I had been born on a bleak, frigid morning at Massachusetts General Hospital, courtesy of Renée Swift, née Arouet. While we were in the delivery room, my father, J. Ethan Swift II, JD, was pacing the halls hoping for a boy to continue his good name. The gods smiled on him, so to speak, and I was christened J. Ethan Swift III, with a JD to follow.
Father liked to say that he was “of the Dooblin Swifts,” though he had left Ireland and run off to London when he was barely seventeen. He’d been born into a Catholic family but when he turned twenty-one and moved to Boston he became what he liked to call “a staunch, born-again Unitarian.” He’d come to prefer the music of Liszt to that of Palestrina, he’d often say, and a rose supported by a vase on top of a piano to a statue of the Virgin standing in a dusty alcove.
Father’s face advertised his Irish genes. Even at the age of seventy his large, fit body supported a substantial head graced with gray, well-kempt hair, a round, pink face and a broad mustache whose edges extended half an inch beyond his large pink ears, which had been tinged—or so Mother would suggest—by his routine of enjoying a late-afternoon port, a dinner chardonnay, and a bedtime whiskey. His conversation was lively and his learning immense. He always dressed immaculately in the kind of suit one would expect from someone in his position, though where the Brahmins were concerned, he was only an upstart who had made good at the bar.
Mother came from a long line of French atheists. But while she was heavy with my younger brother Jean-Pierre, she took a stroll on a Chestnut Hill green, where she was caught in a thunderstorm; a bolt of lightning knocked her to the ground, causing her to have what she came to call a religious experience. She was quickly carted off to Massachusetts General, where, on waking, she became a Christian for life. But she had trouble settling on a single denomination. Not long after finding a new church that better fit her shifting theological tastes, she would move on to another. This was largely because, as Father would say on those occasions when I accompanied him to his weekly Liszt-and-rose affairs, the church she’d most recently abandoned wasn’t consistent with the social advances he had made and the views that went with them.
Mother had started with the Pentecostals, moved from them to the Baptists, then the Methodists, before settling on the Presbyterians—for two years, after which she considered becoming a Catholic, though because of Father’s disapproval of the religion he had abandoned she settled on the Episcopalians. I don’t recall her other religious experiments, though I believe the Quakers once held her in thrall. At any rate, during her inevitable quarrel with the Episcopalians I quit attending the services of the churches she at times had me grace with my company. This happened after my last Eucharist, where before receiving the Body and after the woman before me had had her portion, I whispered to the man administering the sacrament, “I’ll have what she had.” For this petty sin I received a murderous glare, not the conspiratorial smile I’d hoped for.
Other items concerning Mother included her appearance (tiny, svelte, Gallic nose) the accent of her native tongue, and her dress (elegant, preferring business suits when in the world of charitable causes but long, sparkling gowns while entertaining Father’s crowd). She was lively in motion and ardent in conversation, though her mind, once bright and astute, was prematurely on the wane—because, Father often confided to others, of that damned lightning strike.
Then there was Jean-Pierre, co-victim of that bolt from the skies. Despite being somewhat deficient in matters of the mind, he was Mother’s favorite. He was tiny and slim and had an awkward gait and a nose that advertised his Gallic genes. A difficult birth had been prologue to a difficult life. He was constantly changing his attire, always according to the fleeting fashions favored by the mavericks of his marginal world, and continually in search of his true self, which, when he seemed to have found it, quickly vanished and was followed by another futile quest.