Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Too Many Cousins Cringe

My husband’s parents were born in Ireland, and came to America in their late teens. My mother-in-law left seven siblings in County Galway and my father-in-law left behind ten brothers and sisters in County Carlow. These aunts and uncles went on to have sixty-five children—a very large number of first cousins to keep track of.

Marty traveled to his parents’ homeland only a handful of times during his childhood, and then one more time, with me, in August 2000. So, many of the many cousins, (with names like Sean, Matty, Liam, Declan, Michael, Micheal (not a spelling error here- pronounced Mee-hall) Enda, Fiona, Aiofe (Ee-fa), Martin (lots of Martins- pronounced Maaaarten!), Siobhan (Chi-vonne), Padraig (Padrick), and a slew of Marys, Patricks, Johns, and Toms are unfamiliar familiar-looking people.

We met most on the Ryan side in a pub called Blanchfield’s (“Blanch’s”- pictured above) in the tiny village of St. Mullins in County Carlow. Word had spread in the very green rolling hills that the American cousin, named Martin (Maaarten), and his wife were visiting. Like the raising of an Amish barn, near-clones of Marty started to appear and fill this lively place one night for a meet and greet. Pints of Guinness were passed over my head, and happily thrust into my hands. At many times during the surreal evening, I held two glasses at once, and had to figure out the most tactful way to manage my gifts. The tone was light and happy, loud with fast-talking brogues, interested eyes, and vigorous head nods. Marty and I felt like royal ambassadors— overwhelmed by the good-natured excitement extended to us, and touched that so many people had made the effort to come by to welcome us.

Back in New Jersey, about one year later, one of his Irish cousins on his mother’s side, Celia, was visiting America with her husband and children. We drove to a restaurant near my in-laws home to extend our welcome and hospitality to the kin. The venue was entirely less scenic than Blanchfield’s pub. We struggled through the congestion of rush hour traffic to arrive at a charmless chain restaurant. It stunk of old french-fry oil and the lettuce looked wilted on the massive salad bar. Welcome! Welcome to New Jersey.

Marty sat across from his cousin Celia and politely inquired about her mother.

“How is your mother?” he asked. He knew that Celia was the daughter of one of his mother’s sisters.

“She’s dead.” Celia answered matter-of-factly, as she smeared butter on a pasty dinner roll.

It was a colossal cringe moment. I saw my husband’s face turn redder than if he had spent a day at the equator without sunscreen. His mouth attempted to speak, but it just opened and closed, as he held his breath involuntarily. I saw my mother-in-law look as pained as if she was experiencing equator sunburn. Her head wobbled with a grave cringe; her hands flew up to her mouth. The cringe hung in the silence after Celia’s succinct response. I felt the hairs stand up on my own neck. I heard the sound of my brother-in-law’s chair move away from the table. Mike was headed for the restroom.

“Oh, Maaarten, you must just have me confused. My mother was Kathleen, and she died several years ago.”

Marty expressed sympathy with an even deeper blush. He took a bite of his Buffalo Blue Chicken Sandwich. My mother-in-law likely pulled rosary beads from her purse and rubbed them for strength under the table. The conversation moved on to lighter things: the cousins' daytrip to New York City and their sightseeing agenda for the remainder of their American holiday.

I excused myself to the ladies room. Mike had still not returned to the table. I found him, outside the bathrooms, leaning up against a payphone, gasping for air. Seeing me caused resurging laughter tears to rocket from his eyes. He could hardly speak—hysteria had fully enveloped him.

“Ohhh…you’re mean.” I whispered, pressing my lips together to prevent a contagious reaction.

“How’s mom?....She’s dead!” he repeated, holding his hand to his stomach, gulping in hiccup air.

Marty was behind us now—he too had broken away from the table, in a state of pure mortification.

“You suck,” he told his hyperventilating older brother, before ducking into the men’s room (to splash water on his face?)

The poor guy just has too many cousins.


  1. I'm rolling on the floor with laughter! Poor Maaaartin!

  2. I'm still laughing, oh what a Kodak Moment that was!

  3. i am still laughing too! i loved it.