by Mary Ann McGuigan

Great-Aunt Annie couldn’t dance anymore. She could barely stand upright. But when her turn came, she heaved herself to her feet, gripped the arm of the chair with both hands, and danced to “Lark in the Morning,” her favorite jig, as Dad pounded the beat onto the coffee table. Aunt Annie could barely lift her knees—she was at least seventy-eight by then—but she kept the rhythm and the living room thundered with feet stomping and hands clapping until the tune ended and the needle shrieked its way across the record. It was my brother Jimmy’s job that night to man the Victrola, but my brother Billy, always the troublemaker, couldn’t resist poking Jimmy’s elbow as he hovered over the turntable. They were lucky we had company, because mistreating Dad’s ’78s could easily set him off. That’s when someone was sure to get hurt.

The Irish have some odd rituals, customs handed down that are truly peculiar. Until I was in sixth grade, I thought every family formed a circle when they got together for parties and took turns singing or dancing or reciting poems. Once I realized these ad hoc variety shows weren’t normal, I never mentioned them to anyone again. I didn’t even know it had anything to do with being Irish until I wound up in a tavern in Spiddal, a tiny town along the West Coast, and heard music coming from the back room. I went to investigate and discovered a large circle of people, each taking a turn at a poem or a story or a rebel song. No other experience in Ireland, not even hearing my name pronounced correctly, made me feel so much at home.

Mom’s turn came next in the circle, and she liked to sing standing up. No one was obliged to stand, but she preferred it that way. She never chose Irish songs. Her favorite was “Pennies from Heaven,” and that’s what she sang. Her style was bluesy, like Billie Holiday’s, not the chirpy way the McGuire Sisters did it. Her voice was so fine it stilled the room—even my cousins stopped goofing around—but it was hard for me to listen, because I knew that moment would come when she’d tilt her head back a bit and close her eyes, as if imagining a time when things could be right for us.

These evenings when we sang, when we had aunts and uncles and cousins in the house, laughing and teasing and enjoying each other, were a reprieve and I cherished them, wished they could go on for days, keep me from having to face how lonely we were, how isolated. Such a big family, so many children—seven of us—but we never figured out how to comfort each other, to ease the dread of harms a moment away.

When Uncle Johnny’s turn came, we knew he would get up and dance and that Mom would join him. They’d danced together in parish shows when they lived in Brooklyn. As usual, they started with a soft shoe, then moved into some rapid-fire tap shuffles and paradiddles. Dad used to put a pinch of sawdust on the linoleum, but he stopped after Uncle Johnny fell and broke his wrist. Aunt Annie wanted the sawdust back. She insisted he went down because he was plastered, had nothing to do with what was on the floor. She was probably right.

Jimmy and Billy always sang together, and always more than one song because their voices blended like cream in coffee and we’d want more. They started with “Up a Lazy River” because my mother loved it so much, then “In the Still of the Night,” by the Five Satins. I never understood how they managed such harmony, because they spent a lot of time at each other’s throats. They were barely more than a year apart, but so different in so many ways. Jimmy was always trying to do the right thing, get a job to help out, keep the peace at home. Billy was trouble. He stayed out late, answered Mom back, played hooky from school. Sister Mary Agnes told him there’d be a special place in hell for him when his time came. Mom finally told the old hag she could save a place for him because she’d surely get there first.

My brothers fine-tuned their sound in the entrance to our apartment building, the perfect echo chamber. The first time I heard them do the Moonglows’ “Sincerely,” I felt like I’d been taken to some other place, a place where notes floating on the air determined everything, changed everything, kept me from thinking about the toys I couldn’t have, or the suppers we’d skip, or the beds we’d hide under when Dad came home drunk.

When the circle was done hooting and howling for Jimmy and Billy, it was Dad’s turn. “Come on, Jim,” Aunt Annie said. “Let’s have a tune.” He waved her off, insisting on passing. But nobody got a pass, not even him, so he sat up straight in the chair he’d brought in from the kitchen, crossed his legs, rested one hand on his thigh. I watched the smoke rise from the Camel nestled between his fingers. He loved Tony Bennett, and he sang “Because of You” like a lullaby, in a voice that made him sound as if he wouldn’t hurt a fly. If I didn’t know better, I’d never have imagined that in another couple of hours, after all the relatives had gone home, he’d send a lamp across the room, or have another go at Mom, maybe land Jimmy on his ass if he tried to protect her. Another family ritual I learned to tell no one about.

Photo by Alex Tello on Unsplash