Cleveland Irish: Christmas Past
By Francis McGarry
“He attended for his ancestors who practiced their faith in secret or in the back of a pub when a priest’s head was worth a reward”
My grandfather John Francis passed on April 13th, 1976. He was the second of the family born in the United States. Margaret Frances was the first born in 1906. The oldest were the twins, James and Joseph, both born in Ireland in 1903.
James passed away in 1918. JF moved to Cleveland in 1940 after the passing of his mother, Margaret Farley, in 1939.
After JF’s passing, we would make our way to my Aunt Irene’s house for Christmas. Aunt Irene’s house was bigger, we could still walk there from my grandma’s and she would be a guest, not a host. That Santa fellow would travel the world giving out presents, but our Christmas was limited to five city blocks.
We would get to Aunt Irene’s on Christmas Eve by lunch. Our family was not blessed with the gift of punctuality, but we could be on time for events that required our presence to commence. Lunch was always the same lunch. Cold cuts with Ball Park Mustard, Dan Dee pretzels and pickles. The rest of the day would depend on the weather.
No later than the second week of December, we would start praying for snow. If those prayers were answered, we went sledding and would return to Aunt Irene’s to get our hot chocolate.
It was then that I learned liquids can warm your soul. My uncle was also warming his soul, but with something that was not hot nor chocolate.
Aunt Irene would leave a few ornaments for us to hang and then we had Shepherd’s pie for dinner. I always preferred that meal to Christmas dinner, but all I had to do was eat. We would then make the pilgrimage to Nela Park to see the Christmas lights.
My uncle was not afraid of beer with his Shepherd’s pie. He worked in concrete, which was odd for an Irish guy, in a day when the men who labored still wore shirts with buttons and a cap. He wasn’t in Lunch Atop a Skyscraper but he would have been the guy on the right with the empty bottle.
Aunt Irene knew he was having a drink. She would have one or two herself. It was Christmas and it wasn’t that he drank too often or that he drank too much. It was only an issue when he drank too much too often. His responsibility was to go to Midnight Mass, which was prerequisite to his real responsibility, making breakfast Christmas morning. However that arrangement came to be, I will never know.
My uncle attended Mass every Sunday. He attended for his ancestors who practiced their faith in secret or in the back of a pub when a priest’s head was worth a reward and Irish Catholics had no legal status. A good homily was a plus and Mass was always followed with a stint at the bar. On occasion he would partake in a game of chance.
He was a veteran of the pint and the quart and he knew how to mind himself. Yet, every few moons when he took a drink and the drink took him, he always made it to Midnight Mass and then to the bar for a brief stint. When we were younger we paid it no mind; sugar-plums were dancing in our heads.
On my Christmas first, it was determined I was old enough to attend Midnight Mass with my uncle and be a deterrent for the stint at the bar. First Midnight Mass, first 7&7 and first time driving a Buick, or anything else for that matter.
I guess the 7&7 made sense, because I had just turned fourteen. The Buick was green with a green interior at a time when everyone in my family who had a home used green and white paint.
The Buick had a metal bumper which was reassuring on my maiden voyage. My uncle handed me the keys and said, “Avoid the cars that aren’t moving.”
Away we went. The Buick’s green carpet was thick and proved to be adsorbing. I know this because my uncle always took one for the road. The one that night found more of the carpet than his gullet.
Not exactly the “angels’ share,” but I was praying to get home. That was a long five blocks.
We both overslept Christmas morning. Aunt Irene woke us before heading out to Christmas Mass. There was no time to scold us or for us to make an elaborate feast for breakfast. My uncle and I returned to the Buick and set off to get donuts and coffee cake. Aunt Irene loves coffee cake.
It is when I sat in the Buick that I came to realize how much whiskey was lost to the green carpet. The smell made you not want to breathe so much. My uncle was keenly aware of this as the amount of whiskey that made it to his lips was still ample.
My uncle cracked his window slightly and commanded that I do the same. He was still in the Christmas spirit and began to confess to what he considered his misdeeds, including my driving home. He pulled out his flask with his right hand and took a morning cap.
I thought of Matthew 6:3, because his left hand was on the steering wheel. The baker lived above the bakery and we bought every donut in the place. Didn’t forget the coffee cake either.
Our efficiency surprised both of us. So did the owner of the bar walking into the bakery. My uncle bid him good morning and asked if he had found his scarf from night before. It had not been found, nor reported missing before that encounter.
It was decided to return to the bar to search for the scarf, since apparently my uncle’s Ma gave him the scarf. On the two-block drive back to the bar, I could not recall my Uncle every wearing a scarf the night before. I also determined that I detest the smell of cold whiskey in the air.
We could not find his scarf, or any scarf for that matter. We did find time for a drink. That was the first time I had my whiskey neat. Then my Uncle traded two of the four bags of doughnuts for a bottle of Baileys. Aunt Irene likes Baileys with her coffee cake.
*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is the founder of Bluestone Hibernian Charities. Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side. He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.