Monday, March 17, 2008

St. Patrick's Day is about Grandpa

This is a column I wrote several years ago when I still thought that my receding hairline was because I wore hats too often. On St. Patrick's Day, I thought it would be a good rerun.

St. Patrick's Day is about Grandpa

By MATT WIXON
The Dallas Morning News

Another St. Patrick's Day has crept up on me, leaving me no time to
shop for St. Patrick's Day presents, send out St. Patrick's Day
cards, decorate the house with green lights or go St. Patrick's Day
caroling.

It's probably a good thing. I bet people living in a house with a
huge, glowing shamrock on the front door wouldn't get an invitation
to the next neighborhood party.

But my grandpa would be green with envy over such a display of
Irish heritage. Nobody celebrated St. Patrick's Day like Eugene
McKenna, the king of everything Irish. He played Irish music. Wore
a green bow tie and green derby hat. Even had green mashed potatoes
for dinner. I think he longed for a time when his favorite holiday
would become so big that newspapers would have headlines such as:
"Retailers hope sales slump will end with St. Patrick's Day rush."

His Irish fervor only trickled down to me. St. Patrick's Day meant mint
shamrock candies and green lollipops, but in my childhood world, it
couldn't compare with the gluttonous joy of a Christmas or
birthday. And the history of St. Patrick's Day was a mystery. For
all I knew, the holiday started when St. Patrick discovered the
Blarney Stone while running from a bunch of classmates who were
trying to pinch him because he wasn't wearing green.

That's what St. Patrick's Day meant to a 9-year-old. Now, to a
29-year-old, it means remembering my grandpa.

He died when I was 13, well after he had become one of my heroes. I
also believe I was predestined for the newspaper business because
he worked for many years at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in
Minnesota.

He was a pressman, but I think he should have written stories. He
could sure tell them. And he never let the facts get in the way of
a good one. He would point to the navel on his Santa Claus belly
and say, "That's where I got shot in the war." He also told me that
he once ran so fast that people only saw a blur. A green blur, of
course.

But my grandpa's most famous story came when my friends and I were
playing basketball in the driveway - under the basketball hoop he
made for me.

"I once made 10 free throws in a row blindfolded," he said,
grabbing our attention. "And I shot them backward."

He added that he put light bulbs around the rim during the free
throws and didn't break one. He then offered to duplicate the feat
when the darn charley horse in his leg went away.

Not surprisingly, the darn charley horse never went away. But
neither did my grandpa's imprint on the family.

Each St. Patrick's Day, it was obvious. My mother would put up
decorations, dress us up in green clothes and plop green derby hats
on our heads, at least until we were old enough to object. One
year, my mom even served green milk with dinner. Irish pride aside,
milk just shouldn't be green. Getting it to go down took more than
the luck of the Irish.

Thankfully, I have the luck of the Irish. The luck of spending much
of my childhood with two heroes, my dad and my grandpa. I remember
my luck whenever I see the picture of my grandpa reclining in the
La-Z-Boy, sound asleep with his mouth wide open. I'm sitting on his
knee, reclining on him, sound asleep with my mouth wide open.

That's why, even if I'm only a little Irish, I celebrate St. Patrick's
Day. There won't be any St. Patrick's Day caroling or a green glow
to the house this year, but to honor my grandpa, maybe I'll give
green milk another try.

On St. Patrick's Day, I want his Irish eyes to be smiling.