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!”

For the love of women…

fitzgerald

I posted this F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on Facebook about a month ago.  I then posted a not so wonderful picture of myself.  It was the sort of picture I would normally see and trash almost immediately on my iPhone. But, on that day, I shared it and others began to share, too.  

Middle-aged women and few of my not quite there former students shared unvarnished, imperfect pictures of their beautiful selves.  It was a wonderful day in the not always productive world of Facebook.

I have unruly hair, an overbite, and imperfect teeth.  My eyes are a touch wide-set and now require glasses. I have contacts, but they are mostly uncomfortable. 

There are circles under my eyes and brown age spots that try to meld with my already too freckled face. My long neck is beginning to show signs of age; it’s  .skin not nearly as taut as it once was.

For a 55 -year-old women, my body is okay.  The broad shoulders, which in my youth made me feel masculine, now give me strength. I do have rather good posture, a nod to my grandmother who would put her pointer finger in the small of my back when I slouched as a girl, “Be proud of your height!”

I am thinner now than I was in my thirties.  But, at 5’8 inches, there are still days when I feel too gangly, too big, too much.   

Let’s not start with the wrinkles.

My breasts no longer stand at attention and there is a pouch where two babies made their arrivals by cesarean section and an appendectomy scar which followed shortly thereafter.  If I overindulge, I feel it at my waist first, then my buttocks.   I wish I had worn a bikini when I was a young.  I would have looked great, but I had no such confidence as a girl.

A man once loved me and thought I was beautiful.  And then, he didn’t.  I spent the next two years believing his words and felt haggish.  The power of a man’s opinion is quite something in the game of self-perception. For the record, he would not turn heads at the supermarket.  I thought he was attractive, flaws and all, until the end. I loved his soul.

My friend shared a marvelous anecdote many years ago.  She and her husband were in their master bathroom.  Each had a sink and shared the large mirror.  As she plucked the unwanted facial hair and applied cream to her eyelids, then stroked mascara and looked critically at her reflection, she took note of her sixty-year-old husband.  He was balding, paunchy, and sun damaged. 

He shaved, splashed water on his face, brushed his teeth and was done.  She told me, “Oh my God, I was taking stock of every flaw.  He may as well have snapped a towel at the mirror, pointed at himself and said ‘You, the man!’”

In my brief foray into online dating, I met a man for dinner; two strangers taking the measure of each other.  Fifteen minutes in, he interrupted me to say, “You animate really well.  In person, you are so much more attractive than your pictures.”  I think I said thanks but wanted to say, “Yeah, Pal, that would be my soul making its appearance. Camera’s don’t see the soul.”  

Ugh….

I pour this out, late on a Saturday evening, because of the news this week.  Donald being Donald, yet again.  

I am a liberal.  A Democrat.  It is existential. My cable news of choice is MSNBC.

I am smart and engaging and would not last a second on television.  Not with my flawed face.  Not a prayer.

Mika Brzezinski co-hosts “Morning Joe” and I have watched it for years. She is a stunningly beautiful Slav.  Her face is taut and perfect.  Her figure flawless, her legs the envy of a Rockette.

She shares the show each day with a posse of men. She is a smart, incisive, opinionated Democrat.

Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman, is a sort of goofy looking Southerner, with a rash of brown hair, an oversized nose, and thick-framed glasses.  I have a soft spot for the contributing Mike Barnicle, a past his middle years, rumpled, thickly accented Boston journalist with a gap-toothed smile and face that shows the march of years.  Willie Geist is the young, up and comer.  He is a paste-y, well-heeled New York boy next store.

I would guess it takes those men about 30 minutes to prepare to go on television. Mika Brzezinski?  I think we know the expectation.  Women, no matter how smart, don’t get to be goofy or rumpled or paste-y on television.  See Fox, see CNN, see MSNBC.

Mika Brzezinski had a facelift.  Of course, she did.  If her looks don’t match her intellect there is little chance she shares the spotlight with men.  

How dare this President call her out on that?  How dare he personalize the news media? How dare he, when he should be working to advance this country, be so thin-skinned as to bark back when he is criticized by a morning cable television host?  How dare he hit a woman where it hurts?

He is an outrageous misogynist. He is a child, a megalomaniac and at his base, just a terrible man. So terrible, in fact, that this Democrat actually misses George W. Bush. Now that’s real news! 

Donald J. Trump has no manners and no respect for his Pennsylvania Avenue address.  It seems most of the country is just fine with that. And that’s the real kick in the pants; people I know defend him.

Aaargh…

In the Trump Era, I worry for my 18-year-old daughter and what this President’s behavior means to women of her generation. What does lowering the bar for misogynists mean for those girls who graduated high school this year?  How far does he set them back by sending a message to every boy my daughter’s age, that a women’s appearance is fair game for the President?

My daughter is objectively beautiful.  By that I mean, physically, in a lineup of her peers, she is stunning.  Unlike my chaotic mess of hair, she enjoys a color and texture that the salons would love to bottle.  Her skin is gorgeous and she carries her 5’9” frame with confidence. She rolls out of bed, beautiful.

She better. Despite the fact that she is also smart and passionate, in 2016 this country elected a man who has no respect for women.  I noted this in my piece about Charlie Chaplin just after the election, and even I am surprised at Trump’s inability to disguise his abject hatred for women.

