family history

My Aunt Peachy is 101. She is the youngest of my Grandma C’s family, dad’s mother. She’s lived in a care facility for the last ten years after a fall took out her hip. Up until then, she lived on her own. She even drove though she’d shrunk so much she had to sit on two or three thick telephone books just to see over the dash. Don’t ask me how she managed the gas and the brake.

Peach is a former special education teacher and she is a writer. She’s gone back to college more times than I can count. She was still auditing courses at Loras College around the time of her fall.

She writes a fairly regular column of sorts for the local paper where she tells stories about “the olden days” as Dee would call them. Although Dee makes no distinction between my personal “olden days” and those of her grandmother and great-great aunt. Anything that predates her is olden.

This week Peach wrote about her auntie, Sr. Mary Lucian, coming to visit from the convent in town. In big Irish Catholic families back then, it was common to have a child or two dedicate themselves to the church. In fact some families even designated the children and forced them in that direction from an early age. I don’t remember Sr. Lucian. I am fairly certain she was dead before I was born. She was Grandad Fagan’s sister at any rate. Among his children, no nuns were produced though all his daughters were educated beyond high school and became teachers or nurses. My Great-uncle John was the only one “called” to God. I can’t imagine a poorer choice on the part of an omnipotent being, but who am I to judge worthiness, eh?

Peach mentions both John and Matt in her article. They were the two youngest boys but still a bit older than she was. John was a terror, and I remember him clearly though we didn’t see him much after he retired from his parish in Cogon, Iowa and went south because of his heart problems and asthma. He died the summer before I graduated from college and I clearly remember being forced to attend his funeral. I only went for a chance to mentally cuss his lifeless body. He was a mean old man who never missed an opportunity to take pot shots, but he was crafty too because he always managed to be out of earshot of the other adults when he said something to me. No witnesses meant it was my word against a priest’s. The last conversation I can remember having with him ended when he said,

“Do you know how fat your are?”

I was fourteen and plenty aware of what I looked like. We were in the living room at Aunt Peach’s. I’d been reading and he wandered in and found me by myself.

Peach was the only one who didn’t take crap from John. She was the only one who didn’t address him as “Father” either.

There are stories aplenty about Fr. John in my family. I have always doubted that he was called to the church as much as he was told that was what he was going to do though I could be wrong. He was not the only short-tempered, dismissive angry priest I encountered in my younger years. Most of the stories about Fr. John stem from his alcoholism. He was as devoted to the bottle as he was to the Pope.

During WWII he was stationed in North Africa. He was an Army chaplain who earned the nickname “Foxhole Fagan”.  Not on account of his fondness for his own skin, but as the result of rolling a jeep over a foxhole while he was drunk.

He officiated at the wedding ceremonies of both my parents and my dad’s older sister and her husband. On both occasions male members of the family were sent looking for him as weddings seemed to bring about the need to go on a bender starting with the rehearsal dinner. My mom’s mother was livid when my dad’s younger brother, and best man, Jimmy, showed up to the church late with a much worse for wear priest in tow.

I don’t remember Fr. John as a drunk, but I do recall hearing that he gave up the bottle at the insistence of his superiors who sent him off to dry out a few times before a heart attack finally convinced him to give up the demon drink. For all of my conscious recollection, he was a sharp-tongued, wick-witted old man who never seemed particularly pleased with the life his Lord had allotted him.

My Uncle Matt was a different matter. I heard stories of a wild and rebellious youth because he and his father did not get on, but the fellow I knew was jovial, sweet and tender. One of my favorite childhood pictures is of me and Uncle Matt when I was about three years old. He had a habit of stopping by every couple of weeks with a bag of Brach’s root beer barrels and sitting just long enough to have a cup of coffee with Dad and catch up before heading back to his home that backed up to the city golf course.

At the point where my memories of him begin, he lived alone. His wife – who I never knew – had died during a trip to California to visit relatives. She had a heart attack. There was at least one photo of her setting out in the dining room, I think. Their daughter was grown and gone off to college when I was younger than Dee is now. Uncle Matt never remarried or kept company even as far as I know, and I remember being quite surprised to discover he’d been married and his wife had died. I was very young when I learned about it and who knows how I rationalized a man having a daughter without ever having a wife. Perhaps I’d been watching too much television. Motherless and fatherless families abounded in the tv wasteland of my childhood. I wondered at his cheerfulness. How could he be so loving and happy when his wife had died. Even my widowed grandmothers and great-aunts sometimes seemed … distant. We had a widowed neighbor down the street whose husband had committed suicide and, though she was a lot like Matt in that I never saw her without a smile or heard a harsh word from her, she had a sadness about the eyes.

I would stop in to visit Matt after he went into the nursing home where my grandmother (his older sister) lived when I was in college. He’d had a stroke and couldn’t communicate very well, but he always had a half-smile and a squeeze of the hand in lieu of a hug.

Dad looked a lot like Uncle Matt in his later years. After he gave up drinking and embraced the idea of life – finally – he even had Matt’s gentleness.

My great-aunt is the only one of that generation left. When she dies she will take all these memories that make up my extended history with her. For years, my cousin and I have talked about the need to sit down and record, but in the meantime, Aunt Peachy writes for us.

My parents were the younger and youngest children in their families respectively. By the time they met and married, they had nieces and nephews in grade school. Due to circumstances beyond their control, they couldn’t have children and after seven years, they adopted me. So I was always one of the younger cousins. I was a child when many of my cousins married and started families of their own.

My oldest cousin, Dar, married at nineteen and her six children were more like first cousins to my sibilings and I then she ever was. Although I lost touch with my extended family when I went off to university, I did grow up, in a sense, with these second cousins.

Dar died a few years ago after a long battle with cancer. She was in her mid to late fifties. Young by today’s standards though my own widowhood has taught me that people are very unrealistic about what “young” really means. I think my late husband may have been in hospice at the time, so I didn’t get back for the funeral and never sent a note or card to her husband. At the family reunion this last June however I had a long talk with one his daughters and discovered that he has adjusted, as we all do, and was doing well.*

DNOS called me Sunday morning to let me know that Dad was not doing well. He’d had a rough night. His breathing was not good and he couldn’t get out of bed. But she had other news too.

Dar’s youngest son, who is thirty, came home after an outing with their two older children – aged 8 and 2 – to find his wife on the bed and not breathing. He discovered  her because their baby, born just this August, was crying. He and his father tried to revive her but she was already gone. She was just 27.

Twenty-seven is very young.

I called a cousin who is close to the family. She is DF’s godmother in fact. She filled me in on the details. Everyone focus’s on the details in the aftermath. The timeline of events takes on huge significance. The story is told and retold, passed from one person to another. It’s important, as validating as the life that is now over. And it will eventually make the loss real.

I reminded my cousin that DF will need support for a long time to come and to not let that be forgotten after the first few months, as it sometimes is.**

CousinA also talked with me a bit about Dad’s turn*** and how hard it is for us now too. But I didn’t agree. 27 is not 81. Young and healthy with a life ahead of you and small children is not old and ill with grown children. All deaths are not equal. Some are more tragic and more unfair.

I have no prompt today, but I invite you to share your tales of loss or memories of loved ones. It’s a good thing to tell the stories because they are reminders in these uncertain days of the other thing we have in common with each other – our mortality.


*How well a bereaved person is doing is never really known to anyone but the person. Family and friends always believe we are better than we are. It’s a very subjective call.

**She agreed and of course brought up that if anyone would know this it would be me. I don’t like being an expert on the subject.

***I am reminded was we speak that death often comes in threes. My uncle’s wife two weeks ago and now my cousin’s. And Dad has taken a turn.