Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Remembering. Curmudgeon is summoned to a wake

Steve and Charlotte showed up at the house Friday evening with a gift for Younger Daughter and the baby-to-be-named-later. We were giving a baby shower on Saturday at a neighborhood pizza palace but Steve had to be on a plane before dawn Saturday morning.

Older Daughter -- and her evil, hyperactive devil-dog, Cork -- were in town for the occasion, and Steve and Charlotte wanted to visit with her. And they both wanted to hold the baby, of course, while Olaf and Younger Daughter hovered.

Thus, when my cell phone went off, nobody really missed me as I excused myself to another room.

It was my cousin Clarence (no, not his real name), and he was doing "Irish duty."

I've mentioned "Irish duty" before, but I may not have adequately defined or explained it.

When someone dies, word must get out to the deceased's family and friends. The Irish seem to specialize in this. It's not that we're obsessed with death, nor are we particularly gloomy (certainly not all the time). It's just... well, a person deserves a launch into The Next World suitable to the circumstances of his or her leaving this one.

If a person has survived to a ripe old age, it's a big party, and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren are everywhere in evidence, giving promise to the continuation of the species. We're sad, of course, and we'll miss the one who's gone, but that we believe that person lives on Elsewhere -- and he or she certainly does in the stories retold on family occasions thereafter.

If the person who's passed on is younger, the proceedings are proportionately sadder.

In this case, the deceased was a second cousin to Clarence and me. He was younger than us by a decade and more, unmarried, no children. He'd had his "troubles."

The Irish are good with euphemisms. A modern, non-Irish secular person might say that the decedent had battled substance abuse problems... and eventually lost.

We say he'd had his demons, his struggles; he suffered from the curse. The curse used to refer specifically to alcohol problems, but I think in the modern age, with all the pharmaceutical wonders out there to tempt us and do us harm, the curse may properly include those who've struggled with powders or pills.

I don't know which it was in this young man's case. Clarence knew. But, of course, Clarence did not share any details with me; that's the beauty of euphemisms. If I knew, I knew. If I didn't know, I didn't need to. But I could listen and respond sympathetically when Clarence said, "We thought he was over all this. I'd been emailing him just this week. He was planning to come out here" -- Clarence lives in the D.C. area these days -- "to visit in a few weeks."

Clarence had been close to the young man. I had not; I don't know if I'd seen him since one of the annual family picnics decades ago. It didn't matter, of course. I needed to know of the man's death, too.

And as close as Clarence was to the young man, Clarence's younger brother Liam (not his real name either) was closer. Liam's an ardent hockey dad -- he's got two sons who are apparently pretty good at it -- and the decedent was a big hockey fan/player/camp follower. At least as important, if not more, the young man's father -- my mother's cousin -- and Liam are in business together.

I had to let Clarence go on for awhile before I hung up the phone. I went back into the living room. Steve gave me a look. "Irish duty," I said. "Who passed?" he said.

I told them all. Long Suffering Spouse piped up right away. "We'll have to go to the wake, whenever it is," she said.

Long Suffering Spouse may have been born Cuban, but in 30 years of marriage she's absorbed the cultural norms.

Steven and I talked about who'd found the man -- and who'd found someone else recently that Steve knew -- and about autopsies and death investigations and we speculated about when, with all of that, the body might be released back to the family. The young people gave us a few minutes to get this out of our systems, then we went back to telling stories more appropriate to this occasion, about babies and showers and travel.

Now, of course, in the modern alienated world, many of you may wonder why I would feel a need to go to the wake of someone who was a stranger to me, even if he was close to a couple of my cousins,

But that's one reason already, you see.

And there's more.

The decedent's grandmother, my mother's aunt, my Great Aunt Margaret (do I really have to say it?), was a delightful woman. We'd usually only see her once a year, at those family picnics, but she always had a kind word for my wife and remembered the names of all my children. My mother had grown up in this woman's house. My mother's mother -- this woman's sister -- had been widowed at a young age (pregnant with her third child at the height of the Depression). I don't know if it was a two-flat where they lived, exactly, but it functioned as such, with my mother and her mother and sisters on one floor and my mother's aunt and her husband -- Uncle Donny (yes, correct, not his real name, either) and, eventually, their son, the decedent's father (he's a good 10 years younger than my mother).

They lived on the West Side of Chicago, in an area then Irish and Jewish. Later, that neighborhood would resegregate practically overnight -- it's a Chicago thing -- an early effort at capturing the phenomenon in fiction is found in James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy -- and all the West Side Irish picked up and moved further west. Some landed in Oak Park and River Forest and their descendants remain there today. Uncle Donny and Great Aunt Margaret ended up in Bellwood. Uncle Donny died and that suburb resegregated and eventually, in the early 1980s, their son, by then a very, very successful businessman, finally persuaded his mother to move to a condo in a tony far-west suburb. Long Suffering Spouse and I, newly married, were offered first crack at the furniture Great Aunt Margaret was going to leave behind.

We're still using the bedroom dressers.

We absolutely had to go to her grandson's wake.

It was a big crowd that turned out yesterday evening. That would be expected in the case of a younger man, especially one with a large extended Irish family. I wanted to pick up Long Suffering Spouse as soon as she could get out of school, so as to beat the worst of the crowds. But I miscalculated in one important respect. The decedent, like his father and grandfather, and several of my cousins, were in the commodity trading business. That's a big business in Chicago. But the trading floors close early; we wound up waiting in line a long time.

I was amazed, as I so often am these days, to note the ubiquity of smartphones among those waiting in line. I shut off my dumb phone when I walked in the funeral parlor, a gesture as natural and automatic to me as taking off one's hat in such a place. But so many of the younger ones -- and some at least my age -- had their screens on the whole time while waiting in line. Maybe there was aftermarket trading to monitor; the commodities industry (like most industries) is a mystery to me.

Long Suffering Spouse and I went through the line eventually, paying our respects to the decedent's only brother (who had the grace to pretend to remember me after only a momentary pause) and to the decedent's father (who remembered me, but thought my wife might be my sister). It was a hard day for the man, with harder ones, I'm sure, still to come.

We found Liam, too, hanging out in the back of the room. He was probably there for the duration, but Long Suffering Spouse and I needed to get home. I saw Liam's wife, Ally, talking to someone and I steered my wife over to say our goodbyes to her, too.

Ally introduced me to the man she'd been speaking to. "I think you may be cousins," she said. "You're Liam's cousin?" the man asked. I nodded. "Well, you're from the wrong side of the family, then. That's what I tell Liam."

"Well, I'm used to that," I said. "I'm from the wrong side of the tracks, too." His ancestor, you see, was Great Uncle Donny. Ally had never met Great Uncle Donny. Neither had Long Suffering Spouse. I put my head down on one shoulder (Uncle Donny had a neck problem and couldn't lift his head straight) and tried to imitate the old man I remembered.

"Yes, that's him," said the stranger, kindly, because my imitation was truly awful.

But, you see, we do remember, if imperfectly. It's what we Irish do.

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