Growing Up Irish Catholic

Joyce, Murphy, Carney and O'Brien are the last names of my 4 grandparents, all born in Ireland.  Needless to say, I inherited many of the stereotypical traits, habits and influences one might expect from such a heritage.

Cuisine, and I use the term loosely, consisted of lots of potatoes (boiled, baked, mashed, frozen-fried & home fries), meatloaf, creamed peas and tuna, canned corn, and the requisite Friday night fish sticks, all dripping with butter.  My brother Kevin always said that food was simply the vehicle by which he obtained his salt and butter intake. Salt was the only thing that even resembled a spice in our house.  There wasn't even a pepper shaker! Herbs were two neighborhood dads.

School sandwiches had no jelly. Peanut butter and butter or sugar and butter on Wonder white were the delights d'jour.  Once in a while we were treated to bologna and butter.  The bologna was packaged in a plastic dome.  Actual deli meats were unheard of. I never tasted salami until college when I finally met an Italian.  Pasta was called American 

Chop Suey and was created by pouring Campbell's tomato soup over elbow macaroni and a pound of ground beef, the elbows far outweighing the beef.  Cheerios were breakfast fare or an occasional pancake dripping with (you guessed it) butter. 

Twelve years of Catholic school education were spent with the Sisters of Saint Joseph. I like to say I graduated from Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt!  In church, where we spent half our academic life, nuns with cricket clickers chirped directions.  One click/sit, two/kneel and three/stand. I have been afraid of crickets since second grade.

Learning the difference between a venial and mortal sin via a white chalk drawing of a milk bottle on the blackboard was traumatic. The bottle symbolized your soul, all pure and white.  If Sister Mary Knuckle Rapper wiped away several small circles, you had committed a venial sin.  However, if the entire inside of the bottle was suddenly wiped to black, you were doomed to eternal hell fire!

Marching single file to the bathroom required an aspiration contest pitting boys against girls.  Aspirations are very short exclamations of belief or petition such as, "Holy Mary, Mother of God" or "My Jesus, mercy." Once back in the classroom each student honestly told the number they had silently prayed and  Sister Mary (they all had Mary middle names) Rosary Beads would declare a winner by announcing that we had freed a total of 829 souls from Purgatory with our silent pleas to God, so it didn't matter who won.  Competition didn't matter, except when it came to buying babies.  That's right.  We bought African babies during Lent.  Don't ask.

Catholicism played an enormous role. There were Latin Mass every day during Lent, May Processions to honor the BVM, Christmas pageants & hymns and, most dreaded of all, the weekly trip to the confessional. Oh yes, the contrite "Bless me Father for I have sinned," followed by a very formulaic recitation of sins committed infused fear into even the most angelic. I now don't know why.  As a 10 year old there's not much to say after "I disobeyed my parents 4 times this week and I had mean thoughts."  Five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys later our tremendous guilt was somewhat alleviated until the whole anxiety ridden ritual loomed again the following week.

On the Joyce side, my father's family, I am the oldest of 17 cousins. Our families were quite intertwined.  There were endless sleep-overs, birthday parties, First Holy Communions and Confirmations to celebrate and, best of all, visits to Grammy's house.  One or two of us at a time were summoned to pick blueberries and stay the night with Nora Carney Joyce, a short, chubby mother of 7 and grandmother of 21 who spoke with a beautiful brogue, always wore an apron and thick stockings knotted at her knees, and who loved each one of us as if we were the only grandchild she had.  The fresh picked berries ended up in one of her infamous, sparsely fruited pies causing my brother to ask, "Who got the blueberry this time?"  She was a disaster of a cook.  All 17 of us were guilty of hiding portions of her greasy beef stew, runny eggs, dry muffins or ubiquitous caraway-filled Irish soda bread in the silverware drawer of the kitchen table.  That would necessitate a next day call to our mothers who would pretend to scold us, but who secretly didn't blame us. One time when Grampy asked for his favorite dessert, strawberry shortcake, she had run out of cake. She used a hot dog roll instead and piled on the frozen strawberries and squirt whipped cream.  He loved it.  

The memories are plentiful and precious, the traumatic having been soothed by years.  I view it all now as a composite of who I am, and am infinitely grateful for it all.

By Nancy Joyce