East Bay, Rhode Island
Aunt Meghan was laid out in my grandmother’s front parlor, wearing a dove gray dress she would not have been caught dead in. My mother had picked it out. The wake was well into the third and final evening as mourners came to mumble condolences and a few decades of the rosary before heading out to the kitchen where the real business of the evening — drinking — was underway. My grandmother, Kate, and my mother, Ellen, stood at attention by the coffin, never looking at the corpse that seemed a shadow of Aunt Meghan in life. Her black hair was swept back from her pale, bloated face. Her blue eyes were cleared of mascara and forever closed. Her hands were wrapped around a black rosary and her nails, usually long and manicured, were clipped and devoid of polish. The only thing familiar about her was her lipstick — Revlon’s Fire and Ice.
I sat on the sofa, unnoticed, a solemn, solitary child of 10, dark haired and blue eyed. Like Meghan, I stood out in a family of volatile auburn-haired women. People often remarked on the resemblance but the similarities ended with our “Black Irish” looks. Meghan was a rebel — garrulous, undisciplined, and prone to excesses that included Canadian whiskey, unfiltered cigarettes, and reckless sex with uncaring men.
These vices were grist for the gossip mills of our Rhode Island village. I had heard the whispers, not really knowing what words like “tramp” and “floozy” meant, but sensing they were related to my mother’s hatred of Meghan. That we all lived together in my grandmother’s large house didn’t help. But my father’s failed law career trapped us in third floor bedrooms and a kitchen where the liquor cabinet beckoned my father and Meghan. They took refuge there, the room thick with cigarette smoke and shame. There was no escaping the fights between the two sisters and my Irish grandmother’s contemptuous gaze, muttered curses, and insinuations.
My mother wore a black shirtdress and an expression that often made me run to hide behind my grandmother or slip into the closet under the stairs. My mother hit me, often and unexpectedly. I was not given to backtalk or outbursts, but she would lash out at a change in tone, a childish question, or a wondering look.
People who had not called during the two previous afternoons or evenings hurried to pay their last respects. Two of the nuns from the parish school I attended arrived that afternoon to say the rosary and remained to keep a silent vigil. They were the oldest nuns in the convent and the most feared. Black birds of prey perched on folding chairs, they were still judging Aunt Meghan, who, as a schoolgirl, had caused them to wield their rulers over issues of short skirts, make-up, and various “occasions of sin,” which was code for anything vaguely sexual. Meghan once told my mother that she never confessed these failings because it was “nobody’s damn business” and went to communion anyway — a mortal sin.
I had spent the past two days with my father’s sister, Aunt Maddy, and her kids. One summer I stayed with them for two months after my mother had what the adults whispered was a “nervous breakdown.” My mother refused to leave her bed, wept endlessly, and frightened me with bitter pronunciations such as, “I am very unhappy with my lot in life.” When Maddy offered to keep me indefinitely, my grandmother drove to Providence the same day and took me home.
The mourners continued to file in. Benjamin Silverstein arrived, always uncomfortable with these goyishe traditions, especially the Irish and their prolonged, whiskey-drenched wakes, keeping the body above ground for days. But he was fond of Kate Callahan, who for years had patronized his clothing store and he rose to the occasion when WASP prejudices had made them strange bedfellows indeed.
In 1933 Ellen and Benjamin’s daughter Miriam had graduated from the University of Rhode Island with degrees in education, fully expecting to teach in East Bay. But the Protestant school board had openly denied their applications on the grounds of religion. No Irish Catholics or Jews need apply. A member of the Town Council, Ben had brought the matter before the group on behalf of both girls — to no avail. Ellen took a teaching job a few towns over in a working-class suburb of Providence. Miriam spent her life behind the counter of her father’s store.
Ellen had trouble meeting Ben Silverstein’s eyes. He and Miriam were witnesses to something deeply painful and despite the fact that the pain was shared, Ellen resented them, finding comfort in the fact that in the local hierarchy, the Irish were at least a rung above the Jews.
She found the same discomfort in the arrival of the retired police chief, Ted Cook, another local who knew a thing or two about Aunt Meghan, past and present. Cook had helped find Meghan when she ran away with a sailor she had picked up, getting as far as Connecticut. He arranged for Kate to pay the merchants in the shops Meghan had stolen from. He resisted her attempts to bribe him with oral sex on at least two occasions.
The kitchen was filled with smoke, noise, and relief. The mourners had run the gauntlet of condolences, prayers, and the view of a corpse that, however unsightly, wasn’t theirs. The bell had tolled and not for them. Now was the time for fellowship, food, and libation. The table was packed with food neighbors sent — casseroles, potato salad, cold cuts, and homemade cake and cookies. There was liquor and plenty of it. My grandmother was well off and would not stint on the final arrangements for her daughter, whatever the world thought of her.
