Mary Kate’s Christmas © part 1
By: Wayne Engle
South Boston gets cold, snowy winters, and the one that Irish enclave in Massachusetts got in the year 1925 was no exception. Big white flakes were falling on its streets one week before Christmas Eve, and inside Dinty Callahan’s Restaurant, Mary Kate Skeffington looked out the window with worry written on her lovely Celtic face.
Business had been slipping at Dinty’s, although the Christmas trade was brisk elsewhere. Mary Kate and the other waitresses were fearing a bleak Yuletide.
Dinty, of late, had become inordinately fond of the conversation — and other things — at Grogan’s Fine Foods (and speakeasy — Prohibition was on, you know) down the street. Local wags had begun to say that Dinty nowadays spent more time at Grogan’s than did Grogan himself.
You can’t run your establishment from a bar stool, and Dinty Callahan’s was showing the neglect. Once the pride of South Boston eateries, it was looking ever more down-at-the-heel.
When Mary Kate couldn’t scratch a living out of a job, you knew the place was in a bad way. At 28 the oldest of Dinty’s waitresses, she was by far the best in South Boston. Ten years before she had come over from County Cork, a “mere slip of a lass,” as they say in Ireland, smart, and ambitious to make a better life for herself in the new world.
You’ll be wanting to know what our heroine looks like. Mary Kate was what men in her era called “a fine figger of a woman.” Tall and straight as a poplar she was, with luscious Irish-fresh skin, glorious auburn hair that she wore up when she was working and down on her shoulders when she was not, and eyes as blue as cornflowers.
She had a regal carriage and bearing. People back in County Cork used to say the Mulligans — for what’s what she was, then — were descended from the High Kings of Ireland, and you could believe that, looking at Mary Kate. But she was anything but aristocratic in the way she treated people. First-time customers were fascinated by her, and the regulars loved her, with her beauty and her down-to-earth, kindly Irish charm. It was said among those who knew her that Mary Kate couild cheer up a condemned man on the day of his hanging.
If it sounds like I’m in love with Mary Kate, well, I was — once. But that’s not part of our story.
A few months after settling in South Boston, she was attending Mass at St. Bridget’s Church one Sunday when her eye caught a young man across the sanctuary — the handsomest man she had ever seen, in Ireland or America. His name proved to be Patrick Skeffington. And he spied Mary Kate, too. He had an eye for the ladies, did Pat Skeffington. After Mass, when the congregation was wending its way out of the church bent on a big Sunday dinner, Patrick Skeffington approached Mary Kate Mulligan and started a conversation — about this and that, and how could I have missed such a lovely lass as yourself at Mass before, and how long ago did you come over, then, and suchlike blarney.
Pat was a Kerryman, Mary Kate learned. Kerry is right next door to Cork in southern Ireland, you see. Pat’s hazel eyes roamed over Mary Kate, liking very much what they saw. He talked his lilting Kerry brogue to her (they say in Ireland that Kerrymen sound like they’re singing when they speak) — and the colleen fell like a tree. Just like the tall poplar she reminded people of.
They went out together a number of times — no one in the New World to be a chaperone, for their parents were all in the Ould Sod. Mary Kate was sure she had found her Prince Charming. Pat grew dizzy when he was near her, like he was bewitched. It wasn’t that long before he proposed marriage, like an honorable Irishman should. And of course Mary Kate said, “I will!” like a young woman so in love she had no time for false reluctance.
Their wedding was a simple affair at St. Bridget’s — just a few close friends and the priest. Neither had family in South Boston. They set up housekeeping in a little furnished apartment where, as Pat said, “You’ve no room to even change your mind.”