First Posted: 3/16/2013
I either remember this story or I’ve heard it so often I think I remember it.
Either way, St. Patrick’s Day brings it to mind.
I was in kindergarten, so it must have been on or around St. Patrick’s Day of 1954, when the teacher asked each child to stand up and say “what they were.”
There’s probably a column in that itself. A friend once pointed out this is the only place in America where if someone asks “What are you?” people respond with a nationality. Any place else someone might say “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a farmer.” Here, they say “I’m Italian” or “I’m Irish” or “I’m Polish.”
And kids, apparently, are supposed to know this, even in kindergarten.
But I didn’t.
And as my turn approached, I grew more and more anxious.
The teacher, whom I once misidentified in print as being Mrs. Hopkins but later was informed by Mrs. Hopkins’ daughter Ann that it could not have been her mom but was probably Mrs. Dessoye, was Mrs. Dessoye.
Mrs. Dessoye, I remember, was very tall.
And on this day, she seemed taller than ever.
All the other kids knew exactly what they were. And they were so proud of it they didn’t just say what they were, they proclaimed it, which only made me squirm all the more.
“What am I?” I kept asking myself. “What am I?”
In my state of panic I heard one little boy say he was “half & half” and that’s when it hit me that I must be half & half too. So, when Mrs. Dessoye asked me the dreaded question, I answered with the same gusto as all of the others, “Half & half.”
“Half what and half what?” she asked and panic set back in.
But not for long.
In a flash the answer came to me.
“Half up in Hughestown,” I responded matter-of-factly, “and half down here.”
See, my family had just moved from the borough of Hughestown to the Browntown section of Pittston Township.
I don’t remember Mrs. Dessoye falling on the floor laughing, but if she did not, then that woman had incredible self control.
I can surmise, however, that she told everyone she could find, including and especially my mom, and just like that, the story became legend.
My Mom informed me later that I was indeed “half & half” but that it was half Irish and half German.
She wasn’t completely honest. I learned later I am actually one-quarter Irish and three-quarters German.
I also learned that while my mom strongly identified with her Irish heritage, St. Patrick’s Day was more solemn than celebratory in her family and therefore ours. Her dad, of German ancestry, had died on St. Patrick’s Day in 1936. My mom was 13 at the time and the eldest of six children.
The day became even more solemn in my family when in 1972 my mom’s mom, the former Esther Moran and the contributor of the Irish genes to the mix, also died on St. Patrick’s Day, 36 years to the day after her husband. We still find that hard to believe.
So, other than wearing something green, for most of my life I tended not to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but rather spend a few moments each March 17 reflecting on my maternal grandmother, who loved me fully and unconditionally, and my maternal grandfather, whom I never knew.
As an adult, I even passed up the annual Greater Pittston Friendly Sons of St. Patrick banquets despite the urging of many friends.
But that changed a few years ago when Charlie Grimes, then president of the Friendly Sons, invited me to be toastmaster. I always try to honor such requests and when I did this one, I found attending the banquet was actually a way to honor my Irish roots, and hence my grandmother and my mom.
I’ve been to almost every Friendly Sons banquet since and will be tonight at The Woodlands, the 99th consecutive one by the way.
I tell everyone my favorite part of the evening is at the beginning of the program when we are asked to sing the National Anthem.
It doesn’t take much coaxing to get men of Irish ancestry to belt out a song and when they raise their voices in The Star Spangled Banner — 500 or more of them — it, without fail, sends chills up and down my spine.
It also reminds me they are not really Irish and I’m not at all half & half.
We’re Americans, the lot of us.
And that is something worth proclaiming.
Today and every day.