There's been a Gillen working in America for a while now. The name Gillen first appeared in The Census of the City of New York in 1703. It sits on the list with the likes of Flynn and Dooley, Mooney and Lynch, with a Kearney thrown in for good measure.
The origin of this last name comes from the Old Irish word gillie, which means servant. The gillies were the men who held the horses of the warriors in battle so the steeds would not shuffle off to Buffalo while their owners conducted hand-to-hand combat.
If you are an angler, a gillie is the person who shows you where the fat trout hide, and makes sure you get back to the lodge so you can tell the stories about the ones that got away.
So today I've been thinking about a gillie or two. My grandfather John David Gillen, known as Gig, comes to mind.
He was a brown-eyed only child, a working-class guy who learned to love wood, a refinisher of pianos for Steinway & Sons. He made them shine before they went out the door to sit in expensive-looking parlors and living rooms.
He married a woman known in the clan as Kate the Bear. During their courtship, Kate the Bear's family apartment needed painting. Gig showed up to help, and, in the process, got completely covered in paint. Kate the Bear insisted that Gig, a small man, borrow a pair of trousers from her brother Dan, who was a big fellah, so Gig could walk home looking clean. "I watched him walk up the street, holding up those pants so they wouldn't fall down. I fell in love with him that moment," she said. To him, he was just going home. But I think it was more than that. He was a man who had the strength of character not to be afraid to make a fool out of himself in public.
Circumstance shows us who we really are, and when the Depression settled in America, Gig could no longer afford to work with the wood he loved. His living was then produced via vegetables, when he became a foreman in the vegetable and fruit market in NYC.
One summer day my brothers and I drove with our father into the city from New Jersey to pick up fresh produce. The market was a wild place, full of shouting and anger. In my young experience, everyone seemed to be mad at one another, yelling, upset. It was part of the game. "It's OK. They're negotiating," my father told us. Then I saw a man with a billy club chasing another man. The man with the club was my quiet grandfather, suddenly turned berserker 'cause this other fellow tried to cheat him. They disappeared behind a building, and we did not witness the outcome of the argument. We were relieved when my grandfather walked back around the corner, and simply said in his New Yawk accent, "Hey. When did yez get here?"
He loved the Mets, and was known to take as many grandchildren as possible to Shea Stadium, stuff 'em with hot dogs and peanuts and soda, then return them to their mothers as tired, happy slugs. And he was also a man of quiet, happy to read the paper and smoke a cigar in silence. When a big clan group would arrive on the scene, he'd say, "Hey, so when are yez leaving?" It was explained to me that he was happy to see us, and it was just his way of asking how long you were going to stay. Thinking back on it, I am not so sure. Now I know where it comes from.
And he loved to walk. There's a story about an excursion one Election Day when he plopped my oldest brother Fran, then a toddler, into the fancy pram purchased by my grandmother so one could stroll along the sidewalks and proudly show off the sainted first grandchild. He told Kate the Bear, "I am taking Francis for a walk." Along the way, they stopped at Gig's favorite tavern, and the owner told him, "Sorry. We're closed for Election Day," so no adult beverage could be served. Upon their return, Kate the Bear asked Fran, "So what did you see today?" Fran answered, "A man. He said, 'No soda.'" Gig looked at his grandson and said, "Ya big mouth."
In my childhood, I liked to accompany him along the few blocks to the store where he would purchase the newspaper and his beloved White Owl cigars. The Daily News tucked under his arm, he'd stroll along and talk with you like you were an adult, even though you were just a kid. And as I grew older, he stopped holding my hand. He showed me he didn't need to.