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My Old Green Tie

By Jorge Gray,2014-07-11 11:13
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My Old Green Tie

My Old Green Tie

    By Gerald Thomas Peters

    (submitted as “Green Ties and Mill-Town Roots”

    Published in the March 9, 1980, edition of the Boston Herald American Magazine)

    All that annual Irishness around St. Patrick’s Day becomes offensive, but I still

    thtry to wear a green tie on March 17. Not one of those show-off bright things with maybe

    a leprechaun or a clay pipe on it that you buy at the same counter that sells masks and false faces on Halloween. No, I’ve had for years a plain, knit tie, a subdued shade, maybe

    a moss green or a forest green, not showy, but green. The fact that it’s old has something to do with the reason I still “show the green” even though all these trendy people get on the bandwagon to give the day all the significance of the Easter Bunny or any other silly superstition. The “wearing of the green” isn’t silly or superstitious or some kind of idle humor. It’s long-suffering, strength-in-adversity, determination, guts. Don’t

    misunderstand. I’m not talking IRA, Irish dynamiters, bombs in baby carriages, although

    I was raised on stories of the Irish resistance, of “the Black and Tans” pronounced in tones of horror, contempt and hate, and the classic story of Aunt Nellie who told the priest in Confession that she wasn’t sorry for cursing the British soldiers who dragged her

    mother and father into the field and shot them before her eyes. (Did he give her absolution? He certainly did. When all his theologizing couldn’t overcome the conviction in her brogue, he yielded to a higher power.) This tradition has nothing to do with the blind thuggishness of present-day louts who have distorted a noble cause to their own mean ends. No, it doesn’t take courage to put a bomb in a baby carriage or even in a crowded pub. All that takes is insanity or greed. The courage I am talking about is the integrity, the fidelity to principles, the faith that hundreds of thousands of Irish brought to this country, nurtured, and passed on to their descendants in spite of scorn, prejudice, discrimination, and deprivation.

    This was brought home to me especially on a day in March a few years ago when I was sitting in a dentist’s chair. While I was there with my mouth full of instruments, the dental assistant was making conversation by asking the dentist if he had done anything special for St. Patrick’s Day the weekend past. “No,” answered the doctor with an Irish

    name, and he said it with some surprise that she should even ask. “No, St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t do anything for me,” he intoned with an air of finality and all the pseudo-

    sophistication of a college freshman.

    To tell the truth, even if I had been able to speak at the time, I probably wouldn’t have said anything in retort to his smug indifference, but I couldn’t help thinking of my 85-year-old mother whom I had left about an hour past, lying in the third day of a coma brought on by the latest in a series of “cardiovascular accidents,” slight shocks in layman’s terms, each of which left her with progressively less physical and mental control, one of which eventually was to be mercifully fatal. Eighty-five years of honesty and sacrifice! Growing up Irish in a Yankee mill town at the turn of the century. Youngest of eight who lived to be adults of the thirteen children in the family. Eight out of thirteen wasn’t bad in those days. The whole family struggling to make ends meet,

    always fearing the occasional layoffs in the shoe or rubber or leather factories that supported so many New England towns. A grade-school education, for the most part, for the Irish kids (and for the French who at that time shared their displaced status as immigrants). The Yankee kids could expect further education, but among the working class, high school was so unusual that in later years it would be remarked at family gatherings, by way of identification and certainly distinction, “Oh you remember him/her, he/she went to high school,” (accent on school). After grade school it was into the factories, or the “shops” as they called them, the shoe shop, the rubber shop, the leather shop. From sun-up to sundown, but only until three on Saturdays, for three dollars a week, no step raises, no fringe benefits, and no-cost-of-living increases. The only way up and out for most of them was to leave town and go to the city, but there they would find a new strange set of social and economic structures. Most of them bore the evils that they had.

    You wonder how they could stand it. One thing that helped was the religion that gave each of them importance and dignity as a person, that gave them hope of a better life one day, that fostered integrity, that insisted on adherence to principles, that offered them the grace to meet all adversity, strong in the conviction of their values. That religion was

    not only a bond to meet their Maker, but also a bond among themselves, in the tradition of a “happy few,” a band of brothers and sisters, a deprived and despised minority struggling to survive in a socio-economic structure that was set against them. Tied up inextricably with that religion, giving and gaining mutual strength from it, was their ethnic tradition. Oppression and low-cast discrimination was nothing new to them. They had suffered these ills for centuries. Indeed, that was the basic cause for their fleeing the old country. Sure, not all the Irish were Catholics, nor all the Irish-Americans, but the vast majority of those who were driven out were victims identifiable by their Papist belief. They were, quite simply, the Irish for whom St. Patrick’s Day was a religious observance, a day of respect and reverence, a tribute to a holy man of the Roman Church, recognition of whom marked them as that kind of Irish.

