Live a life less ordinary; live a life extraordinary, with me – Carbon Leaf.
We were required to be at dinner. It was at 5pm, concrete setting, so there was no confusion. 3 days a week dad went to the Y after work, but the rest of us still held the 5pm observance. The other 4 days, it was all hands ondeck; my folks, 3 older sisters and me. There was usually an adopted dog, cat and turtle, rabbit or gerbil around too. After dinner, there was tea. I don’t remember specific conversations, just the general feeling of well-being: sharing, updating, giggling. And the tea.
Concrete setting, of times, and subliminal formation of values ingrained subconsciously, were bread to live by. Forgotten loaves perhaps, found when scrounging around, in dark times, trying to clean up or simply, manna from heaven.
Mom’s Irish soda bread, usually in small buns we called scones, but occasionally in loaves, came with the tea, as sure as milk n sugar, or breathing. I loved the brown bread, solid, comforting, filling, over the sweeter and raisin filled Irish soda bread. But Mom’s scones are literally, world famous.
When we first started Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival, mom made ALL the soda bread: scones, loaves and brown.
As the festival grew over the next 30 years, 3,000 to 30,000 to good weather years of 50,000+ and bad weather years of 25,000, so did the bread, and the volunteer Irish army that made the Irish Soda bread, brown bread and the specialties of the Irish mafia mamas from throughout Greater Cleveland, via the Irish immigration express. Eleanor Roosevelt said “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water. True of a nation too; the sons and daughters of Erin have way too much experience finding out just how strong they are.
Good years at the Fest, we sold out of bread. I remember bad, stormy weather-drunk years of standing at the exit gates late on Sunday night, pulling loaves from large white bags to hand them out to guests as they headed out. “Thanks for coming; hope you had fun; God willing, see you next year;” safe home dear immigrant is said at funerals, but the sentiment is felt at any parting.
You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. Dad used to say that long before the currently popular Dan Wilson Semisonic song hit the airwaves, as he wandered around the grounds, shaking hands while gently leading people toward or out the front gate. At the original festival grounds, we had an overflow parking lot down a small incline. The mud was mad and adhering as we banded together to muscle unstuck mud sunk cars. Dad was, and is, the leader of 13 of us that founded the festival in 1982.
A year or two we’d find forgotten bags of bread the next day, and drop them to St Pat’s Food Bank, or St. Herman’s on the don’t think too much, just one foot in front of the other till we’re done Mondays after.
Like many immigrant families, we gathered in the kitchen. It is symbolic – food meant you were not living the Irish feast or famine curse and immigrant crossroads of not having food or future, the warmth of the cooking kitchen and all its symbolism is implied and tasted; a roof over your head; health.
In my mom’s house, when the doorbell rang, they were already in the kitchen. They turned on the kettle, THEN they answered the door. I remember the heart jump, and scrambling, pushing each other out of the way, to get to answer the door. For we never knew who would be on the other side. Surprise guests from Ireland are stars in my sky, but it could be a neighbor, a friend – I loved when the Irish guys stopped by on a Saturday, because it meant not just the tea, available to us any time, but mom’s scones too for the guest, and us. I sometimes wonder if the electric kettle was the biggest wattage burn in out house.
I remember John O’Brien, my cousin, showing up unannounced from Ireland one Christmas Eve; storybook snow and holiday landscape. There was great music in the sounds of silence. Owen or Joe or Martin Lowry, Joe Moran, Andy Maloney, Joe Boyle, Mike Mazur, Tom Byrne … its an endless list full of humble, quiet guys, local legends, who got the big picture of letting their actions be all the advertising they ever needed. They showed up.
Across the city, if a driveway needed to be done, a roof, a furnace, water tank or a repair, or Cleveland St. Pat’s Gaelic Football Club were playing in town or anywhere in the Midwest Division, everyone showed up, en mass. We didn’t talk about family. Emotions weren’t taboo, but a whole nation had been brought up fighting the Stranger, who wormed through those emotional openings for generations. We got up, showed up; many hands; labor, light.
Mom and I made brown bread yesterday, and she told me her memories of tea and bread, bread and tea, in her house and our house, growing up. Lunch, then she gently critiqued my technique, and I showed her how to take a selfie, what cousins across borders were up to on Facebook, and we laughed. Mass was the perfect ending, as it always is for me.
We are an immigrant nation that changed their sky, but never their soul to across an ocean, Eire to Erie. The values we learned, we live, we love.
I write about things that matter to me, I’ve learned, or simply wish to pass on; Be Happy, it is one way of being wise. Please share your story with me; thank you for allowing me to share mine with you.
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