Wednesday, February 07, 2007


My great-grandfather Morrissey had a grocery store in San Francisco’s south-of-Market-Street area, “south of the slot” old-timers would call it. I think his name was Patrick Henry Morrissey, who came here from Boston in the 1850’s.

Patrick Henry and his wife Jenny (pictured below) were prosperous enough to send their son to college and medical school.

My grandfather, Joseph Grant, Sr., received his medical degree from UC in Berkeley in 1894, and set up practice in San Francisco. This guy, Dr. Joseph Grant Morrissey, Sr., is the culprit. He’s the cause of my family’s fall from grace.

Or maybe you could blame Bright’s Disease.

Or maybe you could blame the small-mindedness of SF’s Irish-Catholic middle class.

After establishing himself, Dr Joseph Grant Morrissey went east to find a bride. This was all fin-de-siecle-ish and must have been very exciting.

He picked out a suitable girl named Mary Ellen Meade. She was related to the Civil War general Meade, who got some credit for the North’s victory at Gettysburg.

Mary Ellen Meade came west to be a doctor’s wife and the mother of a boy and two girls. My dad was born in 1901, Jane and Ann were born three and four years later. Life was good.

These days the term “middle class” covers anyone above the poverty line and below billionairehood. It covers the true middle class plus what used to be called the working class.

One feature of a true middle class family is that the wife doesn’t do housework, she manages the domestic staff. Mary Ellen Meade-Morrissey had a full time maid.

Things changed when my grandmother Mary Ellen fell ill with Bright’s Disease (now called chronic nephritis), which put her in bed for a couple of years, and killed her in 1912.

Then it hit.

Dr Joseph Morrissey committed the grave infraction of re-marrying before the completion of the requisite one year of mourning. The story is that he needed someone to look after his three school-age children.

Worse, he married a girl from the East Bay of Swedish extraction and uncertain social status.

And worst of all, the girl he married was non-Catholic. This was unforgivable.

Because of these infractions, Dr Joseph’s patients abandoned him. I guess much of his practice was Irish-Catholics, and they deserted him en masse. In this 1912 photo (second from the bottom-left) he looks pensive.

So he had social problems, and financial problems, and the kids weren’t getting along with the stepmom.

How did Dr Joseph Morrissey handle this challenge?

He had a stroke and spent the last eight years of his life in a hospital bed.

The stepmom didn’t like the kids anyway, so the two girls were shipped to a Catholic girls boarding school in Marin, where, as charity cases, they were treated poorly.

And my dad was on his own at age fourteen, in his home town, with the same cast of characters, but stripped of all privilege.

My father, Joseph Jr., had to deal with puberty and work to support himself at the same time. His education stopped at the eighth grade. He was an outcast from his former social group. He was an orphan. There were no child labor laws or welfare programs back then.

The assumption is that if old Dr Joseph had not remarried, or had married another Catholic girl, that when the stroke came, the Irish Catholic community would have rallied to see that my dad and his sisters could keep their privilege and expectations, and remain in their stratum.

But, in this case, the sins of the father were visited upon the children.

It’s a strange contradiction. Usually, to be an outcast is considered a bad thing. But what if the group that cast you out is a bunch of assholes?

My dad was kicked out of Ithaca. His odyssey lasted a lot longer than Odysseus’. And his tragic desire to return to the happy place of his childhood was never completely fulfilled.

If I had married a St Rose girl, and had gone to USF law school, I could be living in St Francis Woods or Jordan Park-adjacent, golfing and playing tennis at the Olympic Club with my high-school chums. My wife would have a (part time) maid.

This likely would have happened if I'd turned out to be heterosexual.

Thank you, God, for making me gay.

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