“The holidays are upon us, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I have a lot to be thankful for this year,” says Clonakilty native Julie O’Brien. “As I look at my beautiful upside-down Christmas tree, back where it belongs on the ceiling of The Junction, my bar, my home away from home, in Midtown, NYC; I feel a strong sense of joy, as I contemplate on how my life is starting to turn the right way up again.”
A year ago, November 2020, in the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, my days were quieter, without the hustle and bustle of the New York City lifestyle that I had grown accustomed to since my move here from Ireland in 2002. Grand Central felt abandoned and the customers who normally helped turn the wheels on my business were absent, ordered to stay home because of rapidly spiralling Covid numbers. Like so many others, with the world on pause, I found myself presented with the opportunity and time to turn my focus to my family.
Where in previous years, I’d be trudging through snow to get to work, I found myself sledding on the hill behind my apartment in Stuyvesant Town and building snowmen with my daughter and her friends. Of course there was fear of the unknown but, as we lay together in the freshly fallen snow drawing snow angels with our arms, there was hope too. It brought back childhood memories of ‘home’. I grew up in a place called ‘The Miles’ on the outskirts of Clonakilty town. Today its landscape has changed to a more urban one, but when I was growing up, wide-open fields, often blanketed by snow in winter, surrounded our house. My sisters and I would disappear into the white and be gone for hours, until hunger or the cold drove us home. I was always the last in the door, my fingers blue from spending hours rolling the head of a snowman. My Dad would bring out one of his scarves and a carrot and some lumps of coal and help me to give him a face before I joined my sisters by the open fire.
This November was made extra special due to the reunion with my dad. After a two-year forced hiatus since his last visit, he was on the first flight out of Ireland to NYC once international travel resumed to the US.
Dad had missed his trip over to us in March 2020 due to lockdown and we had to cancel our planned trip home to Clonakilty last August, so our daughter Izzy was an infant when she last saw my mum who is unable to fly due to health reasons. Dad arrived this November just after Izzy’s fourth birthday.
My daughter has passed many milestones since their last meeting… she is now running around, going to school, climbing jungle gyms and has her own opinions. She is a mischievous, affectionate little girl, who loves to sing, dance and chat. It’s been with a mixture of sadness and happiness that I’ve watched her finally form a bond with her Grandad towards the end of his trip. Sadness because of all the time, special moments and other family members – Izzy’s Nana, her aunties and her cousins – missed due to this pandemic.
I am back to work since April of this year. The bar is open and business finally looks like it’s getting back to what it was pre-Covid. We have staffing issues like most businesses in hospitality and right now I have to work long hours, sometimes 70-plus in a week. There are times that I yearn for those slower paced days when the bar was closed.
A positive in the midst of all this madness over the past two years has been that I grew to acknowledge the things most important to me in life. Time spent with my husband, Stevie, and my daughter, Izzy, have only made us closer. It’s nice to see customers, some old, some new, walk through the door of The Junction again. To have my Dad be able to visit and stay with us, to see him holding my daughter’s hand coming down the steps of the bar to visit me at work, is almost surreal. My family is healthy and safe.
This Christmas I’m taking time to smell the roses, or rather pine trees, and remember all the things that made growing up in West Cork so special. I want to share all those Christmas traditions with my daughter like lighting the candle on Christmas Eve, decorating the tree together, dancing around to Christmas songs, mailing Santa’s letter, praying for it to snow with our noses pressed against the icy window, toys and treats and of course the mandatory mandarins spilling out of the Christmas stocking at the end of the bed and the spirit of sharing and giving. My favourite part of Christmas day was something so simple but I looked forward to it every year; it was the time spent playing board games with my late Uncle Tim and the rest of my family. My uncle would purposely cheat just to wind me up and he would have us all laughing for hours.
The lights may shine a little brighter in NYC and the smells and sounds might be different to those in West Cork but the Christmas Spirit is the same no matter where you are. Growing up, there was always space at our Christmas dinner table for someone who would otherwise spend Christmas alone. Across the Atlantic Ocean, I have found myself on the receiving end of this act of kindness.
In New York it’s easy to get caught up in the fast pace of the city. November to December is our busy season in the restaurant industry, which is why I haven’t made it home to Clonakilty for the holidays in 20 years. This makes it even more important for me to carry over some of my Irish traditions in New York and to give thanks at the dinner table for the smaller things in life we so often take for granted.