    And while for the most part they were content to subordinate their Irishness and their Catholicness, some even making a conscious effort at the rapid assimilation into the new country because of prudent regard for long-run family welfare, there was one day a year when most Irish parents felt it was good to remind the children, the neighbors, the town that there was something distinctive about these immigrant families, something that they were not ashamed of, that they were rather proud of, that they would flaunt not in defiance nor even as a challenge, but as a quiet boast. This, my grandmother, a gentle woman of simple dignity, respected by Irish and French and even Yankee for her industry and integrity, would make it a point on that one day in March each year to see that each of her children wore some bit of the color that symbolized their struggle, their tradition, and their loyalty: a boy, a tie; a girl, a little piece of ribbon. Nothing blatant, but probably enough to entice a few taunts and jibes.

    This custom wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t for the fact that along with passing on a tradition of respect for one’s heritage, these quiet militants passed on by word and

    example all the best values of that heritage. During this latest illness of my mother, when we came to realize she would never be living on her own again, we started to clean out her apartment. Among the many keepsakes - tintypes, faded photos, old-fashioned greeting cards, letters, pieces of costume jewelry, each with a special significance - there

    was one treasured item that seemed to sum up many lifetimes. It was a letter from my mother’s brother, written in 1928 to their mother, my grandmother. He and his brother

    had dared their way off the home-town treadmill by going west, to San Francisco, back in 1906, just after the earthquake and fire, when the stricken city was looking for willing hands not afraid to work hard to build a finer city on the ruins of the old. From washing dishes to slinging hash in one of the “lunch cart” diners that were so popular at the time,

    they worked their way in that hard-nosed practical business until twenty-two years later they had managed to take over a small but comfortably profitable restaurant in the heart of the downtown merchant, office and newspaper district. They wrote regularly to the folks at home, sending modest but steady amount help support the aging parents. This was before Social Security, and pensions and welfare for the most part. Anyway, the old folks couldn’t have earned much of a pension, and they wouldn’t take welfare. My uncle had written many letters, but this one was special. My mother must have recognized it as such; she had a natural sense for poetry, drama, a memorable phrase. That must be why she saved this letter of all the ones he had written.

    Dear Ma,

    Received your letter and both Irene and I were pleased to hear

    from you. We received one from Bessie yesterday. She wrote and told us

    you told her to write and tell us that you were not going to get better.

    Now Ma, if I was back there and you told me that you were not going to

    get better, I would tell you, perhaps better than I can write it, that you had,

    in the last fifty years of life, a record that you should be proud of. Thirteen

    times in those fifty years you passed through the shadows of death, that

    alone is enough to pass all qualifications to the Kingdom of Heaven, but

    you did not stop at that. You lost six of the thirteen children you brought

    into the world, enough for any mother to give up hope for happiness. It

    didn’t take your courage away. You took it even though it hurt you. You

    kept it to yourself and you raised the rest of them on your knee and taught

    us to be honest and to never forget our Church. The teachings we get

    from our mother we never forget, and you think we are good children. If

    we are, we have no one to thank for it, only you.

    A lot of people have for their religion “money.” You had very little,

    and what you did have went to make us happy, and if we were happy,

    you were. Many a half dollar you gave me made me think I was a

    millionaire, and when you gave it, you went without it just to make us

    happy.

    If anyone was a true Christian, it was you, you don’t know how

    happy I am to think when you do pass on, whenever He is ready, it might

    be a week or it might be ten years, I am satisfied to know your new home

    will be in Heaven, and that someday we will be together again.

    Now Ma, that is what I would tell you if I were there. All I can say is

    to keep up your courage and you have a lot of faith and I know you are

    not afraid.

    I suppose Pa is worried. He can’t help it, but he too is a wonderful

    father and has a lot of faith in prayers. Tell him for me to keep up his

    fighting spirit and that he wasn’t born Irish for nothing.

    If prayers will do any good, and I know they will, then you will be

    well again.

    If God wills it different, then we know it was to be so, Ma. I know

    you will take this letter as I write it and I feel sure that you will soon be up

    and around again.

    Love,

    Anthony

    P.S. Eddie received your letter. Your Owen prays for his “Gamma”

    every night.

    A.

    The letter was written in July of 1928, and she died in December of that year, but not without passing on something of her faith and integrity. I started out about Irishness and I went to back to it, but not to a blind and narrow chauvinism. Rather, to a universal respect for ancestral values, for each according to his or her particular origins. Each race or nation has its admirable heritage, its imitable values. As my grandmother taught her children, one of whom passed it on to me, long before equal rights, ethnic pride, and movements for racial equality, “There’s good and bad in all kinds.” Simply and succinctly, this was meant to convey a justification for each group’s pride in its heritage, a concession to every other group that it was entitled to self-satisfaction for the values of its heritage, and a caution to all against the smugness that overlooks their failings. It’s

    message with meaning for all, for the Irish or the French of the old mill towns, for the Slavs and the Italians who came after them, even for the Yankees who were before them,

    although it would have been hard for my forebears to picture the Yankees as having been once the fleeing oppressed like themselves. It’s the message of roots, indeed a message of “Roots” for another group of the oppressed. And it’s why I’ll continue to wear the old

    green tie.

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