“I can’t believe he didn’t get here on time.” This is my father bitching about my brother David during the wake, like it’s David’s fault he’s in Las Vegas for a business meeting (cough) golf (cough) and has to fly back on Thursday morning to make the 4 PM start time. Which was never going to happen because his flight is due to get in at 4, which means he’ll be here around 5 at the earliest. This is like a mortal sin to Dad, to whom appearances are everything at times like this. You have to be seen by the right people doing the right things in the proper way at the correct time, so that everyone will know you are right, proper, and correct. Women have to wear closed-toed shoes and dark nylons. No laughter or loud conversation. Little boys should be quiet and not run around. I can just imagine my Dad looking at Joshua and Connor as they climb all over my nephew Dennis (are they seven and eight or six and seven?) and yelling “Roll over and face the wall!!!!” I have a lot of theories about why my father is like this, but I’ve stopped being surprised or angry about it. Whatever the reason, it’s how he’s wired to light up when somebody flicks the light switch of Ritual. And if that ritual hits too close to home, or threatens his defenses, he not only puts on the armor of propriety, he judges everybody around him by whether or not they’re safely hiding behind the same spotless shell (cough) whitened sepulcher (cough). If any man meets Life’s vicissitudes by obeying James Branch Cabell’s 11th Commandment (“Thou shalt not offend against the notions of thy neighbors.”) it’s my father. And I mean really. Consider the mental gyrations you have to go through to not only blame a passenger on a plane from Las Vegas for the fact that the plane is late, but to accuse him of doing it deliberately. If it wasn’t so absurd, it would be admirable. Makes you wonder what my father did for a living (cough) professor of medieval theology (cough).
“Still whistling?” So there’s this woman sitting next to my Aunt Charlotte, and after a while my brother David goes up to her and gives her a hug, and then says, “Matthew – get over here. Guess who this is.” The woman stands up; I stand in front of her with absolutely no idea of who she is, and because I have a lot of my father in me, I grin and give her a hug and say, “Oh my God! How are you?!?” She looks at me and says, “You have no idea who I am, do you?” “I don’t have a clue,” I say. “I’m Lorraine Grace,” she says, and the expression on my face is probably priceless because David is laughing and even Charlotte is smiling. I figure my face is a cross between NFW and HFS, because Lorraine was THE hot neighborhood looker. Gore juss. Insert favorite synonym for “knockout” here. “The most beautiful girl you’ll ever see,” as Sheila Tagrin used to say, “until she opens her mouth.” At which awkward point you had to somehow reconcile the unlikely marriage of Hollywood looks with a trailer trash vocabulary.
All this goes through my head with the speed of a neutrino. Along with the fact that Lorraine is a year younger than me and I cannot for the life of me see even a trace of her youthful beauty in her current face, not a molecule calls out to me, it’s like looking at two different fingerprint whorls and being told they’re from the same person's thumb. And in less time than it takes to tell, I think five things and say one thing out loud: (1) This woman has not aged gracefully (pun intended); (2) I am an evil person for even putting that thought into words; (3) I have to be polite here, which means I have to lie; (4) “You look great!” I tell her; (5) You are so totally your father’s son, you little hypocrite; and (6) Is this what everyone else is thinking when they say I look great? By the gleam in her eye, Lorraine is thinking of something from long ago. And her reply proves it. “Still whistling?” she says, and everyone within earshot crack s up. Because if you know me at all, you know that’s what I do, and have always done, ever since I was a little kid. I whistle. All the time. As Lorraine says, “You always knew when Matthew was around.” Hell, Lorraine: you still do. Ask anybody I know.
Sidebar: when I say Lorraine was THE neighborhood looker? If you’re younger than 40, you have no idea what I’m talking about, because you grew up in an age where hot women were everywhere: on magazine covers, on billboards, on television, on the internet. Not me. I grew up in an age where the standard of physical beauty had not yet been devalued, like the gold standard, into something debased and common. I grew up in an age where you always judged beauty based on the looks of people you knew in person. And because it was personal, the beauty standard was at one and the same time, more devastating and more accessible. Neighborhood girls competed with each other, not with America’s Top Airbrushed Models. And it wasn’t just a Looks Alone Pageant -- personality was always part of the equation, because (of course) you knew all the contestants personally. Hell, you played Spin The Bottle with them when you were 11. So the queen at the top of the pyramid was not some unreachable ideal, she was the kid in the maroon house with the tree fort behind it. And since everyone else in competition with her was always somebody you knew as well, (a) every level of the pyramid was within your grasp and (b) every girl was a branch of royalty, there wasn’t a one who wasn’t a princess in her own right, or who didn’t create a standard of her own. I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up with a standard of beauty based on magazine covers, or the internet. There’s no way real women can compete with that; and boys being boys, there’s no way they’ll appreciate what they have within their grasp when the standard they’ve been fed is something so facially and physically perfect as to be unnatural. My generation? It sees the girl on the magazine cover for the unnatural thing it is, because we were lucky enough to idolize the girl next door.
“Are all wakes this noisy?” My cousin Joseph's wife Holly turned to me about halfway through the wake and asked me this question. It took me a second to hear what she was saying, because everyone in the room was either talking or laughing. "Our wakes are," I replied. I don't know whether it's the Irish in us or the Italian; or for that matter the Wells or the Coughlan. But when we get together, no matter why, we all have a great time. As Lisa Foley said to me at the graveside service, "The Wellses and the Coughlans. Always thick as thieves."
“Why am I singing 'I Could Have Danced All Night'?” My sister said this when we got home from the wake and repeated it the day of the funeral. I had no answer for her at the time; but now, on reflection, the answer's obvious, at least to me. She was channeling one of the earliest memories I have of Uncle Jack, a memory of his house in Quincy, where he and his family used to live before they moved across the street from us in Randolph. There was a record player in the living room, and a pile of albums next to it, and on top of the pile was the Original Broadway Cast recording of My Fair Lady, with the classic Hirschfeld drawing on the cover:
What was I -- 4? 5? Five tops. I had no idea who George Bernard Shaw was, or what Pygmalion was. All I saw was a wide-eyed girl being used as a puppet by a well-dressed man, and then up in the clouds there was another guy with a beard who was pulling his strings. I didn't have to ask my uncle who that was. It was obvious. The guy in the clouds was God. Who else pulls everyone's strings?
So, thanks to my uncle’s taste in cast recordings, that was my first image of the creator and ruler of the universe. To this day, when I think of God, I picture an old Irish guy with puppet strings hanging down from a cloud. It’s also the second thing I think of when I remember Uncle Jack.
"Go play in traffic." This is the first thing I remember when I think of Uncle Jack. He said it to all of us. And he’s saying it to my mother Lenore right now, over Manhattans.