Got talking to Pete last Friday down the local … the subject got onto the passing of one’s parents … I s’pose because we are both old now ourselves and it comes as no longer an immediate sorrow, but rather one lived through so many years ago. And we got onto the reactions one experiences at the funeral, what with all the rellies gathered there and the friends and some strangers one doesn’t know but is informed in hushed whispers or so later on. There is that bottled-up grief, that reserve in the English tradition, especially amongst the men to not be seen to blubber or weep uncontrollably at such sad gatherings … and the language used is interesting in its sparsity of emotion …
Then Pete, took a sup on his beer, reflected a tad, wiped the beads of condensation from one streak on the glass, looked into the distance and made a motion with his pointed finger …
“But I do remember one chap I worked for, a builder in the financing / speculative line … stiff-upperlip sort of bloke … John M … old Adelaide family, that sort of thing. You couldn’t get an emotive comment from him if’n you smacked his thumb with a hammer … which I did once – accidently – as he was holding a length of bracing for me … hopeless at physical work … all thumbs … an I hit his thumb and you know what he said? Where you or I would’ve swore blue murder, he just spun away (dropped the prop!), cried; “bother!” and stuck the thumb in his mouth for a second to comfort the pain … that’s the sort of chap he was … “old school Oxford”.
The job was winding down, the contract reaching near completion so there were only a couple of tradies finishing some final touches to the groundworks and I was there as supervisor of the job from go to whoa. That was when John turned up. He was walking the site by himself, looking like he was inspecting the finished job … not his usual occupation … he kept a distance from the physical construction, it being an almost “alien” thing to him, always dressed in a suit … usually waited for the handing over ceremony for that sort of thing … but there he was. Now .. I knew he had been to his old Mother’s funeral the day before, and I put his meandering down to a listlessness that one gets when first “orphaned” … that “you’re on your own now” feeling … so to say, but I was surprised when he sat down and joined me and Keith the plumber for smoko.
John was the project builder, a developer rather than an actual builder … not your sort of tradie evolved into builder, but a bloke from an old family with old money involved in multi-faceted projects, of which building was but one. I was his go-to man for building. I was the “knowledge-base” for that side of his investments. He would leave on-site management to me … and that included timetables, subbie hire and materials delivery scheduling. We had worked together for years, but not in a close familiar way … just a business sort of thing … that’s how it was with John … just business. So it was quite surprising when he opened the conversation with the announcement that he had just buried his mother … of course Keith (another long server) and I both knew this, but we gave our condolences kindly … and fairly, we had no gripe with the man or his family. He thanked us and then after the usual quiet on these occasions, he cleared his throat and spoke in a confiding manner … to neither of us in particular, but rather while looking at the ground somewhere between us.
“You know, it’s a funny thing, language … the expression of certain words … at certain times. I have been to the best schools and university at Oxford, where language is treated as a sacred thing … the pronunciation, the grammar, even the timing of delivery of thought or repost … how to speak and speech, you could say … I used to be in the debating team … ”
John went quiet while he reached to pick up a twig which he used to scribble on the ground by his feet.
“I gave the eulogy at my mother’s funeral yesterday,” he continued,” all the usual blather and history … all about the family, her work in the district and committees she was on and such like … all written there on my notes, some highlighted in yellow marker … it went over well … as I was trained to do. A solemn finish before we all made our way to the cemetery for the placing of the casket.”
John drew some hieroglyphics in the dust as he thought it out a bit. I could see all this idle chatter was taking its toll on the man … but he was on a mission to explain something to himself, I felt … we remained silent … to give him space.
He continued with a sudden exclamation:
“Dammit! You have to hold yourself together at these … these events. It doesn’t do to make a fool of oneself weeping and carrying on … one must maintain structure … dignity … after all, it wasn’t as if my mother’s passing was a sudden tragedy. No, no … it was a long tiring business for all the family … a kindly relief for all when she passed … for her most particularly, I’d say … so it was … SHOULD have been a solemn, dignified affair … the placing of the casket in the grave … except for Loretta …” John stabbed the stick into the earth.
There was a silence.
“Loretta?” Keith encouraged.
“Loretta,” John breathed.” Yes … Loretta … Italian woman, the wife of one of the nephews … lovely woman, in the Italian dark-lady of the sonnets mould … if you know what I mean. It was quite a surprise when the nephew returns from a working stint on the continent with an Italian wife … shocked … you could say … a real eyebrow raiser, the whole affair. But they settled down and had a couple of kiddies and got on with the married life routine … but dammit, she’s got that dago emotion thing in spades … weeping all over the place, at weddings and christenings and such like … so she had to almost be dragged from the grave before she threw herself in it on top of the coffin … damn display to say the least!”
And here was the long silence … here was the nub of the new “congenial John”. But here he became uncomfortable …
“You know, one HAS to hold oneself together as an example for the younger ones. It doesn’t do to put on too much display … and … and I was there beside Father O’Loughlin as he read the rites and the coffin was lowered down … certainly, I had some tears to shed … after all, she WAS my mother … but held in check for the moment … there’s a time and place … but I could hear Loretta wailing somewhere there behind me … and I thought I would give her husband a bit of a talking to after the funeral … at the wake. But as we stepped back from the grave to let the mourners file past to throw the bit of dirt onto the laid coffin, that silly Italian woman suddenly called out a word in perfect imitation of our mother’s voice … here was this woman who could only speak a kind of garbled mish-mash of Italo-English, saying in perfect enunciation that one word so familiar to all of her children and grandchildren … and by time-lapsed, especially to me.”
“You see,” John continued in a kind of self-reflection tone, “Mum was a country girl and she had an infuriating habit of “cutesying” words by adding an “ee” to the end … like “bunnee” instead of rabbit. She’d say; “Oh we’re having a couple of bunnies for dinner,” and one really infuriating one she’d say when I was a young tear-away, home from the college with a friend and we’d been ripping it up a tad at a local dance and in the morning she’d wake us with a much too cheerful:
“Come on boys up we get … I’ll make you some bacon and eggies for breaky.”
“Eggees, do you mind, “breakee”? It used to SO infuriate me … and here we were at the final lap so to speak of the funeral, and I had held myself together so well and then that weeping Italian woman has to drop that bombshell that took me by complete surprise and … and … well … ” John threw the twig over his shoulder … “I lost it … I just lost it. Loretta just halted right next to me, looked directly at me in a flood of tears then to the coffin in the grave and wept out a string of indecipherable Italian mish-mash to finish with that one damn softly spoken parting word mother always called to us with a twinkle of her fingers as we left her home:
That silly, silly muck-up of a perfectly good, common language English word; “Cheeriozy! Cheeriozy!” Loretta wailed out and I just lost it and I wept and wept … and I still can’t get over it … and I don’t know why.”
Then John abruptly stood up, turned around and left … without another word, but we could see the tears …
Of course, neither Keith nor I ever mentioned it again.