My uncle died on Saturday night, October 21. It was his 83rd birthday. He had a constitution of iron but he used it all up. My mother is now the only one of her three siblings still alive. My uncle died after a long illness and my mother has been sick for a long time herself. I think that, although it was a terrible shock, the way their eldest brother died, suddenly at 76, might have been a better way to go.
As is often the case in middle age, the only time I see extended family is at funerals. I really miss having my parents around at these events and I am struck by how many of my cousins still have parents who are hale and hearty. I hope I have inherited these genes. In the coffin, I was surprised how like my mother, my uncle looked in profile. When he was alive, I never saw the similarity. He was so frail by the time he died that his bone structure stood out in a way that it hadn’t when he was alive. My cousins and I reminisced about how, as children, he and my mother had loathed each other. Although they got on fine as grown-ups, they vied for their parents and older brother’s attention as children. My uncle was very ill as a small child. The wisdom of the time was that his parents shouldn’t visit him in hospital. When he went in he was walking and talking and when he was discharged, he couldn’t walk or talk. It must have been terrifying for my grandparents. He was probably a bit spoilt in consequence. My mother was very bitter about the time he threw her china doll’s tea set out the window. I think this was after the return from hospital. He never settled in school and ran away from boarding school a number of times until my grandparents gave up the effort and let him leave early. My mother, on the other hand, loved school and grew up to become an academic. They were very different people but as adults they were loyal and kind to each other.
At the removal, the decade of the rosary in the funeral home (once my uncle’s and now my cousin’s – he was burying his father in a particularly literal way) was led by a priest with a smart English accent. I was astounded, has it come to this in the Catholic church in Ireland that we have to import English priests to work in congregations in small towns in Co. Limerick? As we walked over to the church, I asked my mother’s elderly (but very sprightly) cousin Maurice whether the priest was English. He’s a bit hard of hearing (aren’t we all?) so I had to repeat my question more loudly. Two local men who were walking just in front of us turned around to fill me in. “No, he’s not English, he’s from Limerick. He did spend some time in England alright,” said one. His companion added, “He sounds so posh that I was once there when he was saying mass and the fella beside me asked whether he was a Protestant.” I think you probably need to be Irish to find this hilarious rather than baffling but Maurice and I were both in fits.
I spent a while with Maurice, he’s a farmer and when I was a child he would often turn up at our house with dead pheasants which my mother would hang in the attic before plucking. I think this is not a feature of most urban childhoods. My mother used to put on her white lab coat to pluck them and once my sister’s friend, the vegetarian (at a time when it was unusual), turned up at our house and had the door answered by my mother in her lab coat covered in blood and feathers which, I think, was not a great experience for her. Maurice has been finding out about family history – he’s done a lot of research. Apparently the man who wrote this book is some class of relative. Sadly, I see that “Kiskeam versus The Empire” is no longer in print. I’ve never been to Kiskeam myself but I understand it’s quite small. According to Maurice, when the author was asked about the ultimate fate of tiny Kiskeam he announced, “Well, Kiskeam is still here and there’s no sign of the Empire”. Mildly interested in getting a hold of this and having a read.
I asked the relatives from Ballyhea who were there whether Ballyhea continued to say no. Apparently they had just started back the previous day. News. I discovered (to my mild outrage) that my beloved grandmother was godmother to one of my second cousins as well as me.
The next day, my sister and I drove back up from Cork to the funeral. We picked up a hitch hiker on the way. He was an unemployed painter and we asked for advice on painting. He was a bit monosyllabic but he became really animated when he talked about never using gloss paint outside. I give you this tip for nothing.
I texted Mr. Waffle to see how the morning had gone at home. “Poorly,” he replied. When I rang him it transpired that the children had headed off on their bikes and he noticed that Michael had left his lunch behind. He picked up the lunch and drove after them in the car. He caught up with them about half way in. He was quite annoyed. Not as annoyed as he was when he got home and discovered that Daniel too had forgotten his lunch and he had to get back into the car and drive the whole way into school with it. Suffice it to say, they were missing me.
The funeral mass was in the church where my parents got married. There were many elderly relatives reminiscing fondly. My mother’s cousin’s husband, Pat, recalled her arriving to the church just as the clock was chiming the hour. “It must have been the last time she was on time for anything,” I said. My father subsequently confirmed both parts of this story. A very glamourous cousin of my aunt’s said that she had known my father when he was a junior doctor and she was a trainee nurse. She was an extremely healthy looking 80 odd and she introduced me to her 95 year old aunt, who appeared to be in perfect health, although she did have a stick. Sadly, these are not blood relatives of mine so these genes are not available to me. The cousin was very nice about my mother who she knew when they were both young – “And, Anne,” she confided, “she was so clever, we all thought she was fantastic.” This was a pleasant counterpoint to Pat who was busily listing all of my blood relatives with dementia (he only married in, he’s as sharp as ever). After a while he said gleefully, “Do you think it’s hereditary?” Despite the impression this may give, he is actually a lovely man and married to one of my mother’s favourite cousins; it’s just that as an elderly relative he has dispensed with the need for restraint, I’m quite looking forward to this phase myself. He also did a recording of my parents’ wedding which I have never seen but my sister thinks she might know where it is.
Then off to the graveyard where we buried my uncle beside his son who died last year, his mother (1984), father (1969) and brother (2008). Notwithstanding the fact that he could be a difficult man, my aunt adored him and she was devastated by his death. Burying him and her son within the year is horrendous. I genuinely think she is a candidate for sainthood. I have never met a more-selfless person. She cared for my uncle at home for years when he was suffering from dementia and bedridden. Caring for other people and religion are the twin pillars of her world. Although she has lots of children and grandchildren, I have never seen her as lost as she was at my uncle’s funeral. If you are a praying kind of person, I am sure your prayers would be welcome.
My brother assures me I am paranoid but I remain convinced that my other aunt still has it in for me for not attending her husband’s funeral. It was in 2008 and the day we were moving home from Brussels; he died suddenly in hospital. My other cousin flew home from New York for it. They still talk about that. My other aunt pointed out my other uncle’s newly engraved headstone when we were in the graveyard. My assurance that he was my favourite uncle (he was) I feel sure availed me not at all. Again, to reiterate, my brother thinks I’m completely paranoid.
I’m going to become one of these people who love going to funerals, it’s the next step in my journey through middle age.