My name is Constance O’Dell, and I grew up in a typical suburb of Denver, Colorado, in the early 1970s. Typical in the way all the houses on my block looked somewhat the same. Ranch-style homes with attached garage, brick halfway up with painted wood on top. Everyone chose pale blue or white or some mundane color so you wouldn’t stick out. Our rooftop was sloped, as were they all, to assure the winter snow would run off, as running in would have been an entirely different matter. We all had a driveway, and a double-width sidewalk connected us. Everyone grew flowers in their front yards, from clematis to trumpeter vine to iris; the neighborhood was quite lovely in the summertime. Our house was typical until the day of Grandma’s Wake.
Most typical people who live in typical houses have typical funerals for their dead. Not us the O’Dell’s, oh no, we weren’t ordinary at all. As my Uncle Warren called it, we were going to hold a good old-fashioned Irish Wake, where Grandma would lay in state in our home for three days.
“You mean they are going to bring dead Grandma over here?” I asked, somewhat bewildered.
“Celebrating while we laugh and drink is the only way to honor our dead,” Uncle Warren said. I think he also cried as Grandma was his mother after all.
Average people have never had a fancy black hearse parked on their driveway, nor have they ever had the corpse of their loved one proudly displayed on their dining room table for three days. My friend Nellie Riley said that at her grandmother’s funeral, everyone was crying because they laid out her Grams in her coffin at the front end of a mortuary. She further said, if I didn’t know, a mortuary is a place that looked like a church and smelled like a flower shop.
My Grandma died that summer, June 25th, 1971, to be specific. She died while shuffling around in her garden at her house up in Westminster. She was doing her daily ritual of looking for fresh zucchini to make zucchini bread to bring to our house. I don’t know if she found one or not. Her neighbor Inez found her with her head under cover of the broad zucchini leaves. She must have fallen forward because her full rump was sticking up in the air with her left foot twisted over in an uncomfortable position, and her knee on the right was holding up her corpse.
I imagined that she looked like the terrier dog she had a long time ago named Biscuit. Grandma would scold that dog to no end when he would dig deep holes in that very garden. I think Grandma buried that dog in the front yard. She said that she thought Biscuit shouldn’t get to spend eternity tearing up her garden, so she buried him on the other side of the house as not to cause her any trouble. I was like five when she told me that, and now at ten, I believed her.
When those fellows carried Grandma’s body into our house, I asked them to carry her right back out. I don’t want any trouble here, but I precisely think Grandma trouble was what we received. Somehow, I don’t think Grandma was all the way dead.
Grandma Irene O’Dell was my Father’s Mother. She was as Irish and Catholic as an Irish Catholic can get, so when my dad said we would throw a Wake for her. He envisioned a good old-fashioned Irish Wake in celebration of her life. Through his tears, he gathered his immediate family close and said, “Your uncle Warren and I loved our mother dearly so that we will hold a Wake for her. I know we should hold it at her home, but it is too small. I propose we throw it right here at my house. What do you think?”
If I had known what we were about to endure, I might have screamed, No! However, Mother nodded in agreement, and Uncle Warren and his wife shook my father’s hand in agreement while offering their help. We have a big family! They and the entire family would help. Grandma’s daughters, Aunt Lorraine and Aunt Connie would respectfully fly in from Portland and Los Angeles. Aunt Connie had ten children, all of whom were planning to attend the celebration.
My little sister Sara and I were excited about throwing a party, and a wake was as big of a party as you can throw unless you’re getting married, and then us Irish like to go overboard inviting a couple of hundred kin and friends at least. Mom was from the vast Colorado O’Conner Clan, most of whom lived north in the Ft. Collins area. Whenever the O’Conner’s got together, you would pretty much need to rent a particular venue to make sure everyone would fit. Dad said we would need to hold the Wake for three days, making it right anyway. It would undoubtedly accommodate all the attendees.
Everything was going smooth until all twelve of us cousins decided to camp out in the backyard. Dad set his old camping tent up for us, and Uncle Warren came out to offer extra blankets to those of us who still had their swimming suits on from earlier when we all ran through the hose. As the evening went on and things got quiet, that’s when I heard the weirdest sound. It was Grandma up and walking around. More like squishing around, I listened to what sounded like the sound of bare feet walking through Dad’s wet lawn. But the yard wasn’t damp anymore, and it didn’t sprinkle, let alone rain. I seemed paralyzed under my blanket and couldn’t believe everyone else had slept through that traumatic event.
