The lead up to St. Patrick’s Day is the same every year.
“How do you make corned beef and cabbage?” I’m asked without fail. My stock answer: “I wouldn’t know, I’ve never had it, let alone made it.” Then comes, “A ‘Duffy’ doesn’t know how to make…?”
That is correct, because even though my maiden name is Irish, I grew up Italian thanks to my mother. I have had every kind of pasta, never met a mozzarella stick I didn’t like (or devour as though it were the last piece on earth) and am happy to share our family’s recipe for a killer lasagna, for the asking. FYI: I would eat dog food before I would consume spaghetti out of a can. I also do not refer to tomato sauce as “red sauce” but as “gravy.”
“Oh, so you’re half and half?” is the next question. And I guess I am, technically.
I grew up in the Bronx, an only child to a single, second-generation Italian mother. After my parents separated when I was two, we lived with my grandmother, who was off-the-boat, as it’s called. I did not see my father while growing up and rarely spent time with his family. Even if I had been around them more, it would not have made a difference. No one on that side has a brogue or is from The Emerald Isle. In fact, none of them have ever been to “the old country” and as far as I know have never expressed any interest in visiting.
Anything I know about those who call Erin home, I picked up in my mostly Irish neighborhood where I was the Italian girl, who had to be home at 2pm sharp on Sundays to eat a big meatball-filled dinner.
I do myself no favors when I choose to share my Celtic knowledge. Like the time in a meeting when some blowhard was proclaiming that “Aileen” was just another way of spelling “Eileen”. Simply because I did not like my colleague and wanted to show him to be the know-nothing he was, I announced to the room that Aileen is actually the Gallic name for Helen, just as Sean is John and Shamus is James. You would have thought Saint Patrick himself was making the proclamation.
Speaking of which, many are taken aback when there’s no real effort for wearin’ o’ the green on St. Paddy’s. Most years I have not attended nor watched the parade on TV. I’m no fan of parades in general, and that one in particular. People use it as an excuse to get drunk and most of them aren’t even Irish.
Since we’re on the subject of imbibing, upon hearing my surname and that I do not drink alcohol, the assumption is made that I am a recovering alcoholic. On more than one occasion I have been asked how long I’ve been “a friend of Bill W.”
When I accomplish something, there’s been a time or two (or twenty) when my success has been attributed to, not skill, but the luck of the Irish.
Often it just seemed easier to throw my hands up and lay claim to a heritage to which I have no affinity, but I fight it. Why should I pretend to be something I’m not? Just to make it easy for others to feel right about their assumptions, prejudices and laziness when it comes to getting past the superficial?
Constantly explaining yourself can be exhausting, not to mention tedious. But if you stop, then as my Napolitano grandmother would have said, “Madonna mia, now you really got trouble.”
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novel FAT CHICK.