, a Harvard grad, insisted from about that time forward, that Princeton had the best admissions department in the Ivy League.

Catherine reminds me of Maureen O’Hara if O’Hara were a brilliant engineer and lawyer.  Recently we were both in Boston for work –she from New Orleans, I from North Carolina, and after a night of sibling and cousin revelry (many of our cousins are in the Boston area) we caught one of the last chance Masses on Arch Street before our flights out.  To watch this fiery intellect and outgoing and social person drop into such a deep and contemplative reverence at Mass was an inspiration.

Cat at Jazz Fest

Catherine, the second birthday gift from my parents, came at the end of winter, in February, which is appropriate because she can thaw, charm, and open the coldest character.  Cat now makes her home with her husband Will and their two children in Will’s hometown of New Orleans.  She frequently teases the rest of us with the lively stories of raising children there; in a city that makes the rest of America look like sour Puritans in a cold winter.  Thankfully people like to hold conferences in New Orleans, and I get to go to a lot of conferences.

Soon after I finished college I was able to join my father, my brother Joe, and some of his classmates for a college visit to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.  Joe is five years younger than me and was born the day before my birthday. It was a nice gesture to get me a brother for my birthday, almost as good as LEGOs.  That tour of the Coast Guard Academy made me jealous of his future career options, though I was not the Odysseus type like Joe is –crafty, commanding, and a sailor (though with a better sense of direction).  At the Academy he flew jets, sailed tall ships, played soccer, taught sailing, rescued another cadet from being sunk by a nuclear submarine out of Groton Naval Base, and learned some engineering.  I think he has ADHD.  Joe is now an officer in the Coast Guard, and, as a civil engineer, he has been in charge of base infrastructure and operations in San Juan and San Francisco.

When stationed in Puerto Rico he took me out sailing in the Bay of San Juan in a small sailboat the Coast Guard had found drifting and which he fixed up.  I thought we were going to get swamped by the wakes from the big freighters for sure. He was like Odysseus taunting Poseidon, but with me on board.

Joe above San Francisco Bay

When he first arrived in San Juan he heard a lot of, “Well, they said to do it this way.” “They say that this is how things are supposed to be.” “They said that you are supposed to do that for us.” Etc.  As Uma Thurman said in Pulp Fiction, “They talk a lot don’t they?”

To combat these passive rumors and attempts to use the unnamed and unaccountable bureaucracy to shirk work he ordered a new name tag.  The name tag said “THEY”.  So when someone said, “They said we didn’t have to make those repairs this week, he said, ‘Look at my name tag, I’m THEY, and THEY say you do have to do those repairs this week.’” Brilliant.

A year after he had transferred to San Francisco some poor sap used the term “They” in a report and the captain said, “You mean Joe McPherson?  Because he is THEY, otherwise I want a specific name who said what.”

Joe designed the trucking rig that carried the Virginia Tech Solar House to D.C. for the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.  And as the base engineer in San Francisco he was able to climb up the towers of the new Bay Bridge as a professional courtesy, since it traverses the Coast Guard base on Yerba Buena Island.   Joe recently completed his MBA from Berkeley and has twin boys. Twin male sons of the ADHD badass I just described above, while working and going to school…  would you like me to draw a diagram for you?  This last sentence is a line he says to me, the Liberal Artist to his Engineer, when it appears I do not understand what he is saying.  He doesn’t allow time for me to cogitate.

When we are at our parents’ house together and our mother asks us to fix something, I try to find things we already have in the garage and jerry-rig a solution. I consider these solutions to be cheap, poetic, and innovative.  Joe gets in the car and buys something at the hardware store for five bucks that solves the problem immediately, while I am still working on my “poetry”.  In response to my exasperation that his solution is no fun, he says, “Well now we can have beers… would you like me to draw a diagram for you?”  We then get to work on our other project, which is called Bellied Up: An Engineer and a Classicist Discuss World Historical Events at an Irish Pub. 

I remember the night he met his wife Giulia, it was Valentine’s Day and she was out with her friends, just like we all knew they would be!  We have never had a fist fight.  He is the third gift from my parents.

Mary, apparently in the wrong cheering section

When we were moving into a new, bigger house to fit our growing family, our parents brought home a house warming gift –my sister Mary.  Mary warmed the house with her beautiful, constant smile and rosy cheeks.  We called her “Perfect Mary” – a nickname that, though heartfelt and true, in hindsight might have been an unfair expectation.  There was a documented imperfection once in 1996.  Mary has facebook photo competitions for her birthday with entries from around the world.  A recent birthday garnered photos of people doing handstands in highly unlikely places worldwide.  It’s her birthday, but all she asks is that we do something that makes us smile.  Though she did smile at the picture of a few us holding our mother upside down “doing a handstand”. She is considered my most to be the nicest person in our family, a title which she will deny, since “nice” is too saccharine a word for her big heart and intense empathy.

