We gathered our Irish spirits in the gloaming of Friday evening, dining with friends and family on Corned Beef and Cabbage, finishing up our meal with Barmbrack fruitcake and pecan whiskey hard sauce. Not until Saturday did we think to dive into Spotify for tunes and dirges, a cacophony of fiddles and flutes, rogues with whiskey rough voices shouting drinking songs, and tenors crooning ballads.
Treasured neighbors joined us for Guinness stew on Saturday evening, sitting around afterward over oat-crusted apple crisp, sipping Sexton single malt (or wine or water), tapping our toes, telling our stories. Whether true or not, surely, we all have a little Irish in us.
Sunday morning, inspiration struck and brunch topped the fare of the weekend: soft scrambled eggs flecked with green, black bread toast, smoked salmon with watercress and dilled crème, mashed potato pancakes—a meal to inspire memories. I dug into my writing and research archives, finding the census reports documenting my grandparents, next rooting through old photo albums, scanning the treasures I found.
In 1900, my paternal grandparents were born, one generation removed from the Irish potato famine, bred of hardworking peasant stock from County Cork. If Grandpa White had been born in Ireland, would he have migrated north, finding work among the shipwrights of Belfast who built the Titanic, instead of becoming a pipe-fitter and welder for the Tennessee Valley Authority?
The 1920 U.S. census listed my grandmother, Lottie Dale Barney Fagey, as a “housemaid” in the home of a widow who inherited and ran her late husband’s mercantile business with her two adult sons. The husband most likely died in The Great War. Lottie Dale cooked, cleaned, and looked after Widow Tompkins’s 9-year old daughter, Margaret.
Not two years later, on my father’s birth, young Lottie became known as Dale White. One picture survives from her courtship with my grandfather, Cletis Goldie White. Dale wears a smocked apron overdress and a haircap, standing with her hands clasped in front. Cletis grips a tree branch, hanging playful and teasing, kicking his feet, his Paddy cap tilted rakishly.
My father’s family lived in southern Illinois and the western part of Indiana, traveling from outlying towns and small cities to Indianapolis, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky, following railroad maintenance work, building roads and bridges, and toiling in mines and small oil fields. Mamaw and Papaw White (as we called Cletis and Dale), found some constancy after Great-grandad White retired. The railroad granted him a life-lease on a sharecropper’s farm, a scrap of land near the railroad lines Great-grandad walked and inspected with his lantern (the original occupation of those known as “linemen”). In between work projects, my grandparents parked their trailer on the land, sharing water from the well, jerry-rigging electricity from the single pole at the corner of their dirt road and the paved two-lane county road leading into Allendale, Illinois.
I never knew them in the years they struggled to raise a family during the depression, or how they felt sending their first son, my father, off to war at age 18, or both sons off to the Korean War. My memories are of sitting on the porch of my great-grandparents’ house, shelling beans and peas, shucking corn, sitting on top of the hand-crank ice cream maker to provide traction when the churning became difficult, our mouths watering at the smell of a freshly-plucked chicken frying in lard. We were charmed, thinking that outhouses, pot-bellied stoves for heating and cooking, and water hand-pumped into the kitchen all marvelous adventures in the 1960s. We scrubbed our clothes on a washboard, hanging them to dry in the backyard, and competed with each other for the right to wash my grandmother’s glorious head of shiny white hair. She would park her walker next to the well, and we rinsed her hair with water drawn in a galvanized bucket.
My grandparents moved to a series of trailer parks after Great-grandad died and they lost the lease on the farm, relocating to Indianapolis to live with my aunt after Mamaw broke her hip for a second time. My final memories of them are of illness, and flares of Irish temper always ending in laughter. Mamaw called Papaw a rascal. He called her “old woman.” They died just a year apart. They loved for a lifetime.