Waking Irene

Sometimes I wonder if writing about a family member or friend who has recently died is sort of like telling someone about your dreams – fascinating and useful to you, but completely without the same meaning from context for them. This entry is a celebration of someone who aged with incredibly good humor, and who has been a steady thread in my life. This is what it is to have deep roots spread wide.

Grandma Irene Murphy died yesterday. She’s been ready to go for years, but some subset of her eleven children weren’t. Which means she hung on, being revived when she slipped too far, living in the same house she had for 30 years, with a rotation of those children and their spouses taking shifts to care for her. We moved her bed down into the same room Mammy (her own mother, who was married to Pappy, and whose actual names I will never remember) had lived out her final days some twenty years previous, with notably less joy than Grandma. It was the third house Irene had taken the kids to, after the farm, the farm being after the house on Spear Street.

The house on Spear Street is now my Uncle Bill’s. Decades earlier, they had left it for the farm when my Grandmother had packed all the kids in the house out to it, fleeing her abusive husband Charlie. My grandfather Charlie, who taught me that assholes can be assholes to anyone, not just to their own kids, and not always behind closed doors. Charlie who used to sit at the kitchen table drinking Budweiser and smoking while basketball blared on the living room TV, taking up all the space in the house he could. Charlie who used to “take his kids out for the day,” leaving them to play in the car while he sat in the bar and drank. Charlie who could also be genuinely gentle in the strangest of moments, making it easy to forget. Charlie, whose children not only fought to protect each other and their mother from, but also their own children.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about these aspects of my grandfather, of the deep reasons behind the strange giddiness Irene’s children experienced upon his death. This amazing woman, their mother, my grandmother, was finally free to play and make space for herself in more than passing moments. I had always assumed the move to the farm, and later the move to their final house had been of choice or necessity, not of flight. Their last house, where they both lived out their lives, was two away from Peggy, proximity to family some sort of safety, at least a place for the kids to escape to. The house separating Peggy and Irene was later purchased by my parents, where they still live, and where I grew up, the house undergoing slow remodels around me as my own body and brain changed. But always, always, grandma next door. A door that was never locked, and a motorized easy chair, and saccharine pinwheel cookies, and electronic poker games.

Nine of their eleven adult children live in my home town, scattered in a radius around her home. The tenth lives beyond city limits, and the final is in California, buying grandma’s house from afar so she had income and so it would stay in the family. All the children’s kids live within a few hours’ drive, and Mary’s four children live in the state, and Theresa’s fourteen children have scattered across the country but stayed away from the coasts. In short, it was incredibly difficult to throw a party as a teenager. But grandma would sometimes look at me with this glint in her eye, and her laugh sounded like getting away with it.

She loved murder mysteries. We used to watch Columbo together – there was no TV in my parents’ house, but I was allowed an hour of television over at grandma’s on rare occasion. She was convinced John Edwards was legit, and that angels watched over us. She made curtains before her hands got bad, and would let me sketch child thought-scapes with chalk on scrap fabric, and examine how her sewing machines worked, and hunt for dropped pins with magnets. She liked my blue hair, and objectified my boyfriends, and missed my mohawk (but was glad I had grown it out). She told me I needed to give her a motorcycle ride, and if I wasn’t willing to take her, it wasn’t safe enough for me, either. She chose Baltimore when my parents offered to take her anywhere at all in the world. She laughed at herself when she had no idea what was going on, and she didn’t mind at all that she had heard the joke before but forgotten the punchline. As she slipped deeper into dementia, she cracked jokes that no one else got, that no one else had context for, and she still laughed like she was getting away with it. She aged with incredible good grace and humor. And when her children had finally gotten to see a mother they had only seen glimpses of while growing up, when they were at last ready to let her go, she gratefully and quietly died.

I just got off a plane to Indiana for the wake. A wake where so many Irish-Catholic family members will attend we simply call people a generation older “aunt” or “uncle,” anyone younger “niece” or “nephew,” and anyone your own age “cousin.” My Uncle Mike (not even a full year younger than my father) will point out the faint four-poke scar he claims is from my grandmother stabbing him with a fork when he wouldn’t shut up at the dinner table. (Mike who also once told my cousin RD that a lion had bitten his leg, rather than explain Vietnam and mines and what it is to have a toe tag replaced by a purple heart, so that’s the sort of trustworthy he is.) Her great-great-grandkids will still be in diapers, unless my sense of time is completely off. We’ll bring out albums and stories and track mud into the home for which we exhausted the local framing store in a vain attempt to keep up with the propagation of this family. The hodgepodge collection of folding chairs will be brought from every nearby house, nearly enough but why not pick up another mismatched set. Everyone will bring a casserole, spilling off the kitchen table and onto the nearby counters. Someone will turn on the TV, and someone else will mute it. Aunt Suzy will wonder why I insist on wearing a tie, and an endless line of nieces and nephews will insist on airplane and piggy-back rides. We will play with blocks and marbles and race matchbox cars. (And I, for the first time in years, will not hide myself away in front of the recently-emerged fireplace in my parents’ home with glass of Bailey’s, furious with myself for anxieties.)

As the night wears on, and the children go home, we’ll drink cheap beer and reminisce about a woman who brought so much joy despite everything in her path. We’ll remember sitting in our shared yards as night fell, lightning bugs flashing and the smell of a recent rain. We’ll remember how she protected as best she could with the beliefs she had. How she left Charlie’s presence but never his side. How she made what was never enough food or money or hours sustain so many. How each of her children coped with that upbringing. How some, my father included, got themselves out – and how that meant leaving others behind. The ties of family, and of love, and of dreams, and of responsibilities. What it is to protect your family from your family, and see those patterns repeat. What love is, no matter what, even if you don’t want it. Love without the need to understand. Love that sometimes lacks care, and the kind of love that combats that. In the morning, we’ll shine our shoes and go to church for her, albeit less begrudgingly and a little bit more hungover, one last time.

In short, it will be business as usual. Celebration of life, celebration of death, and the ever overwhelming presence of family.