SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 1: Fans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish cheer against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on September 1, 2007 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Georgia Tech defeated Notre Dame 33-3. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Updated: April 18, 2013 6:53AM
I am conflicted whenever March 17 rolls around.
My disenchantment is partly due to my first impression of St. Patrick’s Day in conglomeration with my family heritage and all things Irish — an impression I got on a blustery day in Chicago decades ago.
Early that morning, I was as joyous as a 6-year-old on his way to Disney World, even though Disney World had yet to be built. Instead, I was headed to a Notre Dame football game, privileged to have been chosen over my five brothers by Uncle Ed.
Just a few months into first grade, I did not know exactly what Notre Dame was. After all, it’s a French term (meaning our lady). There was no college football on any of the three channels on our black-and-white TV in the 1950s. And I had only a vague notion about college as some sort of school for older kids more advanced than those in Sister Killian’s classroom at St. Bernadette School.
But how I loved Notre Dame! How could I not? The Mc in our surname called for allegiance. There was an ND pennant tacked to the wall in our upstairs bedroom. My uncles and brothers roared about the Fighting Irish over Thanksgiving dinner.
At the St. Patrick’s Day parade, my father had lifted me onto his shoulders as a marching band played the Notre Dame fight song. And my mother, though born Gertrude Cichoszewski, used to sing “Tura Lura Lura” to us every afternoon at nap time.
So finally getting to go to Notre Dame was akin to visiting the Riverview or Santa’s Village amusement parks. Only it promised to be even better because you had to drive a few hours to get there in Uncle Ed’s Buick LeSabre.
Of course, as with nearly everything that’s freighted with high expectations, that Saturday proved to be a letdown. The worst day of my life, actually. Mind you, it was a life of only six years to that point.
But the trip to South Bend turned out to be an all-day headache. For one thing, I discovered I disliked crowds. A bunch of kids at a carnival is fun. But thousands of men in heavy wool coats, smoking cigarettes and shuffling in long lines, when you can see nothing but knees and shoes and boots, was not pleasant. And Uncle Ed was not practiced in how to hold a child’s hand or keep him buoyed and unjostled.
When we got to our seats, the Notre Dame team was far below and a world away. I ascertained figures in helmets running about, but the distance was such that I could not distinguish individuals. Just blotches of color moving from one part of the grid to the next. I was fuzzy on the rules of the game and wasn’t further enlightened by the detectable action below.
The only clear picture I have in my memory is of a kickoff near the end of the game. The ball rose above the chaos, high in the air, nearly at eye level. After all the tedium and confusion so far below, the brown oval floating majestically against the blue sky was the day’s single moment of clarity. But it was too late and too cold for exhilaration.
For I was wearing ordinary leather tie shoes and thin socks. My feet grew cold immediately when we arrived. Numb by halftime. Throbbing at the start of the third quarter. Into the fourth, I feared I might never walk again.
I suppose I could Google the dates of Notre Dame home losses in 1955 and discover what the temperature had been in South Bend. Why and how I did not succumb to frostbite must have something to do with my tender age and diver’s reflex that kicked in to spare my skin tissue. I was too sorrowful, on the brink of crying frozen tears, to ask Uncle Ed to leave, to seem ungrateful, to interrupt his concentration on the game.
I had absolutely no defense. I was 6. I wanted my mom.
The trauma, the pain, the sadness, that interminable ride home, all of it notwithstanding, there are other things Irish, more important, that I commemorate today:
My father-in-law, Tom Dunne, the storyteller. He had a hundred, each one ending with his ringing laughter.
Uncle Don’s insane generosity. Don McGrath would attend family birthdays and confirmations and hand out $10 bills to all his nephews and nieces. Today, that would be equivalent to passing out $100 bills to every child.
My Uncle Bill’s raunchy but colorful jokes and not treating us like kids.
And Mary Helen Ryan, the head clerk at my first school. “You come again unprepared, and you’ll get run over.” The most blunt and honest person I’d ever met and later, the most fiercely loyal.
St. Patrick’s Day, I learned over the years, is not about shamrocks or leprechauns or derby hats or green beer or Notre Dame football. It’s about something unique associated with the Motherland — the courage to never hide your love, no matter the form it takes. And that’s reason enough to celebrate in any culture.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.