This excerpt from Only You (And You Alone) was published in The East Hampton Star.
“Please, Eileen,” Diane said on the telephone. It was a Saturday afternoon following Nana O’Shea’s
death. "Take me with you. I want to pay my respects."
Even though she was one of my closest friends and my bridesmaid-to-be, I really didn’t want to pick her
But Larry said, "C’mon, have a heart. I think it's pretty damned nice of her."
"She didn't even know her. Why do you suppose people want to show up after the fact - after the
person is dead and gone?"
"Not now, Eileen." Larry shot me a look - his "don't mess with me" look, I called it. "We don't have time
for an intellectual discussion on the now and the hereafter. Just tell Diane we'll be happy to pick her
up. Two o'clock sharp."
For this, the fourth wake in Larry's family in two years, I was dressed in the appropriate black. I wore
little makeup and, for jewelry, I was wearing my one good pearl necklace, my simple pearl earrings, and
my engagement ring.
Of all Larry's relatives, I had gotten to know Nana O'Shea the best. "I really loved her," I told Larry
when we got the news. And I couldn't stop crying.
Diane met Larry and me at the door to her house with tearful hugs.
"Oh, don't," I said, starting to cry again.
"Let me take your coat," she said.
"Why?" I clutched the dark gray wool tighter about me. "Aren't you ready?"
"Sure," Diane said between sobs. I just want to show you something. Come downstairs for a minute."
Not thinking of anything except how to get through the funeral of this exceptional old lady, I dutifully
followed Diane down the half-darkened basement stairs.
Faces and bodies, a cluster of females of various sizes and ages and shapes, smiled and clapped as
the lights were turned up.
My bridal shower.
"Oh, no, it can't be." I looked around at Larry. "I don't think I can take this, Larry. It's not right."
"It's okay. Eileen," Larry said, patting my arm. "They already had it planned. I don't mind, really. I'll go
there now and pick you up later."
First, though, Larry had to pose with me for a few pictures: the happy guy with his happy bride-to-be,
just like in the movies and in the magazines. My eighteen to his nineteen years, friends from the crowd
at Maybellene's candy store who were getting married. This was a Big Occasion, one to be
remembered always, my very own bridal shower. So what if there was a death in the family...
"Smile!" my Aunt Vera said. Then she turned to my mother. "Oh, she'll be such a beautiful bride!"
Then women were kissing me on the cheek, on the forehead, near my nose. None of the O'Sheas was
there. Not a single aunt or cousin - not a trace of that entire, huge family. Why didn’t my girlfriends
wait until after the funeral?
"We thought about it," Diane, said, "but then we decided there really wasn't any `good' time.”
Right. But what would Larry's relatives think? They already treated us oddly, ever since Larry's dad
had killed himself seven months earlier. One O'Shea aunt told Larry it was our fault that his father
"You weren't there for him," she said to Larry. "He was lonely. You had each other and you shut him
out. You and Eileen should have been closer to him."
"Smile, Eileen." A camera clicked, then another. Diane turned up the phonograph so I could hear
Tony Bennett sing:
"...from the candy store on the corner
...to the chapel on the hill..."
Cute! Oh God!
On a table I noticed a large, round, white-iced cake with my name, "Eileen," written in pink. There were
pink and white rosettes, silver entwined wedding rings, and "Engagement Wishes" in blue.
"It's so...beautiful." I knew I had to say “things,” that I had to participate in what was going on for the
next few hours. There was no way out.
"We were sure you knew," my aunt said, laughing. "Your mother and I were talking outside the house
yesterday, and we were worried that you overheard us."
"No. I swear I didn't." Never in my wildest imaginings would I have guessed. My thoughts were with
parties for the dead, not for the living. Wreaths of roses and gladiolus and ferns around the coffin and
on top of the coffin:
"Rest in Peace, Grandmother."
Even now, here in Diane's basement with its light gray, paneled walls and red and blue furnishings, and
with at least twenty women crowded around me, I was aware of the dense smell of the flowers, of the
closed tight air peculiar to funeral homes, and of the smoke-filled downstairs lounge.
The family said Nana died from a broken heart. Her health had been fine. She just never recovered
from the shock of her son's suicide, according to her sons and daughters. She could not bear to live
longer than this, her eighty-fifth year.
I sat in the crepe paper-decorated bridal shower chair, with its huge pink and white beribboned
umbrella behind me. Black against pink. Death against life. I should be saying the Stations of the
Cross in Nana's honor, I thought. I should be saying a rosary. I tried not to show the convoluted
workings of my mind as I smiled and dutifully opened the gifts that my bridesmaids, Diane and Teri,
Peggy, my maid of honor, tied each bow from each gift through holes punched on a paper plate,
thereby fashioning my corsage-hat. I was presented with a set of blue and white Pyrex mixing bowls.
