Just like clockwork. Today being the day it is, every year the story returns like a curious ghost, almost as if it needs to know I have not forgotten. About 65 years ago now and, thank God, still counting.
My twin brother and I were altar boys back then, in the fourth or fifth grade at St. John the Evangelist school. We lived across the street from St. Ignatius church in Baltimore and were much in demand for weddings and funerals. We were identical and so provided a certain symmetry in the sanctuary. The best part, besides the tips we received on occasion, was being called out of school to serve Mass.
On the day I can never forget, we were needed for a funeral. In the sacristy, before Mass, there was a visiting priest vesting for the service. He seemed somewhat formidable – very tall, older, with hair as white as God’s, and somber. Probably a relative of the deceased, I remember thinking. He gave us the once over, and before we knew it, we were in the middle of Mass.
I quickly learned he was Irish; I mean from “over and across,” as they say.
His brogue was as thick as a good cut of corned beef and in his remarks to the gathering he had a gentle sense of humor as well as genuine sympathy.
We were back in the sacristy after Mass. Father was removing his vestments and we were waiting to find out if we would be going to the cemetery as well, thus extending our absence from the classroom. He turned to us and said, “Lads, that was a fine job of serving you did this morning.”
“Thank you, Father,” we both replied.
He smiled, leaning a bit toward us. “What would your name be now?” he asked.
We replied like the Sisters taught us, “Wilkinson, Father.”
“Wil-kin-son,” he repeated with a questioning cadence. “That’s an English name, is it not?” His voice was not very nice to the word “English.”
“Yes, Father,” I said somewhat proudly, “Our Dad was born in England.”
“He was, you say?” he puzzled. “Well, tell me then, lads, why do look so Irish?”
My brother answered, “Because our Mom was born in Ireland,” both of us adding “County Mayo, may God help us.”
“‘Coun-ty-May-o-may-God help-us,’ yet!” He almost sang it, laughing.
“Then tell me, lads, how in the world did an Irish lass ever marry an Englishman?” his voice saying “Englishman” just like he said “English.”
My brother and I looked at each other, then at the priest and, in unison, shrugged our shoulders.
Father grew serious. He nodded his head, then, pointing what felt like the finger of God at us, said solemnly, “Lads, you must remember this for the rest of your lives: from the tops of your heads down to your ankles, you are Irish.” He pounded the word in our ears. “Mind that now,” he said, then added, “The rest is English!”
The trip to the cemetery gave us the rest of the day off, and we never told our father what the priest had said until some years later.
“From the top ‘o me head down to me ankles, Happy St. Pat’s Day!”