It was a swell funeral that brought us together. I was a University of Chicago undergrad when my mother told me one of my cousins had taken up residence in the Home For Unwed Nurses next to the university’s hospital. Naturally, I avoided her.
It wasn’t just that I had plenty of spare cousins. (Although my Irish-Catholic forebears had followed the commandment to “Be fruitful and multiply” so enthusiastically that a relative with fewer than six kids was considered practically childless. There may have been novenas.)
It wasn’t just that she came from an upscale suburb. (Although I was sure the girls there ironed their designer jeans and shaved their legs daily. Even in winter.)
It wasn’t just that she moved to my neighborhood. (Although voluntarily moving to Hyde Park—that’s the American one, on the South Side of Chicago, for my British friends—seemed to me like voluntarily hitting yourself over the head. The best thing you can say about it is that it feels so good when you stop. The worst thing is that after a while, your head is a real mess.) I couldn’t figure out why anybody would deliberately choose Hyde Park when they could go someplace more pleasant, like a war zone.
No, the real reason was that she was beautiful. Her whole family was beautiful. As for my own family, Sister #6 nailed it. “Out of all ten of us, I’m the best looking one and I’m only sort-of cute.”
Luckily, glamour was not a prerequisite to a successful social life in Hyde Park. This was only partly because there was no social life in Hyde Park. Did you ever wonder what became of that grade-grubbing, geeky nerd in your high-school class? Well, they say that home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Hyde Park took us in.
We called it “The Life of the Mind”. But let’s face it – the mind doesn’t throw nearly as good a party as the body, especially those body parts that make 99-percent of college kids’ social decisions. In other college towns during my university years, kids with normal social lives were out getting arrest records. We were out getting mugged. My only brush with the law came the night I was walking home late from Jimmy’s, Hyde Park’s sole college bar. A squad car pulled up next to me. Over the loudspeaker boomed the voice of another of my cousins: “Barb, does your mother know you’re out at this hour?”
So naturally, when I heard that Miss America in a nurse’s cap had moved to the neighborhood, I greeted the news with the enthusiasm usually reserved for active plague carriers. She was no more anxious to meet me. The first person she’d seen when she arrived in Hyde Park was standing in the middle of the street having a heated argument with himself about a dog. In the Hyde Park of pre-cellphone days, talking to yourself—and answering—was not uncommon. It might mean you are a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. It might mean you are a rubber-room refugee. Sadly, it often might mean both.
Soon after this, she met some people who beat her with pointed sticks for refusing their request that she hand over her bike. What really bothered her was the universal Hyde Park response that this was her fault for A) having a new bike in B) public without C) ten bucks for the mugger. The first thing Hyde Park residents learned was to carry an extra ten for your mugger. (I did hear of a case where an impoverished graduate student’s mugger agreed to take a check…)
She was also disconcerted by the main topic of conversation at social gatherings. Cockroaches. You could guess one’s academic discipline from their preferred methods of roach removal. These ranged from the hard scientists employing biological warfare/chemical agents/engines of destruction, to the philosophers who questioned the roaches’ reality.
But after about six months of increasing maternal pressure on both sides, we finally agreed to meet for dinner. Each of us brought along a friend whose sole function was to rescue us from potentially flagging conversation with a reminder about the three term papers due in the morning. Don’t judge. Escape was hard in those prehistoric days BC (before cellphones).
[NB: My husband thinks our worries about finding conversational common ground is the funniest part of this story. When you come from large families like both mine and my cousin’s, you learn to talk early and often, and to follow at least three simultaneous conversations. He thinks if Eve had been in our family, we would never have left the Garden of Eden because the snake wouldn’t have gotten a word in edgewise.]
And, in fact, the friends listened in horrified silence as we got on the subject of my grandmother’s swell funeral.
“Did you know about the Great-Uncle who was too cheap to rent a hotel room, so he slept in grandma’s bed?”
“How about the one who snuck out of the funeral early so she could put her name on Grandma’s things that she wanted?”
“Can you believe how smashed those cousins got at the restaurant after?”
“And who were those two swabbing out each other’s tonsils out in the hall?”
“Too bad Grandma missed it – she would have had a ball.”
We got through the entire evening without ever mentioning roaches. I forgave her for being pretty; she forgave me for being a Hyde Parker. I taught her my method for roach removal; she taught me how to apply eye-liner. She went to medical school, I graduated and got a job, and we ended up sharing an apartment until she got married.
And we owe it all to Grandma’s swell funeral.