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Walking with a group of other petrified freshman touring my high school campus, I feel completely lost, never having expected nor prepared for a high school campus to be in my future, but, picking a familiar face out of the throng of upperclassmen walking the halls, I am at last accustomed to the ball-busting American style hug I receive from my dear friend.
“Do you like the high school?” she asks sincerely.
“I’m not sure” I reply honestly “It seems fairly nice, if not an overly stereotypical American high school.” I laugh, as I remember the stubborn pessimism with which I had once greeted the idea.
My childhood was spent in the slightly gone-to-seed Victorian seaside town in County Wicklow, living in a small, semi-detatched 1920’s house typical of the area. My grandparents just at the next door down, I was surrounded by a large extended family including the five siblings and some forty-five cousins of my father. I was just another Irish girl, going to Mass faithfully every Sunday under the strict observation of the forever terrifying and formidable school headmistress, Sister Denise, and attending the local convent school which my aunts had attended before me. At Scoil Padraig Niaofa girls ages four to twelve studied a variety of subjects, including Gaelic, and, when not in class, dreamt about going to America, devotedly following American trends and fantasizing about the lives American kids would lead, in a world so different from their own.
To me alone among my classmates it was painful that until our generation, everybody who was brave, talented had left Ireland to find happiness and success. My Father had been one of the first emigrants to return , having spent ten years in Holland, when the economy picked up for the first time in centuries, and work was to be found.
I spent my happiest times with my close-knit family, learning to cook and knit from my grandmother and my auntie Sarah, earning praise for my minding of my younger cousins when the adults wanted to talk amongst themselves, and inheriting a love of reading and writing from my grandfather, who had been a published playwright as well as an electrician in his day.
And so it went until a day, about the time when I was beginning to be aware of the number of calories in my Grandmother’s creamy mashed potatoes, when my Father came home and told me he’d been offered a promotion. Even before he said the words my mind had begun to process my inevitable predicament; a promotion at the Irish branch of his American company could only ever mean one thing. “How would you feel about going to America?” seemed not a question at all, but an exile sentence. Absolutely staggered, I was struck in that moment more than any other by America’s size and power, the Republic of Ireland being approximately the size of South Carolina. Needless to say, I was terrified.
I walked a firm half pace behind my mother as we made our way through the crowd, uncomfortable in my jeans and t-shirt and with my hair loose around my shoulders, always having been held to a strict uniform at home. I tried, in vain, to convince myself I was in America, and about to start my first day at my new school, and that it had not all been some rather bizarre dream. I thought bitterly of all the people who had smiled down at me and asked if I was excited to go, and wondered whether those people who pinched my cheeks and laughed at my stubbornly negative answer would enjoy leaving all their friends and all their family, and everything they had ever known, to come to this odd place where even food was twice its normal size.
My musings were interrupted however, as the lining of my mother’s coat was ripped from my hands and she was enveloped in the most enthused embrace I had ever witnessed-by an utter stranger. The woman finally backed away from my rather flabbergasted mother, and showed herself to be a lean woman with spiky black hair, and hands that were always moving. She flew at us with a torrent of rapid words, the combination of the speed and the twang with which they were said making them completely incomprehensible. I was quite frightened by the passionate greeting, but flattered none the less. I formed the opinion that Americans were all rather unabashedly direct as she went on to say she hoped we liked her country, and by the way she was my new math teacher.
I looked imploringly at my mother feeling like an utterly transparent foreigner as we entered my first classroom. Yet, within minutes I was astounded to find four girls standing before me, readily introducing themselves and smiling expectantly. Reveling in their confidence, I stammered my own name. The front-most girl watched me with dark, inquisitive eyes that would become familiar with the years, and asked where I was from.
“Ireland” I replied, shyly, feeling my freckled cheeks blush enormously.
Her eyes widened and she turned to look excitedly at her friends “Awesome!” I had only ever heard the word in American television shows and films and it was all I could do not to let laughter gurgle up in my throat at its absurdity. It must have been then that my mother slipped away.
The months struggled by soon enough, but by the end of November all I could think of was going home for the Christmas. I was sitting around at home doodling, when the doorbell rang. When my mother came back she announced to my father that “The neighbors have invited us to Thanksgiving dinner, James.”
“Oh, that’s nice of them”
“Daddy, what’s Thanksgiving?”
“Uhh….It’s…It’s like their Christmas love.”
The next day at school I determined to get a proper answer and asked my US History teacher.
“Mrs. Kalinski, what’s Thanksgiving?”
“We’ll talk about it later.” She replied, winking at me.
Some way into the class that day she looked down at me and gave me the same cheery wink. “Now everybody, Leigh would like to know what Thanksgiving is, and I would like you all to give her your own definition.” I felt color rising rapidly in my pale face, as somebody exclaimed “She doesn’t know what Thanksgiving is!”
One girl raised her hand and said confidently “Well, in my family Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce.” My curiosity overcame my mortification as I questioned this idea of cranberry sauce, would it be like jam on toast? Or would they pour it on potatoes like gravy? I twitched my nose, completely repulsed by the very idea.
A boy, fueled by the girls comment said snidely “Pumpkin pie totally beats cranberry sauce!” Again I was nauseated by visions of Halloween Pumpkins stewed into a pie, like a sort of twisted apple tart.
“My family always has mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving!” another girl chimed in excitedly, licking her lips at the very thought. Mashed potatoes, finally something sensible, I supposed then that if food was what Thanksgiving was about, then maybe it is just like Christmas after all.
I woke up the morning of my first Thanksgiving, and put on some nice Sunday clothes under my Father’s instruction, as though it were Christmas, to show respect for this foreign holiday. At about one Mackenzie, the neighbors’ daughter my age, called for me. Quite the tomboy, she examined my slacks and blouse with distaste.
“What are you wearing? Go change! We’re going to play soccer boys against girls, now hurry up!”
And so, I clumsily entered my first game of soccer, the first of many firsts in a new home that would distance me greatly from the young girls who had dreamt about it. I knew in that moment that I would never let fear or pride prevent me from embracing opportunity ever again, and no matter where I ended up, or how much time I’d spend away I would always be a little Irish lassie in my heart.