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April 24, 2004
My grandmother’s friend used to say that sometimes the going out was a lot more interesting than the coming in. She knew what she was talking about, being Irish and very traditional. Her father’s laying-in was my first introduction to waking, keening and funerals from home.
It was literally one dark and stormy night when at five years old, I was bundled into the front seat of dad’s 1937 Chevrolet and sandwiched between he and my grandmother for a trip into the bowels of Luther Marsh. Grandmother was going to sit a body, that of her friend’s father. Dad was to give her a ride into the swamp then turn around and come right back home again. Of course, it didn’t happen that way, and thereby hangs a tale.
The yard was full of cars by the time we arrived. There wouldn’t be room in the house, Dad said, to swing a cat although I could never figure out why anyone would want twirl a cat by its tail. Before they left the car, Dad reminded Grandmother that it was an Irish Wake and that she knew full well what to expect. Grandmother reminded him that drink would flow freely and that mother expected him back soon and sober. Dad walked grandmother to the door, spend a few minutes talking with someone then came back for me. We were going to pay our respects to the dead before we headed home, he said.
The house was full of fiddle music and people of all ages. We squeezed our way through the crowd to a dark room. By the light of one coal oil lamp I saw an old man playing a dirge on a fiddle. Other shadowy figures sat in a circle around the room, drinking glasses in hand, talking loudly. A woman dressed in black, sat at the head of a large wooden box that appeared to be suspended in mid-air. Someone lifted me up so I could see old Mr. ---- and a female voice said I should touch body and then I wouldn’t be afraid of the dead. I wasn’t touching anything and squirmed so much I was put down again. I knew what dead meant and I wasn’t about to feel it too.
In my child-eyes, the box did appear to be floating in the air. I figured that the pale old gentleman lying in it was well on his way to heaven, but that he was kept in the room because the box couldn’t float past the ceiling. I was also expecting angels, not fiddle music. I couldn’t figure out how angels, if they came, could get the box past the low ceiling either. So, you see even then I had quite an imagination.
Dad was handed a glass and I was taken to the kitchen that was chock-a-block full of women. One set me in a rocking chair in a corner. Cookies and milk flowed like manna from heaven. My corner of the room was warm so I fell asleep. When dad did finally collect me, the music was playing even louder and people were laughing and singing in the parlour. When I asked where Grandmother was, dad said that as a friend of the family, she was asked to be one of the Keeners so was staying the night. When I asked what a Keener was he said, someone who did a lot of cat-a-wailing and that I’d hear one when he got home because he’d had a drink or two.
Later, Grandmother said the partying got a little out-of-hand to suit her sensible Italian mourning customs. She said that sometime during the revelry the men took the coffin and propped it up in a corner so the dead man could enjoy his own wake. She told me that Keening meant sitting with the deceased and making noise all night to keep the evil spirits from stealing the soul. The partying she said was the way the Irish, in death, celebrated of the person’s life. Stories were told, favourite songs sung. Drink flowed like water. It wasn’t her way but she didn’t condemn their custom.
Of course, when my great-granny died a short time later, I expected a party. Although funeral homes were very much in vogue, grandmother decided that the laying-in would be in her home. This was one of the last at-homes in Fergus. While the body was “away”, Grandmother’s house was scrubbed from top to bottom, with special emphasis on the parlour. Mother’s kitchen went into overtime as she baked cookies, cakes and pies. Neighbours dropped in with covered dishes and cooking instructions. A huge black bow hung on the front door of both homes.
Tradition dictated that the coffin was to be brought in the back door and taken out the front on the day of the funeral. Problems developed when the men tried to bring the coffin in the back way. The door was too narrow. After some discussion, grandmother was sent to her bedroom and the coffin turned on its side and jiggled through. It was carried into the living room and set on a plank and saw-horse base. Black cloth was pinned around so that the make-shift apparatus wouldn’t be seen. Ah-ha, that’s why the old gentleman’s coffin appeared to be floating! The parlour door was closed and undertaker rearranged the body.
Great-granny was no sooner in place then a loud engine noise was heard outside. Everyone ran to see if my eccentric uncle Carl had arrived from northern Ontario. He was expected but arriving in a most unusual fashion. Overhead, a seaplane was flying up the valley at an alarmingly low height. Carl had buzzed the house and was now on a return loop, wiggling the plane’s wings to say hello, Then he flew east toward Lake Belwood, but not before making one final wide, low, noisy turn over the village.
Dad ran for his car and I ran too. I wasn’t going to be left out! A long stream of vehicles headed for the Lake. Some knew Carl. Others were following the plane that was tipping from side to side in a maniacal fashion. By the time we got to the lake, the plane was anchored off-shore and Hugh Cameron’s boat was standing by. Carl opened the door and stepped onto a pontoon, dressed dramatically in high lace-up boots, Kalki pants, leather bomber jacket and flyman’s goggles. He never did anything without a theatrical flourish. Out of the plane’s interior came boxes of white fish and deer steaks, packed in ice, and one small suitcase. After the plane was taxied into a quiet cove where Hugh could keep an eye on it, the same motorcade made its way back into Fergus.
After Carl’s arrival, the house was divided into three camps. Grandmother held her own in the parlour. Carl held court in the dining room. Mother commanded the kitchen. Between the three areas there was never a dull moment. As people arrived they were invited to pay their respects in the parlour. Candles burned brightly around the coffin. Grandmother stood beside the box. Several women were nearby fingering rosary beads. There was no music, no laughter, no drinking. The room was gravely silent. After signing a register, visitors had a bite to eat. Menfolk ended up in the dining room where Carl entertained with tales of prospecting and life in the bush. The women congregated in the kitchen.
One of those wooden crates held an ample supply of liquor destined for the menfolk. The women sipped Grandmother’s dandelion wine that could knock-the-socks-off the strongest man. People that dropped in over mealtimes were invited to sit down with the family. Tables were set at both grandmother’s house, and ours, across the driveway. Several stayed through two meals.
Great-granny, never alone, resided in the parlour over two nights before being taken out the front door for a short ceremony at St. Joseph’s church. Exiting with the coffin was much easier because the front door was wider than the back entrance. There was one final small touching incident. Before the coffin was put in the hearse it was turned to fully face Great-granny’s house, next door to Grandmother’s property. A prayer was offered that wished her Godspeed on the voyage that was taking her into uncharted skies. It was said by rough and tumble Uncle Carl with many a tear in his eye.
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