My 8-year-old daughter has an important question. "We're Irish, aren't we?" she asks. Twenty-five years ago in Chicago, the question never would have occurred to me. The answer was always so overwhelmingly obvious.
Take holy water, for instance. My mother was from Ireland, so it probably wasn't unusual that she stockpiled holy water. She kept it in little glass bottles that she stashed throughout our home on the West Side. Back then, the finest holy water, like the best wine, came from France. Yet if my mother had a bottle of Lourdes water at the time, she never used it. Instead, she relied on a domestic, table-quality holy water; and, should a fire truck race within siren-hearing range, she would grab for a bottle of it and move deliberately through our house, liberally aprinkling each flammable child and room she encountered. I was never completely sure at the time whether we were being blessed or merely presoaked, should the fire eventually reach our door.
Having parents who spoke with an accent also made us aware of our distance from the mainstream. My brother Tom and I used to sit at the breakfast table imitating the deep brogue that was commonly filled with appositive-like little prayers:
"Mother of God, dear, have another piece of toast."
"Indeed I'd like nothing better, but I must be going."
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph, wear your boots. It's raining."
The little Irish prayers filling the corners of every conversation, the intermittent holy-water showers, the plastic dashboard statuary -- that whole thing -- might have seemed overdone at times, but I don't think we necessarily regarded it as out of place. So instead of wishing my grandmother a "happy birthday" when she was 68 and I was 9, I wrote her, "Have a blessed event," because that seemed more proper, more Irish. And a few years later, I could even appreciate how Goldblatt's department store might wish its customers a Happy Valentine's Day while announcing a 25 percent reduction on all foundation garments.
Any child who grows up hearing, "God love us, pick up some Bon Ami on your way home," can readily understand the casual blending of almost any two ideas -- Congress tacking a human-rights amendment onto a weapons-procurement bill, for example, or a business conglomerate producing weather satellites along with a full line of cheese spreads.
In the early part of March one year, my mother received a small box of shamrocks from her sister in Ireland. The box smelled heavily of mucilage and was covered with tiny green stamps. Up until that time, my idea of shamrocks had been fairly standard American, which is to say that when my mother opened that small, flat box, I fully expected to see some sparkling green, greeting-card shamrocks that were so buoyantly, cloyingly cute that they seemed to lack only dimples.
The real shamrocks, however, had been torn from a cold County Mayo hillside weeks earlier by my Aunt Sarah, who then sent them to us by surface mail to save on postage. They reached us withered and stringy. Yet my mother, perhaps because she was simply very homesick, was delighted with them. "Here," she said, handing them to me, "they're from the Old Country." Moved, but uncertain of exactly how to respond, I took the box and, finally deciding it most appropriate, sniffed it. "The Old Country," I repeated, nodding gravely and becoming suddenly proud of this sad dark clump of vegetation that in no way resembled the shamrocks I had seen in the dimestore window ads. I would mistakenly think for years afterward that Ireland smelled like mucilage, but I would never again mistake the appearance of real shamrocks.
My best friend was Mark Blycker. He lived next door and he was one of Them -- a Protestant, a Southern Baptist. Mark's mother used to listen to the Moody Bible Institute radio station and she shared my mother's taste in kitchen calendars (both routinely featured apostles in faded pink and purple robes and draft animals with upturned eyes and curiously sardonic smiles). On rainy mornings, Mark and I would sit on his kitchen floor with pieces of looseleaf, crayoning grainy pictures over the lumpy linoleum, while on the radio, a Moody Bible man from mid-Alabama described the emptiness he awoke to discover in his heart one morning. I found those stories absolutely compelling.
Often I would stay for lunch, although I was never sure that, as a Catholic, I should. My mother would usually agree to my having lunch with the Blyckers, but then I had never told her about those Protestant prayers -- those truly amazing, extemporaneous Baptist prayers that preceded lunch. They had a requisite Elizabethan ring to them -- pleny of "thou arts" and "from whences" -- but they were otherwise free of the rigidity of Catholic prayers. So I would never bow my head completely, nor would I shut my eyes all the way when Mrs. Blycker prayed. Often I would try to distract myself, try to think of that Moody Bible fellow from Alabama and the way the Lord had tested him -- taking his wife, his children and then, almost gratuitously, his best breeder hog. I would squint up at Mrs. Blycker as she free-styled her way through a series of very personal demands ("Send down Thy blessing on Thine Own fruit salad"), and I would never fail to be quietly flattered when my own name was casually dropped into this petition ("and Jimmy from next door, who art our guest"). I genuinely admired this laissez-faire praying, wished the Catholics had something like it, in fact, and was delighted that such a form of communication was available to that Moody Bible Alabaman who finally got the message when his favorite hunting dog mysteriously died.
My daughter will miss many of these experiences, of course, and for that I suppose I should breathe a deep sign of relief. On the other hand, I can't help wondering if she isn't going to miss something slightly magical. True, her impression of Ireland will be drawn first-hand, from a trip we're taking this summer. But, although she'll probably walk across the very hills that provided the surface-mail shamrocks, she'll never get as close to them as I did years ago in Chicago.