An Irish Kid Should Like Green, Right?
by Casey Malone
When I was a child, my favorite color was purple, no doubt about it. I can remember my Kindergarten classroom, and the tangible glee that purple triggered. Presented with a pile of crayons, I loved the spontaneous feeling that emerged in my stomach and chest upon discovering the purple one. I don’t know why or how purple triggered such an emotional response, but it did.
Purple’s ability to kindle visceral glee diminished over the years as I grew older, but it remained my positively favorite color until fifth grade. By that time, I had become paralyzingly self-aware and (I swear) began to question whether purple was really a suitable favorite color for the image I was trying to project.
As a child born with tenderness and passion, by fifth grade I had learned that the innocent delights and fragile sensitivities that issued so naturally from my heart, and against which I was powerless, caused sincere discomfort and upset to my father. Again and again, I was exhorted to calm down, not to get so excited about things. Or else I was told to cheer up, not to take things so seriously. Above all, I was to have a reason for everything I did.
All families have their unspoken rules, but this one was spoken aloud, and often: “You must have a reason for everything you do. Reason is what separates us from the animals." When I gave a child’s truthful answer: “I don’t know,” or worst of all, “I just felt like it,” I was mercilessly humiliated. The shame with which my innately human and unspoiled tendencies were met was too much for a little boy to bear, and though my natural state consisted of open-heartedness and emotional generosity, I was nevertheless forced to banish those most delicate parts of my soul.
My father was the most powerful source of information I had about myself, and I concluded that I must be deeply flawed to delight involuntarily in emotions that he so roundly scorned. Fearful, I strove to quiet my various excitements. I began attempting to discover how a person was supposed to live in this world. How did the unflawed people live? I began to mimic them. When my approximations met with approval, especially by my parents, I felt like I must be doing the right things, living life correctly for once.
It required constant vigilance, but I developed the capacity to discern and become just who any other person wished me to be. I became my new self so completely that I often loathed myself for an occasional, erratic intensity of feeling, or reproached myself for moments when I would forget my vow, and indulge myself in some enchantment or another. Aside from those few moments, however, my days were spent in the exhausting ritual of keeping two steps ahead of my companions, the better to maximize my chances of winning their approval.
And so, in the summer before I entered Junior High, I deliberately chose the color green to be my favorite color.
That summer, the kids in my neighborhood had a habit of setting up little tables and holding “sales” for the other kids. We would ransack our bedrooms for the little useless trinkets and toys that we no longer played with, and put them up for sale at a penny or two each, occasionally a nickel. Oftentimes, we would just trade our junk outright.
The twins who lived two doors down from me set up their table one day, and I discovered a box full of eight or nine pins emblazoned with Irish and St. Patrick’s Day slogans. I had to have them. I was seized by one of those rare spells when my natural abandon broke free of my self-imposed caution. Despite the danger I had learned to expect when yielding to such an upswell, I was powerless to resist. I rushed back to my house and up to my bedroom, fearful that someone else would snatch up the pins before I had a chance to fetch my money and return. I shook a large handful of pennies from the bottom of my Liberty Bell penny bank into a plastic bag, deposited it into my pocket, and ran jingling all the way back to the twins’ table. Alas, the box of St. Patrick’s Day badges was gone.
In short order, I found the friend who had purchased them and began to bargain with him. I offered twice what he had paid, with no success. I reminded him that he was Polish and that I was the one who was Irish. No luck. I offered him triple what he had paid.
“Why do you want these so much?” he asked.
“Because I’m Irish, and green is my favorite color.”
A lie. Sure, I was Irish, but purple was my favorite color. I didn’t know why I wanted those pins so badly—I still don’t—but I sorely coveted them, and that was the answer I gave.
I think I finally paid him quadruple his original price, but I did it gladly, and I returned to my bedroom with the box of pins. I spent the next few hours in unrestrained absorption: poring over them, lining them up, playing with them, sorting them, reading them over and over, stacking them. Toward dinnertime, it occurred to me that if my father discovered my purchase, I would have to justify it with a reason. My genuine self had re-emerged and had enjoyed an entire afternoon playing with those colorful pins, but the specter of my father’s judgment was enough to send that self back into hiding, and my cautious self once again took over, now indifferent to the pins, save how to explain them.
My dad was stringent, but not completely charmless. Proud of his Irish heritage, he would dress in a bright green vest and necktie each St. Patrick’s Day, teach us silly Irish jigs, and sing traditional Irish songs to us. Every year, he talked about his plan to take us all to Ireland. He wanted to visit County Westmeath, where the Malone family name originated. I decided that I would provide him with the same reason for purchasing the pins as I had given my young cohort: that I bought them because I’m Irish and my favorite color is green.
As I thought about it more, I realized that green made much more sense than purple as the favorite color of an Irish kid. I saw that in the eyes of the community at large—not just my father—I would appear more sound, more put together, and thus be more likable, if my favorite color really were green. And that was that: my favorite color became green.
Turning into a person my dad would like was a clever survival scheme, and I don’t regret it. But unknowingly replacing my true self with a likable stand-in did not prepare me at all for life as an adult in the real world. I was so internally bankrupt that I didn’t even know my favorite color. Decades later, after such a falsely-lived life had decayed into a shrunken, alcoholic life of misery, I’d finally had enough, and got myself cleaned up. I began the process of rediscovering who I really was. I even purchased a box of crayons, sat quietly before it, and allowed myself to be drawn to my favorite. Turns out that it changes with my mood, who knew?
After many years spent at the work of unearthing and restoring the various artifacts of my natural state, I could no longer delay a necessary, but unsavory task. It was finally time for me to sit down with my father and tell him just exactly what it was like for me to grow up in his house. I was so reluctant and so scared that I shook, but I did it, and to his credit, my father listened carefully and respectfully. We made good peace with one another. He died very shortly thereafter and was cremated, having never visited Ireland.
After his debts were paid off, I received a little money as an inheritance. With the money, I took a flight across the Atlantic, eventually arriving in Dublin, where I rented a car. I spent a few days on a driving tour, learning very quickly how to navigate those absurdly narrow roads. If you have never visited the Irish countryside, I can tell you with authority that it is very…well…Irish. Everywhere I looked were green hillsides, stone walls outlining a patchwork of farm fields, weathered cottages, hedgerows. Each tiny village had its little pub where the elders congregated nightly in heavy woolen sweaters. And ruins—there were ancient stone ruins everywhere.
I thought about my father a lot as I explored. I thought about him picking among the ruins of Kells Priory with me on a damp afternoon near Kilkenny. I thought about him again as I watched the waves crash against the famed Cliffs of Moher. I thought about him sitting with me while strains of traditional music drifted from the back of a pub in Galway. Finally, my time on the island was drawing to a close, but I had one more task.
Events of great magnitude are commemorated as history, but there are times when a personal episode contains as much significance as a war, or a famine.
I visited Athlone Castle, an impressive 11th Century fortress still largely intact, and made my way on foot far out to the center of the centuries-old stone bridge there. The bridge had been the focal point of countless chapters in Irish history. Removing a plastic bag from my pocket, I opened it, reached over the side of the bridge, and with a privately whispered, “Here you go, Dad,” I sprinkled my father’s ashes into the River Shannon, County Westmeath, Ireland.