This is my lucky day.

Today means many things to me.

Today means I’m Irish. It means I’m dancing, adding whiskey to my coffee, laughing with friends and family. I’m baking soda bread and thinking about the last time I saw Sister Nora. I’m calling my mom and talking about pirate queens and planning a dream vacation. It means I’m never going to stop wanting to know more about the people who came before me.

I’ve learned a little bit more about my Irish family in the year since I wrote this. In three weeks, I’ll be in the town where my grandfather was born 101 years ago today. I’ll visit the tiny island my ancestors called home, and find the grave of my great-great grandfather John, about whom this was written:

“He might be truly described as one of ‘nature’s gentlemen,’ for he was mild of manner, of genial disposition, and most benevolent. Those traits of character came to him down through the centuries, as he was descended from a renowned family, who gave their all to the aid of Grace O’Malley, the remains of whose castles stand stiff and stout along the Western seaboard. A good neighbour, a practical Catholic and a true Irishman, he will be missed by all who knew him, but none more than the people of Clare Island, of which he was a native, and all will join in praying earnestly that the Almighty may give him the reward of an absolutely blameless life.”

Today means so many, many things.

But mainly it means I’m lucky.

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Before and After.

Children. Just children.

I’m not going to say his name. I mean, as of right now, it’s a him. Maybe it’s even a them. I don’t care.

No, that’s not right. I care a whole hell of a lot. I care enough not to learn a new name for evil.

A few hours before, I found this quote, by any number of people if you are trusting the internet for answers: “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” I liked it. I shared it. A few hours later I still believe it, but I wonder, how?

Childhood. It should be the best thing – the best thing – in the world. Don’t you miss when everything was new and exciting and nothing bad had happened, or could happen? Isn’t it what we as a universe aim to protect? Isn’t that why we tell our children about Santa?

My childhood had some great moments. It had some icky moments. It had a whole lot of blissfully unaware moments. It had bike rides, books, swimming lessons, New Kids On The Block t-shirts. Barbies with my best friend, in a dad-made dollhouse. Scraped knees, broken arms, sprained ankles. It had bullies. It had crying. It had silly laughter and strange fashion, a lisp and a pink room with blue shag carpet. Music with my brother, sitting in “my spot” with my dad, everything with my mom. It was safe. It was blessed. I took it for granted and that’s the way it should be.

Children. If you’re lucky enough to have them, make their childhood safe and happy as long as possible and pray that the world gets better, or at least stops getting worse.

Let me know how I can help.

Children.

How does a vegetarian celebrate Turkey Day?

I’ve been a vegetarian for a stupidly long time. And stupidly is the right word choice here; I do not recommend it. I mean, if you are one for animal rights reasons or health reasons and it’s working out, that’s totally valid.*  But I am a vegetarian because I was a picky child. That’s it. My picky-ness just had a name that I liked saying to lunch ladies to make them think I was a smart six-year-old (we vegetarians are a notoriously snobby people), and I never grew out of it. Now, I spend a lot of time in dive bars surrounded by burgers and I love the smell of Dome Dogs, but if I try to eat meat I become immediately ill. After 24 years, my vegetarianism is essentially a food allergy.

Luckily, being a vegetarian has not interfered with my favorite past time: eating. There are so many delicious options out there for someone with an eclectic palate (I just pinned a recipe for kale quinoa pilaf and I am legit excited by it; how do I even have any friends). The world at large and the Cities in miniature are becoming more veggie-friendly. My friends and family are more or less used to me saying “Can I get that without bacon?” But there is this one time of year where it gets just a wee bit annoying.

This. This is that time. The week before Thanksgiving. People will talk about Thanksgiving or “Turkey Day” plans, and then shoot the vegetarian a look of pity. I call it the “Sad Turkey Side-Eye.”  Honestly, I don’t really think I’m missing out because Thanksgiving involves about fourteen side-dishes I can eat, and do (and how!). Also pie. So much pie. When I get the Sad Turkey Side-Eye, I find it best to respond with “I Will Be Eating Your Share Of Pie While You Are Taking an L-Tryptophan Nap” smirk.

I’d also just like to state, for the record, that I’ve never had Tofurkey.  I actually don’t know (or remember) what turkey tastes like. But I will not go near Tofurkey out of fear that it will taste like tofu, which I only enjoy if it’s completely masked by foods that taste like actual food.

tofurky package

If this looks appetizing to you, seek help.