Mary has been teaching in special education for several years, traveling around the world from the Netherlands to Kazakhstan to Namibia, helping loving and dedicated parents convince the local school officials that their special children are not, in fact, possessed by demons…  Let the love and patience involved in that task sink in… then try to write that report.  She asked me to edit one of hers –I just cried.

Mother Theresa met little Mary once and pinched her cheek and said, “You are one of mine!” And Mary has lived up to that prediction with her fierce defense of, and care for, these very special and most vulnerable children.

Mary had the unfortunate luck of being my roommate for a year.  The family home was rented out while our parents were living in Lugano, where our father was the Headmaster of a boarding school.  She was finishing up her degree at Maryland, and I was working on starting a new school and tending bar badly…  She has been a gracious Terp about my choice to attend Duke for business school.  But I enjoyed being her roommate immensely –whenever she had an exam or a paper she procrastinated by baking…

Ultimately Mary has been proved right to reject the “nice” label.  “Nice” lacks the full spectrum of her heart and drive.   I would be a much worse father without her continued insistence on the importance of emotional tone with children.  Mary came to visit and helped me build my garden, and has helped me cultivate a more temperate tone with my sons.  Mary was the fourth gift from my parents, my first springtime gift, born in April.  She’s always blooming: while living in the Netherlands she took up Gaelic Hurling, and toured Europe as captain of a women’s Gaelic football team.

One day in high school Liz and I were home after soccer practices and there on the refrigerator was an essay by our youngest sister Anne.  It was decorated in a really accurate crayon drawing of the earth.  She was in the first or second grade.  We looked at each other as bemusement turned to shock after reading the essay, “The atmosphere is made up of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide…” spelled correctly, used correctly.  I didn’t even start reading until first grade.  I couldn’t be bothered because I was climbing trees.  Anne, this final gift, came when I was ten.  She started writing a novel about a doll named ‘Diana’ soon after she learned to write.

Anne competing on the bars at Yale

I taught Anne to walk in our living room one day, which was the start of all her athletic dominance.  (So if you want a college athlete, hire me to teach your baby to walk.)  I will never forget watching Anne go coast to coast dribbling a basketball that was bigger than her in CYO and making layup after layup.  She was really good.  When she saw Dominique Dawes in the Olympics and she started doing flips and cartwheels in the living room, other sports became moot.

Dom’s gym was right up Georgia Avenue from us and our Mom signed Anne up.  Dom and Anne became, and still are, good friends.  I missed a lot of Anne growing up as I was away at college and then moved to Switzerland and then to Texas, but I was lucky enough to catch her compete at Nationals in Austin and at a Regional in Maryland, though I missed my flight back to Texas after that one.

Anne was a very good gymnast and during the run up to Nationals, while on the parallel bars, her hand strap broke, she flew off, and she broke her back.  She eventually recovered and continued to compete.  She ended her gymnastics career as the team captain at Yale, winning the Ivy League championship.

Anne is the family optimist –she broke her back, missed Nationals, and the window of opportunity of time, age, and place for any chance at the Olympic trials closed.  She still came back to compete and do well.  Anne has convinced the family that we can communicate only through Zoolander and Old School quotes.  What Snoop a Loop?

Anne is back in New York after a stint in San Francisco infiltrating a circle of my business school friends and working in PR for Edelman.  She is now works at Global Health Corps, with founder and fellow Yalie Barbara Bush.

All of my siblings are younger, but they have all chipped away at my character flaws by their examples and their friendships.  They have never shut their doors to me, no matter how much of a gruff bastard I have been.  Siblings really are the greatest gifts, and I cannot thank my parents enough for them.

But the greatest gift was yet to come, a gift which only my four sisters and brother could have prepared me for.  I was sitting on the couch and my roommate Tim came in the room. “You’re doomed.  Matt and Marla are having a Christmas party, Claire is going to be there, she’s single, I’m making you come and you’re going to marry her.”

I had known Claire for two years. We met at the Smithsonian Young Benefactors Ball.  Claire and I danced the night away, and she laughed at my jokes.  I was smitten –and terrified.  As Chesterton wrote, “I have little doubt that when St. George had killed the dragon he was heartily afraid of the princess.”  I was afraid.  I knew what commitment came with this kind of love.

