Updated: Dec 9, 2021
Oh, did I feel sorry for myself that day.
An ocean away from closest kin. My first Thanksgiving away. And by choice. A 1980s off-season European adventure I’d longed (and long-saved-up) for, before my student-loan payments started. I hadn’t expected to feel each of the 3,300 miles between us -- my broken-up family of origin, parents now divorced. Still, the other 7 were all gathering at a restaurant that Thursday.
I’d already eaten what constituted dinner on the westward train from Dublin: a tired and tasteless orange; a blob of saved biscuit (the word “hardtack” came to mind); my fake wineskin pouch, filled that morning with potable water from Sharon’s kitchen sink. Happy Thanksgiving to me and my belly, with plenty of room for self-pity.
Did anyone on that train to Galway ever eat turkey, much less cranberries, or pumpkin pie? Did anyone there even know this was a famous, non-denominational holiday in the U.S., established (so they taught us) over a feast of gratitude from Pilgrims toward the Wampanoag Nation? Original Americans who now, understandably, consider Thanksgiving a National Day of Mourning, while most of us celebrate togetherness at a groaning table?
Then again, I thought, did I have any idea how that very day might hold meaning for everyone else on the train? Nope. No idea. When I was little, our kitchen wall held a calendar of Catholic Saints’ Feast Days, but by college I couldn’t tell you any, other than St. Patrick’s. What kind of Irish descendant-in-the-diaspora was I, anyway? My father, half-Irish/half-German, barely talked about our ancestry; I’d always figured those stories and origins were long lost.
The night before I left the U.S., over tuna casserole at my grandmother’s apartment in DC, she told me, “you must go to Cork. Cork and Limerick. That’s where your name comes from.” Oh.
I didn’t know that meal would be the last time I saw my grandmother Donovan. She was then 86, but seemed like a force of nature to her 36 grandchildren, through her raucous laugh alone, much less her funny little dances. She lived with our Aunt Fran, who’d made the tuna casserole for my father and me.
They told stories I’d never heard before. Grandmommy Donovan, née Betz, had always described her ethnicity as ‘German.’ (Her curio cabinet held the Hummels to prove it.) That night, she told me, “you must go to Alsace-Lorraine.” (France?) “To the Cathedral in Strasbourg.” Seemed our great-(or great-great?-)grandfather had been the organist and caretaker there. He died of pneumonia after the parish council refused to install heating. They all felt guilty enough, my grandmother said, to take up a collection to send his 10-year-old daughter to America, so she could get an education. Girls could get an education then, in America.
She never got it. The family with whom they’d arranged to take her as a lodger in Philadelphia? Found the hidden pouch in her luggage with the $300 to pay them – and pay for all that education. They took the Strasbourgians’ funds and put her to child labor in a cigar factory. She never learned to read or write, but she spoke both French and German and quickly learned English. And she was “a whiz at embroidery and all the home arts, and came across as refined, even though illiterate.” Eventually she became a “domestic” in the Harrison White House.
I sat at their dining-room table, fork raised, jaw slack. (My father lit another cigarette.)
My grandmother added, “Oh, you know we also have an Italian ancestor.” I did not know. (He wasn’t much for eye contact, generally, no matter how many times I looked over at him.)
“Some kind of nobleman, an Italian count, who came north to Strasbourg and married into the DeGrasse side.” Both women nodded as I shook my head. No one had ever mentioned a single Italian, and I had always wanted to be Italian. Half the reason I’d wanted to schlep around Europe? To see for my own eyes the art I’d been looking at for years, in books.
I’d asked both my parents about our roots many times, especially after the TV series “Roots” aired. My mother said she had a cousin who was digging into their stories, and she knew some had been in America for hundreds of years, where the Potomac River met the Chesapeake Bay. And there was also a strong sense, although vague story, of Cherokee blood on my mother’s mother’s side, from Tennessee and North Carolina.
Whenever I was asked, during travels abroad, about my American mutthood-mix, people would listen and wait, until I mentioned the Cherokee. Then most would say, “Oh of course. I can see that,” while they circled a hand around their own face. (Recent DNA tests have not supported that strong story through actual saliva. I felt that loss – of a story, of long-calendar history and my own sympathy -- more keenly than many other losses.)