Again, I’m totally cool just eating grandma’s jello salad and mom’s sweet potatoes and everyone’s pie. I am not missing out and neither, really, are the other vegetarians.**

Here’s the thing: Thanksgiving is not about turkey. It’s not even about pie. It’s about giving thanks for what we have, and I sure have a lot: a nice job, great family, wonderful friends, sweet apartment, lovely life, and the ability to turn my nose up at proffered food. This last one gets to me, particularly at this time of year, which is why I’m doing the Walk To End Hunger again this year. Thanksgiving morning, my mother and I will be up at the crack of dawn*** walking around the Mall of America. The funds we raise will be split among 12 local hunger charities.

Walk To End Hunger Logo

Half of us have far too much to eat on this one day, I am more than happy to continue; but let’s make sure every Minnesotan has enough to eat every day.

So how does a vegetarian celebrate Turkey Day? By confronting every Sad Turkey Side-Eye with a link to my fundraising page. By giving thanks. By Walking to End Hunger. And by eating the hell out of some pie.

*Unless you are a vegan. That is just crazy.
**Vegans are, though. Vegans are missing out on life.
***7 a.m. is the crack of dawn on holidays; also vegans are the worst.

The Minnesota Vikings, My Pops, and Me

I wrote this last year, but I’m updating and re-posting it in light of yesterday’s huge Vikings win.  I got to experience it in person, at MOA Field, with my pops. It was great – I am still hoarse from cheering, Pops almost clapped once, and the whole day was pretty much everything I love about being a Vikings fan.

I once theorized that my relationship with the Minnesota Vikings is not unlike my relationship with men (why yes, this theory was developed in a bar!): 1) I care very strongly for them; they are basically unaware I exist. 2) I am always looking for a good tight end; they are always looking for a horny blonde.

Vikings Fan

Like that.

3) Eventually I’m going to have to stop pinning all my hopes and dreams on men who wear purple and tight pants and chase each other. 4) And finally, it’s all my father’s fault.

From age 2-6, Bonding With Pops meant watching whatever action movie was on television while falling asleep on the couch. They have fused in my memory into one long action movie I like to call Crocodile Die Hard Jones and the Hunt for the Lethal Weapons Under Siege 2. From ages 7-12, Bonding With Pops meant getting outdoorsy and going camping and fishing. Sadly, this camping tradition ended about when my dad woke up to me burning an entire deck of cards, one at a time. I wish I was kidding; that is super creepy. Ever since, Bonding With Pops has simply involved sports, and it started with the Vikings.

Together, we watched the 1998-1999 season with as much pride (and then overwhelming despair) as the rest of the state, and despite that famous miss, I was hooked. In 2000, Pops took me to the Vikings training camp to watch a scrimmage. The facts say that I was fifteen at the time, but the memories suggest I was closer to seven. I was giddy to be there, with Pops, watching Cris Carter! Robert Smith! JOHN RANDLE! And we were in the front row, somehow; probably because Pops is early for everything (I did not inherit this trait), but at the time I was pretty sure it was because my dad was magic and/or secretly important. I thought this might be the case when he perked up at some announcement and said, “I think that’s my cousin Rod doing the announcing.”

Before I could say, “You have a cousin Rod and why aren’t we using this relationship to get VIP treatment?” The announcer said, “and here comes the quarterback, Cunningham. Uh, I mean Culpepper…” To which the crowd gave a little boo and Pops said, “Yep. That’s Rod alright.” I decided not to follow this lead after all.

Despite needing to be the first person in his seat that day, Pops couldn’t stay in it for long. He got us a bag of popcorn that (again, in my memory) was as big as me, and I was not a small kid. He also ran off and bought me a Cris Carter jersey. Again, I was not a small kid, but Pops overshot it a bit — to this day, we call that my “Cris Carter dress.” I loved it immediately.

After the scrimmage, we went to the autograph line. Pops plopped me next to the gate with my camera and my notebook and disappeared while I gawked, star-struck, as all the pros walked past me and the rookies stopped to sign autographs.

If you’re wondering what kind of father would leave his teenage daughter alone in a crowd like that, so was I. I finally brought this part of the memory up to my dad last week. “Where did you go?” I asked, thinking he ran away from the crowd to smoke. He stared at me. “I was right behind you,” he said. “I had a hand on each of your shoulders! Don’t you remember? You were the same height as Denny Green!” What kind of father would leave his teenage daughter alone in that crowd? Not mine. You’d think I’d remember being held in place by a large man, but no. There is no large man in my memory other than John Randle. I may be a terrible daughter with a foggy memory of one of the best days of my young life but eh! John Randle!

