There is an Irish way of paying compliments as though they were irresistible truths which makes what would otherwise be an impertinence delightful. — Katherine Tynan Hinkson
“‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,’ as Father Neil would say,” said Fergal. It was strange to hear someone I had just met uttering so familiar a phrase. The words transported me back in time and across the country, to my grandparents’ small apartment in Brooklyn, where the air was always thick with the aromas of toast and tea, mingled with the scent of upholstery that has spent half a century steeping in cigarette smoke. I was lightly tapping the keys on Grandmère’s piano when she handed me the phone. “It’s your uncle Father Neil,” she said. “He wants to say hello, all the way from Ireland.” I put the phone to my ear and said hello.
Because of the whooshing background noises, I envisioned my uncle (who I later learned was actually my cousin, once removed) standing on the crest of an emerald green field, his priestly cloak billowing in the wind, clutching the rosary around his neck with one hand. Aside from “wee lass,” “bonny,” and, of course, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” I found it impossible to comprehend any of what he’d said in his thick brogue through the crackling static.
“You know,” Fergal said, yanking me from my reverie, “one of my favorite memories of Father Neil is when he explained to my mother that I was gay. He said, ‘Sadie, it’s okay. God made them that way, so get over it.’”
Fergal’s laughter was as thunderous as my father’s. I observed the two of them, sitting side by side across from David and me at a tall table at Baja Betty’s. Their coloring is different — Fergal’s hair and goatee are a rich copper, his eyes are blue; Dad’s hair has always been dark but is now mostly silver, as is his beard, and his eyes are the color of chocolate pudding. Though the differences are apparent, I didn’t have to look hard to find similarities: the shape of their eyes, their apple cheeks, those matching mischievous grins. They talked over each other in the familiar and comfortable way of siblings. I found it hard to believe it was only one month earlier that these second cousins had discovered each other.
Dad’s sister, my Aunt Diane, was responsible for the find. As the family’s genealogist, Aunt Diane is always searching for connections. When she happened upon a letter addressed to her mother, whom I knew as GrandmÈre, Aunt Diane took it upon herself to track down the sender, a man named Shane. It was Shane’s sister Brenda who responded to Aunt Diane’s message. While she was visiting Ireland, Aunt Diane met up with Brenda, and the two became fast friends. It was around that time we learned that Brenda had another brother, Fergal, who had been living in San Diego for ten years.
Fergal didn’t just live in San Diego, he lived three blocks from my father and less than a mile from me. Both Fergal and my father volunteer for some of the same organizations, and both my father and I have mutual friends with him. My sister Heather is a high school English teacher, and Fergal is an English professor at the college in North County where many of Heather’s students go after they graduate from high school. Father Neil was also an English teacher — he instructed both Fergal and the Nobel Prize–winning poet Seamus Heaney.
I consider such overlaps to be coincidences, but my father refers to them as synchronicities. My “stroke of luck” is his “meant to be.” Any way you look at it, we were both enchanted by our new friend and family member.
Two weeks after we met up at Baja Betty’s, Fergal invited my dad, David, our friend Mia, and me over to his place. My father never would have guessed that inside a house he’d walked by countless times lived a younger cousin who had also served as caddie for golfer/teacher/painter/priest Father Neil.
Upon arriving, we noticed that Fergal had an unplanned but welcome visitor — a hummingbird with a shimmery green neck, circling the ceiling of the porch. “I tried to shoo him away, but he keeps coming back,” said Fergal. “I believe he’s looking for a place to make a nest.” While I stood outside, mesmerized by the hummingbird’s proximity, I heard Mia gasp from inside.
“What?” I asked, peeking in the front door.
“I recognize this painting,” Mia said. “My friend Kelly painted this.”
“You know Kelly?” Fergal asked. Mia nodded. Silence filled the room as each of us contemplated the as-yet-undiscovered ways in which we might be connected. As no room containing an Irishman stays quiet for long, we were soon listening to Fergal regaling us with stories as we nibbled on double Gloucester and Stilton cheeses and sipped the same brand of wine I often buy.
Fergal executed pitch-perfect impressions of each accent belonging to characters in his stories — his Puerto Rican ex-boyfriend, the Long Island women he met while attending Stonybrook University, and the British guards that gave him a hard time at customs. And, of course, there was his rendition of Father Neil.
Fergal described how he gravitated from Catholicism to Buddhism (which paralleled my father’s migration from Catholicism to Religious Science). “I gave up all the dogmatism and kept the spiritual mindfulness, and it felt exactly the same,” he said. “It’s like Father Neil would say when he was talking about Cimabue [chee-ma-boo-ee], the Italian Renaissance artist he admired. He’d say, ‘That man understood color. You see, Fergal, if you understand art, you understand God.’” As he stood to refill our wine glasses, Fergal said, “May saints preserve us in alcohol.”
The next morning, while speaking with my dad on the phone, I mentioned how much fun I’d had and that I was looking forward to the date Fergal and I had made for him to have dinner at my place. “Honestly,” I admitted to Dad, “I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m pleasantly surprised that he turned out to be so cool.”
“I knew he had to be really funny, and sick and twisted, just by virtue of being related to us on my mother’s side,” Dad said. “Still, I think it’s neat. With all this shit, all these synchronicities, I strongly believe we were supposed to meet each other and complement each other’s lives.”
“You know what I think is so cool about all this?” I said. “It’s that he was right here all this time. I could have been seated next to him at Bread and Cie and never realized we shared so much. It’s going to make me look at everyone differently, and not just to wonder whether or not we’re related. I bet every person I pass on the street shares at least one connection with me. You never know.”