An Irish Story
I wouldn't give you a half pack of off-brand cigarettes for a writer who heard a good story and didn't retell it.
My wife and I have a friend, an Irish-American woman who is over the age of 80. We will, for the sake of this column, call her "Noreen."
One of the reasons I like her is that she has the beautiful manners and exact diction taught to Catholic school girls prior to 1950, when those schools produced, in endless lines, wives, mothers, nuns, grade school teachers, minor civil servants, retail clerks with the manners of duchesses and what were once called "file clerks."
When she was a little girl, her East Coast industrial city boiled with immigrants from everywhere: Irish, Greeks, Poles, Russian Jews, French Canadians, Syrians, Lebanese and Portuguese.
It was a time when ethnicity determined the neighborhood in which you lived, the church you attended, the language of the sermon in that church and the food you ate. If you spoke accented or what they called "broken English," you felt free to make fun of those who spoke with another accent and who broke their English along different lines.
I went to see Noreen the other night and took a seat in the apartment she's occupied for more than 30 years, another vanishing habit of the people who lived in these older cities.
She asked after me, my mother, my in-laws, my wife, and, of course, she asked after the health of our two cats.
Noreen's cat, Patrick, who was very fond of my wife and very frightened of me, died some years ago.
Noreen has the storyteller's gene, which means she can tell funny stories without watching you to see if you're amused and sad stories without watching you to see if you look sad.
"You know," she said to me the other night.
"You don't know what countries they're from," she said. "I suppose they're Oriental.".
"I took Patrick to the veterinarian once," she said. "He was Oriental. He was a little difficult to understand, but he was a lovely man.
"And he asked me what my cat's name was," Noreen said. "I said, 'His name is Patrick.'
"And the veterinarian said to me, 'That's an unusual name for a cat.'"
"'Well, you see,' I told him. 'He's Irish.'"
I thought it was a wonderful story and not just because the punch line is so gently funny, but because I have always loved to watch the waves of immigration roll and growl on our shores, loved to watch how we blend and clash on the way to being American.
Also, I love stories told by people over 80. If you live to be old, you outlive your world and all the small, dear things in it. But you retain the stories, the laughter and the sadness, the turns of phrase, the words no one uses anymore.
And I like to listen.
To find out more about Marc Munroe Dion and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com. Dion's collection of Pulitzer Prize-nominated columns, "Between Wealth and Welfare: A Liberal Curmudgeon in America," is available for Nook and Kindle.
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