"It's great to see you at a happy occasion instead of running into one another at a wake,” I joked in the midst of a warm embrace with a long-lost distant cousin recently.
Wrong thing to say. You see, there was a certain unnamed Irish matriarch in our family just waiting at stage left to pounce and voice a dash of melodramatic disappointment over not being called when this cousin’s mother died.
The matriarch, as usual, belabored the point, like Kanye West after an empty-handed night at the Grammy Awards.
“What harm but other folks in the family were called,” the matriarch said with a huff. “It shows where we rate, I suppose.”
The cousin knew a cardinal rule of any self-respecting Irish family was broke. A cloud of grief over losing one’s mother was no excuse to miss notifying anyone in the dead woman’s weathered address book.
She nodded and offered a saccharine apology to the matriarch despite her tongue being bitten until it bled inside her mouth because, well, that was how she was raised.
The cousin then offered the same tight and lukewarm smile that she inherited from the woman she had recently buried.
“That was just her story, not the truth,” said my cousin sheepishly as the matriarch turned her attention elsewhere. She ordered a chilled white wine from the bar to smooth out the wrinkled nerves.
“You know, there was a vigil at her bedside around the clock,” she continued. Her eyes wandered to the table where her sister sat.
“I left the hospital room for one hour to get a shower at home and when my sister came in, that’s when Mom decided to die. One. Hour. One hour! Mom wouldn’t die without her in the room. It was that way until the end.” The tight smile resurfaced again, but the saucer blue eyes did little to contain the resentment and regret this time around.
“That’s just your story, not the truth,” I said with a wink before raising my hand and shaking two fingers in the direction of the bartender.
We sat at the same round table, the sister, cousins and I. They sat next to one another in an uneasy truce, their husbands bookending them on either side.
I recall these men having been close friends once, back when the sisters got along better. Now, they do what any smart husbands do when their Irish woman is hurt and wounded -- they keep their heads down and their mouths shut.
The details of their lives leaked out in sound bites over the course of the evening. One sister put her kids through Ivy League schools while the other drove herself through a breakneck Masters and Ph.D program during her pregnancy.
One secured a pied-à-terre in New York while the other put stakes in the sand at the Jersey Shore for her second home. iPhones were passed back and forth to show the rich fruits of well-heeled lives ripped from a Ralph Lauren glossy catalog.
Though their mother was dead and they were reaching an advanced age themselves, the sisters were still two girls locked in an eternal competition for withheld affection.
That’s just my story. It’s not the truth.
(Mike Farragher’s essays can be found on www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com)