It started with a couple named John and Mary Murphy (what else?). They owned the 3-family house in the Bronx my parents and I lived in when I was a little girl. Mr. Murphy lived primarily in the unfinished basement, part of which he turned into a scrupulously neat and clean bed-sitter. When he wasn’t hiding out down there listening to the radio and reading the Daily News, he was outside polishing the brass door-plates and hand-rails that made the stoop shine.
Mrs. Murphy’s realm was their six-room apartment on the top floor. She gave special meaning to the term pack-rat and chose to live in peaceful cooperation with substantial layers of dust (which, in recent years, I’ve learned to do myself). She frequently did her laundry in a kitchen washtub of perennially opaque-gray water. She would hang it, dripping, from the clothesline outside her window. It would splatter on our first floor kitchen window. We called it “Mrs. Murphy’s Rain.” It was sometimes freezing in the little building, and if my mother went upstairs to complain about the lack of steam-heat, Mrs. Murphy would cheerfully say in her rich brogue, “the bylor’s broken” and hand my mother a sweater and a nice cup of tea.
Mr. Murphy was quiet and stern, but we knew he liked us. He spoke up for my parents more than once when people in the neighborhood had something unkind to say about the interracial family in his house, and he regularly chased away kids who were hassling me. Mrs. Murphy was warm and loving and often let me bang away for hours on the old upright piano in her parlor. I adored them both.
It was also during this formative period that my mother introduced me to some of the works of Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw. I came to connect a love of and facility with language with Irishness – and have continued to do so throughout my life. Oscar Wilde is one of my heroes and I’ve read everything the brilliant Maeve Binchy has written.
Over the years, numerous Irish folks have enriched my life. In high school, my soul mate was a smart, skinny kid named Bruce, who lived with his nere-do-well father, saintly mother and six brothers and sisters in an old clapboard house in Brooklyn. In the early 70s I had a co-worker named Theresa who became a good friend, as did her son, Eddie, who eventually served as my public relations mentor and is a dear friend and colleague to this day. In the 80s I met the lovely Anne, a fine writer/producer with amazing humor and warmth who exemplifies the closeness of the word friend. In the 90s I connected with another grand soul, Erin, a talented talk-radio host and once my supportive sponsor in a 12-Step program; and, also in that decade, there was Tom, a great love-of-my-life who remained a close friend for 12 years until his death.
Much of what I’ve learned about love, language, grief, humor and fortitude I’ve learned from the Irish, so I cheerfully celebrate them today. And here’s wishing you a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day, whether you’re Irish or not.
“May the road rise up to meet you
May the wind be ever at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields