Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick’s Day: Daddy Pop, Engagement Rings, and Choosing Joy.

I don’t recall St. Patrick’s Day being a huge deal in my house growing up. I know we’d have Corned Beef and Cabbage, and cooked carrots and Potatoes, but to be honest, we’d have that several times a year whenever the mood struck to make it and Shop Rite would comply by putting Corned Beef on sale.

Though I’m not Catholic, I went to a Catholic school for grades 1-8, and we had a St. Pat’s dance every year. I didn’t get to go during sixth grade as J.C. and I were goofing off in the hallway, and Sister “She Hate Me” made me sit in the stairwell for the rest of the day. J.C. got to go, but I didn’t. But that is another story, though a good one, as that day really hurt. I had finally worked up the nerve to ask that 8th grade girl to dance, and I missed my chance. Perhaps I’ll tell that one day.

But I digress. St. Pat’s was a holiday that I embraced later in life-after college really. I’d always been interested in my family history-still am in fact. Through the work my great-grandfather did, along with my Uncle and his mother, and myself to a lesser degree, we’ve traced both my paternal and maternal grandmother’s families back to Ireland and Germany, among other places. My paternal grandfather was an orphan, and we know very little about his family except that his father was from Austria and I believe his mother was Liverpuddlian.

My paternal grandmother was a Buchanan. Her Grandparents were from Gort and Raphoe. Her father worked quite diligently to record our family genealogy, by some accounts to prove he was related to former President James Buchanan, who by nearly all accounts was among the worst Presidents in the brief history of our nation. His family tree is extensive, and goes back nearly 12 generations from my children, but perhaps his greatest accomplishment was that he was able to reconnect with the family still living “across the pond.” I’m pleased to say that we are still in contact with them.

I had some fun St. Patrick’s days after college, though most of them didn’t have a ton to do with exploring my heritage. I actually spent one St. Pat’s day in Switzerland, though it was not what I would call widely celebrated there. I was able to procure a few Guinness. That was a fun trip as I recall.

But why does the day matter to me? Certainly one could say that I’m embracing my cultural heritage and roots, but one could say the same thing about why I love Oktoberfest with my friends every year. I will freely admit to enjoying parades and corned beef (I’ve made 4 in the last week…) and beer. But that, I think is oversimplifying things.
I think there’s more to it than that.

Perhaps I love St. Patrick’s day for all those reasons, but I think I love it most as it’s taken on more meaning for me, and my family since St. Patrick’s Day, 1998.

Maybe that’s the place to start.

The wife wasn’t my wife then, though we had been together since 1992. We were clearly moving towards marriage but we hadn’t gotten there yet. Some would say I was taking too long. In fact many did. Loudly. I shant go too deep into that, except to say that though I always knew we’d get married, I didn’t feel ready to be married until the year before we got engaged. And then I had to raise money to buy a ring. And so forth.

Needless to say, when it finally happened, there was a great sigh of “It’s about damned time” from several circles in our lives. But I had a plan all along. Sorta. Here’s the story behind the first of many great St. Patrick’s Days.

We had been together since 1992, when we met at College in Ohio of all places. 1998 would find me working at a school in NY and her working at a Church in North Jersey.

If you knew me then, you’ll know that I was not what one would call the most fiscally responsible of young men. I tended to spend it before I had it, and while I have since learned much better, I had a damned good time at the time. So, the prospect of saving for an engagement ring was a daunting one. Even with promises from family friends that they could get me a deal, to say that I was starting the process already in the hole would have been an understatement. I was 24, living on a school campus where I paid almost no bills and had three meals a day most of the time, and traveling to see my girlfriend pretty much every weekend and taking her out whether I could pay for it or not.

So, I wasn’t making a lot, but I was spending more.

So, when I finally felt I was ready to get engaged, I did so with the rather daunting task of having to make some money, outside of my normal salary.

So, I became the “Nighttime Security Dean” on the campus where I worked. I basically took over for the Dean when he or she went to bed, and walked around with the emergency pager. I did this 3-4 nights a week from about 9pm until 6am. The emergency pager went off a total of zero times during my run at night, which would have made things more interesting.

I’ll admit, I tried to take a few naps in the office in between rounds of aimlessly meandering around the campus. I went so far once as to lay down on the couch in lobby of the administration building. I was tired, but guilt and devotion to service got the better of me. I could usually catch a nap from 6am-9am when my first class started, and then get a little more in the afternoon before lacrosse practice or whatever else I had to get done. And I was young, so I managed. It was tiring though.

