My tightly wound hair is stiff with hairspray, and it recoils like a spring when I pull it. I stare at the image of myself in the mirror, decked out in the royal blue dress embroidered with Celtic knots; interlacing swirls of green, yellow and pink that never ends. I eye the black shoes on my reflection’s feet resentfully; the knots have come undone, the laces are drooping on my ankles and my heels sting as though they are littered with third degree burns, from the multitude of blisters that decorate them. Some strange woman, a teacher I assume, tells me it’s my turn. I follow her into the Gymnasium where a horde of my classmates are sitting cross-legged, waiting. My performance is finished within two minutes, and I’m ushered off the floor to sit against the wall with the rest of them. I spot my parents among the audience, my grandmother between them, a large grin spread across her puffy cheeks.
My lineage is something of which my grandmother never fails to remind me. An immigrant from Ireland, she brought with her not only an accent, but a rich repertoire of folk songs and an infamous spitfire attitude. Her undying love for her Irish homeland was instilled in my mother and in turn, given to me in the form of a middle name.
“Erin, Erin, Erin go braugh, my land and my love…”
I stopped taking Irish Dancing lessons when I was in the sixth grade. Greater things were calling me; my violin, my set of paints, growing bundles of homework. All on top of the fact that my instructor decided to move the studio an hours drive away. However, in the end I decided that I really wouldn’t miss the aching muscles or blisters. During the years that followed, I gradually began to distance myself from all things Irish, music and dancing specifically. My mother sold my dress to another dancer, and I developed an unnatural dislike for any music that included the accordion. I’m still not entirely sure whether or not this distancing came about consciously or unconsciously. All I knew then was that those many years of conditioning to be “Grandma’s little Irish girl” seemed of little use to me anymore.
As I grew, I found that a majority of the relationships I formed were with people of unique origins. I had somehow come to be friends with someone from China, India, Eastern Europe, even Pakistan. I enjoyed being with them; immersing myself in the cultures of places I had never seen and learning about the cultures I had never experienced. I was jerked violently from the usual comfort of being in the company of these people when a feeling of exclusion seeped into my thoughts. I was never asked (though I never really offered) where I was from, who my people were or about their traditions. Looking in the mirror, I couldn’t see the faintest hint; skin tone, eye shape, hair texture, nothing; not a thing that a stranger could pick out as distinctly of one origin. To a stranger I was a white, female, middle class, American citizen. Something in me screamed that I was more specific than that. As clearly American as I may have been, I was more than a baseball-loving, fast-food-eating, TV-watching stereotype. I was a shining example of how one simply cannot know what they have until they no longer have it. Before my grandmother succumbed to the ailments of age and before I let go of my most prominent connection to my Irish heritage, it had only seemed like something my grandmother rambled about on nights when she had tea with my mother. All that mattered was that “those damned British were trying to steal our country away,” or how “they’re destroying our free state…” While she told stories about how Ireland belonged to revolutionaries like Michael Collins who fought and died for freedom, she sat with her meaty fingers clasped above the table and her kegs crossed neatly– her eyes, set back in the pudgy tissues of her face, shining with humbled pride.
Suddenly, I was aware that the glass shamrock hanging on my window stood for more than just good luck, and the Celtic cross above the front door of my house spoke of the hardships that my ancestors had faced to keep their freedom. I slowly discovered my strange affinity towards Irish music and that my ‘Youtube’ favorites were riddled with videos of dancers in the complex, beautiful attire that belongs only to one culture. Perhaps more importantly, when I looked in the mirror, I could clearly see (even if no one else could) the pale complexion and blue eyes that defined my lineage.
I had listened to my grandmother tell her friends on the street that her granddaughter had “abandoned her” when they asked if I still danced. Although that might have irked me at some earlier point in time, I knew (and hoped that she would know one day as well) that my seven years of dance lessons along with her never ending devotion to my middle-namesake had given me all I needed to discover the person that I was.
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