John Randle

Actual picture that I actually took of the actual John Randle. I am that bad of a photographer, and I was that excited. I’m still proud of this.

That was the last time my dad and I went to a scrimmage. Until yesterday, he did not even own any Vikings apparel (I bought him a purple hat – he’s actually lucky I didn’t buy him one of the helmets with horns), whereas I’ve upped the ante with a “cousin” Adrian Peterson jersey, Robert Smith jersey, Vikings sweatshirt, two or three purple pride t-shirts, and one of those sweet blonde-with-horns hats (I will fool you yet, men). I was banned from The Boys’ apartment after Favre threw the last interception of 2010 and I let out a guttural scream that scared the cats. I went to three games at the Dome last year (all losses). And I once picked a fight in New Orleans, with a Priest, because he was wearing a Drew Brees jersey.

To be a Vikings fan is to be stubborn and proud without reason.  I’m a HUGE Vikings fan, and it’s definitely all my father’s fault.

Love you, Pops.

SKOL VIKINGS!

Rachel and Pops

Fashionista Flashback: The Girl in the Yellow Dress

Because the Red Balloon Bookshop was kind enough to put my blog On Reading on their Facebook page, and because I’ve been thinking of my meeting with Barbara Cooney anyway, I dug this photo up:

Rachel and Barbara Cooney

The date on the back is May 7, 1992, so just over twenty years ago. I remember being pulled out of school, and wearing that yellow dress (my favorite) for the full 2-hour car ride to the Cities. I took all of my personal books by Barbara Cooney as well as a bunch owned by the school for her to autograph, which she did. I still can’t believe she wrote to me more than once.

Every little girl should get to meet one of her heroines, and every heroine should have the chance to make a little girl’s day.

On Reading.

I love books. The way they look on my shelves, the way they destroy my sleep pattern, the way they educate, infuriate and delight me. I love collecting them, sharing them, borrowing them, and (of course) reading them.

I don’t remember the first book I read, although there is a video of me reading one aloud at around age five. My mother, a reader, was impressed enough to film the whole thing; it’s very boring. It would have been more entertaining to watch my childhood best friend and I play-acting The Littles series by building forts (we play-acted everything by building forts). Around that same time, my mother the reader took me out of school, allowed me to wear my best yellow dress, and drove me to The Red Balloon Bookshop to meet Barbara Cooney, the author and illustrator of many of my favorite children’s books, including Miss Rumphius.

I don’t remember as much of the day as I’d like. Mainly I remember Barbara Cooney was very old, around 75 to my 7 years, and had very white hair. And she was nice; so nice that when I wrote to her a few months later, asking if she remembered “the girl in the yellow dress,” she wrote back and assured me she did.  We wrote back and forth for a few years, but unfortunately I didn’t keep it up and we lost touch by the time she passed away. I regret it. I still have that first card, framed now, on my desk.

A few years after I met Barbara Cooney, I met my favorite book in all the world. I was maybe nine, and climbing the furniture in our living room in search of a set of dirty playing cards my brother told me about (my dad’s one contribution to our book shelf, no doubt). I found the cards disguised as a book, wedged next to a dingy, yellowed paperback with a title I recognized – The Princess Bride. I had seen the movie but until then, I didn’t know it had been a real book, and I didn’t take it off the shelf until three years later. And I never put it back.

I have three copies of The Princess Bride now, and if I needed to evacuate my apartment in a hurry I’d still take all three of them.  That first, disintegrating copy, the front cover long missing and the first page – the one that starts “This is my favorite book in all the world, but I have never read it” – has fallen off too, but that I’ve saved in a frame.  The second, a more recent hardcover, the version I read year after year without fear of it falling apart. And the third, a 1973 hardcover signed “To Rachel, As You Wish, William Goldman” – a gift from (who else) my mother, the reader. After life itself and the love of reading, this is probably the best gift she’s ever given me.

In college I became an English major because I loved reading, I loved writing, and also because a nun told me to. I read some classics, like The Brothers Karamazov, The Master and Margarita, Lolita, and some others that weren’t written by Russians, I’m sure. I name those three because I loved them, and recognize their greatness, but I will likely never re-read them. I’m sorry great literature of the past and the future, the top spot in my heart has already been taken. But please, keep trying. There are other little girls out there still in search of their Favorite.

