Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When you're lucky enough to be Irish.... You're lucky enough.

I read somewhere that the Irish identity is "hard as diamond and as fluid as water - it goes everywhere, endures everything and becomes everyone." It's so true. I think back to my family and all that they "endured" over the years to become who we are today. Although I am a little over half Irish and then a mismatch of several other nationalities, I relate most to being Irish.
When asked I say, I'm Irish.

There are things as an adult that I have learned (whether taught, researched, or often times, I've been lucky enough to have stories recounted to me, by family) about my ancestors; about my family. Their stories have become my history, embedded into my memory as though they belong to me. My struggles today resemble nothing of what my family went through back then. My struggles have never included if we would survive disease and famine. I never questioned whether myself or family would be treated less than humane. I often wonder if I would make the same decisions they did back then or would I crumble under the pressure? Would I feel empowered to stand up and be heard? Would I ever love a place so much that my heart would ache when I think of it, but be willing to leave that place for the smallest chance of survival.

From the very beginning, the Irish have had struggle. It began with the Viking invasions that spanned from 800 to 900 A.D. It was followed by the Strongbow invasion in 1169 A.D that lasted 700 total years. Next, there was English rule, in which so many lost their rights; both political and religious. The land of their ancestors, their family.... and that which belonged to them.... They were forced to pay astronomical fees to live on, and if they couldn't pay? There was certain eviction from the landlords. When it seemed like nothing could possibly get any worse, the famine hit. They had nothing left. Initially, they had no freedom.... no money, no land, and now.... they were dying; by the thousands. The choice to leave had nothing to do with the land they loved. The place of their ancestors; where their hearts and souls whispered to them through the mists of the Emerald Isle. Their choice was to likely die in Ireland (during the potato famine, the population in Ireland dropped by nearly 25%) or to leave their home(s) in search of a new life in America (1 out of 5 Irish would die of disease or malnutrition while traveling on "coffin ships").
These people, my family.... knew life would be hard but they had hope. Hope that they would have rights and be protected in America. This was not the case. There was no group lower than the Irish in the 1850's. Despite it all, they held strong. They were strong in their faith, and their culture and they believed that education is what would allow their children a fighting chance.
When I think of all of this struggle, I am reminded of the stories my Grandfather has told. He grew up in New York; his Father drove a truck and his Mother rented out rooms out to fellow immigrants; to those who needed them... with or without payment. They helped each other survive. They shared what they had and they pulled together. He talked about the people that would come through; the chores he would do; the food they would share; the laughter. He never mentioned the sorrow, and fear. He talked about going out and protecting cars outside the theatres for a nickel. He was proud to help his family anyway he could. I couldn't imagine my Grandfather being a little boy, having to wonder where the next meal would come from but then my immediate thought is to those little sandwiches Grandma would serve us when we'd come to visit.... bread, a thin slice of meat and the smallest trace of mustard. They never forgot what it was like to struggle.
But even in struggle, they had hearts of gold.....
My Dad was the oldest of eight children. They lived in a two bedroom house. My Grandparents moved themselves into the living room and slept on a pull out couch so that the girls and boys each had a room.
I think of the determination....
My Grandmother (my Mom's Mom) tells me the same story about when I was born every time I see her. It used to drive me crazy but now I sit back and take it all in. When I was born, my Father was in Vietnam (in the Navy). He was at sea and the Red Cross refused to send word to the ship that I had been born since it was a holiday; Veterans Day. My Grandmother in her calm, composed demeanor.... let those women know they would be contacting my Father or she would be contacting every state official until they did. My Father still has the telegram; the announcement of my birth. She was so quiet.... I couldn't imagine her with the power and strength to walk up to those women and make such a demand but she did.
I think of their pride in family.....
When I was a little girl, my Grandfather was larger than life. He was tall like my Dad, and would hide coins behind my ears and he was always working on something; fixing something for the millionth time. He would take my Sister and I with him to the Knights of Columbus Christmas celebrations and show us off; his Granddaughters. My Grandmother, she was quiet and composed, always wanting to make sure everyone was OK. Did we need a drink? Some lemonade? Then, she would gently take my hand and walk me through her garden... she would point out the flowers and give me the details of each. My Grandparents were love; quiet love. My Dad talks about how every night, they would take each other by the hand and walk. They would walk. Quietly enjoying each other.
They were selfless.....
They delivered food through meals on wheels for as long as I could remember, until cancer ravaged my Grandfathers body, then my Grandmothers.
Still today, I can close my eyes and see the twinkle in my Grandfather's eyes. I wonder if it's true that "when Irish eyes are smiling...." because his eyes, they smiled. They were magical.
I can still hear my Grandmother's voice; calling to my Dad.... "Danny...maybe the girls would like..."
I wish I knew then all that I know now about their struggles. I wish I knew then all that they had given up and all that they had been through in order to be exactly where they were. I wish I hadn't been so selfish. I wish I had hugged them more. I miss them both.

I guess it has nothing to do with being Irish. It's about family. It's about love.

Happy St Patrick's Day.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Freedom #7.... Have you ever been invisible?

Wow. This one is a rough one for me. Let me preface this freedom by saying this. I always believed this "being invisible" thing didn't exist. I believed that if you were a good person, then people would treat you well in return. No matter your weight. I was very wrong. Living on both sides, I see that now.
I'm an eye contact kind of gal. I believe it's something you should always do. It was something I've had to learn as an adult because as a child I had such low self esteem I would never look up. I didn't want anyone to think it was about them so I would force myself to look at people and smile. I did this until it became common place; just the norm.
Here's the thing... being fat? Often times you get no acknowledgement back. It's like you're the invisible man/woman. When I moved from California to Ohio at 20, I thought it was so weird how people just didn't make eye contact. I thought it was a small town "thing". I chalked it up to that. When we moved to Chicago? Same thing. I chalked it up to rudeness; we were outsiders and that must be it? Then Denver... Ah, Denver. It was great. We'd walk down the street and folks would actually say "hello! great day we're having" and I was in heaven. Maybe it was the mountain air? The diversity? The city was clean and the people kind! But then I realized... that only happened when I was with my husband! Oh sure, people would sometimes make eye contact and say hello to me but for the most part, I got nothing. And if I needed help? Forget about it. No opening doors. No offering up a bus seat. No "afternoon". No nods. No eye contact. I was invisible. I didn't exist. I thought honestly that this was what life was like.
THEN. I lost weight.
Life changed.
And doors opened. Not just opened. People would wait for me just so they could hold the door. They would inconvenience themselves for my sake. Oh my gosh.... "afternoon" is now full conversations. Nods are nods with a smile. There is eye contact, and acknowledgement. There is existence in this world. And by existence, I mean I existence to others.
I went to get a battery at the local car parts store a couple weeks ago. I opened the passenger door to get the battery out and another customer offered to carry it for me. Another customer opened the door. The clerk brought it back to the car for me. I asked for none of this. I can tell you from years of experience, this would not have happened if I still weighed 355lbs. Don't get me wrong, I appreciated the assistance. I just acknowledge the difference.
Oh wait, did I say difference? I meant prejudice.
I am the same person I was at 355lbs. I carry the same spirit and kindness. However, I now "exist" based on my outward appearance and only that. It's societies perception of who I am based on what I look like.
How very sad.
Today, I walk down the street and I acknowledge everyone. I make eye contact. I open doors. I offer up my seat. I smile. I nod and offer up "afternoons" and "hello" to EVERYONE regardless of race, religion, appearance, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, life status or WEIGHT. Sometimes, kindness is as simple as a smile and a hello. It can change a day. It can change a life.

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