I apologize to all my loyal (and disloyal) readers for the gap in the blog entries. I’m currently sitting on my front porch in Takoma Park, gently rocking in my suspended swinging bench chair, sipping coffee, looking at the Compost Turner’s yard opposite and the people walking in front of it on their way to the farmer’s market two blocks up the road. It’s a good morning. I went to a tag sale and while chatting with the politics prof who was selling some odds and ends, got a good bit of dirt on one of my former professors, a guy who used to live in this area of town. It’s a pretty small neighborhood when you get down to it. One set of our neighbors own a small eco-friendly pet store, where I bought some sundries for El Gato Perfecto, now living with Sister School and me.
It’s a good morning for reflection, and I’ve had a lot to reflect on lately. Most importantly, my father’s mother, Alice, died last weekend, and I spent the best part of the week with my relatively small Irish Catholic family. My grandmother’s death was expected to happen sometime over the next few years, but the end was quite sudden. A prodigious smoker (and dancer and tennis player – go figure), she was slowly debilitated by a series of small strokes which began in the late 90s. Her condition was at first mild impairment, a slurring of words, occasional forgetfulness – but this worsened and for the past year or so, she had been in a local nursing home, having good days and bad days. My grandfather, Mack, visited her daily, bringing her coffee, and we all expected this to go on for some time. On her last morning, she had a full breakfast, refusing the house coffee as she knew that Mack would be bringing he some when he visited. She took a nap while waiting for him to arrive, and never woke up. There are, I think, far worse ways to die.
Prior to her illnesses Alice had been the vivacious matriarch of my family in every sense of those words. My grandmother’s house was a gathering place on Sundays where she’d shepherd the rest of the family through an unacrimonious and wide ranging conversation – equal parts speculation and reporting on local and national politics, the Red Sox (other sports were not discussed), and our friends and acquaintances. Much of the conversation had a moral and ethical cast to it, something that I only fully realized when those conversations grew fewer and fewer as my grandmother became more and more disabled. We discussed faith and faithlessness, suicide, abortion, priestly marriage (her cousin, Jim Carrol, had left the priesthood to get married), and a slew of other “tough” topics.
I’m struck at how flexible and accepting those conversations were, given the early circumstances of Alice’s life. My grandmother had been raised somewhat in the South, somewhat in New England, had spent her childhood during the Depression and came to maturity just as WWII began. Alice’s parents had died early – her father was embittered by his losses during the Depression either had a heart attack or was a suicide (due to the Church’s attitude towards suicides, they were often listed as “heart attack” on the medical forms, which enabled them to be buried fully within the Church). Her mother died of cancer. They both were dead before my grandmother’s 20th birthday, leaving her, her brother, and her two sisters largely alone. Apparently, there was a small trust fund left by her father which could have provided somewhat for college, but this money was either stolen or mismanaged out of existence by whomever was in charge of the trust. Her brother later killed himself.
Many people in these circumstances would let their callowness harden into a kind of jadedness, become reflexively judgmental within a social hierarchy of petty offenses. Other people, sadly rarer, begin to live in the immediate world – not as gross sensualists, but as humans appreciative of what the day brings you, humans who never cease growing to the last – Alice was such a person.
Alice found herself engaged to a nice-enough young man (sometime when she was 19 yrs old, I believe) – doubtless she longed for some kind of security and stability. Her fiancé was a solid Irish Catholic boy, from a good family and with a good trade. Alice’s dying mother heartily approved of the match, but my grandmother had reservations, reservations which only increased when she met the man who would become my grandfather, Mack, an atheistic and penniless Scottish immigrant, who, along with his mother (one of my favorite people on the planet), had come over to the states as a child at the behest of my frighteningly alcoholic great-grandfather.
My great-grandfather (Alexander) was one of those sweet men who had never touched any alcohol while he lived in Glasgow and worked as a ship-riveter on the Clyde. When Alexander accepted a job at the Colt Factory in Hartford he began to hit the bottle and turned into a loud-mouthed ogre when drunk. I’ve seen this in other men. My young grandfather was often sent to pick up his paycheck because my great-grandfather was too drunk to claim it himself – and would spend most of it before providing for his family. Alexander eventually died homeless after my great-grandmother, Jean Carmichael-Brown, a feisty woman whom I was lucky enough to know, decided she’d had enough and kicked him out.
There’s some speculation as to whether Jean and Alexander were actually married in the Church or if they were hand-fasted. Jean was never one to let social conventions stand in her way – up until the end of her life she dressed in turbans and her leopard skin coat. (She’s be tickled to know that one of her great-grandchildren is going to be hand-fasted to her lesbian partner sometime this coming spring.) My grandfather also eventually forbade my great-grandfather access to his house, due to his drunken behavior around his and Alice’s 4 children, but I get ahead of myself. My grandfather is a trooper. A former fighter pilot (P-38 Lighting) in the WWII European Theatre, he’s one of the most taciturn men I’ve ever met. However, this is not to say that he’s not an emotive man, nor that he is a man who incapable of the more enduring passions of loyalty and commitment. Rather he’s a supremely self-sufficient observer with a wry and sardonic sense of humor. He’s also prone to dropping the mask and doing outrageous things to get kids to laugh. I think it’s a testament to both of them that when his eldest child was confirmed in the Church he himself was baptized – he, as always, simply did it on his own, studying in secret with a local priest, then surprising everyone. I wish I could have seen my grandmother’s reaction.
To return to my grandmother at age 20 – she was faced with a quandary, the choice between the safer man her family would approve of, and a man whom she loved, but who could not even marry her in a Catholic Church. She chose my grandfather, and, as they say, the rest is history.
I remember my grandmother as a very sympathetic woman; she was quite a devoted Christian, but never forced this on any of her grand-children. I never felt there was a topic I could not broach with her, no matter how personal, and I owe her a great debt of thanks for listening to me when I needed someone to talk to. I think her sense of accessibility and family is one that many people simply understood to be a fundamental part of her character. One of my great-uncles, a very well known and successful lawyer (former law professor) likes to talk about how when he and his wife were engaged (his wife is my grandmother’s sister), they didn’t have “two pennies to rub together,” but he always remembers that my grandmother would invite himself, my great-aunt, and all their friends over to the house to eat and relax.
I think there’s something very important to building that kind of community of friends and relatives. I’ve seen families built on emotional coercion, one-upmanship, and social manipulation. However, I’ve never seen anything like that rear up in Alice’s greater family without being immediately countered by a more humanizing and accepting perspective.
The funeral itself was very emotional – I’m the eldest grandchild, so I was a pall-bearer along with my younger brothers and male cousins. We were one short so we were helped out by one of my female cousin’s long-time boyfriend, to whom I’m very grateful. The female cousins presented the gifts during mass, then, with the male cousins standing behind them, took turns reading from a eulogy that we had all spent the night working on. I wrote the skeleton and the girls fleshed it in with what they wanted to add – I was very pleased with what they came up with and how they read it – they did their grandmother proud.