"They'll need a few minutes for the immediate family," the director informed the
mourners in vestibule; it had been two days since her uncle's passing, but the shock that he was not present seemed to surprise Polly. How could someone come to their own wake, really? Still, she's half expected to see him there.
Polly twitched uncomfortably. She didn't like the outfit she'd chosen for the wake. Within minutes of her arrival her mother had found two stains on her sweater and a tear in her nylons. Really, the last thing on her mind was fashion. She was here to pay her last respects to her favorite uncle.
Ten minutes later, the large oak doors opened into a small room full of flowers. Polly's Aunt Janis and her cousins were waiting inside. They had been given a few precious moments for private good-byes and now they embraced the extended family.
John was the first to approach. He was her Uncle Rocco's oldest son. He hugged everyone and thanked them for being there in this, their saddest hour. The procession line had started toward the casket, but Polly felt her feet grow heavy. John tugged her elbow gently, "I'll go up with you," her smiled gently.
"I'm not quite ready yet," she responded. She felt like she was sinking into herself. How could she say goodbye? She wasn't ready yet. The truth was she didn't know if she'd be able to go to the coffin. She blinked hard to keep back the tears, but the memories flooded
Her first memory of Uncle Rocco was at a cousin's christening. She was four at the time, dancing around her aunt's dining room with her other cousins. A kindly older relative approached and asked, "So, Polly, who's your favorite uncle?"
She stopped dancing and gave the matter some serious four-year-old thought. No one had ever asked her a question like that before. "UmI guess Uncle Bobby is my favorite."
Bobby smiled from across the room. He was her godfather, but that wasn't the reason for his amusement. Rocco was his uncle first and he knew what was coming.
"WHAT??" Rocco bellowed. His eyes got really big in mock exasperation. He pulled the child close to him, "Say 'Uncle Roc, I love ya!'" HE tickled her until she was breathless.
"Uncle Roc, I love ya! Uncle Roc, I love ya!" Polly squealed and giggled with delight. No one had ever asked before, but she'd never get the answer wrong again. Uncle Rocco was her favorite from then on
"Come on, sweetie. I'll go up with you," another gentle tug at her elbow woke her from this memory. This tug came from Rocco's daughter Betty Jane. "Are you ready?"
No, not yet. I can't go up yet. II'm sorry," hot tears began running down her cheeks. She tried to fight it; the family had been through so much already. They were all so well composed, how could she fall apart in front of them now? She remembered another family gathering
"Whatcha doing?" Polly came out the back door of the house. She was ten now and loved tagging along with her great-uncle. "Uncle Roc, whatcha doing out here?"
"Had to get away from the old ladies for a little bit," he took a long drag of his Camel before crushing the butt between his fingers. "Hey- what color was George Washington's white horse?"
He's been telling this same joke since she could remember. She proudly told him the correct answer anyway. She watched her uncle grind the tobacco between his fingers until there was nothing left of it.
"Why'd you do that?" she asked.
"Mommy and Daddy don't do that with their cigarettes. Why do you crumble them up like that?"
"Oh that," he smiled and stroked his thick grey hair. "Habit from the war, I guess. Did you know that I fought in a war?"
Her eyes grew wide, "You were in a war?"
He sat down on the stoop and hoisted her up on his lap, "Oh yes. Long before you were born, we went over to fight the Germans."
She sat on his lap and tried to picture her uncle as a war hero; like the ones in the movies they'd watch on television late at night.
"When we were in the trenches, we would put out our cigarettes like that. That way the Germans couldn't figure out where we'd been." He moved his head close to hers and laughed; "Now I do it so your Aunt Janis won't know how much I'm smoking." He tickled her gently and they giggled about comparing her aunt with the Nazis.
She held her small arm next to his, his skin was much darker then hers; he said it was because he was an old guinea and she was a little mick. They spent the rest of the day talking about the war and what it was like being in the army with people yelling at you all day. She'd always liked that he explained things so that she could easily understand them without making her feel like a baby.
"Goodness, you haven't moved," her mother was the next to disrupt her daydreaming. "Have you gotten to go up?" she asked softly.
"UmnoI'm not," she stammered, "Is Aunt Janis around?
"I'll walk you over," her mother smiled.
Polly walked with her mother through the parlor, hugging relatives and sharing Uncle Rocco stories. There was family in town from all over the country, so it took quite some time to cross the room to her aunt. She stopped short for a moment. Seeing her aunt sitting there without Rocco made Polly sad again. Janis and Rocco had been like surrogate grandparents to her or years. She stood there a little while longer while watching Janis. She remembered the Christmas when she was twelve
"Polly! What's the matter, baby?" Janis ran over when she saw her great-niece coming through the door in tears.
"I had a fight with my cousin," Polly sobbed.
Janis looked around the room confused. Every cousin she knew was right there in the room. Nobody else looked remotely upset, "Which cousin, sweetheart?"
"Rachel, Aunt Janis. I got into a fight with Rachel." She sniffled.
"Who the hell is Rachel?" Janis asked in her normal, non-tactful way.
"At daddy's family's house, we just got back from visiting my other grandmother. She didn't even listen to my side of it! She just took Rachel's side," Polly explained as her father eased into the room shaking his head.
Janis got close to Polly's ear, "You know that side of the family doesn't count, sweetie," she smiled and pulled hr toward the kitchen. "Come say 'hello' to your Uncle Rocco."
Polly smiled at her aunt's brash dismissal of her father's family. Of course she was right- they'd never felt like real family; just a brief stop on holidays, really. Suddenly, a wonderful idea came to her, "You guys! You guys can be my new grandparents!"
Her uncle hugged her and said, "Honey, nothing would make me happier." They closed the deal with another big hug. There were no more tears for the rest of the day
"Did you get to see Janis yet?" Richard, Rocco's youngest son, asked. "She's been looking forward to seeing you."
"I was just going over," Polly inched toward her aunt.
Janis looked up and smiled. She reached out from the parlor chair to hug her great-niece. The tears came again, this time Polly didn't try to stop them. This time she just let herself cry on her aunt's shoulder.
"I know baby," Janis soothed
"I know it's hard, baby. He knows he's dying. Just talk to him like you always would. He's your same uncle."
Polly dried her tears and took a few breaths. She felt a little bit foolish to be crying that way; she had to excuse herself as soon has she got there. She wasn't expecting him to look so different.
Her uncle, once a robust man, now looked so small and slight. His thick grey hair was now thinning and white and his dark olive skin was so pale. Her mom had told her that he had cancer; she just hadn't been prepared for the physical changes to be so swift and radical.
She went back to the living room and sat across from her uncle.
"You know that I'm dying, right?"
"Yes, Uncle Rocco."
"Okay then, we can talk about something else," he smiled. "Do you know who's buried in Grant's tomb?"
Polly laughed out loud, she couldn't help herself. She proudly gave him the correct answer, just like when she was a little girl
We're going back to Aunt Rosemary's house for dinner, honey. Did you want to come along?" Her mother asked.
"Yeah, that might be nice." The room was clearing out; the wake was almost over. The family had settled into groups chatting and getting ready to leave.
"I never said good-bye," she thought. Her feet froze again, the thought of approaching the coffin was still just too much for her. At that moment she decided to remember her uncle at his best, full of life and love. Choosing to do this made her smile.
"Good-bye, Uncle Roc. I love you," she whispered as she turned to leave.