Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Irish Stew

My wife has an Irish maiden name. So does my mother, and so did her mother, all of which I toss out there to establish up front that there's plenty of Irish heritage on both sides in my marriage, my nuclear family. My surname is German, and my father's mother's maiden name is ... vaguely eastern European? I'm terrible at genealogy, is another fact I should put front and center. When I was growing up, both sides of my family were multiple generations post-immigration, and I felt American more than anything else. I was aware that my family came from somewhere, but I didn't feel any personal connection to the research I had to do for various grade school projects on family trees and ethnic identity and so forth. When we had a Home Economics assignment in sixth grade to prepare a family recipe for a dish reflecting our ancestry, I totally cheated. I dug through my mom's recipe box and found an index card for apple pancakes that were vaguely German-sounding. Never in my life had my mother served us these apple pancakes, or anything else that would have been considered remotely exotic in her homeland (Wilmington, Delaware). I went with a German dish rather than Irish even though my mom did most/all of the cooking in our family, because I was eleven and I was a boy and I definitely over-identified with my father at that stage of development. I went with something random because the one recipe of his mother's that my father was always trying to get my mother to replicate was red spaghetti sauce (and clearly there's not much Italian in my family since I call it "spaghetti sauce" and not "gravy"). After many years we all more or less accepted that Grandma's sauce tasted different from Mom's because the pot my grandmother used was made of a different material than my mother's, and probably leached into the sauce in ways best not dwelt upon.

So: me, Irish, in the mix but not in a prominent way. My wife, Irish, much more prominent. She looks Irish, and has in fact been mistaken for native Irish on sight while traveling in southern Europe. (I was once mistaken for Mexican in Mexico by an American tourist, but that's neither here nor there.) The other major nationality in my wife's background is English, and clearly that evokes a whole lot of complicated interplay, much moreso than German-Irish. She's descended from both the oppressors and the oppressed, and she knows the history on both sides pretty well. She owns her Irishness a lot more than me, to the extent that it's not even a contest.

This has come to light over the years in various ways which caught me off guard at first, I admit. My wife and I both enjoy being sports spectators, and have our teams we root for and teams we root against, but my wife has always been much more invested in college sports than I ever was or will be. Early on I discovered her antipathy towards Notre Dame, which didn't really faze me. Nobody in my family went there or hyper-identifies with ND, but I know they're a big enough deal that there are just naturally going to be boosters who have no official connection to the school at all, and haters who have no real skin in the game either. (As a New York Yankees fan who knows other fans who've never lived anywhere near the Bronx and knows haters who could not care less about the entire American League except for despising the Evil Empire, I have a framework for understanding this.) But I was soon informed that it was specifically the pugnacious leprechaun mascot of Notre Dame that drew my (future) wife's scorn. She explained that as an Irish woman she found "Fighting Irish" to be as offensive as the tomahawk chop chant at Seminoles games might be to a Native American. And she was kind of, sort of, a little bit winking and kidding, because she's a person with reasonably clear-eyed perspective on how being the most downtrodden of Europeans still leaves one a lot better off than Native Americans, or African-Americans, &c. She's not claiming to be the most persecuted minority, all the more indignant because others get all the attention. Or if she is claiming that, she's doing so ironically. But also with a grain of truth, a kind-of-sort-of-NOT kidding. It's complicated, but basically I support the validity of her hating on Notre Dame as much as she wants.

And then there's St. Patrick's Day, which some Irish-Americans genuinely seem to enjoy, as a chance for them to flaunt their awesomeness while everyone around them adopts (or co-opts) that awesomeness in an exuberant way. And some Irish-Americans (not to mention some non-Irish-Americans) see St. Patrick's Day as kind of cheesy and lame, an amateur night when the last thing you would want to do is go out amongst the crowds of drunken yahoos carrying on. Certainly the latter take on the holiday is easy enough to understand when the shamrock-shaped novelty sunglasses and their ilk start to appear in retail outlets across the land. It's a harbinger of spring, granted, but a somewhat tacky one.

My wife recently, a couple weeks ago at most, had taken the younger kids to the shopping mall and told me about the excursion later that evening, mentioning that the St. Paddy's displays of gaudy green junk were out in full force. I sympathized. She said that some of the hats and t-shirts attempting to be edgy were, in fact, pretty offensive.

"Don't you mean ... O'Fensive?" I asked, taking great pains to explain the capitalization and punctuation that comprised my out-loud joke.

I don't know why she puts up with me sometimes, I really and truly don't. Must be the luck of the Irish.

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