Winnie wiggled in her rocker as the cool evening air surrounded them. Axel noticed a tinge of auburn by her right ear, recalling the red hair of her youth, now all but covered over by the snowy white of her old age. He hated to see her ageing before his eyes. She was always on the go, working at the restaurant she once owned, raising the two boys. Tending her garden, visiting the sick and infirm and even traveling. Like the battery sponsoring rabbit, she would not stop. But with age came slowing down, and pain. A lesser man would have questioned his faith in God at this injustice, but Axel’s was unshakable.
He broke the silence. “Would you like to go inside and watch TV?”
“No, but I’m not going dancing either. Quit stalling. We have a job to finish.”
They discussed her funeral as if planning a wedding. Each detail dictated by her and written in a notebook by him. “Cullen’s Funeral Parlor is the place. Patrick’s family has been burying Ahearne relatives since I can remember. And Father Groghan to officiate the service. Can you make sure…” She stopped to take another sip before continuing, “Make sure you tip the altar boys.”
Axel smiled at this. She was always putting the needs of others first. Selfless to a fault. “I will,” he said as he cupped her hand in his, careful of her arthritis. “I promise.”
“You’re a good boy.” She paused before changing the subject as if the next thought had just occurred to her, “Are you aware of why they call it a parlor?”
“No, I never thought about it.”
“In the olden days, before funeral parlors, folks used to have wakes in their homes. Prop the casket in the front room or parlor and let the visitin’ commence. Then, people needed another room in the house to gather without being reminded of their dead relatives. And that’s why we have what they call… the living room.”
Axel laughed, giving her a wary eye. “Are you making this up?”
“Would I lie to you? A weakened old lady planning her own funeral? Shame on you.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time. You’ve told me plenty of tall tales.”
“And all of them true. Well, most of them. I don’t want to go to my maker with a white lie on my lips.” She looked away before adding, “Soon this old bird will no longer be a burden.”
He was about to protest but thought better of it. Instead, he let her continue.
“One good thing will come of it. When my time comes, it’ll be grand to hug my boy again.” For a moment, the gleam of youth came back, all her pain forgotten. “He was a wonderful son and I miss him every day.”
Winnie had taken over the parenting duties after a hit-and-run auto accident claimed Axel’s parents. The other driver was never found. She insisted on the boys calling her “Winnie.”
“None of that Grandma crap out of your mouths,” she’d scold.
“And my mother?” he asked. Winnie was not as keen on her as she was on his father.
“She was something else. A blonde Scandinavian beauty with a powerful spirit. Too strong, if you ask me. To saddle you and your brother with Norse first names to go along with a fine Irish last name was such a shame.”
Axel was very aware of this sore spot. “But they loved each other, right?” he prodded. “And us as well?”
“They did, lad,” she answered. “With all their hearts. I would have rather he’d married one of his own, but I can’t begrudge a woman for knowing her own mind.” Winnie paused, looking towards the street. Axel set his gaze towards the oak tree to the right of the house, its large branch hung across the front lawn like an outstretched arm. She sipped her whiskey to clear her throat before continuing. “Let’s not talk any further about the past. It’s your future we need to discuss. I’ve got a job of my own to finish.”
Axel scrunched his nose, forcing the top of his glasses to rise above his eyebrows. He was not in the mood for what came next, but it did not stop her from asking.
“When are you going to find a good woman?” She said, wagging a bony finger. “I’ll never see a great grandchild from the lot of you, will I? Your brother is gallivanting all over God’s green earth, so it’s up to you to keep the Ahearne name alive. Isn’t there anyone special?”
“Not at the moment. I’m busy with work and the church—”
She cut him off with a wave of a hand, “You should never be too busy to raise a family. Before I’m gone, go out and find a nice Irish lass and fill your home with love and babies. What is the saying? Blessed are the fruitful, go forth and multiply?”
“You’re making things up again. Not the best idea for a woman on her way to talk to God. Besides, if I had lots of babies, the correct phrase would be ‘Blessed are the poor.’”
Winnie shifted her frame in the chair and again the wince of pain did not escape the notice of her grandson. “Stop wasting time with this old lady. Go out and live your best life, my boy.”
“I thought I was,” he said, a hint of disappointment transparent in his tone.
“Son,” she said, leaning in towards her grandson, “Life is to be lived, not hoarded like a squirrel collecting nuts. Enjoy it while you’re able. I don’t mean to go all helter-skelter like Leif. Outside of the church, you have no friends. And no girlfriend. It’s like you’re invisible. And you’ll not find the right match there with all those old people.”
“I can’t argue with you,” he said. He loved spending time in church. The only place he felt comfortable. At peace. “We’ve been attending St. Simons since I can remember,” he began. “I enjoy taking part in my church community. It’s where I belong.” As an afterthought he added, “I still haven’t forgiven you for making us quit our altar boy duties.”
Winnie fidgeted in her chair, discomfort crossing her face. “As I told you then, you outgrew the role.”
“Leif was pleased,” countered Axel. “I wish I could have served another year or two.”
“Nonsense, you were both taller than the priest. It looked awkward. I stand by my decision,” she snapped. Winnie turned away from Axel as if scanning for what birds were invading her lawn. Axel took this as a sign the topic was closed.
“So, this job you need to finish is about finding me a girlfriend?”
“All I’m trying to say is you need to get married and have children. A purpose. I’ve protected you my entire life and as of late, you’ve cared for me. Find a nice girl to take care of you once I go. Spend the savings you’ve got stashed away on her.”