But it was also paying off. After a couple of months, I had enough stocked away to start seriously planning out what I was going to get her. I knew exactly what I wanted and I had an idea what I could get it for from the friend of our friend. I opened a passbook savings account at my bank, which seems like an antiquated concept these days. I remember opening the account and they asked me if I wanted an ATM card so I could access the money, and I sent the septuagenarian bank manager out of her chair when I perhaps too loudly replied, “God no! Don’t let me touch it!” After apologizing for the disruption, I explained that the account was to buy my girl a ring, and that I wasn’t to touch it until I hit my magic number. And I didn’t, I’m proud to say.

My nights as the Nighttime Dean were relatively dull in general, so I started writing what in many ways might have been the Grandfather of this column. “Nocturnal Emotings” was basically my nighttime report to the Dean about the events of the evening. Since very little actually happened, I chose to either discuss other matters of life at the school, or simply choose to be a sleepy smart-ass about how exciting things were. While very few of these columns survive, the audience, who consisted of the Dean and his assistant, seemed to enjoy them. I would like to think I’ve improved since then.

But, I again digress. I eventually earned enough money to start a serious conversation about a ring. I kept my extra job a secret from my future fiancé, which was difficult at times. The student body alone was 150 strong, not to mention 30-40 faculty members who had to keep the secret whenever she came to visit. But, the secret held, and I soon had a ring in hand: round stone, Cathedral setting. Very nice. Part one of my plan was over.

Part two involved the way in which to pop the question. I debated a number of ideas before settling on St. Patrick’s Day in New York City.

Now, I have always been more of a South Jersey-Philadelphia kind of guy. But at the time, I was living in New York, She was living in North Jersey, and the spectacle that is the parade in Manhattan was an intoxicating one. Plus, I figured, it might be the kind of thing that masks my true aim for the trip.

It was important to me to surprise her. I knew that she knew it was coming, and found out later that she had suspected my intentions for St. Pat’s for some time indeed. I had asked her to get the day off about a month in advance, which was more forethought than I was known for at the time. But we’d enjoyed a number of Guinness toast Functions and the Irish bar in her town over the years she’d lived there, so it was not a stretch to think ‘we could have fun at the parade.’ I later learned that she initially had a hard time with her boss getting the day until she kinda flipped on him saying “I think he’s going to propose, so can I just take the stinking day off?!” He relented, and plans were set.

As we got closer to the day, there was excitement. I wasn’t nervous at all-we’d been together a long time. Long enough to know it was the right time and place. I had planned out pretty much every detail except one. I knew where we’d watch the parade. I knew where we’d have lunch and cocktails. I knew we’d somehow “Find ourselves” near the Natural History Museum, which just “happened” to be holding an exhibition on “The Nature of Diamonds,” which if you’re interested you can read about here: http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/diamonds/ And we would enjoy that. Well, I knew I would. I knew that she would likely be thinking about the ring case in my pocket all day, wondering when I was going to pop the question. And I was going to wait until she stopped wondering.

So, we went to the parade. We drank a few Guinness at McSorley’s. We had lunch at Maggie’s Place. If you are in Manhattan, you have to try Maggie’s Place: http://www.maggiesnyc.com/ It’s awesome, and would have made a great backdrop for our engagement. But it didn’t. If you click on the photo section of their website, the fourth one down has a picture of the room we ate in. Booth on the left-all the way at the top. Ah, memories…

We walked through Central Park. That too might have been good, but it wasn’t quite right, yet.
The museum appeared on the horizon just where it was supposed to. Under the auspices of needing to visit the restroom, we ducked in. I then suggested that we check out the exhibits-we were there after all…

So we did. We both promptly fell asleep during the “Titanic” documentary. We then walked about and meandered our way into the Diamond exhibit. Her pace quickened a bit, thinking I imagine that this might be it. Perhaps I’d worked our ring into the exhibit? Yeah, that would have been cool, but even Kugs didn’t have that kind of pull back in the day.

