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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Eighteen: of Legal Age to Crock

It was not until I reached adulthood and gained increased exposure to other people's family interactions that I realized I am a member of a close family.  Growing up, I never thought we were excessively close, because privacy is respected - everybody can do their own thing, and we seemed the same amount of into each other's business as everyone else I knew.  Once I was no longer living with my family members, but was in frequent communication with them by means of email, phone, and text message, friends pointed out, "Wow, you're family is close, huh?"  My reaction was, "Are we?"  But yeah, turns out we are.

I miss my family most on occasions that would be celebrated with zeal in our home, but are often times taken as non-occasions by others, and this includes every holiday from St. Patrick's day to Columbus day. My family has songs for nearly all of these days, and favors the donning of fashions around a given day's theme.  St. Patrick's day arrives next week for everyone, but made its way to Pittsburgh today, as it is the day of the annual St. Patrick's day parade.  In my family home, St. Patrick's day involves wearing every imaginable, even if mismatching, shade of green at once and singing the song "McNamara's band" throughout the day. 

Though 100% Italian, my dad lays claim to the title of most enthusiastic Irishman of the family on and around St. Paddy's day.  I don't know if it's his way of making up for years of non-celebration, or his love of corned beef and cabbage, but my dad relishes the role of Irishman-by-proxy and wears his finest knobby wool sweater vest adorned with several shamrock pins each and every year over layers and layers of green shirts.  

The parades were always fun, though often freezing cold affairs.  Pittsburgh in March often provides a fairly accurate approximation of the climate in Ireland.  Many Pittsburgh revelers take to whiskey for warmth as the day demands, but we always made due with hot chocolate and concentrated bouncing from foot to foot to keep warm.  

I still have vivid memories of Irish wolfhounds on parade, Irish setters, and Irish singers, all barking from time to time to varied members of the assembled crowd.  Then there were the Irish dancers, who'd reel their way down Fifth Avenue, looking stoically happy in their rhythmic synchronization from one side of the street to the other until a routine would end, and then they'd recommence shivering in their skirts.  Bagpipe bands would march past, their vast organ sound filling the air and helping the crowd's efforts to keep warm by providing the tune to which feet could bounce.  My family jokes about how there is only one real bagpipe melody that would be played over and over by each band that passed.  Whether the bagpipe song catalogue is more exhaustive than it is on St. Patrick's day, we never found out.  But we also made certain not to look, as that would ruin all of the fun. 

People on floats would throw candy and we'd rush to the curb to scoop tootsie rolls out of the gutter.  Such joy was found in an unusual candy offering - bubblegum or anything chocolate.  That's when you had to throw elbows at the kneecaps of adults in the way of the curb to beat other children to the treasures on the ground, lying in who knows how many years of car sludge.  

Another consummate parade favorite for me was the arrival of the Shriners.  They had a full circus of wonderment and their show spread for blocks.  Led by their sheik, who wielded a sword and marched forward majestically, eye-liner and silks,  pointy shoes and saber flailing,  the Shriners followed with bus, car, and band.  And candy!  The Shriners really do look out for kids, I can say with knowledge as one who has eaten a lot of candy from their parade efforts.  Though the sheik I'm certain has been eliminated as he was basically a walking stereotype, I adored him for all of the exotic splendor he brought marching through our provincial city.  There was definite dignity in his manner and gait, and I have nothing but fond associations of the Shriners because of it.  Many Shriners would be dressed as clowns and do various bits of schtick for kids and adults.  Then there were Shriners in their fezzes in tiny cars.  They'd circle each other and do tricks of order and organization, smiling and waving all the way.  Ah, when the Shriners passed, they left behind crowds gazing on in wonder at their energy and fun. Though certainly not as Irish as the membership of the Ancient Order of Hiberians that would all pass by in hand-knit wool sweaters, I loved the Shriners for their attention to showmanship.  They remain inextricably bound in my memory to St. Patrick's day and the Irish to this very day.  

After parades, we'd head for the bus stop frozen and tired, but giddy from the fun we'd had, and anxious for the prospect of overheating on the city bus in the breadbox of body heat that it would be.   Many were the years that my Irish-Italian-Euro-mutt eyes left smiling.



Today I talked with my niece who proudly sang along to McNamara's band.  She knows the words and the tune.  She is two.  

My brother told me that our parents had been adamant that she be taught the song in time for the high holiday of St. Patrick's day.  I already knew this, having been included on their email to my brother saying as much, as had my other brother, with a link to the song lyrics so no argument against knowing the lyrics could be made.  

That is the arena of our family pressure. There is not a family crest to emblazon on pinky rings or hand towels, or a sense of decorum that must be upheld when dining to honor the family name. No, for us it's knowing the songs, passing on the tradition of joy merely for the sake of joy. For taking every opportunity to have a day designated as out of the ordinary with chances for more fun, for simple pleasures, for theme-appropriate socks to be worn with glee.

I am far from my family, but not so far.  On the 17th I will be wearing all the green I own, none of it matching.  I am debating which pair of St. Patrick's day socks to wear on the actual day, but probably the pair that reveals a leprechaun in shamrock boxer shorts when the cuff is unrolled.  All the others will be worn in advance to commemorate the day's approach.  I count this time-honored tradition of knowing to embrace the creation of joy from minor, even silly inspiration as one of my greatest inheritances.

I know the second verse to McNamara's band, and I know how to use it.


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