TODAY'S PAPER
65° Good Afternoon
65° Good Afternoon
Opinion

A-waking to Irish laughter

I wear a "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" T-shirt every St. Patrick's

Day, love soda bread and can listen to a guy with a brogue speak all day, but

since I'm only half Irish and a third-generation American, that's the most in

touch I am with that side of my heritage. Not a big drinker, I have had trouble

relating to that part of the Irish culture. I got a much better understanding

of it, however, when my grandmother died two years ago.

While making funeral arrangements, my scattered-throughout-the-country

family was in touch through e-mail. In my mother's messages, she kept referring

to planning an "Irish wake," saying it'd have minimum crying with maximum

laughing and storytelling.

The laughter started for me when my mother wrote, "Jess will be coming in

on Tuesday, Al, Chris and Anne on Wednesday," and proceeded to give everyone's

arrival times. "And God willing, Mom [my dead grandmother] will be on Delta

flight 542 coming in tonight." It turned out that the family was having

problems transporting my grandmother's body from Arizona to New York, so the

line wasn't meant to be a joke. But the tongue-in-cheek delivery was definitely

in the spirit of what was to come.

When the Irish wake began at my parents' three-bedroom house in Queens,

relatives on my mother's side hadn't been together in 14 years. Unlike the

somber funeral experiences I was accustomed to - and had come to think were

proper - we had a joyous family reunion. Two refrigerators and three coolers

were filled with alcohol. In three days of festivities, my dad made numerous

beer runs; it felt more like a frat party each day.

Sharing stories over drinks, which helped loosen up folks who had become

strangers over time, we reminisced about my grandmother's obsession with our

love lives. One of the ways I knew her Alzheimer's was getting worse was when

she no longer asked if I'd met "a nice young fella." At my cousin Amy's

wedding, my confused grandmother whispered, "Have you found a good guy yet?"

not realizing Amy was in a bridal gown.

I told about flying with her to Arizona, where she spent winters. On her

way to the rest room, instead of steadying herself by grabbing the tops of

seats, she clutched fellow passengers' heads. At 15, I walked behind her the

whole way mouthing apologies to each person after she supported her

(thankfully, only 90-pound) body weight on his head.

After the evening viewing hours, the house would become the scene of a

rowdy shindig - smiling faces, pats on the backs, and my uncles slapping their

knees at funny stories. A passing stranger might wonder how anyone found the

energy to throw such a wild party on a Thursday night.

On the third day, when we arrived at the cemetery, we took smiling family

photographs (at least not near the headstone). The "after-party" was at a

restaurant with outrageously strong drinks - the kind my grandmother adored.

More than one person ordered bourbon and soda, her signature, and raised their

glass. Even when the Alzheimer's was in its most acute stages, she had still

remembered her favorite drink.

The days I spent mourning, or rather celebrating, we remembered a woman who

had never turned down a piece of chocolate, who at 86 juggled more suitors

than I had at 23, and who would cry when speaking of the husband she'd buried

40 years before. Our brood honored her by laughing louder, embracing tighter

and giving thanks for each other. Although some had a long drive home or an

early flight, we stayed late because being together felt important (and was

fun).

In the years since, the family has formed a busy e-mail chain; I've been

invited to celebrate Thanksgivings with cousins I barely knew before. Maybe

that's the secret behind the "luck" of the Irish. They know that family,

relationships and good stories are what life - and death - are all about.

Jessica Wozinsky is a Queens-based writer.

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

Columns