Friday, March 13, 2009

Going Green or How I Became Irish

The immigrants who settled North Dakota, my birthplace and home, came primarily from Scandinavia and Europe, with a smattering of French fur traders tossed into the mix. Thus, my Swedish paternal grandfather – Johann Sven Gustafson - and my Alsatian grandmother – Frances Froelich. I grew up in a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools bursting at the seams with the burgeoning baby-boomer generation, but even in a Catholic setting, the Irish had little presence in my life. My classmates had names like Budzeak, Chaput (pronounced Shep-ee), Eisner, Garceau, Kroeber, Prochaska, and Lizakowski.


Exposure to names like these from an early age, besides bestowing on me a facility with hard to pronounce or spell surnames, also forever marked me as an outsider in places like Houston. You see, I grew up pronouncing the oe combination with the German “A” sound, as in Fray-lick (Froelich) and Kray-ber (Kroeber,) whereas Houstonians pronounce it with the “O” sound. People are always correcting me, but I stubbornly cling to my linguistic heritage.


Back to my classroom. I will allow that one or two Anglo-Saxon names cropped up – Houlihan and Higgins come to mind – but overall, the Irish just hadn’t made much of a mark on day-to-day life in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Even today, the population with Irish ancestry in my home state hovers around seven percent.


St. Patrick’s Day had nothing to do with green beer, Irish stew, leprechauns, or parades. Instead, we celebrated it from the vantage point of our teachers, the nuns, who proudly told us that Ireland had no snakes because of St. Patrick and his miracles.


If you have seen the play “Doubt,” the movie “Doubt,” or even the trailer for the movie “Doubt,” you have an inkling of my life as a Catholic schoolgirl. Meryl Streep’s performance terrifies, but at least we know she’s acting.


My first teacher at St. Mary’s Elementary School – which I didn’t get into until second grade because of baby boom overcrowding – had the rolls-off-your-tongue moniker of Sister Theodosia. Sister Theodosia earned my unending opprobrium when she decided to give me a new name. My actual given name is Mary Lane, but my family only called me Lanie. My mother can’t explain why she saddled me with Mary at all, but, by age seven, I really didn’t think the name had anything to with me.


Sr. Theodosia, on the other hand, being certain that Lane was not a saint’s name, refused to use it and insisted on calling me Mary. Naturally, I ignored her, thinking she meant one of the many other Marys in my class of 40. Let’s see: we had Mary Margaret, Mary Ann, Mary Catherine, Mary Ellen, and three just plain Marys. I thought she should have been relieved to have at least one student whose name was unique, but she would have none of it.


It is terrible to be in trouble on your very first day at your new school when you are really a good little girl. It may even account for some of my life-long foibles. My mother tried to reason with Sister Theodosia, but the best she could negotiate for me was Mary Lane, which rolls off the tongue as Marralane. I hated it, and I hated Sister Theodosia, but I suffered it until I turned sixteen and my rebellious side blossomed. Then I reclaimed Lane and later managed, by a clever arrangement with my maiden name, to ditch Mary forever.

Now, I know you are wondering what this has to do with “Going Green or How I Became Irish.” Just this: As a nice Swedish girl from the North Dakota, I had little or no point of reference for Irish-ness. Then I landed in St. Louis for college, and, as it turned out, stayed for a lot more fun.


St. Louis is kind of the anti-North Dakota as far as the Irish go. For one thing, they started going there early, in the 18th century, welcomed by the French, with whom they had waged a futile war against England and with whom this particular bunch of Irish folk were co-religionists. And they kept coming because the people in St. Louis treated them a lot better than the people on America’s Eastern Seaboard did.


Coming from an area populated largely by blue-eyed, blond-haired people, the incidence of red hair, green eyes, and freckles in St. Louis astonished me. Not to mention the number of Catholic churches - one on every corner it seemed. Suddenly, St. Patrick’s Day had MEANING in capital letters. There were parades, there were hats, there were tee shirts, there was green beer and Irish stew, and there were buttons that said “Kiss me; I’m Irish.”


The name Gustafson closed the door on pretending to be Irish, but I enjoyed the beer, the parades, and the antics of the Irish all around me. To me it seemed as gaudy and over the top as Mardi Gras does today. It’s fun to watch, but I’m not taking my shirt off for plastic beads, thank you very much.


By skipping over nearly a decade of my life in St. Louis, we come to the significant part. In January of 1976, I met an appealing, redheaded, green-eyed fellow whose name and family, it turned out, were decidedly Irish. That December I married him and found myself suddenly Irish. As if to prove the point, our friends Steffie and Lenny Marks even gave us a set of Irish coffee goblets as a wedding present which we use to this day.


The very next St. Patrick’s Day I found myself at the Buel Street Pub with a mug of green beer, wearing a green tee shirt that said, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” and shouting “Erin go Braugh” although I had no idea what it meant. It turns out going green is easy once you get over being Swedish.

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