Out of nowhere my grandfather called a few days after I had met Claire.  He was concerned about me, his oldest grandchild.  I was too surly for his liking. I told him about Claire, about dancing and jokes.  He was happy because that had worked for him.  He was known for dancing and humor. He danced with every lady at every wedding. No one could be a wallflower.  And when we asked our grandmother why she chose grandpa, (she was gorgeous and had many suitors), she said, “He made me laugh and was a great dancer”.  His humor and his dancing were grounded in, and manifestations of, a profound joy, as my father observed in his eulogy:

Looking at my father’s life, he seemed to have a vocation for getting people to have a good time, to bring life to situations… At any wedding or celebration involving dancing, he would be the first on the floor and, invariably, the last one off. He would dance with his wife, his daughters, his daughters-in law, his granddaughters and his great granddaughter, as well as with any other women that were around. I think he made an effort to dance with every woman present. My daughter Catherine told me that at Joe’s wedding my father noticed her after the band had stopped and he insisted on dancing to their own music. I know the bands at both my sons’ weddings remarked that they’d never seen people dancing as much at a wedding. That was Papa’s doing. St. Irenaeus said in the second century,”The glory of God is a man fully alive.” My father was fully alive and brought a culture of life wherever he went.
Grandpa dancing with my bride

My grandparents prayed the Rosary every morning and they lived a joyful life.  My dancing and jokes were imitations of what I aspired to be… but according to grandpa, I was on the right track.  He lived long enough to dance with my bride and to hold our first son.

Claire and I had hovered around each other for two years.  We both knew if we started dating, it was over; we were going all in.  We finally kissed at Matt and Marla’s Christmas party, three months later we were engaged, nine months after that we were wed.  Poor girl, I had been a grouchy bachelor for too long! But she has been patient.

When we were dating, in our conversations, she said, “You know, you should go to business school! That’s where they are talking about the things you care about!” Now two brilliant women in my life had suggested the same thing.  My skepticism was overcome.  We married. I applied to schools and I was soundly rejected, like a Dikembe Mutombo prop in a Geico commercial.  The next year I applied again, and was accepted at Duke.

It was an exciting but difficult transition, and through it all this wonderful woman, a savvy beauty, stood by me as I changed paths late in life.  My sisters became her allies (and my brother mine), they were so thankful for her in my life.  As my former teacher, and later colleague, Kevin Davern said to me, “We find that we are never worthy of our wives.”

This seventh birthday gift came from parents I didn’t know at the time, my wife Claire.  It’s an astonishing thing to have someone so accomplished say to you, when you are full of doubt, “I believe in you more than anyone.”

Claire has given me the gift of Father’s Day, which follows right after my birthday.  We have two sons, Charles and William, now five and one. Progeny will hone your character like nothing else.  We were able to give Charles the gift of a sibling.  Will there be more gifts? We hope.  Nonetheless, here I am with my birthday gifts: five siblings who got me ready for my wife and two sons.  Claire makes me want to be the better man my siblings, through their example and advice, afforded me the chance to become. I must say, all of these gifts have given me a shot at getting into heaven, without their love, I would be lost.  Happy Birthday (and Father’s Day) to me.

William and Charles with their fresh summer cuts
Easter after Mass
Easter after Mass
Yelling Contest
Liz with Claire and Tillie
Liz, Claire, Tillie, David
The Millers: Tillie, Claire, David and David
My sister Catherine and her husband Will
Cat and Bay at Mardi Gras
Will, Cat, Bay, and Anne Bishop at home in New Orleans
Anne and Bay and their Mardi Gras Swag Haul
Cat and Anne celebrating… something
Joe and his boys get his MBA
Giulia, Joe, Rocco and JoJo at Berkeley
Joe, Giulia with Rocco and Jojo celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in San Francisco
Joe, Giulia and the boys on one of their many excursions
Mary lacing up
Mary v. Ronaldo
Mary walks her lion
Anne visiting Mary in the Netherlands
With Mother Teresa at the dedication of the Missionaries of Charity AIDS Hospice in DC. In the back, from left to right are me, Liz, and Cat. Immediately in front of Blessed Mother Teresa is Mary. Joe is on the right, Anne is in front of Mary. Ellen and Anne Royals are flanking Mary. Our father is in the lower left corner holding Anne’s arm.
Mary Hurling
Mary, Back Row, Left
Mary in Limerick
Mary and Anne helping Cat get ready for Bay
How Gymnasts Nap
Anne and Fallon
Impromptu Nomar Garciaparra skit in the New Orleans airport
Family Portrait
Family Portrait

7 thoughts on “Birthday Gifts

  1. James,
    I really enjoyed getting to know your family better. You are a gift to both your family of origin and your family of creation..I look forward to reading more.

  2. Great essay. Interesting to read such personal insight in a world of short status updates, sounds like a great family.

  3. Heartwarming essay, what an incredible family you have! Makes me sad to be an only child and to have an only child of my own. BTW, my son’s favorite commercial is the Mutumbo shot-blocking bit – he acts it out every day. 😉

    1. Thanks! haha, can’t wait to see him swatting on Vine! But I must say, trying to give your only child a sibling is a lot of fun… even if it just. doesn’t. happen… as my parents always said, “It’s fun to try”! (They only said that once we a were all old enough to handle it)

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