This time my slightly batty Aunt Cathleen was the reason for the trek southwards. Aunt Cathleen was my father’s oldest sister, and therefore you should not, in any way, shape, or form confuse her with my mother’s sister Aunt Cathleen, who died about a year and a half ago, or my other Aunt Cathleen, who is married to my father’s youngest brother Bill and has not died yet; Uncle Bill has suggested she shut up and drop dead on numerous occasions, but Aunt Cathleen appears uninterested in a sudden change in lifestyle at this time. My maternal Aunt Cathleen and my Aunt Cathleen by marriage are or were, my maternal Aunt Cathleen having died, both Irish, as is my mother, but I’ll bet you figured that out already, and were not batty, slightly or otherwise, except in those ways peculiar to the Irish condition. While I would rather my paternal Aunt Cathleen had not passed away at all, especially on a holiday weekend I had plans for, the fact of the matter is that death has done the family a favor of sorts by eliminating the longstanding familial confusion of which Aunt Cathleen we are talking about when we talk about Aunt Cathleen. Clearly, any reference to Aunt Cathleen in the present tense means my second Irish Aunt Cathleen, who is now my only Aunt Cathleen, the other two Aunt Cathleens having moved on to bigger and better things.
Having solved the mystery of the decedent’s identity, we can move forward to the wake, which is the only part of the festivities I actually attended. I suppose I could have stayed on for the funeral Mass the next day, but that would entail two trips to the city in as many days and I would prefer not doing that; I do not travel well. The wake was very nice, if you can call wakes nice. I suppose some people do; it always seems to me that you can see the same set of old women at every wake you go to, always sitting off to the side and looking at the corpse and whispering to each other while everyone else in the room is studiously ignoring the guest of honor. I don’t know if those old women are there to gloat over outliving the deceased or whether they are there to judge how the undertaker did his job, with how well the deceased looks for someone in their former state of ill health being just one of the many criteria necessary for an absolutely superlative gold medal performance. I have not seen any of those old women hold up scorecards or appear on ESPN yet, but I am pretty sure they are angling for a contract.
There was the usual polite chit—chat you always get at this sort of thing: how well you look, how was the trip down, how’s your mother doing, how’s everything going with you, it was nice of you to come on such short notice. I agreed modestly with that last point; it was nice of me to come, considering I could pass some of these very same people on the street and not realize that they are my relatives. I went over to the casket and paid my respects; Aunt Cathleen looked about as well as anyone in her condition could look, what with cosmetics slathered on like butter on an English muffin, veins full of embalming fluid, and that odd pink lighting undertakers seem to prefer. I am not sure why they have this type of lighting in funeral parlors at all; I imagine they believe it makes the deceased look more life-like, but it doesn’t really. Aunt Cathleen didn’t look like she was alive or asleep or whatever effect the undertaker was aiming for; she looked like she was auditioning for a spot in the Epcot Center’s American Adventure animatronics exhibition and about to learn that Anna Nicole Smith was getting the part instead.
Things were going quite well up to this point; the younger generations of my father’s family didn’t know us, we didn’t know them, and so we were all on our best behavior. And then the other relatives showed up, which reminded me of why I usually go out of my way to avoid these people like the plague. Some people showed a certain consistency that you have to admire; my Uncle Paddy (yes, Irish people have uncles named Paddy—this is not a Hollywood invention) was an obnoxious jerk the last time I saw him twenty-five years ago and I am happy to report that time has not softened him in any way: he’s still an obnoxious jerk, the only change being that back in the day he would poke you over and over again with his forefinger to emphasize whatever nonsensical point he was making at the time. He doesn’t do that anymore; now he pokes you with his cane. Uncle Bill and my only Aunt Cathleen showed up as well, bickering about something or other. They used to bicker much more than they do now, and I am certain that anyone outside the family wouldn’t know the difference, but I’ve noticed the slacking off in their ongoing disagreement about everything under the sun. This is the inevitable result of age; sometimes you just can’t keep an argument going no matter how hard you try; and then my uncle is slowly going deaf, although he is not going deaf fast enough to suit him. He could afford a hearing aid, of course, but then he would have to listen to Aunt Cathleen morning, noon, and night, and why on earth would he want to spend good money to do something like that? This is a good question and one for which I could not provide an equally good answer, and even if I could, what good would it do? Uncle Bill couldn’t hear what I was saying anyway.
In any case, the wake went well; I am not sure how wakes do not go well, as the guest of honor at these affairs is not likely to get drunk, do a striptease, or tell dirty jokes about the other guests, but I am sure it must happen. Not doing well is part of the human condition, as two of my Aunt Cathleens can now verify, as they are not doing very well at all these days. And for those of you interested in such trivia, those plastic or metal tips at the end of your shoelaces are aglets. No, I do not know if anyone from Texas A&M was involved in the discovery of the aglet or whether the word originally meant a coed at that august institution; I just know that’s what the dictionary calls those tips now. Argue with Noah Webster, if you feel the need. He’s dead, too.