I am Irish American. Not an “Anglo,” “Whitey,” “Papist,” or a “drunken Mick.” I am descended from a long line of dead Irish people in Eire, and Ireland is in my DNA. Even though I have never been there—and will never go there—my great-grandparents brought my DNA with them when they came to America.
I never knew my great-grandfather, Anthony Callaghan from County Cork, who had the silent “g” chopped off his name at Ellis Island. My great-grandmother, the former Mary McMahon, is a different story. I celebrate my heritage through her, Gramma, and the memories I still carry of her fifty years later.
Gramma was a tiny woman, and tinier still in her 90s. But that didn’t stop her, like the good Catholic wife that she was, from birthing thirteen children, eight of whom lived. She was housebound, but never alone: the fruit she bore in turn bore two more generations, and that was a shitload of people “stopping by” to visit her.
And she loved every minute of it. And she loved every one of us, even if she didn’t remember (or know in the first place) our names. And she loved giving every one of us kids a kiss, telling God to watch over us in the beautiful accent she never lost.
About Gramma’s kisses. She gave huge, slobbery kisses just like her Golden Retriever, Paddy. Or Fluffy. Or whatever. Huge, slobbery, beery kisses because she drank. Just a glass of beer, mind you, never a bottle in sight, but there was always someone to keep her glass full. I could always tell who was kissing me by the after-odor: if it smelled like beer it was Gramma, or if it smelled like dog shit it was Paddy. Or Fluffy. Or whatever.
Well, that’s not exactly true because the two of them could fool the hell out of me. If the dog had a few laps of Gramma’s beer, or if she forgot to soak her dentures overnight, I was never sure who, or what, had just kissed me.
I didn’t really care, though, because I loved them both. I can still see her sitting in her faded blue horsehair chair, the arms covered with intricate crocheted doilies held in place with pins, a beer glass in her right hand, and always with a smile on her face.
Except, that is, on a Friday or Saturday night when everybody gathered around the upright piano in the basement for a sing-a-long. (The bar was in the basement too, and for good reason once the singing began.) We sang long and loud and off-key until my Uncle Jack took over, a fine tenor who sang in the church choir. He sang one or two Irish songs, but always finished with the one that brought tears to Gramma’s eyes: “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral”.
A lullaby. Were the tears for my great-grandfather? For the five children she never got to sing for? For the Ireland she left? I believe it was all of these things as I look at her in my mind, a tired, sick, fuzzy-faced old woman who lived to be 102.
I love you still, Gramma, and I hope you went out with a smile on your face.
[This piece was inspired by Mapstew and a comment he made about his mother on Kim Ayres blog. Thanks, Map.]