My father had always shrugged. Just, no stories. I assumed he’d never been told about any Donovan or Betz ancestry, assumed the tales had washed away over oceans.
On our way out of their apartment building that night, I said to him, “Wasn’t that amazing, all those stories about where we come from?”
He said, “Oh I’ve heard those stories a million times.”
I sent my aunt and grandmother a postcard from Cork, after I kissed the Blarney Stone. (As if I needed help with the ‘gift of gab.’ I don’t have to tell you that, Gentle Reader, but obviously that kiss sealed the deal, so here I blog).
A few months later, I sent a postcard from Strasbourg, France, a photo of the Cathedral organ. By then my Grandmother Donovan had been diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer, and at 87, declined treatment, but my dad told me she could understand I had gone there for her, and “smiled with her eyes closed.” I will always be grateful for that dinner over tuna casserole, and only wish I’d known to bring a tape-recorder, or thought to bring a tape-recorder to my Aunt Fran in Florida, after she moved there. No one knows any more detail about the Italian count, for example.
But I digress. I hadn’t gotten to Cork yet, that Thanksgiving. I was taking the train west after a couple days in Dublin, and after Galway, I would head down to Cork and Limerick.
After debarking in Galway, a man with an umbrella approached me, saying, “You’ve got a place to stay then, come.” He mentioned a number in Irish pounds, grabbed my backpack and started walking in the darkness and rain.
Briefly, I thought, ‘This could be the end of me, following some strange old man back to his place.’ He soon realized I wasn’t under the umbrella, and waited for me to catch up.
As soon as we stepped inside his warm home, all that horror-movie lifted. His cheery wife held out a cup full of hot tea and wanted to know where I was from-from, and where I was coming from. The man had already put my backpack in a room down the hall. A young couple stepped out of an adjacent room, flushed and giggly.
The home-owners invited all three of us to “sit in the parlor – we’re going to watch ‘Benson’!” The young couple said, “T’ink we’ll stretch our legs into town” and looked over at me. “You’re welcome to come along.” Nothing against that sitcom or the elderly couple, but I decided to join the two for their leg-stretch.
I guessed these youngsters were either just-engaged or just away from their parents’ houses for the first time. They never stopped sucking each other’s faces and pawing at each other, even as we walked down the road. Part of me delighted in their lustiness, part of me felt amused, and part of me felt further invisible on that Thanksgiving evening, feastless, alone, and wishing my coat had a hood against the cold rain.
At some point, they stopped moving and said, “We just got married today.”
“Oh, wow!" Married. Were they even 18 yet? "Congratulations!” All my self-pity stepped right out of me and circled back as empathy for them. Just got married, now walking in a dark and cold rain? With some raggedy American chick, to a pub, on their honeymoon?
“T’anks,” they said, their faces lit from the idea of their future. Or even later that night.
“Slainte!” I said, glass raised, once we sat at the bar rail. Who cared what holiday was underway in the country of my birth and youth?
I was on an adventure of my own choosing and scrap-saving good fortune, and I was in effin’ Eire, right? And I’d met the loveliest people already, stayed for free with a woman named Sharon in Dublin whom I’d never met. Because I’d met an old friend of hers on the ferry from Liverpool and he said, “Oh you can’t go wrong with Sharon. I’ll ring her up and you can stay with her.” And he did just that, and she agreed!
What was his name? Burrigan. Or that’s what she called him. He told her I was an American, Mary Frances Donovan, and “she needs a place to sleep.” And god-bless-her, she took me in. They hadn’t seen each other in something like 10 years. She had just started a job, “a good job, a real job, with Aer Lingus.” (Sharon admitted the next day that she thought “it took a bit o’ cheek” for him to call like that, after 10 years. But, she further insisted, she was happy to meet me, and put me up.) After the phone call, Burrigan had continued on to his home in Wicklow, further south.
With a warm sip of Irish coffee in my gullet, I felt so grateful for those sections of orange and blob of hardtack. My grateful feast. In any country not America, it didn’t take long to notice how you just didn't see bodies who feasted, overate, moved little, had more than enough of anything they wanted, by comparison.
