The mother of a colleague at work died last week. She had lived to her early nineties, and in her later years there had been that sad wandering from self that can make death a release and a relief for a family. When I offered condolences early one morning passing my colleague in the halls, Pat gave me a gentle smile. She had managed her farewells to her mother a long time ago.
A Catholic of my own generation, Pat is articulate, well educated and utterly efficient. Her family gatherings – among the most recent her own daughter’s wedding – get into narratives that people at work recognize as Pat’s. It is a large family that many of us met just a few years back at the funeral of a sister; her struggle with cancer had been quiet and heroic.
I arrived at the funeral home in a suburb of Boston yesterday in the late afternoon. It was a place whose address I needed to check on my phone at a certain point. I parked a block before the turn off for a parking lot that I expected to find crowded.
I did not see people from work on the walkways leading to the home. Some colleagues had talked about finishing their Friday work early in the interests of an easier commute to the suburban neighborhood. I got ready to greet Pat and her family on my own rather than as part of a familiar group.
At the front door of the white clapboard building, an employee of the parlor was waiting to greet me. When I nodded at him and started toward the line of people ahead of me down the hall, the gentleman extended his arm in the direction of a room to my left.
“This way, sir.”
With his guidance I found myself walking through two rooms to where the real end of the line of visitors was. I would eventually wend my way through still another room and then down two hallways before I got to the viewing area where Pat and her family greeted the arrival of wave after wave of friends and neighbors.
The laughter of recognition. Expansive embraces. Introductions and conversations, one head leaning close to another in confidential exchange.
Everywhere around the rooms and down the hallways had been photographs of a large, active Boston Irish family and their matriarch – wedding portraits, graduation groupings, vacation vans, anniversary celebrations. Everywhere had been flowers with the names of their donors prominently displayed and easily legible.
This was a Boston I could brush up against again and again and never fully know – a Boston of neighborhoods and Catholic parishes and parochial school friendships that lasted for decades. It was a Boston that had once boasted a priest in every family. It was a Boston down whose funeral parlor hallways generations of families had lined to greet the newly bereaved of other families they knew.
I arrived home over an hour later and amid the familiar intimacies of a Christmas season felt a newcomer still.