As a child, I attended a large number of funerals. Being from a large Irish Catholic family, there was no shortage of great aunts and uncles dying, and my mother felt it was important to teach children about death at an early age. The dead were always very old relatives who I had the recollection of meeting once or twice, if ever. They were easy deaths.
And then Rita died. Rita, the fourth of five children of my mother’s oldest sister, was killed in a car accident at the age of 23 in 1978. I was a 15 years-old.
Sadly, I didn’t know Rita. There was a large difference in our ages, and because of the distance between our families, we didn’t see each other often. As a child, my parents did visit their home town, and we always stopped in to see Aunt Mary, Rita’s mother. But by the time I was old enough to remember the visits, her children were either working or at college.
After Rita died, my family made the six hour drive to Pennsylvania to be with my aunt and to attend the wake and funeral. I remember sitting at my aunt’s kitchen table the day we arrived into town. Surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins, I listened to my aunt calmly recount the same story over and over — the phone call from the police, rushing to the hospital, calling her other children in the middle of the night to come right away — as each new visitor joined the room. The mood was somber but there were no tears.
That night we went to Rita’s wake. The only memory I have of Rita is seeing her lying in a casket in a purple velour dress, so young and pretty, with long auburn hair just like mine.
I remember the funeral the next day as the most emotionally traumatic thing I’ve ever witnessed. Rita’s family had been stoic through the wake and funeral Mass. But, Katherine, Rita’s younger sister, totally lost it at the grave site as they prepared to lower the casket to the earth. Screaming a string of “No, no, no,” Katherine hurled herself at the casket before she crumbled to the ground, a shrieking sobbing mess. The priest, along with Aunt Mary and her sons, approached Katherine in an attempt to help her, but Katherine wouldn’t or couldn’t stop screaming and she physically fought against her family. I stood helplessly watching through my own tears. It was absolutely horrible. To this day, I have not been the firsthand witness to anything more painfully horrible than that moment.
And still, my aunt did not shed a tear.
After the funeral, the family had dinner at the banquet room at the local hotel. I was no stranger to this hotel, as the banquet room was the same room used for similar functions after many of the other funerals I’d attended in that small town. As the evening wore on, my older sister and I decided to sneak rum and cokes (I told you it was an Irish funeral), and find a remote corner of the hotel where we could enjoy our libation with a good smoke or two. (Don’t judge me. It was the 70’s.)
We went to the opposite corner of the hotel, far away from the prying eyes of my mother, and found a quiet stairwell which would be the perfect spot for our indiscretion. But upon opening the door, we found Aunt Mary. She was curled up in the corner, sobbing. We went to her, and Aunt Mary continued to indulge her tears for a few minutes, taking some small amount of comfort in the arms of her young nieces. After a few moments, she broke from our arms, telling us she didn’t want her children to know she’d been crying. She asked us not to let anyone know how we found her, and to stay with her to help her compose herself. My sister offered the Visine in her purse. (Hey, it was the 70’s.) At some point, it occurred to Aunt Mary to ask us what we were up to. Never a good liar, I confessed our entire plot – cigarettes, rum and all. Aunt Mary laughed, and vowed to keep our secret, if we would keep hers.
Then, the three of us sat on the bottom stair. We shared two rum and cokes between the three of us and smoked menthol cigarettes, while my sister and I listened to my aunt share happy memories of her daughter. When the drinks were gone, Aunt Mary’s eyes were dry and we left to join the rest of the family in the banquet room. I think of that moment as my first step on the ladder of adulthood.
Aunt Mary died a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of 92. It was my first time back in Pennsylvania in many years. After the funeral, my sister and I drove up to the old hotel and sidled up to the bar. We ordered two rum and cokes and toasted, to Mary and Rita.