Last September my dad and I went to Ireland for no particular reason, save bookshops (for me), golf (for him), scenery (for both of us) and a plan to relive a similar adventure we’d had in Scotland the year previous without actually, you know, going back to Scotland.
After our first full day in Dublin, Dad opted to spend the next relaxing in St. Stephen’s Green with his journals and watercolors and left me to complete my lengthy circuit of damp crypts, used bookstores, novelty pubs with uncomfortable seating, literary statues and Sinead O’Connor graffiti.
I’d just left a tumultuous scene outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where a gaggle of uniformed schoolgirls attempted to disrupt a period location shoot with their smartphones, when I wandered up the stairs to Marsh’s Library to covet the wizard-y baroque shelves and take a gander at the replica skull of Jonathan Swift’s lady friend/secret wife. Stella was a fine lady noted the elderly docent outside the caged study carrels, you know she once shot a man in the arse when he tried to creep into her boudoir.
I didn’t, but I was so glad she told me. That’s why I travel, I said. To learn the important things.
She then noted that I wouldn’t have believed what they said Young Jimmy Joyce used to do when he thought no one was spying. And I said I’d read the books and hist letters and thus, would probably believe it and wanted to say it’s crazy how much of modernism is basically white men masturbating, right? But I didn’t.
The docent in the next room was a grandfatherly looking man, who looked quite a lot like my actual, late grandfather, caterpillar-y eyebrows and all. He pointed out an exhibition of maps on the center table and asked where I was from. I told him I was from the US in general and North Carolina in specific.
“But your family is Irish?”
I took this as friendly and slightly patronizing, because I was an American, and Americans are keen to run after their roots, especially in Ireland, and most actual Irish people I know are pretty dismissive of green-beer quaffing, armchair genealogists from Albuquerque claiming kinship. My family tree contains lots and lots of pale carb enthusiasts, most of who came from the British Isles a long time ago. So long ago that it hardly merits mention that some of them came from Ireland. If it’s absolutely necessary for me to append a cultural hyphenate, I gravitate toward “self-hating southerner,” because it’s the least bullshit answer I can think of and my Yankee friends insist that I’m not really a WASP. I said as much, and turned to leave the library.
The docent, however, refused to leave it alone. “But some of your family came from Ireland.”
Yes, I conceded, but–
“What were there surnames?”
Seeing no polite way out of it, I rattled off a branch or two on Dad’s side of the tree, given that Dad had planned the trip. I had to go three generations back to get to Sullivan, but the docent jumped on it. “Of course! Sullivan. I should have known. Your people are from Cork. You have that look about you.”
Which look? I wanted to ask. The look that encourages perfect strangers in line at CVS to tell me their life stories without invitation ? The look that keeps me from being an effective liar? The look that my friend Lisa once described years ago, when we were in high school, as you always look hugely bored, especially when you say you’re having fun. The look I hope reads sympathetic and not Oh Jesus H. Christ on a Cheese Plate, you didn’t actually just says that Ayn Rand is your favorite writer, did you? And now you’re going to order a well-done steak? At this fancy restaurant? WERE YOU ACTUALLY RAISED BY CAVEMEN?! That look?I I mean, I don’t know many people from Cork. No people from Cork at all, actually, unless you count this conspiracy theorist I used to drink with who lived there for a minute when he was in college and I don’t really count that guy for much of anything at all. I certainly don’t know any Sullivans in Cork. I do know that the Sullivans in my family were from Mississippi and I do have their look about me because I’ve seen my cousins and many of us have red noses, weak chins and thick necks predisposed to go scarlet without high collars and regular applications of SPF50. It’s the look of embarrassed rednecks that put on airs. Irish, you say? Sure, I’ll take it. Does that mean I can skip the conversation about “Gone With the Wind?” Oh, right. Scarlett O’Hara. She has that look about her too, doesn’t she?
Of course I didn’t say any of those things because being crazy in public sometimes freaks people out. And because the old man really did look like my grandfather, the one related to the Sullivans. And because I knew what he meant and I do have that look–the look of a woman still making peace with where she comes from, still unaccountably flattered you might imagine, even for a minute, that she’s from somewhere, from anywhere, else.