Few people know this, but I was once briefly Irish. Very briefly, in fact.
With St. Patrick’s Day upon us, it’s a good time to recall how I was Irish for a week.
I was in the third grade and a Cub Scout. Or maybe a Webelo. Details blur with time. Anyway, I was nine years-old, was some type of pre-Boy Scout and was tasked with investigating my family tree.
The timing was particularly good, because my family was planning a visit the coming weekend to my Richardson grandparents, who lived about 200 miles away.
So that Saturday evening I was seated at the 1960s vinyl kitchen table in their farmhouse while Grandma Lois cooked supper. I hauled out my pre-Boy Scout handbook, opened it to the genealogy assignment, grabbed a pencil and got down to business.
I knew my mother’s name was Shirley Powell and she was born in St. Joseph, Missouri. I wrote that down. So far, so good. Next up: her mother, and her place of birth.
Grandma Lois was standing at the stove, frying chicken in an old iron skillet. I penciled in her name, then asked where she was born.
Sizzling grease is loud. Really, really loud. Grandma’s voice could be high-pitched at times, such as right then, when she raised it to be heard above all the popping and crackling.
She said she was born in a little town called Milan, home to 2,000 souls and the seat of Sullivan County.
Its name is spelled like the more famous Milan, Italy. But the Missouri version is pronounced “MY-lun.” Given Grandma’s country accent and the cacophony coming from the stovetop, my nine year-old ears heard, “EYE-lun.”
Ireland. So Grandma was Irish! Who knew? This family tree stuff was paying off already. There was just one more question, and then my maternal side would be finished. “What were your parent’s names, and where were they born?” I asked.
“Terry Wattenbarger and Mabel Hunsaker,” Grandma called out over the cooking chicken. “They were born in Milan, too.”
So there it was: conclusive proof of my Celtic connection. I was now Irish. It felt good, being part of that noble band of brothers hailing from the Emerald Isle.
Being nine, I was too young to recognize the red warning flags waving all around me. For starters, my relatives were Methodists, and had been Protestant for centuries. Plus, Wattenbarger and Hunsaker were about as Germanic as names can get. But Grandma said they were from Ireland, and doggone it, she ought to know. So Irish it was. I closed my pre-Boy Scout manual, satisfied I could now rightfully claim the Luck of the Irish as my own.
A few days later, back home, I was getting ready for my weekly pre-Boy Scout meeting, where we would each relate what we had discovered amid the various limbs of our family tree. My mother’s jaw dropped when I walked out of my bedroom.
I was dressed in a bright green shirt, green pants, and some strange green hat I had found in a closet. If I was going to report on finding my Irish roots, it seemed appropriate to dress for the occasion.
I was marched back into my room, sat on the bed and, with a few sentences spoken in motherly kindness, my dreams of Celtic greatness were quickly swept away. We were plain, boring Anglo-Saxons I was told, our ancestry stretching back to the day when mayonnaise first met Wonder Bread.
I quickly changed out of my garish green get-up and into the regulation blue pre-Boy Scout uniform, the same one all the other Anglo-Saxon guys in my unit wore. There was nothing special about me after all; I was the same as everyone else in my little Missouri town.
We never spoke of my genealogical mix-up again.
Still, a pang of envy stabs my soul every March 17th. And if you peek into my kitchen window late that night, you just may catch me hoisting a pint glass filled with a foamy green beverage as I toast Grandma Lois for making me feel Irish, at least for a week.
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