On Saint Patrick's Day this year, my Irish husband and I did our best to ensure that our children looked the part. They wondered, of course, why they were the only children with Irish flags on their faces. But it's just what you do.
My mother used to do the same to me. Although I have spent many a Saint Patrick's Day nursing pints of
Guinness and indulging in my, let's say, enthusiasm for Irish whisky, the
first thought I have each time March 17 rolls around is of the so-called Saint
Patrick's Day badges an aunt of mine, at my mom's request, sent to my sister and me each year growing
up, which we proudly wore to school.
These were not subtle round badges of the Kiss Me I'm Irish variety, but more like ribbons—large ones—that you
might see on prize-winning pies at a fair and in shiny bright green, white and gold.
They were decidedly not an American tradition and, needless to say, we were the only children to wear them. Yet we looked forward to
them and wore them as naturally as you might a red sweater on Valentine's Day.
My mother grew up in a village in County Limerick, Ireland.
In the early '70s, she found herself working as a secretary on an American military
base, where she met my dad.
Despite being 50 percent Irish by birth and although having
a military dad meant moving frequently and internationally, my sister and I
were raised to be culturally American: our language, our schooling, our food,
our music and our traditions were nearly entirely imported from the States. My mother did her best to make us feel as Irish as possible, but she was definitely in the minority.
We were not gentle with my mother when she would seemingly make up phrases that nobody else said, or pronounce aluminium and basil in ways nobody else did.
My father and mother both spent a lot of years in countries
other than those of their birth, but where my father was surrounded by the
comforts of home—with commissaries stocked with familiar wares purchased with
American money, sometimes with, albeit limited, access to American media, and
colleagues who watched the Super Bowl.
Of my parents, my mother was more the immigrant in that she was surrounded by fewer familiar things, and I appreciate how challenging it must have been for her now that I am also raising children abroad.
She spoke the same language as the
American women she knew—the other mothers, colleagues of my father, our teachers—but
with a different vocabulary and accent. My dad tells a story of how, new in her job at the
base where they met, she once asked a room full of men if anyone had a
"rubber," you know, an eraser.
Another time, she rose at a baseball game and announced it
was time "for the seventh inning itch."
I experience moments like this almost daily while trying to
function in Dutch. I once told several friends that I was planning a "verrassing"—a surprise—for my husband,
and discovered later that I'd been saying "verassing"—a cremation.
I was once singing a child's song with my son and a
friend of his, whose mother told me that I, with the addition of just one
little letter, had changed the lyric from what would translate to "pat your
head" to "pat your scrotum."
We were not gentle with my mother when she would seemingly
make up phrases that nobody else said, or pronounce aluminium and basil in ways
nobody else did. Long before Bart Simpson came along, she was saying things
like, "Don't have a canary." She'd tell you to "go way outta that" if she was skeptical or that you
were doing something "arseways" if you were botching it up.
Some of her lexicon did become ours. Not until college did I use the casual term "robe" when I'd known it all my life as a "dressing gown." That's also probably when I realized not everyone brought a hot water bottle to bed.
Though not a drinker, eventually she had our basement converted into a pretty authentic looking Irish pub.
I never really appreciated my mother's learning curve. Before marrying an American and having two daughters, she had never been to America, had never prepared a Thanksgiving dinner or
understood its origins, didn't know what trick-or-treating was and had never used words like "vacation" or
She had no experience with the U.S. school system, of
earning a varsity letter in high school or going to prom. But she embraced
these things, learned the rules of softball, volleyball and basketball, and
did so gracefully.
But she was also very careful to make us a part of where she came
from, something she was absolutely proud of. She wanted us to feel Irish, too. We spent
every summer there growing up, where we learned to call cookies "biscuits,"
braids "plaits" and candy "sweets." Twice on extended visits, we went to school
with some of the same nuns who had taught her.
If there was another Irish person anywhere in our midst, she would find and befriend them. And when she couldn't find the real thing, she'd do her best to convert. When I was a teenager and my dad worked on a NATO base, my mother would hand out sheet music of Irish ballads and folk songs when they had parties. I frequently came home after a night out to find several non-Irish nationals singing "Dirty Old Town" in our living room. Though not a drinker, eventually she had our basement converted into a pretty authentic looking Irish pub.
I tell my children they are Americans, but they are too young to hang much meaning on that.
I do have some American friends here—and many Irish ones. I'm also busy learning, in addition to a new language, new
customs and traditions that my son and daughters embrace and take for granted:
Sinterklaas, St. Maarten, bike culture, chocolate sprinkle sandwiches, the
absolute necessity of earning your swimming diploma. It's important that they feel integrated in the Netherlands.
I tell my children they are Americans, but they are too young to hang much meaning on that. We visit fairly regularly, they know they have cousins there, and we make an effort to acknowledge American holidays.
And of course they are also Irish, with a father who says "soother" for pacifier, "nappy" for diaper, "crèche" for daycare. He "plugs out" the "hoover," and he puts things in the "press."
And I'm happy that my children will feel their Irishness, too.
My husband and I want our children to feel at home in the Netherlands, but we also want to make sure they feel a connection to all of their roots, to know where they come from. My parents succeeded in this. Although I'm certainly American, in some things, I also feel like an Irish person caught in a different accent, and I think my mom would be happy about that.