My Shamrock Tattoo Isn’t Because I’m Irish

Yes, I’m technically Irish. Well, I should say I am 9% Irish according to my Ancestry DNA test and I have a story handed down about my family’s immigration from Ireland. I also have a small shamrock tattoo on the back of my neck that most people naturally assume is for my heritage. However, I do not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It’s never been the traditional jovial, happy day at the bar drinking green beer with friends nor feasting on Irish soda bread, corned beef and cabbage. Saint Patrick’s Day has been nothing but a constant, solemn reminder of my grandpa Curtis Lemaster’s death thirty years ago. It’s not that I don’t remember my other grandparent’s dates of death nor feel their loss any less, but his is just emblazoned in my brain (and on my heart) because he was the first one I lost as a child.  

Remembering it now as I type this, I still feel like that 13 year old girl who got called from art class to the principal’s office.  When the speaker crackled with my name, I knew something was amiss. Any doubts that I might have had that something was wrong evaporated as I rounded the corner to the hallway that led to the office and I saw my dad through the glass windows. I don’t even remember him actually telling me that grandpa was gone; we just walked to the car where my mom was waiting and we drove to pick up my sister at her school. We drove to my grandparent’s house in silence and rather than feeling sorrow, I felt guilt instead.

My grandpa had been in the hospital for some time. He was suffering from pancreatic/liver cancer and the surgeries he had just seemed to make it spread like wildfire. I had not been to see him in the hospital; we were supposed to go with dad that night after he got off work because I think the adults knew his time was short and wouldn’t be coming home. I had put off going to see him multiple times; I think mostly because as a kid you’re just so scared and unsure whenever an adult is sick, especially when there are tubes and machines everywhere.  Hence, the guilt of never saying goodbye stayed with me for the longest time.

Some time later though, my grandmother would tell me a story that astounds me to this very day and still makes me emotional even talking about it now. She had went home at one point and when she returned to the hospital, he excitedly told her that I had been to see him and had sit on his bed, talking with him for hours. She told him, no, I hadn’t been there and even confirmed with the nurse’s station that no one had been to visit in her time away. But he absolutely insisted, saying that I’d worn a pretty white dress and stayed with him through the afternoon. While I do not necessarily subscribe wholeheartedly to the notion of angels, I have to think that perhaps one had visited him that day, took my form and it comforted him. The guilt and pain of not saying goodbye was healed somewhat, knowing that he passed away believing I’d been there, that I hadn’t forgotten him at his last moments.

So every St. Patrick’s Day, memories of him just flood me. He was always sitting on the right side of the couch, nearest to the television with a pack of cigarettes on the coffee table in front of him. I remember watching Hee Haw and the Grand Old Opry with him. He had a permanent five o’clock shadow that grazed my cheeks and forehead when he kissed me and his glasses would sometimes catch my hair when we’d hug. He wasn’t small by any means but wasn’t entirely burly either; he had a growing barrel belly that all Lemaster men seem to have inherited in their DNA. He always looked gruff and mean, like he’d be tough to approach for a conversation – which is something most of his sons also inherited. (My husband was petrified of my father for years, even before we were dating.) He would have my grandma make a pumpkin pie for my sister nearly ever time we came for Sunday dinner after church. He had a yellow parakeet named Tweety that would play in a stream of water under the faucet. His hands were always rough to the touch and I remember they seemed so big in comparison to mine. My dad has those very same hands… and belly.

These memories I have of my grandfather are fading as I age, which is partly why I feel genealogy and recording our memories are so important today. My children never met him and they were very little when my grandmother died. I want them, and my own granddaughter Mia someday, to know them beyond just the scant pictures I have. So on this St. Patrick’s Day, to honor him, I’ll spend my day searching for even more records for him and writing down all I remember to share his life with my children and their children.

My shamrock tattoo…? That’s always been for him, never my heritage.

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