Unlike the separated, erect branches of a tree, the family system can feel like a complicated mangle of vines or brier. And because we start out with an expectation of the way family aught to be, it can take a lifetime to accept that sharing roots doesn't guarantee the ideal. I was aghast when Dad put it this way, "Hey, you're lucky if you're friends with your family when you grow up."
When I told a friend, of Italian descent, what Dad had said, she tried to help make sense of it. "He can't help his belief," she said. "it's the cold Irish way." I felt a rush of shame. I couldn't add coldness to the erratic, beer-guzzling leprechaun stigmas and "Mc" jokes that often surfaced like a plague at parties whenever cultures mixed. So I pinned my friend's hypotheses to the wall of my mind and made some observations of my own. Some three decades later, I've penned some preliminary observations.
When I saw my cousin Joey at Dad's wake, he slipped me an envelope that contained a few plays he was working on. One of them was acted out in New York City that year. I was excited to read them. When I told him I was impressed, he smiled and said something like, in Ireland, eight out of ten people are playwrights.
Irish are an absorbent lot, generally speaking, but they're creative and don't quickly abandon a sinking ship if it means leaving a friend behind. In fact, I observed that they often stay in precarious situations longer than is prudent. And stoic as one might appear, the Irish will walk into danger with a heart wide open to help a friend or the vulnerable, because, even if there isn't a happy ending, there's possibly a better one. Our family is riddled with rescue workers, security, medical professionals, firefighters and police. They're artistic and creative problem-solvers. But, even in our more stigma-sensitive culture, Irish are still pigeonholed for one thing: drinking.
Three years ago, a work associate of a different ethnicity found out about my Irish roots. He broke up his response in pulses like onions in a food processor, as though the words would sting less: Irish. Ha. Love. To. Drink.
I felt a knee jerk defensiveness, but I saw something else -- the tomfoolery and futility in our country's obsession with outlawing offensive words and conversations. It's inescapable, the ignorant, cheap-shot use of stigmas, prejudice, and generalizations to explain what we don't understand. It's insidious and pervasive, and if we're going to be honest, sometimes the worst of it is the shame we feel when we or one of our "own" live down to the worst of what's implied by our stigmas.
There's heightened sensitivity mostly when it's personal, and when the press receives enough pressure to beat our eardrums to death with one prejudicial word over another. So it's a good idea to do one of two things in these situations, when somebody says something obnoxious or ignorant. Adopt the acronym QTIP: Quit Taking It Personal, or excuse yourself and engage a more enjoyable activity, like driving around discovering dead zones with a hands-free device.
Similar to the pride of flags and national flowers, did you know there is also a national alcoholic beverage? If my associate had clicked on that link before he commented, he might have learned something, said it nicer, like, "Irish love to savor stout and whiskey," and my Brooklyn wouldn't have gone up.
But anyway, the reason the associate didn't know of my Irish descent from the start was because of my trick last name. And though our family roots may have absorbed some stout, my parents hardly ever drank. It can be reasonably argued that they should have. We were more Catholic than most of the Catholics in our neighborhood. Mom sought to discuss the unmentionable issue of reproductive rules in a parish discussion group, which didn't win any popularity points, but she was only one of two women in the neighborhood who gave birth to half of the Mary Queen of Heaven School population. She was like the kid who protests cleaning her room while she does it anyway. And I pray to God she's being extra blessed in heaven for it.
Some of the unkindest people in our Irish Catholic neighborhood loosened their wagging tongues over the proverbial stout. And drinking or not, when you're raised in a large family, you try to slip through all of it unnoticed, but you're a moving target, a conspicuous school of fish and a catchall for the pecking types and every mental distortion in the neighborhood. You simply cannot blend.
My brother John and I were talking about our old Brooklyn block over the winter, and he recalled a childhood experience, an encounter with the husband of one of the biggest gossips, the most condemning woman on the block. Her husband, Mr. McSorely*, had been savoring the proverbial stout that afternoon as my brother's story began...
"Dad sent Tom and I around, collecting money for the Holy Name Society. He gave me a long speech to memorize when asking for the money. When I walked up the McSorely’s path, Mr. McSorely was sitting on the top side of the stoop, clutching the door handle with one hand. I said hello and went through the speech, while he sat and stared at us silently. I thought he was just tired, but it looked like he was hanging on every word.
I just uttered the last syllable and he rolled down the side of the stoop (not the steps) and did a somersault and another one when he landed on the walk in sitting position.
He looked at us, and he said, “Yes, boys?” Despite his undivided attention before he rolled down the stoop, he never heard a word I said, and I was laughing too hard to attempt to repeat it. We just left and laughed our asses off for weeks."
One distinct advantage of being Irish is that we weren't raised with a homage rule, like some of my Italian counterparts. It appeared to me that they used the elder or first born position as diplomatic immunity from having to practice mutual respect. The firstborn was king or queen, the rest were trained to emotionally genuflect. We were taught that we're each made in the image of God and should treat each other with kindness and love. This was a good thing to want. But as Mammy said to Scarlett in Gone With the Wind: Wantin' ain't gettin'.
I can only paraphrase a friend's words, but I will never forget its crux. Whenever she encounters a person who sends out bad vibes, she puts her head down and continues her journey, thanking her guardian angels for protecting her on her way. Who can't appreciate that?
I learned to distinguish putting the head down to propel forward from putting the head down in shame to cart one's sorry butt through the crowd. If there's one observation I made over these several years it's that, as human beings, we live and work on a level playing field. We are all sinners and mistake-makers in need of help from our Divine Manufacturer to work within our human condition. He alone knows our backstory and unique wiring.
Over the past couple of years, I've been fortunate to reconnect with a very special part of our family roots: cousins. And when I apply Dad's principle to our relationship, I feel doubly blessed. As we share some of the events of our lives, we are touched by them. We also laugh until our sides hurt. We may not have been together for these events, but like twins separated at birth, there's familiarity in their stories. Our lives may be busy, but we are fortunate to be friends.
* name changed : )