It’s Christmas Eve and the Brew and Burger on 47th Street where I work is crowded with last-minute shoppers and tired children bought in from the boroughs and New Jersey to see the tree at Rockefeller Center by irritated parents and young nannies with short skirts who look at their watches anxiously. I’m 21 years old, just out from Ireland a couple of months, and I'm homesick.
For the first time, I wonder what I am doing in this strange city with its frenzied pace. I miss the countryside and the farmhouse that is home and my younger brothers and sisters who would have gone to bed early in anticipation of Santa.
The older ones would be staying up for midnight mass.
I remember how the gravel would crunch under our feet from the frost as we made our way to the car for the drive to Carrig church. How my mother would always make us look up at the stars, brilliant in a sky that can only get that dark in the country. You could picture the three wise men making their way to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.
I finish my shift and hand over my book to Nick, the Italian waiter, who gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. It took me years to get used to the fact that Americans are always kissing and hugging – to this day I never know which cheek to present – but it’s nice too. You didn’t do those things in Ireland.
Nick says he’s Italian and this I find strange since he has never been to Italy. It’s one of the things about America that confuses me.
It doesn’t feel like Christmas Eve, even with the lights in Saks’ windows and the skaters twirling in the shadow of the giant pine at Rockefeller Center, which we, my friend Cathy and I, pass on our way to the 49th Street subway station to get the D train to the Bronx.
Cathy, who says she’s Irish (my roommate Nora says Cathy’s only a narrowback), wants to stop off on the way home to visit the Lynch family – they are narrowbacks too. Because I have nothing else to do and I’m lonely, I go along.
The Lynch house, one of the last two-story frames in the Bronx, is nestled in among the apartment buildings. The kitchen is big and cheery and Mrs. Lynch is too. Children, lots of them, come and go and adults too, each greet me with a warm hello.
I don’t remember all the details, these many years later, but I do know that as I sat down with this wonderful family, who, though thousands of miles and many generations removed from Ireland, reminded me so much of my own, I realized for the first time that you didn’t have to be born on the island of Ireland to be Irish. That you could be Irish and never have set foot in Ireland.
Over the many years since, I’ve found Irish people and corners of Ireland all over the country. I’ve come to learn that certain traits and characteristics get carried down through the generations, and that Ireland will always have a special place in the hearts of Americans of Irish ancestry. And I’ve come to know the amazing story of the Irish in America and to be proud of the many contributions they have made.
America is home for me now, as it is for my brothers and sisters and their many children, all proud Americans, yet Irish too.
And, yes, Cathy, you are IRISH too!