A 1900's funeral in Cleveland: did it ever really happen, or did the Little People send the whole fabrication in a dream?
There was almost a holiday air about the place-and why shouldn't there be, I ask? Thomas Duffy had conveniently passed from this world at four minutes after midnight on St. Patrick's Day.
Duffy's widow, Mary Bridget (she was a Flanaghan, don't you recall) had made the arrangements with Donahue the undertaker just a few days before, when it was evident to one and all that Duffy was soon to be called to his reward, so Father Flynn was no sooner out of the house with his chrisms and candles than Duffy was taken out the back door over to Donahue's for a "sprucing up" as Donahue liked to say.
Now what better day for an Irishman to quit it all than on the good saint's own day, when everyone Duffy ever knew or wanted to know would be celebrating? And it was an easy thing, don't you see, for a man to take his place in the marchers and then trot on over to the deceased's house to pay his respects. There, making it simple for them all he was, by being laid out that same day in the afternoon, so no one need put on his best suit twice.
That morning, the women of the neighborhood came in and dusted and tidied the parlor and aired it out a bit, and just in time too, for on the stroke of noon up pulls Donahue and his helpers and all with a heaving and tugging maneuver the fine mahogany casket through the front door-the remains of Duffy enclosed in satin splendor.
Duffy was set up in the parlor, and the doors to the room opened onto the dining room and then to the kitchen, and Donahue hauled in his wooden chairs and set them in neat rows on either side of the casket, and wouldn't Himself have been proud to know he was the center of attention that day?
There was a great bustling about, the kitchen crammed with containers of foods, and great loaves of crusty bread, and a whole ham was being sliced and cakes runny with frosting shoved through the door by chocolate-mouthed children, and a keg of beer set up on the back porch by a man with brawny, hairy arms and a neck sized 21 at least.
The bottles of whiskey were rattled self-consciously into the pantry by a local tavern keeper, who had seen fit to pay tribute to his most frequent patron. "On the house it is, Mrs. D., in his own honor, and won't we all be the poorer now for his passing...ahem."
I, being just a young girl, was pushed from here to there, told to stand in this corner, and then to move again for something to be put in that corner, and so I wandered through the whole setting-up and clearing-out with not much attention paid to me at all.
Well, it wasn't long before the people began to come, first the old women, they having not much else to do anyway, and there was a great amount of weeping and wailing and clicking of beads as they fluttered around Mary Bridget, who was planted in the brown mohair chair beside Himself and never budged the whole time-Mary Bridget, that is.
As I told you, it was a convenient day Duffy had chosen to expire, since around 2 o'clock, the annual parade dispersed in a clatter of bands and marching societies and grand marshals and honorary this and that's, and they all filtered noisily down the streets of the town.
Now there is something about the drink that brings out the tears and fists in a man, if you want to know. The marchers from the parade came down the street a wee bit more tilted into the wind, you might say. It's always a bit nippy on marching day, so they all have a wee nip themselves, to cut the chill. And then a few again to fortify themselves during the long march, and perhaps they had one last little nip when it was all over, to give them courage to view their absent member, Duffy.
Then you can see how it comes about, don't you, that they all were the worse for wear then had they been heading for eight o'clock mass of a Sunday?
Up they came to the porch steps then, the songs dying out on their lips and a coughing and sniffling and shuffling of their feet going on, and a few had the decency to remember to take off their shamrocks in the lapels and nudged the others and all doffed their derbys and caps.
With a few self-conscious swipes of their fingers through their hair, like raking hay with pitchforks, they mumbled and stumbled in, smelling of whiskey and worse, expressing their condolences to Mary Bridget.
One by one, each mourner knelt on the red padded kneeler before the casket, and moved his lips a bit, crossed himself with a hasty prayer, gave a sad-looking gaze to the face of Himself, and then heaving a sigh, pushed off from the rails and headed as decently as could be managed towards the kitchen where the bottles waited.
Donahue the undertaker stood in the corner, trying to look solemn for the sake of his profession. His worn black suit shined, and the seat of his pants had a gleam as though he had taken a shoe rag to them. He rocked back and forth on his toes, and surveyed his handiwork with a practiced eye.
The people began to settle themselves, the woman nesting into the front chairs before the casket and leaning over now and again to gossip, like jays on a washline.
The men for the most part stood around the edges of the room, and gradually moved closer to the loaded table in the dining room, where the ornately curliqued board had been shoved against the wall. Huge plates of vittles they filled for themselves, and stood before the arched door, chewing their cuds, and looking in at Duffy, provider of this fine repast, who would never himself enjoy the likes of it again.
The hours passed, with some coming and going, and the people began to spill out onto the back porch, where the beer keg dripped icy cold around the staves and the talk ran to stories of Duffy and his well-lived but much-too-short life, for hadn't he been cut down in his prime, now? "'deed he was-but 82 had he lived September next."
