Saying goodbye gets closer and closer

Last weekend in Rochester was an emotional seesaw. We laughed. We cried. And best of all, we hugged a lot. My sister-in-law, Julie, died and being together with her family was everything to me.

For two days with my five nieces and nephews, their spouses, and the grandchildren, I shared their loving farewell to their mother. The first day we gathered at the funeral home. Julie made it all the way to 91, her last years of physical struggles finally behind her.

Julie and I first met 58 years ago. Our story began with her only brother-in-law.

Tom O’Brien, the handsome navy pilot who had proposed to me (!) flew from his San Diego home to Connecticut where I lived in 1966. We drove together to Rochester, New York for my introduction to his small family. I looked forward to meeting his parents, his brother and sister-in-law, and their five children. Five children! Whoa! What were their expectations going to be of me? I was more than anxious.

I was too tall. I was the wrong religion. I had a funny accent. What would they think? I was a stewardess then for American Airlines, and not much usually ruffled me. I was surprised to actually be nervous. But nothing gets adults acquainted faster than breaking bread together.

Tom’s parents welcomed us warmly to their cozy house. They were thrilled to see their younger boy home again after his VietNam years.

The dinner table was set for six. Tom’s mom was a terrific old-fashioned cook. She topped a pot roast dinner with the favorite dessert of her younger boy – the world’s most perfect chocolate cake.

Tom’s only sibling, Ted, was nine years older than he, and Julie was nine years older than me.

I was stunned that this slim, pretty, personable woman could possibly be the mother of five children. I met all five the next day and was even more impressed – with her calmness and common sense. An only child, I had never known anyone near my age with five little kids.

I remember my first Christmas in the family. Tom and I thought it would be fun to give their youngest, Daniel, an especially large ride-on Tonka dump truck. It had lights, horn, and a whirring dumping noise provided by 6 “D” batteries. After one continuous hour, Julie put Dan down for his nap, slowly removed the half dozen batteries and squirreled them into a kitchen drawer. End of subject. She did resume speaking to us later that day. Dan rode his new toy without sound effects until he outgrew it.

Julie never frazzled. She even seemed sane – a far cry from the crazy I would have been. Maybe being a pre-school and kindergarten teacher helped. Otherwise, I thought, how does she do that?

Bonnie, one of Julie’s close friends from their early married days, shared a personal remembrance at the calling hours. When she first moved to Ted and Julie’s neighborhood, she shared a view of the O’Brien backyard.

The younger mother watched as pregnant Julie settled her 3-and 4-year-old into the sandbox to play. She then brought the playpen outdoors, unfolded it, sat her toddler in the middle, and proceeded to walk around the outside, shaking the Cheerios box into a perfect snack circle around the 18-month-old. Bonnie said, “I was fascinated. I couldn’t imagine EVER doing anything like that.” Until two years later when she was expecting her third. It was another sunny day. And she also had to hang out the laundry. Like I said, Julie was a very practical person.

Sunday morning, we gathered at the graveside under sprinkling gray skies. The view across the cemetery was of the school where Ted had been principal, Julie had taught, and their children had attended elementary school. I could only imagine their individual thoughts blending school memories and their parents’ final resting place. Julie was lowered into the ground in the casket she had selected: biodegradable, “green.” Sensibly practical. We said our personal goodbyes as we each tossed single red roses down to her, blanketing the coffin. Goodbye old girl. Old friend.

The stories abounded ’round the dinner table that night. The siblings and cousins hooted over loud pinocle games, Thanksgiving dinners, and summer camping hi-jinks. But for me, just seeing them all together was joyful.

Ted and Julie’s five adult children, now mostly gray-haired, carried their mom through the weekend – with all the lessons she taught them, the examples she set. Her humor, her love of the arts, heated political discussions, history, theater, good music of many types, and her books – all defined her. Julie and I always talked books.

As I left my only extended-family brood, I realized I am the last one standing. Kate dubbed me “The Matriarch,” a title I do not seek. Julie WAS the matriarch. She was eminently qualified… and still is.

Marcy O’Brien writes weekly.


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