I am the eldest child of four, raised by devout, Irish Catholics parents. By the time I was three I was under the impression that Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived with us. My Mother would address all three of them, especially when I was misbehaving or being reckless. I am certain that my Mother was still a Virgin before she married my Father. He definitely got the better end of the deal. Mom was the fifth of seven children. Her father, my Poppy, was the Proprietor and Director of a Funeral Parlor. After he passed away his two youngest sons inherited the family business. The Irish pride themselves in their ability to arrange a first rate funeral and post burial reception. Words such as paw bearer, eulogy and hearse have been an integral part of my vocabulary.
As a child, I was intrigued with the way my parents spent their spare time. They had a very unusual form of social entertainment where they religiously scanned the New Haven Register to see who had "passed away". While my sister and brothers and myself were eating pancakes, my parents would share their morning commentary on who had “moved on”, what family members they were leaving behind and when the wake was scheduled. My Mother took it as a personal affront if anyone one of her friends or distant relatives did not call upon her family’s services. She made a point of showing up for calling hours at these rogue funeral homes to pay her respects just so she could spy on the arrangements for burial, observe the workmanship, the flowers, and how long the calling hours were.
I remember attending an evening wake and being forced to go inside the funeral parlor. I was embarrassed because I had my track uniform on with black and gold knee socks. Mom insisted, “God doesn’t care what you wear, but that you pay your respects.” I reluctantly walked over to the family, they had no idea who I was, until my Mother effusively announced me, “This is my daughter Jackie, she teaches Catechism to children after school.” What did they care; they had a relative that was lying in a coffin in a dimly lit room with lily’s popping out of the walls. The women were dressed in black with veils covering their eyes and all I wanted to do was throw up from the smell of perfume and cigarettes. The grieving family was whispering about how wonderful the woman in the casket looked. I personally felt she looked like an old waxen doll that belonged in a musuem. My Mom held my hand and we walked up to the mahogany casket and genuflected. This is when I knew I never want to be buried inside a coffin. Cremation just seems so much more appealing. I almost passed out when my Mother actually touched the dead woman’s hands and blessed her before standing up. “What in God’s name was she thinking? “ After we paid our respects, the brother of the deceased woman invited us back to their house for some food. I gave my Mother “the look” like I was truly going to do a face plant if we didn’t high tail it out there in three minutes. She told me to wait in the lobby for her. I watched as the undertakers calmly managed all the details of transporting the coffin and consoling the relatives. Irish undertakers are incredibly reverent and really good listeners. It’s also mandatory that they each study the science of embalming, which I tragically discovered while waiting for my Mother.
I noticed that there was a giant maple door cracked open to another floor that I had never before seen. Out of sheer boredom I investigated. Searching for the light switch, I noticed a string dangling from a bulb at the bottom of the staircase. I smelled something strangely reminiscent of Mrs. Slicer, my 7th grade biology teacher. When I pulled the string, it lit a room straight out of Young Frankenstein. It was a cave of embalming fluid with life-like corpses stretched out on long tables. I stared for about sixty seconds and shot up the stairs, through the lobby, out to the parking lot and into our 1979 baby blue Chevrolet. My Mother came out to the car beaming and said. “Jacqueline Mary, now wasn’t that a beautiful wake?”