Eleanor Rigby, Part I

July 1, 2000
Saturday

I remember the summer of 1960 for three things: you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing Percy Faith’s “Theme from A Summer Place,” a lot of otherwise conservative men (although certainly not my father) grew bushy beards because it was the centennial of the founding of Harrisburg, and I went to a lot of funerals.

At least I remember it as a lot, although I can find only two gravesites among my mother’s relatives that fit the time period. I found two others from 1961, so perhaps in my mind they all run together, as the winters do for Dylan Thomas, who can’t remember if it snowed six inches when he was four or four inches when he was six. But it seems as if every few days we – my mother, her sister Mary, my sister Rosie, almost 10, and my cousin Jimmie who, like me, had just turned 13 – were piling into our two-tone gray 1958 Ford Fairlane for the two hour (and then some) trip to Mahanoy City.

My mother was fifty that year. She was descended from several generations of people who were long-lived, married late, and had children into their forties. Thus she had many cousins ten, fifteen, even twenty years older than she. I didn’t know many of these people, but I do remember the Flaherty women.

Marion, Margaret, Genevieve, and Anna were the daughters of my mother’s Aunt Mayme (Mary), my grandmother’s sister. None of them ever married, and they were well into their sixties by the time I knew them.

Of Marion, the oldest born in 1900, I have no recollection. Genevieve, the third daughter, lived in Pottsville, in an apartment we (my mother and sister and I) spent one sweltering weekend in, probably during The Summer of Funerals. Despite the heat and my mother’s repeated offer to treat us all to dinner at a fine restaurant, Genevieve cooked us the traditional Irish Sunday dinner – a roast of beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, string beans bought fresh and topped and tailed by hand, biscuits, and a double crust fruit pie for dessert. We sweated out the calories as we ate.

Anna, the youngest, entered the convent as a teenager in the early 1920s. During her novice year she fell seriously ill – diphtheria, maybe. There is a family legend that during this illness she generated huge quantities of soiled linen which were saved for her in the basement and which she had to wash by hand when she recovered. Depending on who did the telling, the details included an emphasis on the cruelty of the nuns and the spunky defiance of Anna.

For whatever reason, Anna left the convent, but remained a very spiritual and prayerful woman all of her life. She wrote devotional poetry which she had privately published. I have some of those booklets among my family artifacts. And she was quite fond of my sister and me. Every Christmas she would send us some carefully-chosen gift. I remember in particular a small ceramic coin bank shaped like a purse, with a dime already rattling around in it. It was bad luck to give someone a money holder – wallet, bank, coin purse – that was empty. The gifts were quaint and spoke more to the personality of Cousin Anna than that of the 1960s teenager I had become. But acknowledging them with a prompt and specific note taught me much about the art of the thank-you letter, and I retain a great fondness for both the gifts and the giver.

Margaret, born in 1902, had flaming red hair. Known as “Marge,” she graduated from Millersville State Normal School in 1921 and became a teacher. By the 1960s the school had become Millersville State College (it’s Millersville University now), and a week or so before I entered it she sent me a lovely long letter reminiscing about her experiences there and wishing me well.

In particular I remember the part where she described the “lovely suite of rooms” she occupied in Old Main. By the time I got there, freshman girls were packed in four to a room (thus eight in the “suites” that in Marge’s day had held two) and some of them had to spread plastic over their clothes in the closet because the bees who lived in the attic dripped their honey down through the cracks in the floor. The building was razed in 1968, and there’s a memorial garden and bell tower there now. I never walk past it without thinking of Marge.

Thus when I saw that the grave being dug yesterday morning was for someone I was related to and actually remembered, I knew I had no choice but to return for the services. According to the paper, Marge had died in a nursing home in Florida (where she had lived for many years), and presumably a funeral Mass was read there. Only graveside committal services were to be held in St. Canicus Cemetery, beginning at 9:00.

I arrived about 8:45. Over at the first gravesite I’d seen the Fegleys dig there was a blue canopy and covered chairs set out. The Ringtown Vault Works truck was there, and several men were just finishing up with the placing of the vault. At the second place I’d seen the Fegleys digging there was nothing but a mound of the excavated dirt and boards placed over the hole. When the Ringtown crew were finished with the first grave, I thought they’d come to place the vault for Marge, but they pulled their truck into a waiting area and sat there. When no one had come by 9:15, I drove down into the town.

At the funeral home, the family for the other funeral were gathered. (Their Mass was scheduled for 9:30.) People greeted me as I slipped into the reception area, obviously mistaking me for a friend of the deceased. I tried to be unobtrusive, and fortunately I was able to identify the funeral director who had just dispatched his son to bring the hearse around to the front.

He apologized profusely, especially when he learned I’d come from Harrisburg. The newspaper had printed the wrong information. Miss Flaherty’s committal service was scheduled for Tuesday, July 4th, at 9:00. I assured him that this was not his fault, and I was much happier to learn that I was too early than that I was too late.

And I left, resolved to make my third trip to Mahanoy City in five days.

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