Monday, March 17, 2008

Today, We're All a Wee Bit Irish

'Twas a time where I was proud of my genetics. I come from, shall we say, good stock. My great grandmother, may she rest in peace, lived 'til 100, and an extremely lucid, listen-to-all-the-Pirates-Spring-training-games 100 at that. My great great aunt lived to 107, and answered the door herself when my brother and I visited in her 101st year. Another great grandmother lived to 98. Her son, my grandfather, is a hearty 91, still travels to Alaska annually to hike, and plays golf regularly -- all despite the fact that he is leagally blind.

I hoped this set of family would dominate my father's genes which contained a few worrisome outliers. His aunt lived to 85 or something, largely subsisting on government cheese, crackers, and scotch. However, his father died when he was only in his forties (my father was around 12 years old). For some reason, I was always thought he had died of a heart attack, in fact, I may have even written that on a few medical background forms, and worried a bit about my father and his smoking habit. And then a few years ago, while driving around his home town, the stories started to spill from my father's mouth (you skinny dipped where??), and he told the story of his father's death, which I had never heard before (where did that heart attack story come from, anyway?), and which we all agreed (medical specialists that we are) (not) sounded suspiciously like a brain tumor. Of course, given the day and age, no autopsy was performed, and we will never know.

My mother's family is rather white-bread "English," and I don't think anyone has turned up anything remotely interesting in our lineage other than the usual Americana. Apparently that family wound up here in the 18th century, some fought in the Revolution, etc., etc. Yawn. My father's family name is one that lent itself to variations over the centuries, so if you believe all the variations are related in some way, the family seems to trend Welsh. My father's family also came to America in the 18th century, and had a slightly more interesting history here replete with claim-jumping and politics. There are actually some streets, counties and parks bearing my last name sprinkled through parts of the country.

Last year, my uncle revealed that he had recently discovered our name actually has French roots, and "our people" probably drifted across the channel during one of the infinite quarrels with the English over the last geological era, and that's how we actually wound up there. Huh. Tough to think my brutish ways might actually be French. (I'm sure the French would be less than pleased. Or, maybe they're relieved that we drifted away. Not to give too much away here, but the roots of my last name in French mean something between "That which we throw out with the eggshells" and "Sad sack cannon-fodder.") My grandmother's maiden name, as it was passed down to me and I understood it, was Scottish. I never thought twice about it, or the Englishness of anything else in my roots. Also relevant to this story: My father grew up in a working class steel town during a time when it was de rigueur to refer to people by their ethnic group in not such a polite way. If you get my drift. He actually apologized to my third-generation, 100% Italian-American husband in advance of meeting some of his elderly family in the event the G-word slipped out in conversation.

Then a few years ago my cousin calls me on St. Pat's day to ask if I'm drinking a Guiness. Which, I totally would anyway, cuz Guinness! Yum! Frothy warm motor-oil thick brown goodness in a glass! But probably couldn't break away to find a bar with it on tap, which is the ONLY way you should drink Guinness, people. But clearly missing the point:


Why? We're not Irish.
Yes we are.
No we're not.
Yes we are. Grandma M.
M is a Scottish name, you twit. And you're not really blonde either.
No, it's Irish. And take your ass to a salon already, you jealous bi-

***Hang up, and call my Father.***

Are we Irish?
Wellllll, could be.
Could be? I'm thirty-fucking-something years old, and you're just now getting around to telling me that we might be Irish? Dad, I've missed sooo many parties, and now I'm totally too old for one of those plastic leprechaun hats!
M might be an Irish name. Could be that she was embarrassed and thought it best considering where we lived, where people referred to Irish as M___s, to explain it away as "Scottish." After Dad died, she had to clean houses for income; people in the area might not have let her in the door if they had an inkling she was part-Irish.


Well, plus there's my uncle, who would rather be French or Irish or pretty much any damn thing remotely more romantic than English (because really, what have they done that warrants drinking?), so I'm thinking this is all a bit far-fetched really, and for the first time I actually think of googling my grandmother's maiden name. It turns up Irish. Everywhere.

We don't talk much about our genetics anymore. Especially the fact that both of our families tend to lead long, healthy lives. Or that in outward appearance, Mr. ABF seems to have inherited every recessive gene there was to inherit from his families. Obviously including that one. I look like my father, exactly. When I was about 12, I once went to visit him at the office and into the elevator walked a guy who turned out to be one of my dad's students. He took one look at me and said, "You must be a [Last name]." I look like my cousins' sister (minus her totally from-the-bottle blond hair, do not be fooled). We all have the same features, same faces, same eyes. When pregnant, we anticipated Bella would inherit all of my family's dominant stuff -- the big cheeks, big eyes -- and probably look just like me, but with her father's (dominant) brown eyes; instead, she looks just like her father, with my blue eyes. There used to be a sense of awe in her recessive inheritance, but like I said, that conversation never comes up anymore. We don't discuss the possible lineage of Bella's facial features because I think we silently agree that we are simply fucking lucky to have her at all. Our family trees have ceased to be places of mystery and wonderment, squirrel cheeks and Roman noses, underlying contentment of a life that lies ahead, and have instead become landmines of not-knowing from whence this microcosmic death-knell originated.

Mr. ABF's last boss was Irish through-and-through, the kind of guy who spoke at the big-time St. Patrick's dinners and whatnot. And from him, we learned about a traditional Gaelic prayer that gets thrown around a lot. When Maddy died, someone from the office gave us a copy. I'm not religious but for some reason I find this prayer especially appealing. It might be the mysterious double entendre of it -- is the person referring to me when they say it, or Maddy? Or both? Does it refer to the present, or the afterlife, and is there any difference? And I love that it acknowledges the here and now, the journey I'm already on, and how arduous it will be, and that it will eventually lead me right back here, where you are:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

It's not saccharine, it's not "everything will be ok." It's simply hoping that while you're in the now, on this lousy trek forward, things go as best they can. And I'm rather down with that.

