Their wailing cries shook the very heavens,
and my four green fields ran red with their blood, said she.
—Traditional Irish ballad
Patricia Marie Judith McCarthy Fitzsimmons did not receive a very good education—not at home and not in Catholic school. Fifteen years of abuse from the nuns at St. Benedict’s Catholic School left her feeling below average. Most of the holy sisters had signed up for the “I’m a lesbian in the 1950s, so hide me in a nunnery” program. Instead they were directed to their worst nightmare: teaching pasty-faced wiseass Irish and Italian kids (who became their human punching bags).
From what I understand, both of my parents got into a lot of trouble in their Catholic schools. The worst part was that if they told their folks that the nuns had slapped them around, their parents would beat them again. It’s the classic Irish “double beating.”
What endured was a reflexive disrespect for authority. While my mom is the first person to stop and help a homeless person, a cashier undercharging her was seen as a stroke of good luck. Any rule that meant extra effort or less fun for her kids was stamped “irrelevant.” Height lines for a roller coaster were for wimpy kids, not us. This attitude never affected her love of people and joy for life. She has always left an indelible mark on everyone she meets. When my mother flies, she takes a long cab ride to the airport. Without exception, whether the driver is fat or elderly, black or Hispanic—it doesn’t matter—when he arrives at the airport, he gets out of the cab, pulls my mom’s bag from the trunk, and then gives her a hug. Because she listened to him for the entire ride; she laughed with him and cared about what he told her. But if he undercharged her, she didn’t say shit about it.
My mother was the youngest of six kids (one died young from tuberculosis). Both her parents immigrated here as teenagers by themselves before meeting at a church dance in the Bronx. Pop worked for Con Edison (the electric company) for forty years and, after retiring, worked part-time at Baskin-Robbins so he could swipe ice cream for the grandkids. He’d cheerfully deliver pints of bright green chocolate chip mint during every visit, and his fridge was packed with the stuff.
Pop had also pocketed washers from work, which doubled as slugs for pay phones. The ruse went on well into my mother’s adulthood, and was finally busted by a cop when my mother, with me in a stroller, told him that her dime was stuck in the payphone. When he pushed on the coin return, the washer came tumbling out, and the gig was up.
My maternal grandmother seems to have displayed little of Pop’s spirit. While he sat at the dinner table reciting limericks he learned as a boy back in County Kerry, Ireland, she holed up alone in the kitchen, telling her kids, “It’s less work for me to just do it on my own.” My hunch is that Grandma was more interested in spending quality time with a little Bushmills whiskey than with five hungry children. She was the classic Irish matriarch, and although her kids feared her, they respected her intelligence. They knew that she was capable of more in life, but college and a career were never in the cards for an immigrant woman with a life of financial struggle and annoying children.
My mother’s father, Francis, was a real character. If he liked you, he’d call you “one of the best.” His real name was Florence, and back in County Kerry, he ran messages for the Irish Republican Army until his family had enough money to ship him to America when he was sixteen. They shipped over each of his eleven siblings, one by one. (It sounds desperate, but you try living in a two-room house with one bathroom on a diet of turnips and black beer.)
When Florence learned that his future son-in-law was a radio announcer, he said, “Well, he may come home hungry, but he’ll never come home tired.” Florence switched his name to Frank after several years of having to fight the “Eye-talians” who teased him about it. At the age of seventy, he defiantly switched his name back to Florence. His grandkids immediately beat the shit out of him because it was a stupid name. He’s lucky I even put it in the book.
My father teased my mother her whole life about the fact that, when he met her, Pop was still cutting up her meat at dinner. Young Patricia got a hard time from her siblings for getting treated special as the youngest, but the child who got the royal treatment was her older brother, Francis. At age eleven, Francis and the rest of the kids had already logged over twenty thousand hours of kneeling, rising, bowing, crossing, and confessing at St. Benedict’s Roman Catholic Church, where Masses were said in Latin. One evening, in a rare moment of quiet on Edison Avenue, a vision of the Holy Mother appeared before Francis. Bingo! From that point forward, he was treated like a saint. He excelled at school, and led a very full and rich life, raising six children of his own. They all go to the same church and the same country club and have mass-produced beautiful freckle-faced children of their own. Francis passed away in 2010, and it was like our family had lost the chairman of the board. He was beloved for his kindness, charity, and joy. I asked my mother if he really saw the Holy Mother. Without hesitation she said to me, “Yes.” Not only was Francis an incredibly good man, he was a genius.
