Jess McIsaac and the Middle Path
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
For the Monitor
Published: 8/11/2019 7:00:10 AM
My maternal grandfather, Jess (Arthur) McIsaac was the chief of police in Concord during the 1940s. He was tall, gentle and quiet. While having coffee with my mother, he’d pull me to his lap and sing, “Trot trot to Boston, trot trot to Lynn, watch out for the river or you might fall in.” I’d fall through his legs laughing, and he’d hand me a Twinkie on the way down. I’m not sure if my mother saw the handoff, but it felt like our secret and I loved him for it.
While I can’t recall what he and my mother talked about, I do recall the quietly loving vibe in the kitchen, emanating from their fondness for one another, their sparkly blue eyes and the sound of percolating coffee. I love the memory and am grateful to have it.
I was about 3 years old when we played “Trot Trot to Boston” and
4 years old when he died. I have no memories from his death – no mass or funeral home. I only remember the times at the kitchen table. At some point I found a gavel that belonged to him, probably in a drawer not meant for kids. It was the kind of gavel a judge used, like the funny judge on television, Flip Wilson. Had I been able to read I would have seen “Chief McIsaac, thank you for your devotion to public service.” Instead, I thought he was a judge, a powerful man called “Your Honor,” who’d bang the gavel saying, “Order in the court! Order in the court! I will not tolerate such ruckus in my courtroom!”
Years later I told a cousin that my grandfather was a judge and proved it by showing him the gavel. My mother overheard us talking and took me aside: “Honey, Grampa was the chief of police, not a judge.” I snapped back, “What!? He had a gavel? Was he a lawyer!?” My mother said, “No, Sarah, your grandfather was a police chief, and a very well respected one.” I was deflated. The gavel was useless. I wanted my grandfather to be important, a force to be reckoned with, in charge of the town like the sheriff on The Rifleman. That wasn’t the case.
Later I learned my grandfather was a good baseball player. He played on the Red Sox farm team (circa 1913) and was, as family stories go, getting called up to The Show when my grandmother got pregnant. Plans changed and Jess McIsaac and Marion McKenna got married instead of moving to Boston.
My mother adored her father. He was a hard worker and devoted to his family; he loved to fish and smoked unfiltered Pall Malls. When his father had a bicycle accident, he dropped out of eighth grade to help support his family. Despite having little education, he was “sharp,” according to his younger brother, Joe McIsaac, a detective in Brooklyn. My grandmother loved reminding us that “your grandfather graduated from the FBI school in Washington, under J. Edgar Hoover.” She added emphasis to “J. Edgar Hoover” – this was long before the country discovered Hoover was a malicious, unethical and bitter man.
My grandfather was called Babe Ruth of the Sunset League. He helped start an organization for truant boys called Boys Town, which later became the Boys and Girls Club in Concord. He had his photo taken with the Babe at Fenway Park before Babe was traded to the Yankees, before the Curse of the Bambino took hold. He visited the N.H. State Prison to see guys my mother said “didn’t have a lot or drank too much and got into trouble.” One of them gave him a beautiful oil painting depicting a dairy farm, which hangs in my mother’s living room today.
Jess McIsaac was not perfect or terrible. His life wasn’t good or bad. He wasn’t rich or poor (though much closer to poor). He was kind and tough, a worker and a boss, a cop and a friend to criminals. He led an interesting life, made a difference in many lives and the thought of him makes me happy. He stuck to the middle path. From there he considered his options and pursued his version of success and happiness.
Days of judgment
Our culture loves to celebrate the best and the worst. I wanted my grandfather to be the best – a powerful gavel-loving (wielding maybe) judge. He wasn’t. But, he was better than powerful or famous. He was genuine, interesting, compassionate and athletic. He was a son, father, brother, grandfather, friend and husband. He mattered. He mattered no more or less than a judge. As a kid I didn’t recognize I placed more value on his status than on his integrity. Today I’d choose integrity every time.
Our culture encourages us to judge others and assess whether they are good or bad, attractive or unattractive, a worker bee or a big cheese, etc. We become what we practice and we’ve practiced judging a lot, much of it without awareness. Social media facilitates the practice of judgment and comparison, while diminishing gratitude. It’s not a good thing – for anyone. Fortunately, we can stop. We can create a kinder and gentler culture, as Rumi advises: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”
The middle path leads us to the field, a welcoming and refreshing place where people can agree to disagree and remain respectful. Humility, growth and curiosity are valued – along with compassion – while connection and fun dot the landscape like wildflowers.
We can live and play in the middle, like Serena Williams, who follows the ball everywhere but returns to the middle after every shot because that is where she has the most power, perspective and balance; she pursues excellence from this position and recognizes losses are not failures, they’re part of the game.
When we live from the middle, we are better and do better. It’s clear we need to try harder because the stress and pressure we generate and inhale is killing us, young and old.
There’s a gas leak we can’t locate, and at any moment something or someone could burst.
When will the next angry young man, ruthlessly bullied as a child, decide to haul a machine gun out of his locker and visit the lower school playground? We wonder when the opioid epidemic will slow down. We don’t know but we do know that millions of people are suffering, including the angriest ones, because as Buddha said, “We are not punished for our anger, we are punished by our anger.”
Anger is indigestible. It’s as natural and valid as any other feeling. But the flavor of today’s anger is bitter, aggressive and frightening. Caring for our anger, discerning where it comes from and determining how to use it is a good thing. Failing to care for it will cause it to spread, like a cigarette butt igniting a forest fire and devastating innocent people along the way. And the rhetoric, the endlessly cruel, racist and sexist words intensify and spread the fire like lighter fluid on kindling.
I believe stepping back would help. We could individually and collectively shake off the stress and pause for a long time without passing judgment on anyone, including ourselves. We could reflect on where we might be contributing to the fire and where we could help.
Are we bystanders, telling ourselves it isn’t that bad? Do we want to look away when we know how many people have suffered as a result of the bystander effect – the kids at Penn State, the Olympic gymnasts and the children who died at the border in U.S. custody? Are we so committed to the tax breaks that make life easier, for some, that we’re willing to be bystanders? Why is the NRA beyond reproach? Has their money and power blinded us to the individual losses of the lovely and hard-working people in El Paso and Dayton. Sins of omission, especially among those with resources and power, cause devastating pain to those without power or resources.
We want to feel a greater sense of belonging, for the world to be safer, and we want the same for others. But the black-and-white thinking, relentless judgment and vicious rhetoric are taking us down. Suicide, depression, anxiety and addiction rates climb, especially among adolescents and young adults, along with mass shootings. We owe it to ourselves and those we love to get back on the middle path. Goodness, compassion, intelligence, tolerance and wisdom run deep in us but we won’t recover them by standing by. It takes courage and integrity to live from the middle, to do the next right thing instead of the next convenient thing. Serena Williams and Jess McIsaac are waiting for us. They can’t do it alone.
(Sarah McIsaac Murphy grew up in Concord and now lives in Los Angeles.)