Letter from America
By Ellen Neumann
Sullivan County, New York
February 29th, 2012
I visited Ireland in 2008 with my favourite travelling companion, my darling then 80-year-old mother, who has since moved on to that big hamburger joint in the sky (Mom never met a burger she did not like. Heaven for Mom must be full of them!). Unlike our previous visit to the “Emerald Isle” in 2004 which had been hurried and focused primarily on genealogical research, our second visit was leisurely, personal and adventurous. We were befriended by several Irish families via the internet before our arrival. We had the chance to experience daily family life with our new Irish friends and we seized it. Cultural differences were subtle yet evident, mostly in a pleasant and surprising manner.
Our first encounter with Irish family life, on the surface, seemed identical to that of an average American family: a mother, a father, a couple of teenagers. Home is a big upscale house on a country lane. Dad commutes to the city each day. Mum works at a local establishment and cares for kids, hearth and home. This is where the sameness ends and the cultural difference begins.
I discovered that Irish children are not expected to grow up so fast as their American counterparts, a good thing. In my hometown in Sullivan County, New York, children are expected to get at least a part-time job as soon as they are legally old enough to do so (about 15 years of age). American parents encourage their kids to work after school and/or on weekends for several reasons. The paycheck provides spending money that would otherwise be coming out of Mum or Dad’s pocket. Life skills that will be invaluable in the future are learned. Teens are all driving cars by age 16 and no longer need to pester their parents for constant taxi service. All seemingly good reasons to begin the process of pushing the baby birds out of the nest, or are they? Irish parents instead live by the philosophy “What’s the hurry? Let kids be kids as long as possible”. I like this philosophy although in truth I was one of those birds who pushed their babies out of the nest a little too soon. I felt that “idle hands were the devil’s workshop” as the saying goes. I was wrong. They would have grown up to be respectable citizens regardless of their working as teens. Live and learn.
The most surprising difference I found between Irish and American children concerned elderly people such as my mother. I am sorry to say that here in America most children do not go out of their way to interact with old people they do not know. They are not necessarily mean or nasty to our senior citizens yet they do not treat them with reverence. Unless the person is a grandmother or a close family friend the average teen/tween might ignore them as if they did not exist. Sad but true.
This was not the case for my mother and the young people we met in Ireland. The Irish children were not only polite but seemed delighted to have the opportunity to interact with a person who had lived for 80 years. They engaged her in conversation, catered to her wants and attended to her needs. They laughed with her. They listened to her. Instead of walking ahead of her in the street, they walked with her arm in arm. They guided her as she entered a doorway or a car. It was more than just good manners. Most of our American kids have good manners as well. It was something beautiful in the Irish culture. Something intangible and wonderful that cannot be bottled or marketed.
From Dublin to Cavan to Kilkenny we travelled over the course of a month. Not once did Mom feel burdensome or old even though she walked slowly and tired easily. Our young Irish friends played a large part in making this one of the happiest times of her life. Their inborn view of my mother as someone to be honoured instead of ignored is a blessed, amazing and unforgettable part of Irish culture. Did I mention the Irish kids knew where the good hamburgers were to be found? Ah they did, God love ’em!
**A special shout-out to Emma and Mathew and Sarah Malone, the kids I speak of in the above article. You are now young adults, well on your way to a bright future. I will never forget your kindness.
Comments appreciated always. I will respond to all.
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