The lines traveled through the gymnasium and out the door into the flooded parking lot. On this rainy Friday night, and appropriately, the Feast of All Saints, thousands waited in line to say goodbye to my cousin, Jack. It was amazing to see the number of lives that had been touched by the husband, father to 11 children and owner of a shoe store franchise. He certainly touched my life and as the number of family members who knew my Dad as a boy dwindled to a single digit, his death truly hit home.
As a child, he seemed larger than life to me. A robust personality, closely knitted to my Dad and my grandfather, Jack was the typical Irishman; a storyteller, devout Catholic, family man, and one who enjoyed celebrating life whenever he had the opportunity.
With Grandpa living around the corner from us, I would venture over there often, especially when Jack’s mom, “Aunt Margaret” or her children came to visit. Grandpa’s house was generally quiet; but when Jack or his brother Bill came to town–life often became interesting.
They knew people.
On more than one occasion, I would race to Grandpa’s house after school only to see Lawrence Welk or Liberace perched on a hard kitchen chair stuck haphazardly in the living room. I’d sit on the marble fireplace hearth soaking in all of the chatter and gossip regarding their musical tours and television programs. I learned about various stars and what they were doing right or maybe, not so right. I felt like I belonged to a special club as I was sworn to secrecy about the special visits, lest the press or the overly inquisitive neighbors find out. Afterwards, I’d race home and tell my mother everything and she listened as if she were hearing it all for the first time, little did I know back then, that she and my dad had been visiting earlier.
From time to time, my parents would cram all five of us in the blue station wagon and take the family on a Sunday drive. Whether it was shopping at Treasure Island or seeing the free movie at the Golden Rondell in Racine, afterwards we’d often end up in front of our cousin’s home, conveniently around dinnertime. We’d arrive, unannounced and each time, Jack and Eileen graciously let us in. After dinner, our parents would visit and all 16 of us kids would rip through the house with wild abandon, leaving a trail of toys in our wake. We’d hide in closets, jump on the beds, mess up the basement and no one seemed to mind.
Still clear in my mind is the newspaper article that the Racine Journal wrote on Jack and Eileen’s large family while eating at a local restaurant. Apparently, 11 children dining out with their parents were a hot topic back in the 1960s. I’ll never forget Jack’s comment when a diner said to him, “You have 11 children?” and Jack calmly replied. “Of course, doesn’t everybody?”
As we grew older and became busier, the weekly visits stopped, and I’m sure that Eileen and Jack were overjoyed to have an uninterrupted Sunday without our family barging into their lives. Jack opened more shoe stores and Dad’s business also grew. We all lost touch and then about 10 years ago, Blaise and I reconnected with Jack and Eileen and wept together after Bill passed away. Since then, we have kept in touch with a visit here and there, but more often by phone.
Today as I watched the lines of people clamoring to see Eileen, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, tears welled in my eyes to see the wonderful legacy left behind. Putting names to the faces of my cousins were a bit challenging after 40 plus years, but most of us reconnected.
In true Irish fashion, the wake was noisy, and filled with good food and spirits. I think Jack would have been happy with the celebration and surprised to see how many lives he touched in his 81 years. Rest in Peace thou good and faithful servant.
And Eileen, we will stay in touch. I promise.
This photo was taken about 3 years ago before Jack lost his ability to speak. We had a wonderful visit.