My mother grew up in the shadow of all of her older siblings. Dolores is the closest in age and a world-class ballbuster. The only person she teases more than my mother is herself. She proudly acknowledges being the worst cook in America (the only nominees are Irish) and cemented the title this past Easter when she prepared the meal for my family. She presented a lime cake, the recipe of which she’d clipped from a magazine. It weighed nine pounds and refused to allow the knife in my hand to penetrate. We were dying of laughter as I finally chipped out petrified slices and served them to my now crying family. Using my full body weight to push the fork through my piece of limestone cake, the utensil snapped in half, and the hysteria went on for no less than fifteen minutes.
Mom’s oldest sister, Peggy, was pretty tough as well. She moved out to Long Island with my uncle Paul and pumped out six little leprechauns: Kevin, Gerard, Marypat, Brian, Jeanine, and Danny. Sounds like the starting lineup for an Alcoholics Anonymous hockey team.
The neighbor had a vicious German shepherd. This greatly upset Peggy, having been attacked by a dog as a child. My mom told me conspiratorially one day that the dog “ate some special Gaines-Burgers” and wasn’t around anymore. There’s a sly pride in my mother’s telling of the story. It’s how her family took care of things.
I think the fear of Grandma brought my mom’s siblings closer to one another. Despite this closeness, however, it was always clear that my mom was going to live a life different from the others’. When she met my dad, that suspicion became a certainty.
I think one of the things that made my mother fall hard for my dad was the way he treated her mother. He charmed my grandmother with great success, always dressing up when he came over as my parents first started dating. Also, Grandma did not intimidate him. He once found a glass of whiskey behind the toaster and asked if it was hers. She hissed, “Heavens, no! It must be left from the last dinner party.” My father held up the glass and complimented Grandma on having the longest-lasting ice cubes in the Bronx. Anybody else would have gotten a smack. My father got a laugh and a wave of her hand.
If you want a long marriage, then marry an Irish person. It may not be a good marriage, but it will last forever. We don’t cheat, because there is too much guilt, and besides, no one will fuck us.
Seeing an old Irish couple walking arm in arm after forty years together, don’t be fooled. It may seem romantic, but it’s really just survival. He’s got a bad knee, she needs hip surgery; it’s pretty much the only way they can walk upright. At this point, they’re just drunkenly cursing, and trying to make it to the finish line.
The pride in being Irish is as unparalleled as it is unwarranted. During my wife’s first pregnancy, the ob-gyn placed a stickpin with Erin’s name on it and our son’s due date on a wall calendar. Other doctors in the practice shared the calendar, and I pointed out that there was a cluster of pins right around Christmas. On closer inspection, I saw that the mothers’ names showed a pattern: O’Brien, McCarthy, Ryan, Fitzpatrick. A mass of newborns were expected on or near December 25, just like Jesus. I got goose bumps. It seems ridiculous, but there are sometimes signs that the Irish are truly special, if not divine. I pointed out the pattern to my wife and her doctor with restrained mystical pride. The doctor callously dismissed my findings with four cold (and borderline racist) words: Saint Patrick’s Day babies. Christmas is nine months after Saint Patrick’s Day. So there’s nothing “divine” about it. It’s just the result of drunken unprotected make-up sex after a slap fight at the Blarney Stone that day.
Roughly six months after my parents’ impromptu wedding in Ireland, my mother rested comfortably in the maternity ward after giving birth to my older brother, Bobby. Shortly thereafter, my grandmother entered the room, lunged at her daughter, and, enraged over the scandal, tried to strangle her. My grandfather and father had to pull this lunatic off of my mother.
Meeting my father marked an exciting adventure that, although it took my mother less than twenty miles away, swept her into a completely different world. And she was glad to be gone from the old one.
© 2010 Donut Boy Productions, Inc.