I never knew I was poor until my fifteenth summer, when I visited Scranton, Pennsylvania and hung out with relatives who could afford frozen fruit snacks and automatic dishwashers. Back home in Florida, I got Breyer’s ice cream twice a year as a treat and used this new contraption that squirted liquid detergent while I scrubbed the dishes.
My relatives had thick carpeting and cable television.
But I had beaches and palm trees, so it didn’t feel so bad.
Some relatives could afford to bring over cousins from Ireland for summer vacation. Irish cousins were worse off than me, because they had to deal with the Troubles.
The Troubles made a summer in Scranton seem appealing.
From what I could understand, in between watching Duran Duran videos, the Troubles had to do with conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the north of Ireland.
My family, Catholics, said that with irritation: the north of Ireland.
Finola, an Irish cousin visiting that year, said the north with the same irritation, but her brogue encouraged the words to roll off her tongue in a sing-song way. I followed her everywhere, just to hear more stories.
Until then, I’d never been particularly proud of my Irish heritage. Whenever our school had an Ethnic Day, my Italian friends brought in lasagna and lively music.
I brought in boiled potatoes and cabbage, because who needs flavor, and Danny Boy depressed the hell out of everyone.
Being Irish wasn’t cool. Then I met Finola.
She had a tiny rosary, called penal beads with only a single decade made of stone from Galway, and a tarnished ring attached to it. She wore the ring on her thumb and hid the rosary in the palm of her hand so no one could see it. When she finished a decade of prayers, which is how long it felt to say each cycle, she’d move the ring to the next finger. Five decades, five cycles of prayers, five fingers. Nearly half a century earlier, when being Catholic was a crime in Ireland, saying the rosary could get you arrested or killed. This beautiful little relic allowed people to say their rosary safely.
All of a sudden, being Irish was badass.
Finola once sat in a car driven by her older brother and a Protestant police officer pulled them over. He asked everyone in the car to get out and say the alphabet. When they got to “H” he’d know if they were Catholic or Protestant.
Protestants said “H” the regular way. Catholics said it like my Nana and her siblings. It sounded like “Haytch” and that was all the police officer needed before kicking the shit out of all of them – including Finola.
At the end of the vacation, a few things had changed. Finola discovered a life that didn’t include looking over her shoulders.
And I discovered a taste for boiled potatoes and cabbage.