We stand, then look back and see the others sitting. We exchange glances, we’ve been caught getting it wrong. Best we stick to the plan now – we stay on our feet. The front row do too, but maybe that’s how it works.
My eye is drawn yet again to the photo on the casket. I can see him leaning against the bridge, looking out under the brim of his hat, grinning at the camera. She’s smiling like she’s just been given the best present in the best place on the best day. It’s grainy black and white, but her twenty-two year old face shines and her smile draws every eye. There’s no doubting her bridal joy. It’s all stretching out before her, on O’Connell bridge, seventy years ago.
We’re listening now to the story. The one we knew a little when we were small, but didn’t understand. About the happy, happy days of early marriage, the five babies in eight years, the farm, the busy house, the thriving business. Then an illness, for just a week, then devastation. A widow with five children, at only thirty years of age.
I think back to my childhood visits. The early morning bustling outside the bedroom doors – setting the fire, setting the table. Tea for grown-ups and milk for us, all in squat cups ringed with toffee-coloured stripes. One-sided toast, done on the grill, with melted butter. Always one-sided and always more. Then books and games and toys, while she busied around us, making sure we were warm – always making sure we were warm.
Dinner at lunch-time, the farmer way, and tea in the late afternoon – Mikado and Coconut Cream biscuits, the table set with plates and knives and cups, everyone gathered again. Sitting around the fire at night, playing scrabble and draughts, warm and familiar and safe. Falling asleep at night, gentle hands pulling the blanket higher, always making sure we were warm.
We didn’t understand then what she’d been through. How she’d raised five children on her own, how with the help of neighbours and family, she’d kept the business going. How she’d been broken by grief, and come through with her spirit rebuilt. And how she never complained – seeing every small good as a blessing. Seeing her life as something wonderful that she didn’t deserve.
And it’s not sad, it can’t be sad, we’re not allowed to be sad. She was ninety-two, she was happy, it was peaceful. Tissues are passed. Hands dab quickly and discretely at wet eyes. It’s moving. It’s poignant. And it matters to five children, twelve grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren who are where they are today because she came through her grief.
I look again at the photo of the couple on the bridge. The unknowing is striking. And yet, there’s nothing that foreknowledge would bring – no changes with hindsight. And maybe that’s what matters most.