Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day but I am half Irish the other days of the year as well. My protestant grandparents came from Belfast Northern Ireland during the 1920’s and after raising three children and the arrival of nine grandchildren they retired briefly to their homeland before dying 36 hours apart in the 1970’s. My mother had mailed a St. Patrick’s Day card to her parents while they were living in England when I was a child and my grandmother wondered where on earth she had found such a thing. St. Patrick’s Day celebrated as a green beer swilling and parade worthy holiday is a wee bit of an American tradition and eventually was embraced elsewhere for its money generating and tourism appeal.
During my college years it was my third favorite celebration, falling in behind Homecoming Weekend and Halloween. I enjoyed it so much that when the schedule for my first job out of college did not allow me to return for Homecoming that autumn that I made sure I was back in town on March 17th!
A few years out of college I married a man of half Irish descent, his mother was a Foley and they were of the Catholic variety. We settled into domestic bliss and St. Patrick’s Day became more of an opportunity to have a Reuben sandwich. There have been two exceptions; the St. Patrick’s Day twenty years ago where a coworker and I took the day off and spent it downtown drinking and we arrived home in a cab with some beads, festive sun glasses and a “drinking glove” and my favorite one of all time that did not involve alcohol at all.
My son was born on March 15th and my mother’s birthday was March 19th. Nestled between their two birthdays is St. Patrick’s Day. In 1996 my widowed mother was turning sixty and I suggested to my brothers that perhaps it would be nice to throw her a surprise party. A few years earlier she had relocated to a town an hours drive from the home we had grown up in. Never having gotten a drivers license this meant that she got to town for appointments and events when either I or my brothers would drive her.
St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Sunday that year and I reserved the party room at the building where I lived and worked. I had discreetly copied addresses from her address book and mailed invitations and requests for cards all over the country. I contracted with a caterer who was willing to research and prepare some Irish cuisine (we had an amazing dense cake that basically was chocolate mashed potatoes) and I created a single invitation to my son’s first birthday and mailed it to her. My brother offered to pick her up to attend what she anticipated was her first grandson’s birthday party.
Cards began to arrive from her high school classmates who lived in California, Illinois and Texas. I gathered a few framed pictures of her from throughout her life to display. When the day arrived I dressed my daughter in what had been my first day of Kindergarten dress and my son in green velvet nickers and a vest. Guests included some relatives, neighbors from the home she’d moved from thirty years earlier, the woman who had done her hair for the twenty years before she left Minneapolis, her friend from the PTA when I was in elementary school.
When she walked into the Great Room and the first person she saw was her former hairdresser her initial reaction was that seemed like a stretch for my son’s guest list. As it sunk in that this was a party for her she was in shock, the good kind, the overwhelming surprise of experiencing something so unexpected and amazing. It was such a fun afternoon as she talked with old friends, met her nieces baby and in some cases saw people for the last time.
Here it is eighteen years later, my son turned 19 two days ago at college and in two days it will be ten years since I last celebrated a birthday with my mother. During her final eight years she met four more grandchildren and eventually moved back to Minneapolis. There would be other gatherings; weddings, birthdays and anniversaries but none as special to her as that St. Patrick’s Day in 1996. She carried a small album with pictures of that day in her purse for the rest of her life.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you, may yours be one to remember!