Wednesday, April 5, 2006


Small Potatoes by Betty Bell


Betty Bell

On St. Patrick's Day, as I flipped through the channels on the car radio, I came upon a clear, true voice singing "Danny Boy." As I pulled into the garage she hadn't finished, so I sat there and listened until the last sweet note faded away—my engine still idling and gas being sucked away as if I never paid that any mind at all.

It squeezed my heart, that song. When a wisp of your DNA is still snagged in County Cork, "Danny Boy" can do that to you.

The singer hadn't sung "Danny Boy" for years, not since her early teens when she rebelled against singing it every St. Patrick's Day even though it was a cherished part of her father's celebration. Now, on the occasion of his death, she recalled memories that led this singing to be her best one ever.

I sat there—though I turned off the engine—and recalled my own near-teens and St. Patrick's Day, really Mother's Day, in our house.

Mom was only middle-aged, barely past 70, when she died. Maybe if she'd lived to be my great age she would have tempered her St. Patrick's Day celebrations as I have, but I don't believe that. Mom and St. Patrick's Day were as entwined as Bush and tax cuts for the needy greedy.

Mom had been dealt a lucky hand with her genes—she got the carefree one, the one that lets you break into unselfconscious song. Anytime Mom and my two younger sisters and I got in the car and went farther than Piggly Wiggly—likely Albertson's now—we'd sing. But they were everyday sing-alongs that didn't pack the wallop of the one on St. Patrick's Day, a day Mom always honored with traditional Irish voice-box lubrication.

Sing-alongs seldom get top billing now. Today, if you're an average pilgrim, you're likely to think a good old song is one that's slipped down the charts to number 10, but then come September who remembers number 10? Authentic good old songs had staying power. Maybe you're able to fake most of "Danny Boy" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," but you have to have more than a silver thread among the gold to know the songs that those two should tip you into: "Mary, It's a Grand Old Name," "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," "It's a Long Way to Tipperary"—and at least a dozen others. And if you don't know those oldies there's not much chance you know "Stout Hearted Man."

Just typing "Stout Hearted Man" started my knee jigging, and it was hard to stay in my chair. Here's what I mean—I'll type the first line and you say it aloud, accenting the all-cap words: "GIVE me a MAN who's a STOUT-hearted MAN and I'll SOON give you TEN Thousand MORE." Made you want to march, didn't it? That's what it did to Mom. "Stout Hearted Man" was her marching song.

Sometime in the late afternoon, with her voice box lubrication properly tended to, Mom would coax—command—us kids to sing along. We'd go through our whole repertoire then, sing every song a couple-three times, but at some point Mom would pause, and she'd throw back her shoulders, and she'd switch into her "Stout Hearted Man" mode. She loomed large then, though even when it wasn't St. Patrick's Day she was a regally sculpted woman, and striking.

Mom didn't know all the words to "Stout Hearted Man," just the ones that set her marching—around the dining room table, around the corner and down the hall, and back around the table the other way. "Stout Hearted Man" sets even a shy singer marching.

When Mom marched my sisters and I fell quiet, and we drew closer together, and we entered what I guess was a state of awe to see our mother in so different a role. This was not the mother who, in St. John's Church on Sunday mornings, herded us up the aisle to the foremost pew, and then stared us into a wiggle-free silence that held clear through 11 o'clock High Mass. This was not the mother who, when we came home for lunch from school, would surprise us with hot rice pudding with the cinnamony scent that snaked up our noses as soon as we cracked the knob on the front door.

I don't think that anything but "Sure and begorrah" can do justice here. So it's sure and begorrah Danny boy ... and stout-hearted men ... and Mary Aloysious Maltida Tobin Weir.

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