Craic (crack) — a term for fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation, particularly prominent in Ireland.
After suggesting we all meet at around 8 or 8:30 for breakfast, Dad confirmed the rendezvous for 8:15. His decision to split the time evenly and settle on a number that began even, ended odd, and was divisible by five sent a satisfying shiver throughout my obsessive-compulsive body. The moment my left foot landed on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to Babbo Grande, my father, who has proclaimed himself “pathologically punctual,” pulled his car up to the curb — an auspicious omen.
Uncle Bill (Dad’s mother’s sister’s husband) emerged from the passenger side of Dad’s car. I was told we’d met when I was a child. Though I couldn’t remember Uncle Bill the person, I was well versed in Uncle Bill the story. Dad visited Bill’s Florida home over the years whenever the opportunity struck; he notified me each time Bill’s son — Billy the big-time district attorney — was written up in the news; he made sure I understood that Bill’s other son, Barry, was a successful school principal. Because Dad is so diligent in his position as family crier, no introductions were necessary between Uncle Bill, myself, and David. We hugged each other in greeting and proceeded into the restaurant, where Fergal (Dad’s mother’s cousin’s son) would join us in a few minutes.
“I need a PowerPoint presentation to keep all these relations straight,” David said without lifting his eyes from the menu.
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter how we’re related, just that we are,” I said. I didn’t want to overload our groggy, precaffeinated brains with monikers and Venn diagrams. I knew there were at least three Irish clans represented at the table: McCarron, Fitzpatrick, O’Doherty — a handful of branches from one giant tree.
Fergal was the only fresh-off-the-boat Irishman at the table; his lyrical brogue contrasted with the others’ Brooklyn cadence, though Uncle Bill was more soft-spoken than my father. They were a three-piece band comprising a flute, a clarinet, and a bagpipe.
Dad told Uncle Bill about the weekday special: “A big, tasty breakfast for five bucks — that’s better than Denny’s! And there aren’t any onions in the house potatoes,” he said. (My father can say “no onions” in seven languages.)
Our server set a glass of orange juice on the table. Dad stopped the man as he began to walk away and asked him for his name. “Tony,” the guy said.
“Great. Thanks, Tony,” Dad replied.
While placing his order, Uncle Bill, too, asked Tony for his name. Fergal did not ask, but must have overheard the others: 15 minutes into the meal, after the server refilled his cup of coffee, Fergal, cheery as a leprechaun with a gold button, said, “Thank you, Tony!”
Uncle Bill is an 87-year-old disabled war veteran, retired New York policeman, and retired safety engineer for Pan Am. He wore a white T-shirt with an iron-on photo of him with his son Billy and his grandson, captioned “The Boys from Moville.” Moville, Dad explained, is the town (in County Donegal) in which Dad’s grandfather — Uncle Bill’s father-in-law — grew up. Despite the double generation gap, Uncle Bill deftly tracked the shifts in conversation. Each spoken name of a person or neighborhood seemed to elicit a story from him, as if we were typing the words into the enormous search engine that is his memory. Uncle Bill delivered names and details from events that occurred 60, 70 years ago, with the casual ease of a senior postman.
The one time Uncle Bill gave any hint of being out of his element was when he failed to supply a story that related to Fergal’s announcement that his writing workshop for Native-American women at the Gay and Lesbian Center had gone well. Dad, of course, did not disappoint, offering up a not-very-PC joke that confuses the term “squash it” with “squaw shit.”
Uncle Bill and Fergal had never met, but Uncle Bill had known Fergal’s parents. “You know what my dad told me to say in confession?” Fergal asked. “He said, ‘Son, when the priest asks you if you entertain any impure thoughts, you should say, “No, Father, but they entertain me.” ’ D’you know how much trouble I got in for that one?” Uncle Bill was laughing too hard to respond, so Fergal went on. “I’m going back for a wedding, my cousin’s — I’m that guy in the family who actually goes home for all the weddings. Don’t worry, the lad she’s marrying is not a Protestant…it’ll be a good Catholic wedding.”
This prompted a revelatory history lesson from Uncle Bill about the deep rift between England and Ireland. He said that when England invaded Ireland in the 1600s, English soldiers would randomly ask countrymen if they’d “seen the host,” or communion wafer, that day. Catholics, who had just been banned from parliament, were incapable of lying. To avoid condemning themselves, the churchgoers took to bowing their heads when receiving communion so they could honestly answer “no,” they had not seen the host. “And that is why, to this day, we bow our heads when receiving communion,” Uncle Bill said.
“Derry was a Protestant town,” said Fergal of his hometown. “Run by fundamentalists. You couldn’t get a drop of drink — Mass was the only place you could get a drink.”
Uncle Bill brightened and said, “I just stayed in Derry, at a lovely bed-and-breakfast run by Rosie Mc —”
“Och! Rosie’s another cousin of mine,” Fergal said. “There’s no getting away from family. Down at the Field, I found out that two of the waitresses,” whom Fergal referred to by name, “were taught by my brothers, 15 years apart. One of them is an expert yogi, but, poor girl, her accent doesn’t go with yoga.”
“I’m convinced our yoga instructor is undressing me with her third eye,” said Dad, who has recently added “yoga classes with Fergal” to his extensive list of “activities you would not expect me to be engaged in.”
“Do the Irish talk during sex?” The question came from the usually quiet David; it silenced the table. Four bemused faces stared back at him. “You know, because the Irish love to talk, and with all these cousins I’m hearing about, it’s obvious they also love to have sex. So, do they talk during sex? Because there aren’t enough hours in the day for both.”
“They’re probably drunk,” Dad finally said. “You know, that’s where Gaelic comes from.” He contorted his face and made some unintelligible guttural noises.
“That reminds me,” said Uncle Bill. “Did you hear about the time your great-uncles, Father Neil and Father Danny, ordered whiskey in a Philadelphia diner?”
“Oh, I loved Father Danny,” said Fergal. “Did you know the play, Dancing at Lughnasa, was based on Father Danny’s life?”
David and I sat back as the three men swapped Father Danny stories like kids trading baseball cards, only interrupting the narrative when it was time to thank Tony for another refill.