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Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Tale of Two Transitions (Part I)

Aunt Dolly, my mother's aunt and my Great-aunt, passed away on June 24.  For decades, Aunt Doll and her family lived in a south Philadelphia rowhome just around the corner from my grandparents.  My mom and her siblings basically grew up in both houses, so they are feeling the loss of their lone remaining mother figure acutely.  At the same time, they understand just how lucky our family was: Aunt Dolly lived 95 years, and her faculties stayed with her nearly every mile of the journey.

My sister, Suzi, and I drove to south Philly for Aunt Dolly's funeral.  The Mass took place at St. Gabriel Catholic Church as the temperature in the City of Brotherly Love ascended to cruel heights.  My only other trip to St. Gabe’s was on a frigid Saturday in February of 2008 for a first cousin’s wedding.  Based on these two visits, I’ve concluded that the parish may believe in many doctrines, but central climate control is not one of them. 

But even the heat inside the church couldn’t mar the beautiful eulogy Doll's youngest granddaughter delivered.  She described our aunt's generosity of spirit, her spunk, and her singular ability to wield the phrase “Damn it to Hell” like an all-purpose punctuation mark.  I awarded my cousin serious bonus points for carrying on the family legacy from the altar.

This episode reminded me of the eulogy my father gave at the funeral Mass for his best friend, Vince, who died in 2002 after a prolonged bout with cancer.  From the altar at Nativity Parish in Burke, Virginia, Dad spoke of rituals he and Vince shared over their three decade friendship.  These included playing softball, going fishing, and downing a shot of whiskey every Christmas Eve from a boot-shaped shot glass.  (I don't know where the boot came from or what its significance was, but it was obviously important enough to get invited to Christmas every year.)

After telling the large group of assembled mourners about the Christmas Eve tradition, my father bowed his head and put his hands in his pockets.  My mother, siblings and I exchanged concerned glances. We knew Dad would hate it if he cracked in front of everyone.  From our seats in the crowd we sent him silent encouragement to go on.

As if in response, Dad lifted his head and fixed us with a look of grim resolve.  Slowly, he removed his hands from his pockets.  In them, he held the glass boot and a miniature bottle of bourbon. 

“Forgive me, Father,” he said, as he unscrewed the bottle, poured the contents into the shoe, and proceeded to knock back a boot of booze from his post on the altar.  Our row traded alarmed glances for a new reason.  We endured an uncomfortable silence that felt like months.

And then it was broken, not by the priest saying "Thank you, but that's quite enough," as most of us likely expected, but by the sound of two hands coming together in applause.  We never learned the identity of the intrepid pioneer clapper, but whoever he was, he didn't have to worry about spending too much time alone in this particular wilderness.  The congregation erupted in a wave of applause, both for Dad's bold move and for the moment of genuine laughter that burst right into the middle of their grief.   

No wonder people say funerals are for the living.

[Tune in tomorrow for the splattier side of the transitional coin...] 

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