But I was dragging it out. It was a nice exhibit, and I actually found that I knew a great deal about Diamonds, having done a ridiculous amount of research on them before I bought one. Hey-I might have been spendthrift back then, but even I don’t drop that kind of cash without doing my homework. I had a lovely time, in fact at one point engaging in a very interesting discussion with one of the curators regarding their exhibit on Clarity. I could feel the eyes of my soon to be fiancé rolling behind me, and I knew that the time was nigh…

And we left the Museum. That might have been a nice spot for the ring to come out. But it didn’t.
So we walked out into the cold NYC afternoon. I noticed her flexing her hands a bit, as though she was trying to remind them not to smack me. And I knew the time was close. We walked back towards the park, and next to me I heard a sigh. A short one, to be certain, but it was just the kind of sigh I was looking for. We crossed Central Park West and walked a bit before pulling up at a small pond. She looked dazed and confused, so, I knew it was, as 'Ol Mandelbaum would have said, “Go Time.”

“Did you like the exhibit?” I asked.

“It was fine.”

And after surreptitiously working through the five layers of “ring security” I was wearing and pulling it out, I asked,

“Well, you saw all those other diamonds…I wonder what you think of this one?”

She looked over, my future wife and mother of my children, truly never more than in that moment the love of my life, and said…I can hear it like it was yesterday, blowing in on, as Rhode Island’s own Jeffery Osborne might have sung, “on the wings of love,” as she said,


Yep. That’s really what she said. Un-panicked, I followed up with, what I thought was a very “Han-Solo-in ‘Empire Strikes Back’ banter-with-Leia-like” response of, “Well, are you going to marry me or what?”

She recovered, and countered with, “Well, are you going to marry me?”

To which I replied, “Well, I asked you first!”

And so it went. Ring went on. We went home. We later got married and stuff too.

St. Patrick’s day then had added meaning for us as a family. Over the next years, we would spend some together and some apart. I actually worked several when I was working at an Irish place in North Jersey. Those were always a good time. We spent that one in Switzerland. We actually started celebrating the “Halfway to St. Pat’s Irish Weekend” in Wildwood for several years. Any excuse to celebrate, I suppose. We spent out honeymoon in Ireland as well, doing among other things, visiting with my Irish relatives in Donegal, and seeing parts of the Island where my ancestors lived. It was a very cool visit, one which I probably should write about on its own at some point.

Last year, we went into Honolulu and got dinner and walked around the block party that the two main Irish places in the city run. It was ok, but nothing spectacular. We skipped that this year, and had a party at our house with friends over the weekend, and will be celebrating today with a simple family dinner.

In the end, I think I’ve always had an affinity to my Irish heritage and St. Pat’s for a variety of reasons. My family tree is extensive on the island, and it has been a tantalizing subject to research and explore. I’ve always had an affinity for the Irish Pub, and can’t ever recall a day where I had a bad time in one. I’ve enjoyed learning about the general history of Ireland. I like to travel, but usually feel like I’m ready to go when it’s time to go. I didn’t feel that way when we left, and seriously thought about staying longer as one of my Irish cousins was getting married the week after we left.

I remember saying when we drove through the countryside, and the cities, and seeing “Inch Level,” which was a coastal area that my ancestors retired to, not only in a painting on my cousins wall, but in person when he told me as I was admiring his painting, “Oh, that’s just down the street.” I remember feeling like I could live there, and felt very much at peace.
Ironically, the only other place I ever really felt like that was Hawaii. I never really thought about the irony until just now.

I love the genealogy and the history, and remembering my family, but those things are not limited to one day. Neither is my love for my wife. They coincide with that day, but they are as timeless as, well, as timeless as my Great Grandfather, “Daddy Pop” I suppose.

“Daddy Pop” was a genuine character who I remember only a little, but heard about constantly as I grew up. He did everything. He built stuff, and painted stuff, and had cat named Fred, and I used to take his cane and run away from him when I was little. He was seated or course. Apparently he used to get a kick out of that.

But as I was writing this, my mother reminded me of something he used to say: "The Top of the day to ye; and the Rest of the Day To Me’self.” I had forgotten about that, but it made me laugh out loud.

His picture hangs in my dining room. We named my youngest daughter for him. He was a character of the highest order, and as I remember him, he was someone who just seemed to get joy from things.

I think I’ve embraced St. Patrick’s Day for a genuinely simple reason: I chose to. I like it. It’s fun. It brings joy. So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Embrace the joy. Turns out she liked the diamond just fine, by the way.

1 comment:

ylimesnoyl said...

I can really imagine the back and forth 'well are you going to marry me/I asked you first' ! You guys are the best!
Lots of love,
Em x