Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Feliz NaviPat, Y'All: He Drinks Tequila and She Talks Dirty in Spanish

Cute cute cute, this Irish family singing over-the-top Southwestern swing.  And just a wee bit scary.

Far more pleasant to watch than little colleens step-dancing, with that wild flyaway hair that seems de rigueur at Irish dancing schools nowadays.  It's not the colleens that bring out the St. Pat's grinch in me.  It's that hair--hair God never intended on any human's head, listing and sailing in huge flotillas around tiny faces, as they step their little hearts out on the stage.

And that word "colleen": what memories it evokes for me today.  (Warning: free-association reminiscence that may go no place any more logical than the little step-dancers' hair.)

I have a very specific memory of the last time I heard someone use it casually.  It was the last time Steve and I ever saw our friend Kathleen, several years before Katrina uprooted her in New Orleans, and she died a few days after the uprooting.

I had taken my niece Kate and nephew Luke, both at Loyola in New Orleans at the time, to see Kathleen on this last visit.  Looking at Kate, she said, "What a beautiful colleen she is."  Kate slewed her eyes to me in shock.

I later discovered the reason for the slewing and the shock was that she had not a clue what the word "colleen" meant--a word I heard over and over as I grew up, a casually-used word with a specific meaning to match Kate's thick head of beautiful black hair and her gray eyes.  I was as surprised to learn that Kate didn't know what a colleen was as I was surprised to discover, a few years down the road, that her brother Colin had no clue what a hen is.  A senior in college who had never heard the word "hen" . . . . 

I have to wonder whether the loss of words as familiar to me as old shoes in my own lifetime has to do with shifting educational standards.  Or does it have more to do with changes in culture?  As I think about it, the latter may be as responsible for the obsolescence of bits of our vocabulary as the former.

I knew hens very well from the time I was tiny, because my brothers and I were taken often to the small farm on which my great-uncle Pat and his wife Nellie lived.  There, it was our shameful delight, as city boys, to lob stones at the hens.  Aunt Nellie naturally loathed this, because her hens wouldn't lay for weeks after we'd visited.  Not one to hold her tongue, she once said to my mother, "Them boys wouldn't dare behave that way if your pa were living!"

Everywhere I turned, as I grew up, I heard about hens, though I grew up in town.  Agriculture was so much a part of my family's life in the generations immediately preceding mine that it was impossible not to encounter words that, today, seem more and more confined to a vanishing world of small farms that was once the fabric of our cultural life.

A story told over and over in my father's mother's family when I was growing up had to do with my father's aunt Daphne--Daffie, we called her.  Even in their old age, Daffie and her husband Uncle Bud Cotton (who had a real name other than Bud, but what it was, I wouldn't know without looking at records) were smitten with each other, as fatuous as they'd been when they met in their teens.

Bud was one of those Southern men who are born tired and never get rested.  He could find more inventive, and numerous, ways to do nothing than just about anyone we knew.  And when he did put his hand to a task, everyone remembered all over again why we preferred to having him sitting at his domino table, shuffling the tiles around for another game with his cronies.  Or swinging on his porch, looking sedately at the slow Red River meander past his doorstep.

One of Uncle Bud's forays into the world of labor involved fixing the fence in his yard, one bright spring day after the fence had lain dormant all winter long.  Bud hammered.  Bud nailed.  The fence went up.

Then, as Daffie watched through a window, along came a chicken, the chicken lit on the fence, and down the fence fell again.  At which point Daffie called to her beloved Bud with just the tiniest touch of sarcasm in the observation, "Buddie.  Buddie.  What fine fat hens we have.  One just landed on your fence and down it fell."

With stories like that told over and over as I grew up, how could I avoid having words like "hen" stamped on my brain?

St. Pat's evokes such memories, though most of my family lines about which I'm telling stories here were English by blood and not Irish.  Still, like generations of their forebears throughout the British Isles, they'd grown up living surrounded by farm animals, and it would have been unthinkable to them that, down the road, they'd have grandchildren and great-grandchildren who didn't know hens.

Steve and I will lift a glass this evening, with our asparagus and potatoes and eggs, in memory of Pat (who was definitely half-Irish) and Nellie and Daffie and Bud.  And beautiful, witty, foul-mouthed Kathleen, one of the holiest women I've ever known.  And in honor of the Irish cousins I'm proud to claim--folks like Stephen Colbert, Kathy Griffin, Dan Savage (yes, those foul mouths do seem to run in some Irish-American families: and I love them), and Michael Moore.

And we might even include the cousins I'd rather not know, like Mr. Donohue of the Catholic League, or most of the bishops of the large sees of the Catholic church in the U.S.  

At least one day a year, surely, we can beat the swords into plowshares, as we all have a drop of the creature in honor of today's saint.