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Danny Boy

I’ve been working my way (very slowly) through a book ‘What If?’ It is a fiction writing exercise, and the 6th exercise was to write a short story that leads of with a person, place, and song; the the sentence: I was listening to (song) by (group) in (place) doing (action).

Since I had an upcoming newsletter due, I thought I’d put it in the kitchen. I called it “Danny Boy.”

The first time I heard Danny Boy, it was sung by Bing Crosby, and I was in my grandmother’s basement kitchen watching her knead dough for Dampfnudel. Her fingers were caked with dough, still taking on the flour, as she pulled it together and then mashed it down with rigid arms, before balling it back together again. She was thick and strong, like her fingers, with a squarish face, brown eyes and white-grey hair, rolled up in a bun, with stray strands dangling in front of her ears. Her calf-length dress of a faded green calico print was loose and familiar. I imagined a closet full of similar dresses, like the secret agent with a closet full of dark suits.

The dough was soft; the color of egg shells, and filled the kitchen with its yeasty smell. Everything my grandma made revolved around dough, and if it wasn’t made of dough, it at least was surrounded by it, covered over with it, or resting on top of it. My two favorites were Kaseknopfle, a cottage-cheese filled pasta, and Dampfnudel, which are like giant, sweet dumplings—soft and white, kind of like bread taken to a divine level. There is something about dough that I crave—that common origin of flour, eggs and water; before the added subtleties of various ingredients and fire make it what it will become.

“Can I please have some?”

She had a faraway look in her eyes, like I wasn’t even there. She nodded and pulled off a lump, “here you go, Jimmy.”

I looked up at her, startled, and she said, “Aye, aye…I mean Shaunie.”

“Who’s Jimmy, Grandma?” I’d never heard his name before, although my grandma often cycled through the names of my uncles and aunts before landing on the right one, usually with an exasperated “aye, aye;” sometimes an “aye, aye, aye.”

She didn’t answer for the longest time…I only saw my grandma cry once, at my Auntie Anne’s funeral when I was four years old; but that afternoon, in the basement kitchen, I saw the tears in my grandmother’s eyes.

“Jimmy was your mother’s youngest brother. He used to watch me make Dampfnudel, just like you are now. It was his favorite.”

“Hey. It’s my favorite too.”

“I know it is. That’s why I make it for you every time you visit,” she said, rolling chunks of dough into balls and laying them in a greased cake-pan, separated by an inch. “Jimmy liked being in the kitchen with me. He liked listening to the radio. This song that’s on the radio now reminded me of him because I used to sing it to him, except that I’d switch out ‘Danny Boy’ for ‘Jimmy Boy.” She paused. I put the dough she’d given me, which I’d been rolling into a ball, into my mouth.

“Mmmmm,” I hummed, my eyes on her face, her voice soft in the kitchen.

“I get sad when I hear this song because I miss Jimmy. He was sick, and died when he was–” she looked at me and caught herself, “when he was a little boy,” she said. He’s with your Auntie Anne in heaven now.”

“Oh.” I wondered if she was going to say ‘when he was seven,’ because that’s how old I was then.

I met Jimmy for the first time forty years later. I was cleaning out my grandparent’s room because their house was going up for sale. At the bottom of a cedar chest I found an eight-by-ten picture of a tow-headed, blond haired boy with a cowlick. He wore a white sailor top and looked at me with blue eyes. His pale face was thin and serious. He seemed to be about seven in the picture. Under that picture was another one of grandma in a calico print dress, with dark hair rolled up in a bun, holding Jimmy on her lap. He was wrapped in a blanket and looked about the same age as in the eight-by-ten. Underneath that was a mother’s day card. Written in a child’s hand was I love you Mommy. It was signed, Jimmy.

I’m making pasta on the center island. I’ve recently completed a pasta-making class at NWTC. I’m listening to Pandora radio online—the station is The Irish Tenors. John McDermott begins to sing Danny Boy. It’s like he’s in the room with me. I look down at my fingers, all caked in dough.