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Monday, March 17, 2003

Erin Go Bragh

On a lighter note, today of course is St. Patrick's Day celebrated in honor of Ireland's patron saint. Although it seems that for this one day everyone shows an affinity for all things Celtic, for those of us with an actual Irish heritage, it means more than drinking green beer and looking for hapless people to pinch.

I'm proud to claim 1/4 Irish background through my paternal grandmother, Justine McMenamin (yes, of those McMenamins) Comte, a veritable icon of the Portland Irish Catholic community. The oldest of 10 siblings, she has long been the matriarch of a large extended family that has been a fixture in the City Of Roses for seven generations. At the age of 89, she still maintains a vitality of life that puts people half her age (including myself) to shame.

I was fortunate enough a couple of years ago to pay a brief visit to Omagh in County Tyrone, the birthplace of my great-great grandfather. It was a very strange experience being the first person in five generations to retrace the footsteps of someone who, 140 years previously had walked the same streets and roads, knowing that it would be the last time he would look upon the place where he had grown up, and where much of his kin still remained. It was especially poignent when you consider that, somewhere among the time-worn cottages or newer residential housing developments lived distant relations, strangers to an entire branch of our respective family trees.

For me, Grandma Justine has always embodied the spirit of our Irish heritage. Proud, energetic, strong-willed, devout, effusive and sociable, she has all the qualities that one would identify as the epitome of the Irish character. That her and my stoic, atheistic, bookish, gallic grandfather -- so much the exact opposite of her in personality -- could would have built a life together for more than 50 years says an awful lot about the power of love to overcome any obsticle.

My grandparents lived for most of their lives in Northeast Portland, just a few blocks away from St. Rose's, where Grandma was a regular fixture at twice-a-week Mass (and where I had a mercifully brief experience being taught by ruler-wielding nuns at the age of six). If you lived in Northeast Portland, particularly in the Hollywood, Halsey, Rose City or Grant Park neighborhoods from the 1940's on, chances are you or someone you knew was well-acquanted with Grandma Justine. She in turn knew the name of pretty much every shopkeeper, vendor or business owner along Broadway and Sandy Boulevards. For nearly 20 years she was an employee at the Hollywood Fred Meyer, where she worked, not because she and Granpa needed the money (he had retired a number of years earlier from a successful career in banking), but because with no children or grandchildren in the house, she needed the stimulus of activity, and connection to other people that such a situation could offer.

When my grandfather became seriously ill several years ago, they made the rather painful decision to split their living arrangements, since he required increasingly intensive medical supervision, and it had simply become physically impossible for her to meet these needs. So, Grandpa was moved into a long-term medical care facility (slightly better than a typical nursing home), while Grandma went to live in an independent living community run by the Archdiocese. Not surprisingly, she already new most of the people living there, and freed from the burden of caring for Grandpa Bill, has literally been "living the life of Reilly".

Although not as active as she once was, she still manages regular outings, presides of family events and social occasions of all kinds, and cheerfully maintains her matriarchal status at the head of both the McMenamin and Comte families. Her energy and joy de' vivre are infectious, and on this day especially, her ringing, lilting laughter is no doubt filling the cavernous, restaurant-sized dining room at Calaroga Terrace.

So, in honor of Grandma Justine, and all the extended members of the McMenamin family:

"Beannachtam na Feile Padraig!"

Posted byCOMTE on 1:46 PM

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