Irish by association

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There’s nary a drop of Irish blood in my mixed South American/ Eastern European heritage but having grown up just down the street from a large Irish family, with its patriarch taking on the role of my godfather, I have always considered myself part Irish, if only by association.

Born and raised in Dublin, Tom, son of a veterinarian, and Maggie, his young bride, immigrated to Canada and raised four daughters and son in a tiny suburban bungalow. Tom’s accent was so thick that to this day, I don’t recall understanding much of what he said but I liked to sit on their front steps with the family on warm summer evenings listening to them spar.

He referred to my mother as “Mrs. Woman” and on the odd occasion when my mom would bring me to Sunday Mass, it was usually in the back seat of Tom and Maggie’s Oldsmobile Cutlass where Tom would inevitably comment, “Don’t worry Maggie, if we get stuck, we’ve got Mrs. Woman for traction,” and somehow, he’d get away with it.

I never became a devout Catholic despite all the churchgoing influences of my childhood but I have fond memories of Maggie bringing me delicate dried palm fronds intricately woven into beautiful patterns every year around Easter. When Tom and Maggie’s front steps were once struck by lightning, the front door suffered serious damage but the picture of the pope hanging in the hallway was miraculously unscathed, which undoubtedly was proof of something.

After having four girls in a row, Tom was over the moon when their fifth child was a boy who, of course, was christened Tommy Jr. My father often told how he was called over to celebrate Tommy Jr.’s birth and was treated to a beer-stein (or more) of straight Irish Mist. Tom proudly proclaimed that he could now show his daughters the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic and if anyone reading can explain to me what he meant, I’d greatly appreciate it.

As a child, Tommy Jr. was a notoriously picky eater and my dad would occasionally try and trick him into trying something new. “C’mon, it’s an Irish grape,” he’d say, holding out a bowl of green olives but Tommy invariably wasn’t buying.

Maggie was a soft-spoken redhead and I can remember sitting in her blue kitchen (blue gauzy curtains, blue walls, blue linoleum), shyly eating cheese sandwiches on white bread, a kitchen that, throughout my entire childhood, always smelled of roasted turkey and Pine Sol. You could stand a spoon upright in one of her cups of tea, it was that strong. The only time I saw Maggie lose her temper was when Tommy Jr. blasphemed by muttering, “Jeeeeee-sus!” at something that had irked him.

I’ve held on to very few childhood mementos but to this day, in a small box, I keep a golden Celtic cross pendant engraved with my initials and birth date. It’s a reminder that some of the best childhood memories are borne of the most unlikely places, of muddy tea, cheese sandwiches, and the memory of an Irish brogue that, though still unintelligible, brings a smile to my face.

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