The Princess Bride marked the first time I realized a good story could break the rules (and that’s really what that book is about to me – storytelling). But I’ve gone on long enough about that. I didn’t even intend to mention my Favorite when I started writing this. I just wanted to say how much I love a good story, a good book, because I’ve only just come out of a long period of not reading by finishing another rule-breaking story. It’s not a perfect series, it took me several years to get through all of it, and parts of it made me want to smack Stephen King upside the head, but The Dark Tower series took me on a journey.

I mean, I really hated some of it. I don’t think I ever laughed, but man, did I sob during those last few hundred pages. I love crying at books. I never knew what was going to happen, and frankly I could not explain what it was about even if you had also just finished reading it. As far as books about stories go, these seven (okay, there are eight now – the man actually wrote another one in the series in the time it took me to read the seventh) make up a dense journey full of broken rules. They’re still not my Favorite and never will be, but they are my brother’s, and that’s as good an accomplishment as any for Sai King.

I guess what I’m really saying here is I’ve finished another book. What should I read next?

Irish-American Eyes Are Smiling

“If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.”

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and I am celebrating not just being Irish but being an Irish-American, a lucky feat if there ever was one.

One hundred years ago today, my grandfather Patrick was born in Ireland. His birthplace was County Mayo – a part of Ireland hit worst by the famine; my family tells me it was sometimes referred to as “Mayo, God Help Us.” I don’t know how earlier generations of my family fared (yet – my ancestry research continues), but I do know they were already preparing to leave by the time Patrick was born.

In 1913, my great-grandmother Mary and her three sons left County Mayo and traveled to Queenstown, where they boarded a ship bound for America. Mary’s husband was already in the states, so she spent the week’s journey with just her three boys, all under the age of four. I’m trying to imagine a worse experience for her, but they arrived safely and started a life in Massachusetts.

Patrick is my closest tie to Ireland, but his story is also very American.  He fought in WWII as a gunner in the Army Air Corps and later became a fireman. (Is it any wonder he came from the same island as Liam Neeson with an action-star pedigree like that?) He married a girl – not Irish, but what you can do? – and had five children who share a good sense of humor and a recipe for Irish soda bread.

To be an Irish-American is to have an immigrant story like this.  Our ancestors struggled through famine and fate and sought out a better life; we were “the huddled masses yearning to break free.” Luckily, we were welcomed. I exist because of America, and I love this country that can still be welcoming.

My grandfather Patrick died before I was born, but I was raised with a healthy respect for my Irish heritage despite not knowing much about it. I’ve been to Ireland just once: in 2006, while studying in London, I took a weekend trip to Cork to visit other students abroad.  We fit nine people in a six-person hostel, and several pub visits into just a few days. It wasn’t the sort of trip that made time for searching out family history.

On our last day, we had a few hours to spare and wanted to get near the water. The hostel attendant recommended taking a train to Cobh, so that’s what we did.  We wandered around the old buildings, drank Irish coffee at a cute pub, and I took a picture of an old dock.

A dock in Cobh

What I didn’t know at the time was that 94 years earlier, Cobh was called “Queenstown.”

I don’t think this is the same dock my great-grandmother walked down nearly a century ago. It’s possible, since this is the dock used by the passengers of the Titanic, something I (incredibly) did not realize either when I took this picture. But really, how lucky could I be to find the exact dock my ancestors walked across — by accident?

Well, I did find the last town my ancestors were in before they came to America. And since the Titanic made its last stop there in 1912, the town has been preserved to reflect life as it was 100 years ago. I saw the streets, the buildings, the pubs and the docks as they were just a short time later, when Mary took her children off, hoping for a better life in America.  And they found one.

That seems just lucky enough.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my mother, who gave me this pale skin and intense pride.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day and 100th birthday to my grandfather Patrick, who died far too young.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my grandmother, who wasn’t Irish but enjoyed pretending she was, and I can respect that.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my brother, my aunts, my cousins, my great-aunts and distant cousins, including ones just discovered.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone who is Irish and everyone who just wants to be – so really, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone in the world.

The Feast of St. Patrick: Another Essay from the Archives

This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for an English class in 2007. On an unrelated note, it was written for one of those professors you initially can’t stand but appreciate so much after the fact. She passed away just about two years later, but sometimes I still hear her barking “clichéd! clichéd! clichéd!” That’s one way to get me to aim for originality over perfection in everything.

I was baking bread in my roommate’s casserole dish for the third time in a week when my mother called to wish me a happy St. Patrick’s Day. Thanking her, I asked about how long, in her experience, Irish soda bread needed to bake. It was the only step of the recipe I had failed to memorize and never would, no matter how many loaves I made in my lifetime.