Huh. Turns out I might actually be a wee bit Irish. In any event, I'm embracing it today if no other reason than to head down to my neighborhood Irish bar (which obviously, being in my neighborhood, includes organic and vegan dishes on the menu) and have a Guinness, on tap. And raise a toast to my Grandmother, who brought up three boys single-handedly regardless of her country of origin, and all of my great ones, for conspiring to place me where I am.

With some really funky babykilling genetics. Beannachtam na Feile Padraig, and all that.


Julia said...

I like that prayer too. We can all use a bit of that wind in our backs, ha?
Hope you had way too much Guinness, for all of us whose neighborhood does not have it on tap.

niobe said...

I like hearing about other people's backgrounds, mostly because I don't really have much of one of my own. My great-grandparents were probably the beneficiaries of an Ellis Island rechristening and there's no way of even being sure which Eastern European country they came from.

And you may have explained this and I missed it, but is there some specific reason that they're fingering a recessive gene (rather than, say, a mutation) as the reason for Maddy's death?

Kellie said...

A friend of my dad's once told me that with a name like "Kel*lie Flan*igan" my underwear should be green. So with me, there is no doubt. While I would rather drink swamp water than Guinness, I'll raise a glass of lovely bottled water to you today, and thank you for posting that Irish blessing. It's one of my favorites.

STE said...

I'm a descendant of Russian/Polish Jews, but I apparently *look* Irish, with fair skin and eyes, brown/red hair.

It's pretty amusing when I tell people Jewish, not Irish, and get the inevitable, "Funny you don't look Jewish." Ah, the ignorant. So much fun.

Enjoy your Guinness! Have one for me while you're at it!

Which Box said...

Ah, enjoy that Guinness. Yes, on tap is the only way to have it.

Apparently my grandmother was part scot-irish. I have no idea what that means at all.

Tash said...

Which, from Wiki:

"The Scots-Irish are descendants of the Ulster Scots immigrants who in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries traveled to North America predominantly from Ulster Province in the north of Ireland. Many of their ancestors had lived in Scotland within the two centuries prior, usually in the Lowlands and Scottish Border country as well as northern England, and first migrated to Ulster in large numbers with the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement of East Ulster beginning in May, 1606 (see Plantation of Ulster). By the 18th century Ulster Scots out-populated the native Irish in Ulster, though both were politically inferior to the Protestant Ascendancy consisting of members of the State Church."

So there ya go.

Niobe, apparently there are ways of knowing that something is a mutation -- I've asked this question a million times and of course can't think of the exact response, but things to do with patterns, and clues, and not quite the horrific multi-system failure that we had, but something more limited. But this is all educational guessing on their part, and I suppose it could be anything, really. (sigh)

Kel.lie, You find motor oil unappetizing? You're probably also way too cool for the plastic hats, aren't you. Anyway. Happy happy, and all that.

meg said...

I love reading about people's history, I guess because I didn't know anything of mine growing up (adopted).

I am Scottish/English as far as I know, but no Irish, unfortunately. My husband, has the same background as you, I think. The family came from France, and settled in Ireland. So he counts as Irish, and has that black Irish coloring, which I love.

CLC said...

I love that prayer. We used that as an Irish blessing at the end of our wedding- my husband's straight from Ireland, so we had to include some Irishness. There are a few different versions, but the msg is essentially the same, like you stated.

Hope you are enjoying your Guinness(es) right now. You are right about that as well, you can only drink it as draft beer, no point in wasting the calories on a bottled guiness. Irish tip: throw a dash of some black courant liquor and it takes the edge off the bitterness.

Also, thanks for finding that SIM link. I emailed them my letter verbatim. I will keep you posted on any response that I get.

kalakly said...

The only t*ing we drink with our Guinness is a Bass Ale, not always on tap but mighty cold.

Hope you enjoyed a couple of em today, and hell, why not tomorrow too?

Happy Paddy Day!

P.S. to CLC, man I would LOVE to be in the room when the SIM folks open that email, way to go girlfriend!

Lisa b said...

Happy St Paddy's Day, hope you enjoy your Guinness.

I am pure Irish stock, married to a chinese man and we won the random genetic mutation lottery. I used to find genetics a lot more interesting too.

Which Box said...

thanks! I never thought to wiki or google that.

But, so, does that mean I am part Irish? or part Scottish? Scottish too snobby to ever deign to become Irish?

It's only a little bit. 1/2 of my grandmother, so that's only 1/8 me. Mostly Portuguese, actually (1/2) and German (1/4). I think generic English the other 1/8.

luna said...

fascinating ancestry tales... hope you enjoyed the guinness. I never understood why anyone would drink green beer when they could have guinness. and love that prayer too. ~luna

samill said...

M is half scots (Paisley) and half Irish (Donegal). We're actually off to Ireland on Saturday for a few days to stay with his aunt near Cork.

I'm pretty sure I'm not going to want to see Guinness again for some time come Tuesday.

As for me, part Scots descent but further back than we remember and part North East England, which probably means viking or something like that.

Me and M call ourselves British, it covers everything.

Bon said...

slainte mhath, a day late...and well, genewise, a dollar short huh? isn't it funny how what once were mysteries become silent places?

c. said...

Loved reading this post, Tash. We know so little about eachother in blogland; I love to soak up every extra piece of info anyone is willing to put out there.

Like the others, I love the prayer. Really. Very. Nice.

As an aside, as a first generation, 100% Italian-Canadian, I have to say I'm clueless as to what G word your father would have used that might offend Mr.ABF. It's getting late though...that might be my issue.