Then, a hand mixer. Next, a wash bucket filled with towels and washcloths. And, a yellow pail filled with
kitchen gadgets. In a much smaller package, a sheer, pale blue negligee.
"Now what are you going to do with that, Eileen?" Carol was in charge of writing down every word that
came out of my mouth, to be read back later out of context, so that all the women present could titter
and laugh over the sexual innuendoes. In a better mood, I might think up clever, double entendres for
Carol. But I said very little, only what I felt I should about each gift and gift-giver in the way of thanks,
and that was all. For her sake, I hoped Carol would get a few good quotes, at least.
"Eileen, over here!"
Another smile for Diane, another photograph. I held up my brand new iron in one hand and negligee
number three, a frilly white one, in the other. "Thank you...thank you..."
"Is that all you have to say, Eileen?" Carol winked at my bridesmaids.
"If I iron it" - I held the iron against the negligee - "do you think it'll get stiff?"
I listened to the giggles and whispers as Carol smiled and wrote furiously onto her pad, but was
thinking that Larry and I were at the point where we remembered events in our lives around the dates
of his family's sicknesses and deaths and funerals:
"...right before Mom died."
"Two weeks after Grandpa got out of the hospital..."
"...the month that Pop died."
Diane and Teri helped me unwrap the bigger presents. A set of dishes. An ironing board. A shopping
cart filled with canned foods and "basics" for the kitchen -. "My God, this is wonderful!" I said.
"What's that, Eileen? Would you repeat that?" Carol was smiling. I was playing my role just fine. I
wasn't missing a beat. The women all seemed to be enjoying themselves.
"I said it's just wonderful, Carol."
"What's wonderful, Eileen?" She giggled and looked around the room. "Could you be more specific?
"Everything is just so wonderful," I said loudly. "It's just the most wonderful experience being here, and
"Ha!" Carol giggled once more. "Right!" She wrote some more onto her pad.
"Thank you for the set of stainless," I said to my aunt, as I held up a knife and fork. "It's a lovely
"And it's hard too." Carol said. "Do you think it's hard enough, Eileen?"
I smiled at her, but suddenly I felt tired. I was supposed to be a happy bride-to-be, but I felt like a
professional mourner. My entire courtship was one of lending Larry moral support, it seemed, and
seeing the two of us through a parade of deaths. It seemed awfully wrong, as if I took better care of
Larry than of myself - a thought I tried to chase away.
I looked at the diamond ring on my finger - Nancy's diamond. I had her costume jewelry, her diamond
wristwatch, her silver, her books; I had everything Pop and she owned, except for the things Larry and
I sold or gave away. We would be living in a nice, small apartment. Larry did not want to be
surrounded with items that had belonged to the dead.
We would have handsome new things. It was what Larry said he wanted, and I went along with it. Our
family and friends bought brand new furnishings when they married; it was just the thing you did. None
of the newlyweds I knew kept old furniture from their relatives. Our new apartment would have light
blue wall to wall carpeting throughout the apartment, a fine, fruitwood "Mediterranean provincial"
bedroom set, a plush sofa and comfortable living room chairs, good lamps and tables and, for the wall
over the sofa, a handsome, gold-framed print of the French Riviera.
It was time to cut the cake.
"Make a wish, Eileen. Make a wish!"
I felt perfectly silly. After the gifts were opened, I looked at myself in a mirror. Pale skin, no makeup,
dressed all in black and, now, a ridiculous-looking "corsage" of gaudy bows tied on my head. This
nonsense was for them, I told myself, hating the image I saw in Diane's mirror. This was not me, and
not what I wanted to be doing. Not now. Not ever.
The bride-to-be cut the cake, and another photo was snapped for the album. More memories of the
happy bride and her upcoming happy marriage. Tonight, Larry and I would go together to the funeral
parlor. Tomorrow, after Sunday Mass, we would visit two cemeteries to pay our respects to his parents
and to his maternal grandparents like we did nearly every Sunday.
At eighteen I already knew what memorial statue I wanted over my grave. On the road leading to the
O'Shea burial plot there was a life-size wailing woman made of pale gray-colored marble, her long veil
draped loosely about her body, her arms stretched in grief toward the sky.
Carol read the quotes with great, comic flair. I laughed out loud at the way she twisted my words into
"naughtiness." The laughter made me feel relaxed and, just for a short while, carefree.
"Make a wish, Eileen. Make a wish!"
"It's not my birthday," I said, protesting.
"Aw, c'mon, make one anyway!"
So I cut the cake and wished. To God? To who or whom was I directing my wish? Various women
surrounded me, speaking to me, saying things I was not really hearing.
Please let me make Larry happy, I thought, my eyes shut tight. Let me make him laugh. And let me
have lots of laughter and be happy too.
Two wishes, actually. I'd better not make a third. In fairy tales and fables, the third wish always
canceled out the other two.
|© Eileen Obser. All rights reserved.