Thursday, August 19, 2010

Uncle Jack

John J. Duddy, my mother's brother.
July 23, 1923-August 16, 2010
retired firefighter, Arlington MA

I'm not able to attend Uncle Jack's funeral. I saw him twice over the summer. I'm so grateful for a bonus visit I had with him in his home (Grammie and Grampie's house!) a week before he died. A few weeks earlier we had looked through all the family scrapbooks. He had complete recall...who-what-where etc. going back eighty years. He was proud to have been a long time member of the Arlington MA fire department. He had two families and was loved and honored by both. At 87 and in failing health, I can't say his death was unexpected, but it was a shock nonetheless. I had hoped to bring my daughter back to see him in the fall. He told me he would sit and go through the family scrapbooks with her, and I waned badly to take a picture of them together. Not to be.

Here are two Uncle Jack stories, one funny and one sad but beautiful.
The funny one he used to tell on himself.
We had a distant cousin named Julia. She was of my grandparents' (his parents) generation. I remember her as a large, hearty lady with a brogue. She died, and of course it was necessary to go to her wake. Uncle Jack and Grandpa set out but made a few stops along the way. They arrived at the funeral home feeling no pain, tried to gather themselves and went in to pay respects. They looked down on Julia in her casket and thought: "Oh, that cancer is terrible-poor lady. She looks awful." They spent the evening visiting the family, lurching a bit and paid one last visit to the bier ("she looks terrible") and only later were told that that the deceased was a smallish ninety year old MAN they didn't know ("but the family was very nice") and poor Julia was laid out, looking hearty, in another funeral home. True story.

Sad: I understand it was Uncle Jack who found my mother in the basement. He called the Lexington fire department. One of the firemen came to her funeral. I had gone to high school with this guy--didn't know him well. He took me aside and told me "I knew your Uncle was a fire fighter. He wouldn't let us touch your mother. She was in her nightgown and until he covered her he wouldn't let us near her. He was a brother then, not a fireman. We were four big guys with axes and he was a man in his sixties just out of heart surgery and we were all afraid of him!"

Mother used to boss him (all of us) around but in the end it was he who was most protective of her. Sad. Beautiful, though. I loved him before that and I loved him more ever since.

I had three great visits with him this summer and I'm grateful for that. The last time I saw him he was in good form. We were so lucky to have had him as long as we did.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Remembering Mother R

Virgina Hastings died unexpectedly on August 1st at the age of 76. The obituary notice gives the facts and runs a lovely picture, and space is provided for tributes. There will be a lot of tributes. I suspect that the first few will be short. It will be hard, even for the people closest to her to absorb this shock and to find the necessary words. I've moved my thoughts to this blog so as not to hog other's space. The obituary lists her survivors, three adult children, sons and daughters in law, a sister, her sister's family. Just the facts. Its left to others to fill it all in.

I was enough of a jerk in my teens to have little use for my own parents. It was serendipitous that I met Lisa and her mother in 1973 when my jerk-ness was it its height. To meet them is to be immediately assimilated into the extended family structure which has only grown and endured over thirty- five years (is it possible?) They don't ask. They grab you and you hang on for the ride. And what a great journey! Virgina's homes were modest-all of ours were in that pre- McMansion nonsense era- and Virginia's home, whether above a nursing home, or next door to one or later in a a terrific cottage by a lake-her homes were magnets. This woman had the gift of drawing young people to her and offering instant acceptance. Don't confuse acceptance with license or even approval. You had to earn your place at the table-or on the floor next to the stereo speakers-with a degree of class and dignity. You could curse-she did-you could drink-she did-you could fight and scream she did-but the one word I will always associate with Virgina is DIGNITY. She had a complete sense of who she was and what was expected of others. There was a line you didn't cross. But if you stayed on the right side of the line, you got years of unconditional love, of acceptance, of-yes-craziness and disorder, but you never but never forgot to treat yourself and more importantly-to treat others as best you could. That's what Virgina did. I learned that from her. Other people matter. A lot.

Now, about this Mother R nickname. Virgina assigned this name to herself. I use it. I suspect few others do, so I claim ownership, my own bond with her. It is how she signed every Christmas card and every baby gift. As a parent myself now, all those years later I do know enough to be grateful to any sane adult who reaches out and shows an interest. But I'm in my fifties now. Back in those jerk days I threw my relationship with Mother R and her family into my parents face. And they were hurt. R stood for 'Mrs Robinson '. That's how my own Mother referred to her at first. It wasn't meant kindly, not yet. My father didn't care. Lisa was and is a dish and knew how to wrap him around-well lets just say that Bill as an easy conquest. Mary was something else. She was threatened , and it took a few years for a deep appreciation to grow, that she knew I had a safe place and that Virginia-Mother R-was at its center (I never used the term 'Mother' about another woman in my own Mother's presence. I had that much sense at least and I suspect Virgina would have read me the riot act had I done so) Mary's innate and very deep goodness and generosity kicked in after a few years. Bill just made gaga eyes at Lisa and that was fine. So you see, Mother R was the catalyst who brought out goodness in everyone-even if it was hard to dig out at first of seventeen year old jerks back in 1973. My contact with her dwindled and dwindled as the years went by, I married, had a child, moved away, moved on. Well, you can move on all you like but just like that line not to be crossed you only got to move but so far. Thank God.

I've thought of the music I heard in Mother R's house-mostly Wagner and Verdi and ALWAYS LOUD and I think of the Red Sox game on with the sound turned off while Isolde is dying or the Valkyries are crying or Sigmund and Sieglinde are sighing. I will never think of the Sox or Wagner ever again without thinking of her. What a gift!

I 'm feeling a bit presumptuous writing these lines. I was not her child. She had three children and the were the stars. The rest of us were satellites,-and I was one of many-but we were warmed by the same sun. The lessons were love and dignity and school remains in session. Finally, Mother R's example leads me to reach out to my own parents, to acknowledge them with love and thanks many years after their deaths. It's the best tribute I can pay to put photos of all three of them on this post. {That's Mother R with the glasses.} Mary and Bill will be among the many greeting Mother R in eternal happy hour!