For Them From Which I Sprung—An Irish Song

I wouldn’t be who I am if it weren’t for the Irish. Literally. My mother and grandfather were Sullivans and my grandmother, aunt and much of that side of the family were Sheas. As small children, my brother and I learned that Cork was better than Kerry, the English let the Irish starve during the famine, and there was no worse a blaggard than a north-Ireland Protestant. There were three pictures in my grandparents’ 4-room railroad apartment: their wedding picture, the current Pope and JFK. JFK’s picture was a little higher than the others.

We were much closer to the Irish side of my family than the Italian side, mostly because my father had a falling out with his father. The gist of the problem, from what I can gather is that when my parents moved up to Rockland from Brooklyn both sets of parents came to see the new house separately. The Sullivans looked around, oohed and ahhed appropriately, shook my father’s hand and wished my parents well. My father’s father looked around, had opinions about the size of the property, the number of rooms, what my parents paid. He came to the conclusion that they got ripped off. It didn’t sit well with my Dad.

So we got more of the Irish than anything. My grandparents were truly kind and generous people. My grandpa Sull was a big hulk of a man who was the youngest of about 100 kids who all had his exact face, male or female. He was filled with stories of his years as a bartender, his card-shark younger days, working on the Empire State Building. He was also perpetually sick with cancer and heart disease. The family would all rush to the hospital, ready to say goodbye because this time MUST be THE time—he always managed to get better. When he and my grandma would come up to the house he would play cards with me, letting my win at rummy or giving me 50 cents if I put enough cards out in solitaire to turn a profit. He’d sit in a lawn chair in the back yard without a mitt and throw me grounders. He taught me what an “error” was and I remember turning the word around and around in my mind and resolving not to make any more of those. Didn’t do too well with that one. When we asked him why he had so much hair in the wedding picture but was bald now, he told us he fell asleep with a hat on one night and woke up sans hair. He always had Wrigley’s gum and lemon drops. Also he smoked a pipe that we weren’t supposed to touch, but he would let us play with his old one anyway. I remember the strong smell of the tobacco and the bitter taste of the pipe end. He had a favorite sweater he used to wear, green with a little sewn-in yellow sun where a pocket would be on a shirt. I’d fall asleep on his lap while he told his stories to my parents.

I remember one time when he was in ICU, about a year before he died. I was ten. It was just before Christmas and I insisted in bringing him a photograph of all five of us kids sitting in front of the tree, surrounded by a cut-out green Christmas tree with crayon-drawn ornaments and glued-on glitter. He didn’t know I was coming. He looked down at me and immediately started to cry because he didn’t want me to see him sick like that. I tried my best to comfort him, but I was removed from the room pretty quickly. He hung up the picture above his hospital bed. His death was the first time I lost somebody I loved. It seemed incomprehensible, he was so God-like in my eyes.

My grandmother was barely five feet tall and walked hunched over, as if age were dragging her earthbound. She didn’t act that way, though. When she came up north it was always an expectation that my mother would color her wispy hair red. Whenever she left the house she wore a kerchief over it. If she wanted to clear something off your face she would take out her handkerchief and spit on it. The year we had the gypsy caterpillars, she had one land on her shoulder and didn’t think twice about picking it up and flicking it. Her brogue was so thick she called squirrels “sqiddles”. When we visited her in Chelsea, she would sometimes take me, my brother Joe and our cousin Mike with her to the big office building she worked in. After hours she was responsible for cleaning four of the thirty-some-odd floors and my Aunt Kitty was responsible for another four. We went once after New Years and there were leftovers from an office party—we pigged out on M&Ms, stale chips and all kinds of candy. After their shifts, my Grandma and Aunt would meet at an employee lounge and have a cup of tea and tea biscuits. My sister Ann is autistic and my grandma shared a special relationship with her. They would have “concerts” where everyone would sit and watch the two of them sing all the songs they both knew—very badly.

After my grandpa died, my grandma lived with my Uncle Jerry in the same four-room apartment. When I was eighteen I had to go to my college registration at NYU and my grandmother insisted on walking me from the apartment to the 14th Street bus. When we got to 14th Street, the bus was just pulling in across the street. She said c’mon, we can catch it, and I said don’t worry we can get the next one. She walked a few feet out from the curb while I lagged behind and another bus going the opposite way sideswiped her. She ended up in the hospital for the first time since my mother was born with a broken nose and stitches on her ankle. It was the end of her cleaning career. I spent my first year at NYU in a dorm, but when my Aunt Kitty had to go into a nursing home I ended up taking her apartment right across the hall from my grandma and uncle. I would come over after school nearly every day to chat with her as she listened to the radio. Although my uncle was a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee fan, my grandma preferred listening to the Met games. She hated Gary Carter (my favorite player) because the Mets had to trade Hubie Brooks to get him. Brooks and Mookie Wilson had come up through the minors together, and according to her Mookie and Hubie were “like that”. She would intertwine her fingers. The fact that the Mets won a World Series with Carter meant nothing compared to breaking up these best friends. On Thursday afternoons, my getaway day, she would boil some meat for me and serve me “stew”. I wasn’t arguing, I was usually close to starving to death those days. She also always handed me a ten dollar bill, that I would insist on not taking and she would push into my pocket anyway. It was a point of pride for me to always have enough money to get back to my weekend job upstate without that ten, but once or twice I wouldn’t have had bus fare without it.

I went down to Chelsea with my mother when my grandma died of pneumonia, laying on the livingroom couch under the watchful eye of her young husband, the Pope and JFK. My uncle was beside himself with grief. He was not a well man mentally, and he had built the shatters of his life around my grandmother. He was inconsolable. My Dad had just moved out a few weeks earlier, so I was it for my Mom at the time. We tried to keep my Uncle Jerry in the kitchen, instead of walking back into the livingroom and weeping over his lost mother. It felt like hours before the city morgue showed up.

I’m sure it’s the Irish in me that ties up a memory like that with the woman’s life, which was frequently joyous. The Irish have incredible capacities for sadness, joy, depression, song, melancholy, storytelling and drink. I’m just as proud of my Italian heritage, but today is for them from which I sprung, in all their soulful rapture.

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    • Kae
    • March 18th, 2011

    Oh, the Irish! I have more English blood in me than anything else, and a substantial amount of German and Scottish, but anyone who looks at me recognizes my Irish heritage immediately. There’s a good bit of Irish in my grandbaby, because her father contributes a great deal of it to her, as well. For such a tiny island, Ireland has produced some of the greatest writers, including you, Brian!

    • Joel Flowers
    • March 18th, 2011

    Beautifully written, Brian, although it did take me a few minutes to figure out that your mother wasn’t born with a broken nose and stitches on her ankle. You make the Irish almost palatable. I must have a few drops of Irish blood in me, since I’ve always enjoyed a good, drunken depression.

  1. Thank you Kae and Joel.

    • Joel Flowers
    • March 18th, 2011

    I think this is one of my favorites.

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