Sunburn comes to mind when I remember my father.
Way before I was born and when he was in the U.S. Army stationed in Panama, he used up a day pass for an outing at the beach. So far so good, but he had underestimated the strength of the equatorial sun under an overcast sky. He suffered a burn so bad that at reveille the next day his body resembled raw meat, his arms and legs stiff and on fire.
This so angered his superior officer that he threatened Corporal Charles McGrath with court-martial. But he softened when my father apologized and expressed regret for his “unfortunately fair complexion,” while promising that the first-degree burn would not interfere in the least with the execution of his official duties.
I am reminded of the incident this week because sensitive skin and keeping silent about pain are both widely considered to be characteristics of the Irish. And for me and my siblings, St. Patrick’s Day, the national holiday of Ireland, is less an occasion for parades and leprechauns than for commemorating the man who represents where we come from.
Charlie was never one to go on about his heritage. A splashy green tie accessorizing his salesman’s suit on St. Paddy’s and his loyalty to the pope and to President John F. Kennedy, comprised the limit of his ethnic flourish.
Granted, he did fit a few of the stereotypes:
Large family? Check, he fathered eight children.
Crazy about corned beef and cabbage? Yes. To be fair, he was crazy about all varieties of cuisine, to unhealthful excess.
An affinity for song and dance? He thought “Mack the Knife” was written especially for him, which he sang in his perfectly pitched baritone. And there was that Jackie Gleason grace he displayed on the dance floor at all eight of our weddings.
Yet either through strength of will or the natural attrition from his being three generations removed from the motherland, he escaped the Irish male stereotype of pub-dwelling philanderer. Admittedly, we reprise a running joke at family gatherings that involves the mysterious Aunt Lynn. Mysterious not only because we never met her but also because she was not even a relative but my father’s co-worker who sent gift-wrapped boxes of candy to our home at Easter, Christmas and on Valentine’s Day.
My brother James mused that Aunt Lynn might have been my father’s mistress and the holiday gifts a form of penance for his cheating behavior.
All of which my 92-year-old mother, Gertrude, still finds amusing, secure in the knowledge that her late husband had never fooled around and that the kindly Aunt Lynn, whom she had met, would be the last female to inspire such an inclination.
But the legend persists because, well, he was Irish, and according to legend, Irish husbands, when they were home, beat their wives; and when they were not, cheated on them.
In the final analysis of my father’s proclivities, a statistician would conclude that, absent a DNA sample, it’s impossible to certify that Charles R. McGrath was a member of the tribe. Except for the one detail, going back to the sunburn.
You see, the first time I heard that story, I was 10 and in bed for the night, when my parents were hosting a party. My bedroom door was shut tight, and I dozed off and on to the murmur of a dozen indecipherable conversations downstairs. In one of them I recognized my father’s tones, and slowly I made out individual words and then whole sentences, as the party noise abated and peripheral conversations faded out.
As everyone else went silent, I became spellbound, transported to the coastal tropics of Panama. But something in that baritone — a vulnerable sincerity and a sense of his own surprise as he saw himself and his characters unfold anew in the eyes of his listeners — rendered every other adult in our house mute, so that the story he wove floated upstairs, its scenes still visible in my mind’s eye 40 years later.
The tradition of Shaw, Beckett, Fitzgerald and Cormac McCarthy notwithstanding, anthropologists might disagree on whether an affinity for story-telling is less nature than nurture, less Irish attribute than coincidence of brain orientation.
But we remember my father as the Irish raconteur. And the stories he told to customers, friends and grandchildren, from the Army chronicles to miles of misadventures in the family station wagon, we re-tell today, perpetuating his memory and defining who we are.
Which is why March 17th will remain Charlie McGrath Day for us, with all due respect to St. Pat.
David McGrath is emeritus English professor, College of DuPage and author of The Territory, a collection of stories. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.