When I was about 6, I called my grandma and asked her if my 3-year-old sister, Jennifer, and I could — pretty please — have a St. Patrick’s Day party at her house.
“Sure,” she said without hesitation. After all, when do grandmas ever really say no?
She had no idea she was starting a new tradition. So last weekend, I drove back to Queens, as I do every Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day. Even though — to my knowledge — there’s not a drop of Irish blood in my predominantly African American family, we’ve adopted this tradition and celebrate with the same verve and love as though we were Irish ourselves.
Back then, my party request didn’t have anything to do with the luck of the Irish. I had a favorite green-and-white striped dress — complete with a built-in vest that I was always jonesing to wear. And when my grandparents threw parties for us, we drank flavored soda and ate Jax cheese doodles, which I still love to this day.
So on the Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day — all of our parties were an extension of after-Mass Sunday dinner — my Mama Wilkie made us corned beef, cabbage, and fried chicken.
What I remember most, however, was the laughter.
Some years, my Uncle Jimmy would magically appear, just like a leprechaun with the equivalent of a pot of gold — crisp $5 bills for my sister and me. St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t as big a deal as Christmas and Easter, of course. But for us, it had the same pomp and circumstance as Mother’s and Father’s Day dinner.
Part of the reason this party was such a hit was because of the special St. Patrick’s Day alcohol dispensation.
In the 1950s, my mothers’ parents, James L. and Johnnye Elizabeth Wilkins, converted from Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal, respectively, to Catholicism. The thinking was my mom and my uncle would get a better education in parochial schools, and the schools seemed less racist — albeit only slightly.
Pre-Vatican II, good Catholics abstained from alcohol during Lent. But for St. Patrick’s Day, the Archdiocese of Manhattan used to give practicing Catholics permission to drink. New York, just like Philadelphia, has always been teeming with Irish immigrants who were part of the backbone of the Catholic Church.
So it became the one day during Lent that my family would indulge.
That helped keep the party going. There was always some Irishness going on around March 17 in my house.
Eventually, “Arthur,” my grandmother’s name for arthritis, crept into her shoulder and my mom took over the St. Paddy’s Day duties. For several years, my mom, Margaret, worked as a secretary for our neighborhood parish, and our favorite priest, the Rev. John W. Byrnes, got wind of our fete. And as any good Irish Catholic priest would, he invited himself over. After all, he said, he never had fried chicken at his St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Now we had a real Irishman at our party who came telling jokes like this one:
An Irish priest is driving along a country road when a policeman pulls him over. He immediately smells alcohol on the priest’s breath and notices an empty wine bottle in the car.
He says: “Have you been drinking?”
“Just water,” says the priest.
The cop replies: “Then why do I smell wine?”
The priest looks at the bottle and says, “Good Lord! He’s done it again!”
During high school and college, my sister and I would invite boyfriends and friends over on St. Patrick’s Day Sunday. After college, I moved away and missed a few. But I still called home every St. Patrick’s Day, and the party was going on.
My sister eventually married one of the boyfriends who came to the parties, Ernesto Pineda. They have two children, Olivia, 12, and Lucas, 6, who now look forward to corned beef and cabbage every year. In fact, over the weekend, my nephew walked around the house in a green hat that he tipped every time he saw one of the ladies (that’s a lot in my family). “Top o’ the morning to you,” he said in his tiny, faux, not-so-Irish brogue.
Mama and Daddy Wilkie are gone now. And so is my Uncle Jimmy. Father Byrnes died four years ago.
Still on Sunday, after Mass, my mom boiled corned beef for four hours and seasoned the chicken. I baked about two dozen chocolate cupcakes, and Olivia and Lucas tinted the icing different shades of green.
Jennifer put three drops of food coloring in the bottom our glasses and poured foamy Presidente — why hadn’t we thought of this before? And before we sat down to our corned beef, cabbage, and fried chicken dinner we toasted the O’Wilkins of yesterday, the O’Wellingtons of today and the O’Pinedas of tomorrow.