There was a shuffle of people at the door, and then a whisper passed quickly around that Father Flynn was here, and that meant of course the rosary would be said, so all the men who could exit without catching their wives' motioning eyes slipped out onto the porch for a smoke, while the women (who were better at praying) moved in a convulsive wave right up to the front where the darling priest was kneeling.
The mouths sighed out the words and the fingers inched along the necklaces of prayers all to the honor of Duffy. The huge brass candlesticks placed head and toe of him looked grand-and the beeswax candles hissed and fluttered with the opening and closing of the front door.
The casket rose, pale blue satin ruffles on the lid and coverlet, like a great bed sheet thrown across a green glen. The potted, shiny-leaved plants rustled dryly in the draft from the hallway, while the grandest arrangement of all, a full two dozen red roses, hung like a benevolent rosy cloud above Duffy.
Father Flynn rolled onwards with his recitation, and being a young priest, still kept the words apart instead of lumping them all together in a rush as the older ones do.
The voice rose in a tremulous cadence, punctuating the fervor they felt for the demands of death and all it held for any left behind unshorn and unrepentant, and finally, with a loud "Amen" it ended.
Father Flynn bent over Mary Bridget who was snuffling into a lace hanky and murmured a few words with a pat on the shoulder to boot, and she pulled a crumpled bill from the folds of her best black Sunday dress and palmed it into the good Father' s hands. A fiver for sure and good money it was, too, for those days.
The priest wended his way in and out among the rooms now, helloing some and reminding others they hadn't been seen a while at mass, and eventually found himself on the back porch with the "boys."
A small beer was thrust on him, and quaffing it down in one gulp with a shot of whiskey close behind, he soon went off whistling down the street.
With his departure, the wake began in earnest, the formalities being observed, so to speak. Glasses of porter were pressed on the old women, who took them without being urged overmuch. And the bottles went round, and then a song began on the back porch which the mourners inside quickly too up, Mary Bridget herself leading the verses in a wavering soprano, for it had been Himselfs favorite.
The cold night air made the singing of the old tune all the sweeter, the simple words and melody floating across the porch banisters to the street inky in darkness. And the singers thought of green valleys far away (which most have never seen but knew nonetheless) and in their voices was a longing for a time and place which seemed far better than the present, to be sure.
Then someone brought his fiddle and another had a penny whistle and before you know it, a button-box was added, the rugs were rolled back in the dining room and the plates hanging on the edge of the table, crusting with beans and potatoes, were whisked into the kitchen for safekeeping and the braver of the mourners began tapping and clapping to the spritely tune.
At first it was the young girls, smirking and sashaying around. Then a few young men came forward and picked up their feet to the rhythm, but it was the old codgers and the biddies who put everyone to shame, for wasn't the dust of the roads of Galway and Mayo still on their soles?
The old men hung their thumbs through their vests and clomped away with their newly-shined heavy shoes, and the biddies lifted their skirts daintily and brought up their heels and put down their toes, and their hairpins began falling out and scattering over the floor, it as that fast they were jigging.
In the midst of it all there came a thumping and a crashing from the kitchen and a shoving of arms and heads and men pushed their way through to pull apart the combatants who hadn't done too much harm to themselves anyway, glory be, save for breaking of the glass windows in Mary Bridget's cupboard.
But she said to pay no mind to that, for she was selling the place anyway-after a decent time, of course-and going to live with her daughter. So handkerchiefs were pressed to the bloody noses and cuts on the eyebrows and such, and all the men passed around another glass and took up where they had left off.
The wake went on and on, I suppose, but I wasn't there to see it all, for soon my mother found me where I was trying not to be found and she dragged me home to bed.
If you'd be thinking there was a certain amount of disrespect unbefitting the passing of a person, you'd be dead wrong, my friend, for there was nothing but respect we had.
What better way to usher a person out than with a bit o' joy? Oh, the tears and the chants would come in good time, but first the people he knew and loved (and yes, the people he knew and hated as well) must come together and affirm the living of the man's time on this earth. And it wouldn't' hurt, since one was there anyway, to politic a bit, and catch a pretty girl's eye, and shake hands over a business deal, would it?
Well, that's how it was then, and Duffy's wake was among the last of its kind, I suppose, for shortly thereafter people began to do their public mourning in the funeral homes-"parlors" they called them to make them sound cozy-and undertakers like Donahue passed from the scene and his sons called themselves morticians, raised their prices accordingly, and took to putting all those pink lights around, so the attraction would look lifelike.
Now why anyone, a shell of his former self, would want to look more lifelike laid out than when standing up, I'll never know- but there it is.
Oh, a grand wake it was, all the same. It's proud I was to know you, Thomas Sean Duffy, and proud I was to be a part of your farewell.