Axel frowned. “You always told me to save my money for a rainy day. Now you want me to squander it?”
“Rainy day saving is a good principle in theory. But let me ask you this? What if the rain never comes?”
Silence enveloped them like the darkness creeping onto the porch. Axel got up and flicked on the switch, illuminating the shadows as they danced across the front yard.
“There, that’s better. Let’s talk more about your after-party,” he said, a subtle attempt to deflect from marriage, kids, and rainy days. He was twenty seven. Plenty of time for those responsibilities later.
“I want you to tell delightful stories. I’ve begun writing a few in a notebook.” She tapped the side of her head as she recalled one, “Remember the day Leif climbed the old dead tree in the back yard? As I recall, you also wanted to climb, but I talked you out of it. A good one to tell.”
Axel had a different recollection. “I didn’t want to climb because it was a dead tree and dangerous. I knew the difference between smart and forewarned. You know Leif’s going to be mad. He’s always hated that story.”
With a sly grin, she said, “Tis the point.” Axel softly laughed. Even while discussing the inevitability of her own death, Winnie took pleasure in finding someone to poke.
“And don’t forget the punchline.” She was a skilled storyteller. “A joke is merely a dreadful story without a good punchline.”
How could he forget a line like that? His grandmother was not only witty, but she also had a great sense of word play and subtext. “You’re smart not to climb the tree,” he remembered her warning. “Do you know what happens to a Leif in a tree?” She would pause for effect before answering. “They always fall.”
“I won’t forget,” he promised her. “But who should I tell? People at the wake?”
“No silly,” she said, adjusting her glasses. “You’ll do my eulogy.” The foregone conclusion shocked Axel. “Winnie, No! I’ll fall apart. No one wants to see a blubbering idiot on the altar?”
She wore the stern gaze of a woman who got what she wanted in this world. Despite his protests, Axel determined she would also get her way once she left it.
“You are the only one I trust. Not some priest who knows very little about me. You’ve done an admirable job with other eulogies, why not mine? Boy, to overcome your fears, you first have to face them.”
Axel could not argue with her logic. He had delivered a few eulogies and had prepared as if giving the State of the Union address. He was happy his fellow parishioners could count on him to deliver a last word for those who could no longer speak.
“If I can’t have the last word in person, I’d want no one but you to deliver it for me.” She gave him a wink, “And to make sure, I’ll write it.”
“All right, Winnie, whatever you want,” he laughed, lifting his hands in surrender. “But if I turn into a mass of quivering jelly, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Blessed are the speakers of truth,” she said. “You’ll do fine.”
“Is there anything else on the agenda, your highness?”
“As a matter of fact,” she said, a twinkle in those hazel eyes spelling mischief. “There are three items.”
“Do tell,” he said.
“Number one, it’s time for me to say goodbye to this old house. Been good to my younger self, but not this old lady.”
“Wait, you can’t sell. This is our home!”
“Relax, I’m not going to sell. I’m giving the house to you.”
Axel was speechless.
“But I am moving. I’ve already applied to live at the Benton Falls Assisted Living and Memory Care Center.”
The FALM, as it was known, was nice enough. Axel visited enough residents there to decide its value, but Winnie loved this old house. She had lived here her entire life and now she was leaving? Axel may have been quick to discover numbers never changed, but slow to realize the only constant in life was change.
“What? When did this happen?” he said, the shock causing his voice to rise an octave.
“I’ve been talking to that sweet Julia, over there. If I’m going to move, I might as well go to a place where I have friends. No stairs, no cooking, and most of all, surrounded by people my age, so you can get on with your life. I raised you boys here. It’s your turn to fill this house with laughter and love. End of story. But promise me…” Winnie took another sip of whiskey before continuing. “If I am incapacitated for any reason, unconscious with no chance of returning, pull the damn plug.”
“What? C’mon, stop joking.” Her penchant for gallows humor might have been her way of putting him at ease, but Axel was not in a joking mood once it came to her death. “No one is putting anyone out of their misery. You need to keep this in God’s hands.”
“God does not want his children to suffer,” she whispered, leaning in conspiratorially. “But if you change your mind, go right over to St. Paul’s parish, where you’ll confess your sins and get absolution from Father Champlin. Then all will be well.”
St Paul’s was the Catholic Church in the next town, overseen by a priest where anyone’s secrets would be safe. The priest, it so happened, was deaf.
“And remember, blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”
“Now you get it right?” Axel said, shaking his head.
Guilt was a terrible weapon, and Winnie brandished it like the sword of a warrior.
“Buck up. I’ve got a long standing dinner date with your grandad and father. You know how I hate to be late.”
Axel laughed at his grandmothers’ joke. “OK, what is the last thing you wanted?” he asked, changing the morbid subject.
Winnie drained her glass, looking at the bottom, mulling over her next words.
“See what I’ve done here? I tell you good news, then bad news, to set you up for what I really want.”
“You led with moving out and then a request for me to kill you, and this is what you call setting me up?” Axel said, his head shaking in bewilderment.
Winnie leaned in again, the wagging finger for added emphasis, “Even though you’re the younger, you need to watch out for your brother. He’s in for a fall. You know the scripture, be the keeper of your brother.”
Axel was going to respond but decided it pointlessness.
“When Leif falls?” she asked. “Because he will. And when he does, you must catch him.”
“Winnie, he won’t fall- “
“Shush.” She cut him off with a wave of her glass, signifying a refill. “He will fall. And you must catch him,” she repeated.
But in the end, he would not.
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