Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Irish American

(I realize this is not about jewelry. I wanted to share this with you for St. Patrick's day. It was originally published in the East Hampton Star).

My father used to roll his eyes and say, “Everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s day.” For the most part, being a Mick wasn’t something people bragged about.  It immediately makes you think of potatoes, famine, sad songs, and beer.

dad My father William (Billy) McCormack was the oldest of three boys from Brooklyn and about as tough as they came. My grandmother was frequently told to 'wake up Billy' in the middle of the night when he was a young teenager so he could help his father, a police officer, who would have found himself in the middle of a bar-fight and needing some extra muscle. When he was 16 he enlisted in the Navy under a false name (that his World War I veteran father gave him) to join the fight in World War II. For two years he stood on the back of a destroyer looking for enemy submarines, dropping bombs into the water with his bare hands. He was court-marshaled at 18 when it was discovered he wasn't who he said he was on his enlistment papers. In light of his courage he was granted honorable discharge after fulfilling the rest of his contract with the government under his own name. Later, he settled on tending bar as a career. It was as close to being on stage as he would ever come.

Billy, a classic Irishman, answered most questions with a story or a joke. He'd lay out the joke slowly, as if pouring a drink desperate not to spill a drop. Taking a long drag on his cigarette, he'd review his audience to ensure they were all paying attention. As he let out the smoke from his lungs, he'd reveal the punch line and survey the laughter. He died when I was a young girl and the grief nearly destroyed me--I really loved being Billy's daughter.

mom My Mom had a French father but her mother was a direct descendant of Ireland.  I did some family tracing a few years ago. I was able to find my family roots as far as 1600’s for my grandfather, the Frenchman, but my grandmother’s roots stop very short. 

My mother's great-grandmother Katherine Cane was seven years old when she found herself alone on the banks of the Isle of Orleans outside Quebec. Her family, along with the majority of passengers, had been wiped out from typhoid fever on the ship escaping the famine and disease of Ireland in 1847. The stories are varied, but she may have had a sister who also survived. They were separated and adopted by different families. My grandmother said the two sisters once saw each other in town while shopping but were pulled away immediately and never saw each other again. We can only verify the existence of Katherine. The ship burned shortly after arriving to Quebec. All was lost, including the ship's manifest. The only thing left are the stories.

Even though he was not that great of a husband and made questionable parenting decisions, my mother has always spoken very fondly of my father.  I doubt my mother knows about the many Sunday afternoons I spent spinning on bar stools while my father drank, feeding me maraschino cherries for lunch, and quarters for the jukebox.  My mother tells me that the first thing she noticed about my father were his big blue eyes.  My middle son, Max, reminds my mother of him and she always says it with nothing but admiration.

I made a big pot of corned beef and cabbage over the weekend. While it cooked in the slow cooker there were a lot of turned noses and whines, “What is that smell?” I know none of them like it but I decided I didn’t care and made it anyway.  Once it was ready and gave myself a hearty portion.  I mashed the potatoes into my cabbage and put butter and salt. I put a big dollop of yellow mustard on my plate to dip the corned beef. I took a bite and closed my eyes. For a moment I was five-years-old in my mother's kitchen. My parents weren’t divorced and we were a family.  We were the McCormacks.

(This was previously published in the East Hampton Star, 2010)

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