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
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
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.