“About 45 minutes to an hour,” she responded. When I pointed out that this range could be the difference between the perfect loaf and a kitchen fire, she told me to stab the center with a knife. I glanced at the already pockmarked top of my loaf and thanked her for the advice.

Bread-stabbing is a habit learned from my mother, just a generation away from becoming a tradition. She also taught me to immediately serve one quarter of a fresh loaf of Irish soda bread. I cut a quarter of my casserole-shaped soda bread into slices before remembering I was the only person in my apartment.

One-quarter loaf for the one-quarter Irish, I thought as I took a bite. Sugary and dotted with raisins, it tasted like nothing my Irish ancestors would ever recognize. It connected me only to my mother, and she to the grandfather I never met. His name was Patrick, and I’d often wondered if that was by choice or just the general rule for males born on March 17 in Ireland.

As I was working my way through my third slice of soda bread, my roommate came home. I shoved the plate of bread slices at her and sighed.

“What are you doing tonight?” I asked.

It was a Saturday and St. Patrick’s Day, so I was shocked when she said, “Stay home and sleep.”

She said she felt left out on St. Patrick’s Day because she’s not Irish. I pointed out that we lived in the middle of Minnesota, land of Scandinavians, and almost no one we knew was Irish.

“Yeah,” she said, “But everyone can tell I’m not Irish.”

When my roommate fills out the race/ethnicity portion of surveys, she checks Latina, Asian, and Caucasian. It bothers her to be told that the first two cancel out the last; it bothers me that I have to skip all of the interesting entries just for the last. I was surprised to find her jealous of something that, for once, fell under the scope of my white bread heritage, but I understand the need to check that third identity.

Because of an obsession with genealogy, I have divided myself into fractions. Rather than a pie-chart, I am a Rachel-chart. This leg is Irish, this one is Acadian. My toes are German, my ears a throwback to “a Micmac Indian woman” who dead-ends my family tree. It is a mix that is uniquely mine, and yet rather than make me diverse it has watered-down my sense of heritage. I am a child of the melting pot; I have no single culture to embrace as my own. Instead, I have a half-remembered recipe for a simple variation of white bread.

On what would have been my grandfather’s 95th birthday, I once again ate Irish soda bread and imagined what it would be like to meet him and ask him just one question. As I stared at the remaining three-quarter loaf of Irish soda bread, and I knew I would ask him how it felt to be celebrated whole.

This ends the flashback essay series. Tomorrow, I will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, my grandfather Patrick’s 100th birthday, and the wonderful thing it is to be Irish-American.

Luck of the Norwegian: An Essay from the Archives 2

This was written about St. Patrick’s Day 2009 – a memorable but odd one for sure:

I got my St. Patrick’s kicks in a little early this year, choosing to make bad decisions on a Saturday rather than a Tuesday.  Does that make it a good decision?  Call it a wash.  Anyway, my weekend was great, aside from the parts where I felt like dying.  The other parts were too much fun, and I would do those parts again (which pretty much means I’ll do the “feel like dying” parts again, too).

The actual St. Patrick’s day was going to be low-key, but ended up pretty bizarre.  First of all, there were drunk nuns before noon.  Always entertaining.  Then there was a phone call from my mom, letting me know my dad was in the hospital because of a work accident (found a chlorine gas leak with his face), but he didn’t want me to come home because I should “stay there and make money.”  I never listen to my dad; he never makes sense.  So instead, I spent about two and a half hours in the ICU, watching my pops take in oxygen and watch NCIS.  It was exactly like hanging out with my dad at home, except with a few extra tubes and wires.

Around seven, the doctor checked dad’s O2 levels and sent us all home, telling him not to smoke for a few days because it would irritate the acid in his lungs.  The acid in his lungs.  I take that to mean “don’t smoke because IT WILL MAKE YOU BLOW UP,” and dad takes it to mean “Gonna smoke anyway, because I like a challenge.”  My dad: surviving things he shouldn’t for half a century.

And that’s how I ended my St. Patrick’s day: watching my dad watch NCIS (at home this time) and thinking not about my Irish ancestors, but my Norwegian ones, and wondering if I might inherit some of their luck.  And their ridiculously hearty lungs.

Note: Dad’s lungs are not quite so hearty anymore, but I am so incredibly proud of the work he’s put into quitting smoking in the past few months. Love you Pops! Keep taking care of yourself so I can keep writing jokes about you.