Margaret-Mary clutched her daughter's tiny hand. Watched with pride as the five-year-old waved the little Irish Flag in her other hand. It was a cold, blustery day, but then it always was on St. Patrick's Day. Yet as Margaret-Mary braved the wind and the crowds, she didn't feel the least bit cold. Never did, but especially not today. It wasn't just that today she was sharing a special moment -- a communion if you will -- with all her Irish brothers and sisters the world over. No, it was more than that. This was a day long looked forward to, a day that had demanded special preparations like getting up at five in the morning, wrapping Colleen in the embracing warmth of a sweater of real Irish wool -- green of course --and rushing off into the frigid pre-dawn to wait for the Number 4. This was to be, was right now, Colleen's first St. Patrick's Day Parade. Margaret-Mary's quest to beat the dawn was more than a mother's mania to see her child introduced to her heritage -- it was a necessary first-step in securing a place right in front of the main doors of St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Cheers rippled through the crowd, a hundred thousand human voices -- Irish Voices -- blending into one as all Fifth Avenue came alive to the site of St. Patrick's portal flung wide. Cardinal Egan stepped out onto the porch. Margaret-Mary scooped Colleen up into her arms, burst with pride as the little Irish Flag grew and grew till it filled almost her whole field of vision, bristling triumphantly against the backdrop of the great Cathedral and the Cardinal's glittering robes and smiling face Colleen was carried away with the excitement, and her mother, was carried back in time, back to another day, when she had stood safe and secure on her father's shoulder's at this same spot, watching another man in fancy robes emerge from this great shrine of the Irish people.
Of course, St. Patrick's hadn't been built solely for the benefit of Irishmen. There were Roman Catholics all over Europe, and in some countries they were even the majority. There were even kings and princes who were good Catholics ... But not in England. "Not in Bloody England," she remembered Great-Grandpa cursing as he spit out the end of his cigar. "Bloody English. Drove us from our homes. Eh, M' Little Meg (Margaret-Mary),'d I ever tell y'about the land we McBride's had back there? Back there in County Clare? 'Twas all green hills and mountains old as Tara's Hall, Cormac's harp, the faerie circles in the grass, and the stony barrow o' th' ancient kings. Ah, them was the days ...." And the hunched over old man, his eyes flashing with blue fire, took a long, longing pull on his cigar and settled back into the old chair by the stove, for but a moment imagining that the chair was of the old wooden-slatted kind, and that the apartment stove was a turf fire in one of the cozy stone cottages ... back there.
The McBrides, like so many other Irishmen, had left their field and their homes, their fires and their fairy-mounds in the wake of the Potato Famine -- that blight that had so devastated old Ireland in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Hoping for a better life, they had come to America, settling first in the Old Fourth Ward, somewhere near where the Manhattan pillar of the Brooklyn Bridge now stands. It had been a hard life. A tough life. But difficult conditions often produce strong men, and for those that had the fire still within them, it was a neighborhood that could produce Al Smiths, and good old factory men and drovers and longshoremen, and one day too, teachers and lawyers and doctors, and who knows, but maybe an Irish saint or two.
In time the McBrides, like so many others, followed the burgeoning subways up and out of the crowded warrens of Lower Manhattan and into the more promising open spaces of the Bronx. Margaret-Mary still lived there, and it was where she had been born, on a day much like this one, in 1960. Back then, the neighborhood was pretty typical of those most other Irish-Americans inhabited. It's changed a lot now -- a lot of Puerto Ricans have moved in, but in Margaret-Mary's childhood, the blocks of four- and five story brick apartment buildings counted predominantly Irish-Americans -- Irish Catholics -- among their residents. There were a handful of Blacks, though they mostly lived a few blocks to the South. And, though the buildings in Margaret-Mary's neighborhood were not -- they were not especially old either by New York standards. Put up mostly in the 1920s and '30s, they presented a far more welcoming aspect than those older buildings -- the ones interspersed among all the factories and warehouses in Mott Haven -- where the Black People tended to live. Of course, in those days Margaret-Mary didn't call them "Black" People. Her parents, and all of her friends' parents, and all her teachers too, usually said "Colored," or sometimes, "Negro." And on those infrequent occasions when relationships between the South and East Bronx's many different ethnic groups took a turn for the worse, one could hear other, less kind words. Margaret-Mary could still remember -- she must have been about four or five -- the time her older brother Patrick raced back into the apartment all out of breath. He grabbed a stickball bat, and Da grabbed him by the shoulder just before he could slip back out the door.
"Where'd'ya think yer goin' with that bat, Patrick James? "
Patrick was livid. As young as she was, Margaret-Mary could see the determination in his face; that animal instinct that takes over a man when he thinks he's taken too much.
"They called us Mics."
"Who called ya Mics?"
"The big Italian kids from Parkchester. They started calling us names, and pickin' on us at the playground."
"So they did, did they?" Da rubbed his scruff of a beard. "And so that's why you got that stickball bat in your hands? Eh?" He shook Patrick hard by the shoulders. "Answer me, Boy!"
"I ... yeah ...."
"That ain't no excuse to go out and break heads. You don't think your father's been called worse names?! "
Patrick let the bat go limp at his side. Eyed the twisting patterns on the imitation Oriental rug that was the McBride's welcome mat.
"Long as they ain't taken work out o' your hands, or food out of your mouth, you let 'em be. Ya hear me, Patrick James?"
Da knelt down so that his face was even with his son's. He brushed backed the boy's hair from off his forehead. Put his arm lightly on Patrick's shoulder.
"Now let's you and me go on down and have a little talk with Father Harrigan ... that is unless instead you'd like me to tell your mother about this whole thing. She's always a good one for talkin' ...."
Margaret-Mary watched as the door closed behind them. Next time it opened again -- or so it seemed in that long and meandering river of memories that each one of us has flowing along somewhere deep inside -- Margaret-Mary was older and bigger. Big enough to take walk her Spotty on her own, and big enough at last to go outside of the apartment by herself. It was April, 1968. A seven-year-old girl with welcoming blue eyes and a blonde pony tail skipped down the street with another girl -- this one with inquisitive brown eyes, and tightly curled hair of an even darker shade that she wore in a bunch of little braids shot through with pink ribbons. Both the little girls wore short plaid skirts, and neat sweaters -- the uniform at St. Mary's and who knows how many other parochial schools in New York, and around the country. Margaret-Mary and her friend, whose name was Janice, were moving along about as fast as usual. Not that there was any real rush to get to Jacobs' Candy Store. Jacobs was always open -- or so it seemed. It was just like Da always said, "if there's a penny to be made, ya can be sure there'll be a Jew there to make it." -- and old Mr. Jacobs was always there behind his counter. Always ready with a smile ... And a few extra, free pieces of candy for the real little kids like Margaret-Mary and Janice.
"Mama gave me twenty-five cents," said Janice proudly. "I'm gonna by myself a whole bunch o' candy ... Some red hots and maybe some slim jims too."
"You have more money than me?" replied Margaret-Mary in a kind of song-song that was at once playful and slightly mocking all at the same time. "You're gonna get…