Sentimental Sunday: Routines and Rituals

Note: Posting was light last week because of a death in the extended family, which prompted this post. It isn’t exactly genealogy, I’ll admit. But it IS sentimental.

What takes you by surprise is how practiced you’ve become at this routine.

The long-distance phone call, answered with a pleasure that vanishes with the bad news. The day spent conferring with your brothers and sisters, discussing logistics. Who can make the funeral, and who can’t? Who’s carpooling with whom?

The most appropriate outfit for the funeral is always at the cleaners. Why is this? Never mind; just get down there to liberate it before they close for the day. And print out the directions to everyplace (when are you going to get a GPS, already?).

A day later, you rattle down the expressways and over the bridges to a church in an area you dimly remember from childhood visits. Or maybe you just think you remember it. There have been many morning funeral Masses in many sunny churches. (Except for your father’s, where everything seemed dark, which can’t be right, because he was buried on a broiling, bright August day.)

So many little packages of Kleenex, discreetly unearthed from purses and pockets. Nobody wants to come unprepared. (“Make sure you have lots of tissues,” the church secretary told you and one of your sisters the day before your mother’s funeral. “You may not think you’re going to cry in front of everyone, but you will.” Your sister, furious, said the secretary had no right to make assumptions about such a thing, and she stayed dry-eyed the next day. But only at church.)

People do cry. Including yourself, including at funerals where the death was expected, the illness long. There is always something that breaks your heart and your composure. Sometimes it’s just the sheer weight of all those past funerals. Singing the hymns helps, if it’s a singing kind of crowd. But Irish families, who love to sing at parties, don’t always do that sort of thing at funerals.

The ride to the cemetery always snaps you back to attention. Clinging to your spot in a long procession of cars winding through neighborhood streets and crowded parkways is a tradition in your big Northeastern family. Someone always gets lost somewhere. There was a huge problem once trying to get to Holy Cross in Flatbush, involving your father and a wrong turn or two that he never discussed afterward. Determined not to become a family story this time out, you grip the steering wheel grimly, refusing to let civilians cut in on the procession. Too bad for them.

After the cemetery, there is lunch. The restaurant is an old favorite of the aunts and uncles and cousins. You went to your first big grown-up party there. Your 13-year-old has been there, too, although she would not remember, being one at the time. The decor and the menu are unchanged. Ditto the waiters, unsmiling but fast, quiet and efficient. There is great pleasure in eating and talking with all the cousins, catching up. When you were younger, you wasted a lot of energy feeling guilty about taking pleasure in such a thing, on such a day. Now you just roll with it.

All too soon, it’s time to go. You need to beat the traffic at the bridge crossings. Everyone hugs, and the cousins ask whether you will be all right, going all the way back to Jersey. Of course you will be. It isn’t really that far. Unlike the distance from the time when the parents and the uncles and the aunts were all alive, when the parties and fights and jokes were epic, when you were one of the kids.

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