Ireland was some years away from the “Celtic Tiger” economic surge; that would have to wait until the 1990s. To take a hot shower in the communal bathroom of Sharon’s building, you needed to keep feeding coins into a meter throughout your shower. These generous people shared whatever they’d had, out of goodness and the better instincts of humanity. Thanksgiving, in a pie-shell, in my country of origin's mythology, at least.
Not long after I sat down with the honeymooners to my left, a guy sat down on the stool to my right, stared straight into my face and said, “Hey bartender, any pretty girls here tonight?” His name was Mickey. Over the next day or two, before I had to head south to Cork, he drove me all around Connemara on his way to fix Pac-Man and Pac-Woman machines. Mickey was the only one in the region who knew how to fix them.
But I digress. But here is a picture of a lovely white cow I met in Connemara. We had a moment:
Since then, I’ve had plenty of Thanksgiving-plenty in places far and wide. I’ve been an “orphan” taken in, for more years than I’ve had with close kin or partner:
- At friends of friends living in Paris, all Americans with various side-dish traditions and stories
- At family-like friends then living in West Virginia, another Irish clan hailing from the Dingle Peninsula
- At work-family friends in Olney, Maryland, with other orphans farther from home. I sat next to a woman who’d come with a beau and, just as small-talk, asked her if they were getting married. She said “not yet!” then shrieked, then whispered loudly so he could also hear, “I can’t believe I just said that! We’ve only been dating for a couple of months,” but I heard soon after they’d gotten engaged
- At a brother’s-and- fam's in Chula Vista, California, more than once, but first in 2003 when their 3rd daughter, Rosie, was a baby and their older girls, Sofia and Tess, were in pre-school, who happily drew epic pictures in my travel sketchbook (and afterwards, over whom Bill and Page thanked me “so so much for distracting them while we got everything ready,” as if playing with my nieces up in Sof’s bedroom had been some kind of hardship!)
- At other far-flung family homes, including my father’s in Easton, Maryland and my mother’s in Millsboro, Delaware, the most recent of which I brought a home-baked pie with leaves I cut out of rolled crust, modeled after actual leaves I’d picked up in the woods that morning, including all their specifically perfect imperfections.
- Over many years, with my little family of one man and one cocker-spaniel, who ran up to the oven window to check on the glisten and perfume of the bird, more often than I did, never fully understanding the number of hours required, or what time meant, on any day of meals ever, but especially this one with its evocative, yum-scented bird clouds.
- By myself, off and on over years when I did not have the next day off of work, and I relished the day to myself to do whatever the heck I wanted and eat something or other when I felt hungry
- At a hotel in Aruba, where my friend and I had bought some kind of frozen turkey dinner at a grocery store a few days earlier, but then on Thursday night decided to make grilled cheese sandwiches
- Just a few days ago, with two good friends at a restaurant called Friedman’s on West 47th in NYC that featured a “Thanksgiving Plate,” one that (T.G. confirmed with the waiter beforehand) “includes seconds” and although I had no intention of asking for seconds, did, and we ate our first and second plates as if they were our very last meal, then had "no room for pie," also included, but then did, and we had to agree the (mercifully slim) pumpkin slice was among the best-tasting of our entire lives
None of these feasts held any room for self-pity. And all of them offered seconds in the form of a day off to dedicate space for gratitude -- for everything and everywhere and everyone I’ve managed to do and go and meet and love.
Families of origin are just the beginning. Any of us who find ourselves here at all, full of thought and bone and nerve and pumpkin, came out of so many thousands of ancestors! And we’ll meet thousands of other humans who came out of thousands of other ancestors -- or possibly shared ancestors -- if we’re lucky enough to live a good while.
Sharon and Burrigan, wherever you are today, thank you for first welcoming me home to the sod where, unexpectedly, over half my DNA twirls its way through me. Plus a sizable drop of Norwegian – never saw that coming. No Native American, sigh. Yet a healthy touch of ‘continental Europe’ including French and yes, Italian.
So grateful to you for the you of you, and for your taking time to read this. Happy Holidays, however you celebrate, Muffin
If you're interested in more about the 400th anniversary ahead, full of regret for some: