Monday, March 12, 2012

The Lynching of a Family Legend; or, the Color of Blarney

Every nation has its own abundance of folklore, customs, and traditions, but those of Ireland have so thoroughly saturated American culture that you could be forgiven for momentarily thinking that the Emerald Isle has more of this richness than others. Particularly as Saint Patrick's Day approaches.

(It's hard to believe that this feast day for a saint was celebrated quietly and without much fanfare in Ireland and only evolved its current boozy, maudlin, stupid-leprechaun-hat-wearing, kiss-me-I'm-Irish raucousness in the United States over the past 275 years.)

My maternal grandparents were Irish immigrants, so Irish folkways threaded naturally into the fabric of our household rather than in some corny Erin-go-bragh way. With their gentle Irish brogues and old-world ways, and my mom's own experience of growing up in an Irish household, the mists of Mourne were virtually in the very air we breathed.

Like every family, Irish or not, we had our own family folklore--and blarney (as in malarkey, hooey, a load of nonsense) was not a part of it. At least, not intentionally. Our folklore came with stalwart conviction. We never questioned it; there was no reason to. It took until the 1990s and 2000s for us to realize that some of the old chestnuts we'd been roasting, however, had been toasted a bit too much.

The first yarn to come unspooled was one of the most sacred of all: the one involving The Very Cane Used by Michael Collins Himself.

Michael Collins, as you may know, was an Irish revolutionary leader who played an important role in the Easter Rising and subsequent events. He loomed large, physically, in life just as he still towers over Irish history and hagiography: he was fondly known as "the big fella" because he stood about 6 feet tall and had the build of a boxer.

Apparently, the oversized wooden cane that came into my mother's possession after my grandparents' passing once belonged to Mr. Collins himself. My grandmother was very much involved in the Rising (she carried weapons and messages), and before she left for America was given this cane by a comrade in honor of her service. Sometimes my mom would demonstrate how hard it was for her to lean on the cane because it was clearly made for a tall person. Such as Michael Collins.

Fast-forward to my mom's opportunity to share the cane--and its story--at an "Antiques Roadshow" event. It did not take long for the expert to gently debunk this cherished legacy. He merely had to point out the date of manufacture etched onto the cane. I believe it was 1936.

Michael Collins, however, died in 1922. (As my dad said to me at the time, his eyes crinkling as he suppressed a chuckle, "He was well past needing the use of a cane at that point.")

Ah, well. My mom took it in stride and thought it was quite funny, actually. And of course the new cane story became the new folktale to replace the old one.

Just this past weekend, however, a smaller bit of folklore likewise straggled to the wayside.

When I was little, my grandparents often invited an elderly woman named Agnes Dooley to dinner. Agnes was a friend who had likewise emigrated from Ireland. She'd never married and enjoyed being honorary "Aunt Agnes" to the four of us.

Every time we saw her, she'd slip each one of us a dollar bill: She would shake your hand, and lo and behold, when you withdrew yours from hers, you had a dollar bill rolled up in your palm. (She also slipped us a valuable lesson on one visit: Instead of greeting her nicely, we assaulted her with "Hi! Where's my dollar? Where's my dollar?" There were no dollars doled out on that visit, and we displayed much better manners the next time we saw her.)

Agnes, we were told, had once worked as a cook for the founder of Merrill Lynch. My mom recalled a story my grandfather told of his stopping by to see her and finding her weeping at the scullery table because she did not know how to prepare spinach and was supposed to be serving it that night. He helped her out and all went well. Mom also gave me some costume jewelry that Mrs. Lynch passed along to Agnes, as well as an old cookbook that had belonged to her and that she was said to cook from for the Lynches.

This weekend, I happened to peruse many of my cookbooks looking for a chicken recipe, and paused when I got to Agnes's book, which is held together by duct tape because the binding split long ago. It became clear that the bindings of the Merrill Lynch story could benefit from some duct tape, too.

For starters, Merrill Lynch wasn't just one guy. There was a Mr. Merrill and a Mr. Lynch. So Agnes couldn't have worked for Merrill Lynch unless she was in banking. Who was her employer? One piece of evidence comes from the jewelry: there's a brooch with the initials "H.M.," and Merrill's wife's name was Harriet. But the cookbook, dated 1949, is inscribed to a Lynch and, indeed, Agnes added in pencil that the book belonged to "Mrs. Lynch" in the 1950s.

Furthermore, the inscription appears to be made out to what looks like a "Willard" Lynch--a name I can't match up with that family's offspring. It's signed by a Jack Aaron, who could be anybody but probably isn't the actor of that name in the first part of the 20th century.

I suppose the details don't matter all that much, really. Agnes did work as a cook for some unspecified amount of time in the kitchen of a family associated with the founders of Merrill Lynch . Did the gifts come from the family she worked for, or did the Lynches dole out cookbooks while dining with the Merrills, or Mrs. Merrill give out jewelry while lunching with the Lynches?

"Yes, I'm happily serving you
 my very own children for breakfast!"
Who knows, and, I suppose, who cares. The main thing is...

  • Granddad helped save Agnes's bacon by teaching her how to cook spinach

  •  Agnes's profligate giving-away of dollars indicates she clearly didn't work at the bank

  • We learned good manners

  • There's a more valid six-degrees-of-separation between us and the Merrill Lynch founders than there is between us and Michael Collins

  • I inherited a great cookbook with some wonderfully weird illustrations.