My Ancestry and Me…

ireland

A funny thing happened on the way to Saint Patricks Day 2018…

Or, a funny thing happened to me on May 8, 1962…

I was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota and placed in a Catholic Charities orphanage. Within six months, I was adopted by a wonderful Irish Catholic couple who swept me away to the place I will always consider home: Rhode Island.

I was steeped in Irish lore from the start and my adopted lineage had a direct line to the Emerald Isle. I often selected the costumes of my childhood to incorporate the Shillelaghy (walking stick) of my deceased maternal grandfather. I still have, folded and stored, the Irish linens my maternal grandmother brought from the old country. I’ve no real use for them now, but can’t bear to part with their exquisite detail.

They were Barry’s and Murphy’s and I remember two great-uncles; one a policeman, the other who worked at the racetrack. They were immigrant stock, working class, and my grandmother Mary was their center. I loved the duplex she shared with Uncle Bobby and Aunt Rita until her death. I found comfort in the framed photograph of Pope Pius which hung in her living room, with a crucifix to its right. Sometimes, while she baked, she let me hunt through my deceased grandfather’s mahogany desk. In the lower right drawer was a yellowed newspaper, dated November 22, 1963, announcing the death of President Kenndy. The black and white photo of Lyndon Johnson with a solemn Jaqueline beside him as he took the oath of office was haunting. The death of President Kennedy affected everyone. The Irish took it personally.

My paternal grandparents were Toole’s and Coughlin’s and lived in what I thought of as an enormous house in Pawtucket. They were “lace-curtain” Irish; prosperous beyond the newer immigrants. My grandfather Frank was a gentle soul. After his afternoon walk, he enjoyed a cup of tea with saltines and peanut butter. Occasionally, I joined him. The fine Belleek teacup and saucer made those small moments special. My grandmother Clare was hearty and bombastic and when she hugged you, you thought you’d never breathe again. She had, just outside her bedroom, a bookcase filled with fine literature which included Yeats, Keats and the indomitable James Joyce.

I have no memory of not knowing that I was adopted. No grandparent ever treated my adopted brother or me differently, nor loved us less than they did my naturally born cousins. Indeed, my father often announced with pride, “Weren’t we lucky that we got to pick you!”

It was me, of course, who inherited the luck of the Irish.

I wore Irish like I was born to it, helped along by reddish hair and the broad freckled-face associated with Irish lasses. I’ve heard time and again from complete strangers, “Why you’ve got the map of Ireland written on your face.”

I can trip into a decent brogue easily and fancy myself something of a story-teller. Adopted children can’t really escape wondering about their backstory and I was thrilled when I realized, sometime in my teens, that Saint Paul, Minnesota is one of the few Irish enclaves in a state dominated by Scandinavians. I may not have known my birth parents, but there was one thing of which I was certain: I was Irish.

At 52, my heart was shattered. In an attempt to mend it, I went to Ireland for the first time with a dear friend. It is what we do when we are lost; seek something that might feel like home. While the journey to be wholehearted again would take years, that week in Ireland gave me the freedom to grieve. Ireland felt as familiar to me as the powdery scent of my Grandma Barry and as comfortable as the beautifully carved handle of the Shillelaghy owned by a grandfather I never knew.

Then again, a funny thing happened to me on the way to Saint Patrick’s Day 2018.

My daughter selected Galway, Ireland as the second half of her in-progress “Gap” year. I was tickled right down to my Irish toes. Before she left in January she told me that she had done “Ancestry.com.”

My throat caught and I stumbled, “Oh, well… hmm? I have mixed emotions about that.”

She waved me off, “Mom… I have a right to know my ancestry.”

I recovered, “Yeah, I guess. But, I don’t really know my ancestry. I was thinking about doing it, but now you’re gonna know first.”

She thought on that and said, “Well, I don’t have to tell you the results.”

And that was that. Within two weeks she was on a plane to Dublin and concerns about undiscovered heritage floated away.

Until, a few weeks ago, she called from Galway, “Mom, I got my results back.”

I was silent for a moment, but couldn’t contain my curiosity, “Okay, don’t tell me too much, but give me one surprise.”

I knew there would be muddle in the D.N.A but, with her father able to trace back to Ireland on both sides, I assumed there would be nothing too shocking.

“O.K, 15% Scandinavian!” Clearly, she liked that.

As for me, no surprise – between the history of plunderous Vikings and the Minnesota connection, Scandanavian was no head-scratcher. I could live with a little Scandinavian in the mix.

It was surprisingly easy to swallow and so I encouraged Grace to continue, “So, Ireland’s the largest percentage, right?”

“Nope, only 8%, mom.”

I am no mathematician and frankly, numbers make my hair hurt, but that percentage grabbed me by the throat. If my daughter only held 8% Irish heritage, and we know that her dad holds quite a lot, then my chance of actually being Irish?

I shuddered, then recovered before I egged her on to spill the beans.

