By Julie Owsik Ackerman

Why do we care about St. Patrick's Day?

I'm a third-generation Irish American. My mom's grandparents immigrated from Ireland and my grandparents were born in Philadelphia. So if I'm not looking for an excuse to drink too much Guinness, why celebrate at all? Why does it even matter to me that I'm Irish?

For me, the answer is that it mattered to my grandmom, and I loved her. Dorothy Higgins Wade grew up with Irish parents, in St. Brigid's Parish, in the Irish community in East Falls. Although she moved out to the suburbs when she married, she carried a love of that community and her Irish heritage with her, passing that love down to her daughter, who passed it down to me.

In 1997, Grandmom, my parents, and I traveled to Ireland for a family reunion. More than a hundred family members gathered from the United States, Ireland, England, and Australia for the occasion. It was the first time my Irish American grandmother had ever visited the homeland, and she was thrilled. I was 21 that summer, a wee lass, and was suffering through a heartbreak in true Irish fashion - by drinking a lot, writing poetry, and crying on the shoulder of anyone who would listen.

The trip helped me in ways I couldn't have imagined. After arriving in Dublin, the first odd thing I noticed was that everyone there looked like my family. I'd never been anywhere like that before. This was comforting at a time when I was feeling so lost and rejected.

Also, the Irish really are the friendliest people you'll ever meet, a trait that Grandmom and I both shared. Over the course of the 10 days, we would leave Grandmom on a bench to rest while we explored, and every single time we would return to find her with a new friend. Every time.

It became increasingly difficult for me to be sullen and sad while surrounded by so many cheerful and friendly people.

After a day in Dublin, we made our way to Sligo for the reunion weekend, and we had a big party. One of my younger Irish cousins had just joined a boy band, which sang a few songs at the gathering. That band would turn into teen sensation Westlife a few years later.

After the party, some cousins and I went out to a club, and I met a cute Irish guy who kissed me in an alcove while rain poured outside. Walking home later, my cousin Julie and I lost our way and hitched a ride with the local police. Dancing, kissing, riding in police cars - Ireland was bringing me back to life.

After our weekend in Sligo, we went out to the family farm in County Mayo. As I stood with Grandmom in the doorway of the small home where her mother was born, my pain didn't disappear, but it shrank a bit.

I saw that, yes, my broken heart mattered, but in the scheme of a life, it wouldn't be the only thing that would matter. I couldn't articulate it yet, but I know now that a seed of hope was planted that day with Grandmom: I would love again; I would marry; I would travel one day with a beloved child and tell him about people I loved who had passed on; he would hold my hand while I cried, just as I did for Grandmom.

All of those things have come true.

So when St. Patrick's Day comes now, I don't start drinking at 9 a.m., and I don't go to parades or pull out a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses.

But I do make one of Grandmom's recipes, handwritten on index cards just for me. I do listen to some Irish music, even if it's just Blackthorn in my kitchen. I do call my mom to hear her say, "Top of the morning to you, my pretty colleen."

And I do remember how much it meant to go to Ireland, to be with my Grandmom and my family, and to see that I was a part of something bigger than myself. I was loved, maybe not by one particular man, but by Dorothy Higgins Wade and a whole clan of crazy Irish folks.

Julie Owsik Ackerman is a writing coach for college applicants. Contact her via www.anythingformaterial.blogspot.com or julieack@gmail.com.