So yes, my daughter will need all the confidence she can muster.  This President has, in short order, made it abundantly clear that women do not matter.  Those who support him in their silence, only strengthen him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was one complicated fella, But, my God, he loved women. He loved Zelda, but, not for her beauty.  Fitzgerald loved her for her soul. It is the only part of any human that actually matters.

I would love to hear from my readers about the current state of affairs.  I’m done tuckered out!

 

 

 

 

On Writing…

socrates1

“No blogs?”, “Did you stop writing?”, “Too busy for your blog?”

I have been absent from my blog space for the last 100 days. And no, I did not stop writing. In fact, I have been writing at a breakneck pace for over three months. My audience shifted from the blogosphere to writers from all over the world.

When I entered a 100-day writing challenge, I expected to whip off a few blogs while churning out chapters of a book. There is an idiom for that sort of optimism: wearing rose colored glasses.

Here was the mantel set before me: 3,000 words per week, due by midnight each Friday. Because nothing has changed at my core in the last 35 plus years, come Wednesday the scramble began. I continue to be a last-minute crammer.

Some perspective:

3,000 words are double the count of a standard personal essay or opinion piece in a magazine.

The college essay limit is a paltry 650 words. As a College Counselor, I revel in prompting my students through the college essay. They approach it as though it were Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The average word count for the President’s State of the Union Address is 4,000 words. It takes a team of speechwriter’s months to prepare.

Five weeks: 45,000 words, and thoughtful critique of 750 pages of other people’s work. That’s about fifty pages per week and it was time-consuming. I am a better writer because of it.

I am often asked, “Why do you write?”

It’s a question I’ve heard since I started to blog and because I am writing a memoir. I suppose the subtext goes something like, “Why would you share personal details of your life?”

Aha…. good question!

I write to rumble with my life; to grapple with grief and loss. To find balance through examination of my soul. I write because it gets the swirling stuff inside of me to the outside of me. Once released it loses its power over me.

Before I reached middle-age I had no intrinsic sense of grief. My grandparents passed in the natural order of time, at ripe old ages. Those were sad moments, but they did not paralyze me.

My mother died when I was 43. On that day, the scaffolding of my life began to dissemble, piece by piece. Soul sucking, enormous grief became my constant companion. The losses mounted and eleven years later, as I prepared for the death of my dear Uncle Bobby, I began to write.

It helped.

Some people run, bike, do yoga, or seek therapy to manage life. Others paint, knit, sculpt, or get lost in their music. Some souls bury their hurt with a “move on” sort of bravado. They hold tight to the foolish notion that an unexamined ache will heal itself.

Wizard of Oz analogies are never far from my grasp. At 50, I found myself skipping along the Yellow Brick Road. In the wake of relentless grief, I found love and it was glorious. I smiled and sighed in the palm of it. It felt like home. The soul yearns for serendipity and for a year of my life I felt as though I had found it.

In my happiness, I forgot an important fact about the Yellow Brick Road; there is a Haunted Forest at its end and it is harrowing. One moment, I was skipping and laughing and, as I turned a corner, it took me by surprise. Before I knew it trees started heaving apples at me, and a witch appeared and tried to set my straw aflame. All the while, menacing monkeys ruled the darkened skies.

I ignored the caution signs posted along the way and that tormented me. It was my hardest grappling. Writing helped me find the answers.

When I look back at my early writing, written when I had lost all semblance of myself, it makes me ache for the me of then. When I reread early chapters of my book, I am astounded by my narrow perspective. I weep for the woman who allowed pebbles to cripple her.

I am rewriting from a new place where there are no heroes or villains. A place where I no longer try to forgive myself for what I did not know. Rather, I forgive myself for dismissing instinct; losing faith in my ability to navigate.  I forgive myself for accepting less than I deserved and allowing another to judge my worth. As a friend implored me then, “You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.” Indeed.

In remarkable fashion, at the nadir of my sadness, another man inserted himself in my life. I scrambled to rise to the arrival of my 88-year-old Uncle Bobby. I had no idea that in his weakening I would find my strength. The eighteen months I spent by his side exhausted and restored me. He became my muse, and the writing of it made the hard work of elder-care bearable.

My articulation of the universal experience of love and loss resonated and that moved me. It was a great joy to write about my Uncle, to give voice to his history. I felt like his personal curator and it was an honor to capture his remarkable spirit in words. My journey with Uncle Bobby helped me find my writer’s voice.

More than therapy, friends, or even Uncle Bobby, writing escorted me out of The Haunted Forest.

I write to rumble, to figure, to navigate.

During the 100-day challenge, other rumbling writers encouraged my story through constructive critique. They inspired me with their own dedication to the craft.

One wrote to me, “We have little in common. I am a 35-year-old bachelor on the other side of the country.  Yet, when I read your chapters, I find myself contemplating my own life.  I want to read your writing with a glass wine and my feet set on an ottoman.”

There is a writer who does the same for me. A dog-eared copy of her collection of essays, This Is A Happy Marriage, sits on my bedside table. Ann Patchett’s soul is present in her writing.  She is achingly honest and when I read her work, she feels like a friend.

I write because I hope that one day, on the night of a full moon when sleep is but a dream, a struggling soul will reach for a dog-eared copy of my book on her bedside table… and not feel so alone.