March 26, 2008 Editor's note: We are pleased to feature the following guest column by Rodney A. Robertson. Robertson, a former Chicagoan, is a Lapeer resident and business owner. He is an Intuitive Life Coach and Spiritual Advisor. In his free time he is an actor with the Lapeer Community Theater and a periodic guest columnist for the Tri-City Times.
When you are raised in an Irish Catholic family in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Chicago you tend to see St Patrick's Day a little different than most.
First of all as a kid you learn to breathe differently on that day because everyone's house smells of corned beef and cabbage. Very often as a child I wished that a Jewish kid would move in so I could hide from that noxious aroma on St Pat's Day! If you have never had the joy of C&C then be warned that it isn't as good as they want you to think. It's worth a try if for no other reason than to say you tried it. My opinion has always been something this side of Yuck! Cabbage always sounds too much like garbage to me and when it was cooked enmass it smelled too much like it as well.
In the early morning, you raced to the Chicago River to watch as the river began its emerald transition and eventual journey snaking throughout the city. It isn't St Pat's until someone turns liquid green. Rivers, beer and in some cases rivers of beer flowed continuously.
Around noon my mom and grandmother would dress us up in our finest Sears and Roebuck suits and march us off to the eternal condemnation of St Pat's mass. I realize now that my feeling that these masses lasted well into the next year was not quite accurate but still awful close. The men of the house were allowed temporary redemption due to the fact that my Uncle Milton needed all hands on deck at his bar and restaurant located off Michigan Avenue. These mighty Irish Rednecks served as beer-tenders, waiters, chefs and bouncers. Throughout the day the wannabe Irish were served the commercial grade green beer, C&C, and canned Irish music. After about 9 p.m., the bar closed to become a very Irish family gathering. If there wasn't at least one fight by 9:15 Uncle Milton would often get one started. Punching was a great part of this holiday. Milton had an unofficial ring set up in a backroom to handle such indelicacies.
The women would stamp in with arms full of various corned beef and cabbage recipes from spicy to sweet. They would bring potato bread and salt pork and other lesser known Irish fare. Then the real music would start. Danny Gale played a fiddle like no one could and Donnie O'Donnel would raise his squeezebox in triumph at an old Irish jig he himself had found lost amongst his family's things. The Robertson Clan would struggle to play everything from spoons and tables to metal drum serving trays.
I remember watching my sisters and cousins dance ethnic twirls and modern variations. Some came in costumes and most came to drink, brag and just plain have a good time.
Through it all my mother would sit and watch and smile and laugh. She would dance a bit, drink a wee bit and wisp around the various guests making sure they had their fill of food and drink. Mom loved St Pat's as much as some people like Halloween or Christmas. She loved family and the great gatherings that came with it.
As time wore on the gatherings grew smaller and the glad tidings came further apart. I remember once taking my mom to coffee one morning on St Pat's. She began to talk about those days and I saw a warm smile on her face and a soft tear in her eye. She told me that no matter what she would always celebrate St. Pat's, even if she had to do it alone. I tried very hard to make sure she never celebrated alone. Some years we would sneak off for pie at a local diner but oddly enough end up at a place called Sweet Nellies for a 'wee bit' of joy.
In 1986 Mom was diagnosed with leukemia. They gave her 30 days. She smiled and said 'I will go when I'm ready.' I saw that soft tear again that told me the days were dwindling down. I spent St Pat's with mom in 1987. We drove to Chicago and watched the river run green. Uncle Milton's bar was long gone and the building itself replaced. We found a nice little place that did its best to serve up C&C but Mom could always tell store bought.
I danced with my mother on a bridge over the Chicago River, just because. As we danced and folks looked on, the river ran emerald and the sky allowed the sun to rain down upon us. I promised her we would do it again next year. She smiled that beautiful smile that had so often given me strength and courage to live my life and be proud of who I am. And then I saw that soft tear that she so often tried to hide.
Mom passed away on St Pat's Day 1988. We never again danced on the bridge nor did we share a 'wee bit' of joy. But that was okay, she had visited me to let me know it was okay and that she had gone ahead to get things ready for the gathering to come.
Since her passing I start my St Pat's with two cups of coffee. One for myself and one for her. I think about those days and I am happy to have been blessed with that life. I think about her and how she never gave in or let me give up on myself and I am stronger for it!
So forgive me if we ran into each other on St. Pat's Day morning and I seemed a little quiet or sullen. I wasn't sad really, I was just remembering a true saint and how special she made another saint's day.