My dad worked as a bartender between mundane legal tasks, and he poured with a heavy hand. His cocktails shone like jewels: amber Manhattans garnished with cherries, crystal Martinis with bright olives and pimentos and Creme de Menthe for the ladies, gleaming like emeralds in tiny glasses. He poured some Coca-Cola into a paper cup and admonished me not to tell my mother, who feared wakeful nights, rotting teeth — and a good deal else.
I took a handful of cookies and went into the small den just off the living room where my grandmother kept the TV. I watched “Death Valley Days,” hosted by an actor named Ronald Reagan. But it was already bedtime, and I was asleep in the big armchair before the Coke could have its intended effect. When I woke up, the screen was full of static. It was past midnight, but no one had looked for me.
It took a moment to realize that everyone had gone to bed and I was alone downstairs with my Aunt Meghan, dead in the next room. I was about to slip up the dingy back stairs to my bedroom where my mother had laid out a starched, navy blue dress for me to wear to the funeral the next morning. My dad had told me we would be riding in a huge black car from the church to the cemetery. I think he touted this as a reward for enduring what would be a Solemn High Funeral Mass, sung in Latin with black vestments, incense, and a congregation of bored and emotionless mourners.
But angry voices made me turn and open the door to the living room.
My grandmother was standing in front of the coffin trying to block a tall, heavyset woman and a small boy of about 10 from approaching Aunt Meghan’s corpse. The woman was my Great Aunt Essie, my late grandfather’s sister and my grandmother’s nemesis. We rarely saw Essie or her taciturn husband, Ralph, a Boston fireman. They lived on the top floor of a triple decker in Southie. Essie was childless and worked as the housekeeper in the rectory of St. Brendan’s parish, terrorizing the young curates and tending to the doddering pastor.
Essie had endlessly interfered when my grandmother was widowed and left with two little girls and a substantial legacy from my grandfather, the town saloonkeeper. Essie and her mother had looked down on Kate, a petite and pretty immigrant from Galway. Kate kept them at bay with occasional gifts of money and a constant vigilance against her mother-in-law’s greed and Essie’s sanctimonious and superstitious Catholicism.
“And why shouldn’t I bring the boy here?” Essie’s big hands tightened their grip on the boy’s shoulders and pushed him closer to Kate. “Haven’t I kept him these 10 years, out of sight, away from his whore of a mother and his lying Gran. He needs to know what she was — a murderer — just like you, Kate Callahan! God is punishing you — you let her abort your own grandchild and abandon another. Now she’s dead and in hell. Your hell is just beginning, my girl. Just beginning!”
My grandmother never looked at the boy, who was standing there, wide-eyed but silent. She fixed her gaze on Essie who was looming over her, sweat pouring off her red face. “I’ll not shelter this little bastard another minute!” Essie screamed. “You can take him back, this spawn of the devil and his whore mother! And I’ll be wanting to know how you’ll explain this to the Yankees! They’ll know all about your daughters — whores and lunatics!”
In one swift move, my grandmother reached up, pushing Essie to the floor as her glasses flew into Aunt Meghan’s coffin. She bent down and hissed viciously at Essie.
“Listen to me, you Shanty Irish bitch! We made a bargain and you will keep it. You’ve no choice. I know your husband’s drunk up all your money and that the Boston Fire Department is investigating him and his union cronies for embezzlement. You’ll be needing every dime I pay you to keep this brat and don’t think you’ll be getting a penny more!”
Essie struggled to rise, her height the only advantage left. “I’ll go to his father, then! The name is on his birth certificate! I have it!
“Yes, you do and good luck finding him! He was a Marine based at Quonset Point. Last we heard, headed for Korea,” Kate replied.
“You’re lying!” Essie screamed. “You said he was a married man, here in the state!”
“I said many things, Essie. Just to keep my family together, to keep my girls in hand. No one really knows who the father was. Not even poor Meghan.”
My grandmother turned, looked down at Meghan for a moment, then plucked Essie’s glasses from the pink taffeta folds surrounding her. She handed them to Essie. “You’ve a long drive back to Boston, Essie. I see Ralph is waiting outside. The lad can sleep on the way.”
The boy began to cry — the only sound he had made. Aunt Essie pushed him out the door and my grandmother quickly locked it behind her.
I woke early and put on my navy dress with the white piping, white socks and Mary Janes. I tied a freshly ironed ribbon in my hair and went downstairs. The house was still silent, waiting for the undertakers to come and bear Aunt Meghan away, first to our parish church and then to the family plot where she would lie beside her father.
I sat in the kitchen. The glasses had been cleared, plates washed and ready to return to neighbors. Leftovers carefully wrapped and stored. Liquor bottles returned to the cupboard; empties wrapped discreetly in paper bags. I wondered if Aunt Meghan was still in the living room and harbored a childish hope that Jesus had mercifully taken her away.
I opened the door a crack and peered in. Meghan was still there. And so was my father, his hands clasping hers, his tears staining the pink lining, his cries to heaven floating through the lace curtained windows, shattering the morning air.
Anne Sweeney is a writer and communications consultant based in South Brunswick.