At the crack of dawn, Aunt Connie was already working on her breakfast menu of scrambled eggs and sausage and pan after pan of those big cinnamon rolls Grandma adored, along with Irish coffee, of course, lots and lots of Irish Coffee.
“Aunt Connie, did you see her?” I asked as I squeezed her so hard, she nearly popped out of her pink robe. “It was Grandma; I saw her up and walking around.” Then correcting myself quickly, “Well, I didn’t see her; I heard her.” I don’t think Aunt Connie was paying attention to me until she slowly answered.
“Listen to me, my dear child,” Aunt Connie said in her comforting voice. “You were wishing that Grandma was walking around. That’s all it was, wishing.” She patted my head like I was old Biscuit the dog, then went on scrambling several eggs using Mom’s giant cast iron skillet. That pan was heavier than I was.
By 7:15 in the morning, folks started to arrive. People who claimed to be my relatives that I had never seen before came in, filling their plates, then stood around Grandma while they ate it and told stories about her. I told Mother what I had heard, but she was busy cooking up a giant pan of fried potatoes to serve with what was left of the eggs and sausage. She looked straight at me and said, “That’s nice, honey.” her go-to answer to use when she wasn’t listening to you.
I talked my cousin Rachel into helping me do some detective work. When everyone was standing around Grandma, paying no, never mind to us kids, I would reach up under the sheet covering Grandma’s feet to see if they felt damp. I would inspect them to see if they were green or had accumulated any blades of grass while Rachel acted as a distraction. The adults liked making over pretty Rachel and her blonde hair and pink dresses with bows to match.
That is when Aunt Lorraine yelled, “burgers on the grill, beer in the cooler!” And that is when I screamed louder than I had ever screamed and passed out right on the hardwood floor below where Grandma lay. To my horror and disbelief, her exposed damp right foot had blades of grass on it.
I woke up in the comfort of my dad’s arms; I heard his voice telling Uncle Warren, “this child has a vivid imagination she’ll be alright.” Then shifting my limp body, a bit, he said upon Uncle Warren’s exit, “plan on getting a couple of kegs of beer to tie everyone through lunch and dinner.” That’s when I came to. I scared him when I reached my pale skinny hand up and touched his chin. He had carried me to the back yard where Aunt Lorraine promptly handed him a burger and pan-fried potatoes for the both of us.
Dad comforted me as only a dad can do. After we finished our lunch, Dad took me by the hand to see for himself if Grandma’s foot was damp. It wasn’t. Grandma was still in her coffin, which did look lovely in our dining room. They had moved the dining room table closer to the bay window, so when the mortuary people came, they placed the coffin right on Mom’s good tablecloth. The casket was shiny black with gold handles, adorned with hand-painted Wild Irish Roses, Grandma’s favorite. Her feet were not exposed at all. When I reached up to feel her feet, I must have put my hand under the tablecloth. It was the neatly waxed table that felt slightly damp to my sweaty little hand.
Dad thought it would be best for me to go with cousin Rachael and my sister Sara to help Mom and Aunt Lorraine gather some of Grandma’s favorite things to set around her coffin. Mom drove as we girls headed to Grandma’s house. We took a few photos from right off her wall and her champagne flutes from when our Great Grandparents celebrated their 50th anniversary in Ireland. Aunt Lorraine grabbed Grandma’s favorite shawl and blanket that her sister, Great Aunt Mary, knitted for her before her untimely passing. Mom packed a small suitcase with some of her favorite clothing and brought her large canning pan and her garden spade. We also took her casserole pans in which to serve more food.
When we arrived back home from Grandma’s house, Great Uncle Howard, Grandma’s only living brother, was standing in front of the coffin dressed in a brilliant tangerine color suit. Against the black coffin, he sparkled like a bit of a dancing leprechaun. He was the one that put an antique rosary across Grandma’s folded hands when they opened the coffin lid. We opened both the side sliding pane windows that were part of the bay window. That way, when Grandma was ready to go, her spirit could get up and leave serenely through either window.
Aunt Lorraine and Aunt Connie placed the photos of Grandma’s favorite lifetime moments around the dining room. One of the photos showed Grandma seated in the middle of her four children, their wives, and husbands and all their children. That was 24 people to count, and that was just the beginning. Uncle Warren placed the photo of Grandpa and Her kissing before he left to fight in the Pacific in the War. I didn’t know which War and Uncle Warren clarified with, “The big-en.”
Grandpa was handsomely dressed in his Navy best in the photo, and she wore a pretty dress with shoulder padding. She was turned sideways in the picture to see her petite legs covered by nylon stockings that had lines going up the back. She was leaning against Grandpa with one foot lifted slightly. It’s my favorite picture of her, too bad it’s in black and white, so I’ll never know what color her dress was, and it doesn’t show her brilliant red hair.
