Send in the Leprechauns
I bought these green carnations at the supermarket on a whim the other day, and as soon as I smelled them was whisked back to St. Patrick's Day in Chicago, circa 1978. The details are hazy, but for some reason an uncle from the emphatically Irish branch of my family had decided it would be a grand idea to rent a big bus - for the afternoon? the whole day? - in which family and friends would tour the city, singing songs, admiring the parade, and I can't really imagine what else. Someday I'll have to ask one of the adults what that was all about.
Whatever the inspiration, the plan was made, and we all convened in the parking lot of a local athletic club. Once aboard the bus, I was helped by my Great Aunt Betty, the fun-loving Catholic nun (they do exist!), to pin a big green carnation to my shirt with a pearly-topped hat pin. Ah, that spicy-fresh carnation scent.
Were there cocktails on the bus? One imagines yes, but obviously not for us kids. I sat with my two boy cousins, they with the emphatically Irish last name, me without, and when questioned, innocently told them I thought my name was German, which led them to declare me a Nazi. (Of course, later that day my mom filled me in that we all shared the same German great-grandmother, but I guess that, unlike me, they had not been regularly taken by Auntie Max, of the emphatically German side of the family, for schnitzel and magic tricks at Schulien's restaurant, a relic of Old World German Chicago, and were thus less in touch with their Teutonic side.)
How long could we have spent on this bus? The day seemed to go on and on. We crossed the Chicago River, dyed, like our carnations, emerald green in honor of the holiday, and continued on to the South Side to revisit old haunts in the neighborhood where my mom and her sister and cousins had grown up.
Sometime around dusk we approached our final destination (a restaurant somewhere? that part of the memory's faded, too), and the adults struck up a rousing chorus of "When the Saints Go Marching In," a song that, in the moment, seemed perfectly right for the occasion - perhaps because it was Saint Patrick's Day - but in retrospect, of course, had nothing to do with anything at all. Did anyone even know any of the verses, or did we just sing the chorus again and again? However we scraped by, we all sang it lustily together, this Dixieland funeral march, careening along on the family bus, from Great Aunt Betty to the moms and dads, about the same age then that I am now, to us kids, bewildered by the events of this very strange day but very much enjoying the ride.
For a long time after that, when I thought of St. Patrick's Day, that was how I thought it ought to be celebrated. Turkey was for Thanksgiving, presents and a tree for Christmas, candy and costumes for Halloween, and for St. Patrick's Day, everyone in your family wearing a green carnation, riding around town together on a big bus singing "When the Saints Go Marching In." Oh how I want to be in that number!