After all, I did enjoy the Ancestry commercial with the guy who traded his Liederhosen for a kilt. Scottish – that had to be it! Scotch-Irish is a thing, right? Scotland and Ireland; kissing cousins!

I love the spirit of Scotsmen, all rough and tumble. I could adjust to being Scottish and there’s the great accent, and Highlands, and Sean Connery. I was ready to order a tam and look for bagpipes on eBay!

Across the bandwidth to Galway, I gave Grace permission to give the final reveal, “So, what’s the largest percentage?”

My rascally girl drew it out, “Well, it’s huge…”

“Okay…”

“Mom, it’s 65%.”

“Wow! What is it? I’m ready.” My brain was swirling with the Loch Ness Monster, shortbread, and Mel Gibson’s bloodied torso in Braveheart!

“Well, it’s a little surprising… Great Britain!”

Bollocks!

It was not what I wanted to hear. Not because I don’t enjoy the Royals. I do. I also had a surprising attachment to this year’s Oscar Nominated “the Darkest Hour.” But England, really? Controlled, proper, high tea, Great Britain? One of the great bonds of my former homeland and my current homeland is that both countries broke free of the crown. Ugh.

To all my British friends, I apologize. But gosh, that was disappointing. I suppose it’s complicated enough for adopted children to spend a lifetime guessing what they are made of. When you adopt a homeland, as I did Ireland, you sort of want the fairy tale to live on.

I also imagine that when I do my own Ancestry.com, and I will, that the results will differ from my beautiful daughters. However, it’s quite unlikely that Irish percentage will be north of her paltry 8 %. I will root that my new yearning for Scottish blood just somehow missed her. I’ll be sure to report the results to my readers.

In the meantime, I’ll take a page from my dad’s book. I’ll continue to own Irish like I was born to it. If challenged, I’ll announce with pride, “Wasn’t I lucky, I got to pick Ireland for my ancestry!”

My Wednesday Place…

 

bar

I have a Wednesday place.  I didn’t choose it.  Candidly, I was sort of go along to get along at the suggestion.  I feared that a ghost from another time might make it a place better left alone. Not engaging ghosts is tricky business in my small swath of the world.  I gave up a local tennis venue and regular supermarket. Short of moving away, I had little choice but to brave it. I did, one winter Wednesday night 18 months ago.

In the muddle of last year’s Rubik’s Cube of heartache and Uncle Bobby’s precipitous decline, weekdays felt no different than weekends.  Days raced and crawled into weeks and months and nothing about me resembled mindfulness.  Getting through each day without dropping a spinning plate was all I could muster. I wanted to settle deep into my couch and shut the world away. Somehow, in the middle of each week, my world found its pace.

In the midst of The Januarys, my beloved, incorrigible Russian friend offered a midweek answer to the doldrums.

The place is not really the story.  It is dimly lit and there is a maze of rooms to navigate. At its center is a weighty, oak, wrap-around bar whose equally heavy chairs invite you to sit for a spell.  On the far side are a dance floor and small stage.  My only other time there was spent on that crowded dance floor celebrating a love unexpectedly returned. It left again before I even had time to catch my breath.

Like with people, I am not so much for flash.  I crave the comfort that comes with knowing something or someone over time.  I am skeptical of nouveau. The feel of a well-worn moccasin will forever outpace the thrill of immediate infatuation with anything, human or not.  Too many of us seek freshness. Familiar and flawed is where I find my bliss. It is where interesting lives.

As I walk in each Wednesday night, it is reassuring to see that the cracked window at the entrance remains unrepaired.  Damaged but not broken resonates with me. I am equally glad to see the faces that make the core of us.  There is Andrei, of course, the de facto center of our group.  I often only see him on Wednesday and he never disappoints in enthusiasm. When he has a story to tell, he animates in extremis, all talking hands and punctuated speech.

Tina is there, too. Blonde and beautiful, she embodies the elusive confidence of thirty-somethings. I remember that surety in myself.  I love her bravado and candor.  She is Russian as well, and I laughed aloud one day while reading a text from her announcing our Wednesday place as “consistently inconsistent.” Those Russians love to craft their second language with cleverness.  She nailed it.

My Wednesday place began as we three.

My writer friend, Joanne, was a come-lately addition. Intrigued by my unbreakable Wednesday appointment, she is now a warm staple; apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a crisp autumn night. She came just to see and hasn’t missed a Wednesday since.  Joanne trumps us all in warmth.

Dana is reliable, too. The mother of four, one doesn’t have to be prescient to know that she is also trying to find her life’s rhythm. One week she’ll grab the Karaoke mic, and the next she might quietly observe.  Mostly, I think she likes the promise of gathering with trusted souls.

Week by week our Wednesday place found its traction and others began to come, curious about our commitment to a well-worn place that promises little more than a finely poured beer.  The other cast of characters are “consistently inconsistent” in devotion. Some we already knew; some we are coming to know.  If life were a sitcom, my Wednesday place would have a continuum of guest stars, each one adding a different dynamic; their often-unexpected appearances adding to the shenanigans.

