The Irish (those great talkers — playwrights and politicians) have a preferred mode to punish someone they’re mad at: silence. In the late 80’s my Uncle Bill B. had a beef with my grandmother (who was already dead) and cut off his family — stopped speaking to every single one of us. His wife and two daughters did likewise.
We had been a close-knit family. They lived upstairs from us during my early childhood. His grocery store, founded by my grandparents, was a common haunt. My dad worked briefly for him as a meat-cutter. He and his family were part of every holiday, first communion, wedding, baptism and funeral. I know he loved me. And I know he loved my mother.
But then, when he was nearly 70 years old… silence.
Recall that it was the Irish who invented the boycott.
Ostracization and silence are acceptable ways of showing disapproval in many Irish families, a social unit oft noted for both its extraordinary loyalty and willingness to cut off relationships abruptly and completely…
It is not unusual for Irish family members to live within miles but never see or communicate with one another, until a relative dies. The close, indifferent, and estranged are expected at wakes and funerals… Reconciliations do occur among the living at these gatherings — if for no other reason than that there is truth to the wry observation that Irish grudges go on for so long that people forget what they were about to begin with. [Maureen Dezell, Irish America: Coming Into Clover]
But when my dad died in 2005, the silence continued. There was no tearful throwing of arms around each other or sharing of happy memories at the wake. Not even a store-bought card. I promised myself I would never be that nasty. When Uncle Bill’s time came, I would let his daughters know how much I had loved him.
This was a sorrow to my mother, who occasionally sent him a card or relevant family photos from her archives — half-hoping for a crack in the wall of silence.
At Christmas this year, my mother said, “I think he’s dead. I have this feeling he’s dead and they are just bull-headed enough not to let anyone know.” He would have been 91.
Sure enough. I found his name in the Social Security Death Index and sent for the Death Certificate to confirm it. My Uncle Bill died more than three years ago, on November 6, 2007, and no death announcement had been published.
And so we’re left with all these empty, unresolved feelings. Not even the opportunity to send a store-bought card. What’s the point of being Irish if you can’t laugh and cry together at a wake and let bygones be bygones?
So I sit here 800 miles from St. Louis, wondering what magic there is to turn bitterness into sweet sorrow. I don’t have any photos of him, but I do have his voice. The clip below is from an old family recording. It’s the day after Christmas 1943. The family is all gathered together, with some old friends and they are playing “$64 Question,” pretending they are on the radio. My mom is the emcee and Uncle Bill is the contestant. My Aunt Mary also chimes in. And you can hear my grandma Kitty Mom’s unmistakable laugh. It’s just one of those silly, effortless moments of family love — worthy of a tear.
Uncle Bill, may you rest in peace.