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Evoking warm and wooly memories - the itchy embrace of an Aran sweater

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In the cultural whirlpool that swirls in the Farragher household, my Jewish wife picked up a package of corned beef in the kosher section of our Costco a few days ago and plopped it in a pot with some cabbage to produce a sumptuous feast for my Irish-born parents.

It was a casual, rare midweek dinner punctuated by easy conversation. My two daughters were typically enmeshed in a tangle of homework, texts and wardrobe considerations for the following school day. They were so busy that they had swooped down the stairs, eaten their dinners in a nanosecond, and disappeared again before I could ask one of them to pass the mustard.

That was a shame, because they missed a great little pop culture history lesson from their Athenry grandfather as the water in the kettle rolled to a boil on the stovetop after dinner.

He was telling us about the origins of those wooly white Aran sweaters that you see stuffed into the cubbyholes of every decent Irish shop, and how they were a mere caricature of plastic paddy-ness.

"Yerra, sure I never saw one of those things until I came over to this country," he said with a dismissive wave. "Once the Clancy Brothers went on the Ed Sullivan Show and played Carnegie Hall wearing the sweaters, it became all the rage over here with the Yanks!"

As the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, the mind gets introspective and you wonder if your girls will regret neglecting this precious gift of their grandparents' stories.  My folks are fit as fiddles in their seventies, yet we all know that nothing lasts forever.

Dad's yarn made me think of yarn in the color of purple. There was a mass of it that was woven into a wooly sweater, and I can recall vividly the day that it came in the mail.

It was a gift from Granny Cleary, who had taken to knitting in an attempt to make the ends meet in rural Ballylanders. My mother squealed with delight as she opened it. The school uniforms were roughly yanked off my brother and I before I could even utter the words, "But purple is a girly color."

Whoever coined the Catholic term "hair shirt," that goat's hair garment worn around the loins that was used for penance and mortification, probably was Irish and had a grandmother who knit.

Every move in the sweater was torture as the rough wool raked your pale skin. My mother's eyes moistened, her arms aching to hug the mother that knitted by herself in a cold house 3,000 miles away.

The sentimentality of the moment evaporated as soon as my brother complained about the garment's maddening itchiness. She would glare over us as he and I wrote out thank-you notes at knife point (okay, it was a butter knife, but still!) each stroke of the pen producing a wooly jag on our elbows.

The arms were too long and the material wasn't enough to cover my pot belly, but that didn't stop my mother from throwing it over my head as we went to Mass that Sunday.

"Too poor to buy clothes from an actual store?" whispered a classmate in the pew behind me.

That was it!

I did what anyone stuck between my mother's love for her mother and the judgments of my classmates would do -- I took a scissors to the elbow of the sweater and blamed the hole on a fall in the playground.

The momentary tide of screams and name calling (“yeh bleeding eejit!”) would subside in time, but my preteen dignity would no longer be in tatters.

The temples are grey now and I can only imagine how well the wooly purple sweater would both complement this salt ‘n' pepper middle-aged vibe I'm sporting and bring out my baby blues at the same time.

Now, I'd give anything to feel that itchy embrace of a grandmother's love on my skin, and I say a prayer that my girls savor each hug they get from their grandparents while they have the chance.

Mike Farragher’s book of essays can be found on www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com. His new book, 50 Shades o’ Green, will be released next month.

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