On the second night, Dad and Uncle Warren lit candles at both the foot and head of the coffin. They soon blew them out when they saw the herd of us cousins who were still children running around. Aunt Connie’s youngest child was only three and tried to reach up and touch the flame. Mother exchanged the real candles for some of the fake plug-in ones she put in the window at Christmas.
Dad insisted the rest of the Wake be authentic and had us older cousins take part in covering all the mirrors in the house with pillowcases just in case Grandma would wake up, walk around, and see a reflection of herself dead. “Dad’, I exclaimed! “What about this morning when you told me everything was fine. You were so patient with me. I thought you said she couldn’t get up and walk around!”
Dad replied, “Yes, I did tell you that everything would be fine. But my point was even if Grandma got up and walked around; She is still Grandma.” I was bewildered by Dad’s words. Honestly, if that were to happen, I hoped we would all be awake to see. I guess Dad wasn’t aware of George Romero’s take on the walking dead. Gadzooks, what a story I will have to take back to school!
Now that I knew we were all in this. I was willing to help. It’s like we were trying to get Grandma back. Calling her name and holding her things was like the old bait and switch. I wasn’t sure what we would do with her once we had her back, though. Introduce her as my dead Grandma, I suppose.
It’s an old Irish tradition to set and stop all the clocks in the house when your loved one dies. With Grandma, we weren’t quite sure. Grandma’s neighbor found her dead at Noon. That was around 8 in the morning. But Grandma had called Dad earlier that morning to tell him she would be baking his favorite Zucchini bread. So, we settled on calling the time of death for her at 10 a.m. to allow enough time to harvest her zucchini and go into a slight stiffening. Dad called it ‘riga-torture’ or something like that. What did I know? I was only ten. So, we unplugged or took the batteries out of all the clocks, setting them at 10, presumably when Grandma died.
All of us kids stayed up until midnight. We were waiting for Grandma’s resurrection, but it didn’t happen. Not on that second night anyway.
We would hold a BBQ potluck every night for the three nights of the Wake. It was an exquisite dinner, or at least I thought it was, with an open bar as that is when most people would attend. We even invited our neighbors so they wouldn’t get mad for all the parking spots on the block being used up. Some even let our guests use their driveway. Uncle Warren would be the bartender, who I preferred because he let us kids have a small amount of beer if we wouldn’t tell, and we wouldn’t. At ten, I couldn’t think of anything that smelled better than the beer that squirts out of a newly primed keg.
Everyone paid their respects to Grandma. The men toasted her with beer and merriment until the wee hours of the night. The Women spent an incredible number of hours in the kitchen preparing dish after dish of Grandma’s favorite foods and chitchatting. The kids all ran around and got to know each other. Mostly the girls stayed with the girls and the little boys while the bigger boys played practical jokes on us.
At first, I thought one of their practical jokes involved me running into Grandma in the upstairs guest bedroom. First, I smelled her perfume. Then I could see her ghostly reflection in the long mirror. She looked like her former self and had on the same dress as the black and white photo downstairs; I saw the dress’s blue color. She spoke to me, not in a scary voice like you might think ghosts have, but a warm, comforting, familiar voice.
She said, “Constance, my dear sweet Granddaughter, you did hear me walking in the cool, wet grass the other night. It was one of my favorite things to do when I was your age, and I wanted to experience it one more time before I have to go.”
“Go where?” I asked.
“Home,” she said. “I wanted to thank you for bringing the photo of my parents to me. They are here with us. They are going to take me home.”
I pondered in my mind, “You mean Great Grams and Great Pams are here too?” but hadn’t asked the question yet when she answered, “Yes, we are all here, my dear. We will always be here with you.”
To this day, I swear to God it was her.
That night after Uncle Warren was feeling good; he took a break from bartending and set up a game of musical chairs in the backyard. It was hilarious. The adults who played mainly were drunk and were easy to push aside. When Aunt Lorraine fell over and showed her underwear, Grandma was laughing right there with us. I heard her and smiled. I know it now as that is how loving your family works.
When a big family comes together, it feels good; the inclusiveness felt is beyond words. I was just a kid, and I felt like I belonged and had no idea that some people would live their entire life not knowing that feeling. Even when the Wake was over and the hearse came to take Grandma over to the Catholic Cemetery, we were all still hugging, loving on, and laughing together. It was hard to say goodbye to Grandma but more to each other.