By Tim Murphy:
When I was a kid, my Aunt Mary came to stay with us every Christmas. She was widowed twice and never had children. In fact, the issue of her not having children led to my asking if she and the Blessed Virgin Mary had something in common—which led to my Dad giving my brother and me the talk—which was pretty creepy, but that is a story for a different time.
Aunt Mary spent the week before Christmas with us. She was my mom’s oldest sister, the oldest of nine kids, and she was twenty years older than my mom. We loved having her come. At the start of the Christmas season, the celebration would begin when we came home from school and saw her sitting in her moo moo dress on the kitchen steps, her legs spread apart, her nylons rolled down to her ankles, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. She told great stories, sang songs, had nicknames for all of us. Her nickname was "Mert."
Aunt Mary didn’t have the same sense of discipline that my parents embraced, and that was so exciting. She stayed up late and convinced my parents to let us stay up with her to watch old movies on our black and white TV in the dark while she drank beer and smoked cigarettes. She always had a story or a song ready at the commercial breaks. She only bathed once during the week; I remember this because I can remember by dad whispering this observation to my mom. She preferred to just add more perfume and lipstick instead. It added to the atmosphere, the excitement, the anticipation, and the magic of Christmas.
Her lipstick looked like an ornament, and she never stayed between the lip lines, so it looked like a giant red bow on her ashen face. It drew attention to her smoke-colored glasses and highlighted her blue-tinted hair. She had a mink collar that was made of a fox-shaped animal that she wore when she went out, and she always wore a hat that looked like a bucket with fake flowers and netting on it. Aunt Mary was colorful in so many ways. As the week went on, it became hard to breathe around her because of the smoke and the perfume, but it didn’t matter; she was so much fun.
When my dad would call home from work, Aunt Mary would pick up the phone and say, “Murph, you’re out of beer. Why don’t you pick up a couple of quarts on the way home?” Her voice was raspy with a hint of Irish Brogue (both of her parents had emigrated from Ireland). That made all her words sound fun—not just by definition, but by the way they sounded. She called potatoes “badaydas.” Tea was “tay.” And we would all try to talk like her as the week went on—except we couldn’t say the swear words (in front of anybody anyway). We found out some words were swearing but didn’t even know it, like, “Ah, Timmy, would ye par me a fekkin’ beer?”
Aunt Mary would sleep until noon, which was part of the entertainment. I suppose because she drank and smoked like a sailor, she snored like one too, which woke my brother and me up in the next room. We would sneak into her bedroom and watch and listen. It was a very animated snore. She took her teeth out to sleep and put them on my sisters’ dresser. Not just a couple of teeth—the whole set with the gums and everything right there on top of the dresser. It was like she took her whole mouth out. There was a tonal, resonant juiciness to her snoring. Bloating, flapping of her lips and cheeks. It seemed to halt the harmonious frequency of her breathing pattern. All this made my brother and I giggle, and it was really hard not to make any noise. And right there in the silent darkness of the middle of the night, we found that Aunt Mary had another talent that my brother and I could only dream of possessing: Aunt Mary could snore from both ends at the same time without waking up. It was like lighting up the night. She didn’t wake up, but my sisters did, and all of us would giggle. It wasn’t long before the giggling spilled into belly laughing, and it was glorious until my dad came in and smacked us and made us get back in bed.
So, when Aunt Mary came for Christmas, the candles got lit, and so did Aunt Mary, and the magic of the season filled the air.
Over the years, Aunt Mary’s lifestyle finally took its toll, and she passed away the summer when I was ten. It was very sad, but it made for a pretty wild funeral. My brother, a cousin, and I were the pall bearers. Together, the three of us weighed considerably less than Aunt Mary. She was ample. At ten and eleven, we were not old enough to drink, but the other pall bearers made up for that, so carrying the casket became an adventure. It was an old Catholic Church on the south side of Chicago with a lot of stairs and a very narrow turn halfway down the stairwell. The imbalance of our size combined with the Irish wake and funeral traditions contributed to more imbalances as my Aunt Mary’s body shifted in the casket during the turn down the stairs. We could feel her roll, and the momentum took us to the wall. I’m not sure if my parents were more worried that my brother and I would be crushed or that Aunt Mary was going to pop out for one more round but there were a lot of gasps from the mourners and at least three of the pall bearers.
There is an Irish tradition on the south side of Chicago back in the day when the wake was held in the parlor of the house. The men would come in, pay their respects, genuflect and say a prayer, then head out to the back porch for a wee bit of heaven. As the stories were told out on the back porch and a wee bit became grand enough, sometimes the fellas would take the corpse out to the corner tavern for one more round. One by one, as they were called home, the corpse would inevitably be left behind at the bar—with the bill. That is where the term “stiffing the waitress” comes from. But, the Irish are storytellers, and it was dear Aunt Mary who told us the story.
So, when Christmas came around that year, there was a sadness, a great void. There was no anticipation, no rushing home from school to see her. The Christmas songs all seemed so sad as our celebrated tradition was gone. There were no giggles spilling into laughing that year. We missed Aunt Mary. I remember thinking that Christmas had lost its magic—which makes for a cold and dark December.
I don’t remember how many years went by or what started it, but somewhere along the way something happened. Maybe it was my sister Peggy answering the phone when my dad called home from work saying, “Hey, Murph, you’re out of beer, why don’t you pick up a couple of quarts?”; or maybe my brother Jack sitting on the kitchen stairs with his legs spread and his socks rolled down to his ankles pretending to smoke a cigarette; or my sister Terri painting big red bows around her lips—but pretty soon we were telling Aunt Mary stories and re-telling the stories she told us, singing her songs, calling each other our nicknames, imitating the way she sat—her breathing, her snoring . . . and a new tradition started, or maybe the old one just continued.
It was almost like out of the darkness, from the black and white TV, came her lit cigarette, then her smoke-colored glasses, her blue-gray hair, her red-bow lipstick. Aunt Mary came back for Christmas in a different way—equally inappropriate, of course, but then so w