Incense: A Remembrance

I remember the incense most; not what words were said, what songs we sung, or what prayers we prayed. I only really remember the incense and the tears and the long aisle lined with people in nice clothes.

I should back up.

Mary McDermott was my Gammy, my great-grandmother on my mom’s side, and the head of my family by virtue of age, but really because no one wanted to disagree with her. She was the daughter of Irish immigrants--tall, strong-willed, devout, liberal as hell, full of laughter and fierce sarcasm. She was also the first McDermott child born in the States, and her life was proof the family didn’t intent to abandon its Irish-Catholic heritage just because they took a long boat ride.

Now, Gammy would never use this word, but she was an early feminist. She raised three constantly up-to-no-good boys and held a job outside the home as one the country’s first telephone operators. Nevertheless, she kept the inside of her heavily-trafficked home immaculate up until the day she died. Even in her 80s, it was not uncommon for me to visit and find her dusting her framed portrait of President Kennedy while wearing pearls and an apron and drinking two fingers of whiskey. In fact, unlike many young boys, my first drink wasn’t a sip of my dad’s beer can on a fishing trip with a warning not to tell my mom. No, my first drink was a heavy tumbler of Irish whiskey with a shot of eggnog on Christmas Eve. I was in second grade. I drank the whole thing. I don’t know if I’m proud of this or not, but the quality of my gift-wrapping decreased only slightly. Still, with my feet dangling from the chair pulled up to the kitchen table where we were wrapping presents, I waved off a refill. Know your limits, I was taught.

The essence of my Gammy was pride -- not pride in herself (although she was certainly not lacking in self-confidence) but pride in her family. She loved us all unconditionally and even the smallest bit of news would bring a smile. What’s that? You bought new shoes? Smile.

Whenever I would visit her apartment -- which was in a building directly between my parents’ house and my grandfather’s house just down the street, only a few dozen yards from each -- she would call me over to where she was sitting in her big, beige recliner, put her hands on my shoulders, and pull me close. There was an air of gravity to these huddles, like we were two clandestine agents crossing paths and sharing secrets.

“Let me have a look at what you’re wearing,” she’d say, and then she’d tilt her head back and squint so she could see through her bifocals, and the heavy atmosphere would disappear.Fully prepared now, Gammy would spend some 15 to 30 seconds looking at the front of my sweater or t-shirt or whatever, making noises of approval mostly to herself -- “uhm-hmm,” “uh-huh,” “oh that’s nice,” “that’s a dog on a skateboard? How cute”-- before spinning me around so she could inspect the back of the garment as well. Then she’d begin the process all over again -- “uhm-hmm,” “uh-huh.”

The last year before she died, the cataracts doubled their attack and Gammy’s eyesight disappeared almost overnight. Our encounters passing state intelligence and weighing the relative merits of a red, striped sweater and a blue Transformers t-shirt became something different. She continued the ritual of inspecting my clothes, but now I described to her what I was wearing, telling her what the stupid catch-phrase covering my chest said, or if it was a Phillies jersey or a Flyers jersey. She died not long after.

Her funeral was held in the same place where she was christened 88 years before, inside the new, ornate church where your voice always echoed and that squatted where the humble old church of her youth had stood. The same church where I was christened and where I first received Communion. And it was the same church in which, 12 years later, in 2001, I would pray the rosary out loud over and over and over again, trying to ignore the awful silence of the empty sky, and startling at every outside noise, anticipating the interruption of my prayers.

But that day, the day of the funeral, as my family walked together down the center aisle, past the hundreds of mourners who’d come to pay their respect to an astonishing woman who had been there from the beginning, who had always been there, and witnessed their town grow up around her, I could only smell incense. So I sat in one of the front pews between my parents not really listening, distracted, wanting to be somewhere else, away from all of these people crowding in on my family -- on me. They didn’t know my Gammy. Not the way I did. They were just other people, going through the motions and it was terrible and then ... it was over. I heard the priest say the final blessing, caught myself making the sign of the cross -- an instinct or a reflex triggered, not unlike the Manchurian Candidate, by certain words with subliminal powers -- and it was over. The only noises were the everyday, common noises of crowds standing and shuffling, trying to get out of a building.

Something was wrong. Something was missing. I didn’t understand it fully at the time, but all of my family, caught up in the eternal Irish struggle of whether to be strong and silent or to open the floodgates and let the tears flow forth, resolved themselves to stoicism. The tears would come later, perhaps, with the drink, one long night in the future, but this day was for strength. And I was having none of it.

It was at that moment, as the collected mourners put on their coats and shuffled out of the church through the big double doors underneath the beautiful stained glass windows, when I felt completely the utter finality of my Gammy’s life in mine. She was gone and I couldn’t get to her and why wasn’t anyone else crying?

And I wept, openly, fully, without thought to the spectacle. Why wasn’t anyone else crying? I kept thinking. Why didn’t my cousins -- my many cousins -- cry like I was?

I cried the length of the church past rows of watching eyes, and I cried out through the grand double doors under the stained glass windows, and I cried along the sidewalk to the waiting limousine at the curb, and I cried as we slowly drove away from the church and followed the Hearse to the cemetery on the hill where so much of my family was already buried and where too many more would find their way in the years ahead. The tears overwhelmed me. But what I remember most was the incense.