The left corner of the bar is our weekly goal.  Unlike weekends, when this place is packed, Wednesday is rarely crowded. Still, commandeering the left corner is never a given, more like a gift. It guarantees a flow of conversation and the best angle from which to observe the usually mediocre, but sometimes spectacularly great, karaoke which takes place in the vast space on the other side of the bar.  And yes, on occasion I lend my voice to the mediocrity. There have been epic failures like “Love Shack”, and a nearly acceptable rendition of “California Dreaming.”  The former all empty flash; the success of the latter owed to low register and subtle octave change. The B-52’s makes me edgy.  The Mama’s and Papa’s are comfortable personified.

Speaking of comfort, I have one more piece to add to the mosaic.  There is a bartender at my Wednesday place who is the most consistent of us all.  He is an Irishman with boyish charm; a peer for us in a place where a majority of the clientele need proper I.D. Over months, in small drips of conversation and revelation, he has become a part of us. He is an ear for the serious and the silly.  He has an intangible gift we all know, but struggle to incorporate. When he talks to you, you feel like you are the only person in the room, like what you might be saying is important.

While tending to his work, he always finds a way back to our corner. There’s often a wink or a smile emanating from his warm, comfortable face and that tells me that he “gets’ our motley crew.  Perhaps, I romanticize the place. If I do, he’s part of the fairy tale.  There is no satisfactory substitute.

My favorite Wednesday night of the many was the first after the death of Uncle Bobby.  I extended my reach to invite friends to join me in memoriam.  They came and I traded my usual Stella for the Uncle Bobby preferred Guinness.  We toasted his journey, urged on by patient friends to share stores of him. Uncle Bobby would have loved my Wednesday place and all the people who make it so. Like the brown plaid blanket he placed across his lap, he would have worn this place with comfort.

Eighteen months have passed since Andrei’s suggestion.  He could not know then that his intuition would help heal a heart that felt like shattered glass or sustain me through the difficult walk I faced with Uncle Bobby.  I have no idea how long the Wednesday night ritual will continue. Life seems so expansive to me now, so filled with limitless possibility, that I can make no promises.

But, tonight I will be there; comfortable and grateful for friends and an unexpectedly special place.

 

Farewell, Uncle Bobby

saint sebs

 

 

And they came, a surprising number of them, to say goodbye to a wonderful man. They came to a beautiful stone church nestled in a quiet neighborhood on the East Side of Providence.  A neighborhood whhere the young Robert Barry slid down snow-covered hills and skated on pristine frozen ponds.  Where he passed a long armed wicker basket among the communicants each Sunday morning at 9 am for forty years.  Where he lived the life of a gentleman for 86 of his 90 years.

And we said goodbye with laughter and tears, and finally, with a full military salute as a young officer handed me a perfectly folded American Flag and with extraordinary grace informed me, “On behalf of the President of The United States, we thank Robert L. Barry for service to his country in the Second World War.”

It was a marvelous day.  And here is what I had to say about my dear Uncle Bobby:

“It is good to be home here in a church which meant so very much to the Barry Family.  Built in 1916, Our Grandfather Louis Barry was one of the builders of Saint Sebastian’s.  Robert Barry served as an Usher here for 40 years.

He was, for most of my life, my elusive bachelor uncle. My earliest memories are of a Volkswagen beetle and my wonder that a man so tall could fit in a car so small.  He was a teacher and a veteran and a constant guest at my mother’s dining room table, not a holiday missed. He loved the great writers, and Herman Melville was his favorite.  He was like Ishmael: a man of the Sea.

It was not until the final years of his life, that I came to know the core of him.

Uncle Bobby was, in no particular order, Charming, stubborn, private, witty, sensitive, resolute, exasperating, and sentimental.  He was, above all things, a gentleman and a gentle soul.

His Accountant, Attorney, Financial Advisor and notably, his cousin John Murphy were intimately aware of how very exasperating Uncle Bobby could be.  No decision came quickly, no action moved upon swiftly.  He was careful and cautious.  All things on Uncle Bobby’s time. When he came to Connecticut to live his final year I came to understand this.  Asking Bobby to move in a concrete direction was much like trying to drag an anvil through the sand with a piece of taffy.  Make no mistake, he was captain of his ship til his final breath.

His charm was disarming.  That was his secret sauce and he spread it around liberally. In the great battle he fought with his body this past year, he always had a reserve of charm.  When he passed away, I received notes and calls from the care workers, mostly young women, mostly Hispanic. They spoke not of his death, but of the songs he might sing to distract from the intimacy of his care, the anecdotes he would share while they went about their noble work, or the questions he would ask them about their own lives.  He had the charm of a true gentleman

As for me, this journey with Uncle Bobby was a great gift.  In his suffering, I learned perspective.  In his mounting challenges,  I learned that patience and trust in the God are essential to finding peace.

He wrote in my elementary school autograph book, which I still have, “To Ellen, Miss America, and my very best girlfriend.”  He remains one of the most memorable men I have ever known.”