The waking of cousin Andrew
Well, Jack Plane has done it, once again. In a short post, about the traditional height of joynt stools, Jack has triggered my memory to recall one of the most colorful memories of my Grandfather. Not about my Grandfather, the man, but about a family story of his that is legend.
First, let me say that my Grandfather’s family was Orange Irish. For those of you who don’t know the history of the Island, just be advised that Gramps’ side of the family were Protestants. Ultimately they were, pretty much secular people, but in times of trouble or grief, they would have found comfort amongst Presbyterians. Now, you may think that Presbyterians would tend to be teatotalers. But not all. The old man’s family came from that group of Irishmen who understood the “old language” and uisge beatha (whiskey) meant the “the water of life”.
My Grandfather was born in 1896. His cousin Andrew was several years older and it was clear that Gramps looked up to him. Andrew was known for his good looks, his pleasant personality and his skill as a boatwright. He was known never to start a fight, but, indeed, never walked away from an insult. And, of course, he was known as a fierce man with the ladies. And for all this, he was only a man in his early twenties. He was, most of all, “the apple of his father’s eye”. So, it came to pass that Andrew died. He may have been a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic or some other illness of the era, but, nonetheless, Andrew was no more.
In those days, the dead (working people and, especially the Irish in America) were “laid out” at home. The women of the family would clean and dress the body and it would be laid on some type of bier in the house, where grieving guests would be received in order to observe “the waking”. (And some folks from the West would pray for the spirit’s entry into Tir na Og.)
So there was cousin Andrew. Laid out upon the bier. Barrel of beer at one side and a cask of whisky on the other. His father, so bereft, apparently had far too much to drink and requested that all the men of the family should help him lift Andrew into a standing position in the corner, so’st he could have one more drink with those who loved him so dearly. It seems that the lifeless Andrew had more than one drink. In fact, there were so many drinks poured down poor cousin Andrew’s corpse, that the ladies of the family had to remove him from the waking to be washed and dressed, anew. We should all be loved so much.
The last person I know of who was laid out at home was my wife’s Grandmother. This would have been around 1960. It seems strange to us these days, but it was as natural as could be. Death was simply the ending part of life. And why would anyone want to do that anywhere else except at home.
Every once in a while I’ll get a little morbid and tell my wife and the kids (all adults now) that I’d like to be “laid out” at home. I’ve already got the stools and there are boards in the shop. Why give the Undertaker the money? Call my friends in for one last toast (and those that aren’t my friends, well, give them a drink and let them have one good thing to say about me), roll me down the hill into the river and, perhaps, I’ll wind up where I’m supposed to be. They humor me, although, most of the time, they just don’t see my humor.