When the opportunity presented itself, I didn’t hesitate to take Winnie to see “Belfast.” I’d already seen it once, and I knew she would love it. I also knew she wouldn’t mind me selecting the movie we’d see; she’d always been deferential when we were making plans, no matter how hard I tried to extract her preferences: “You decide,” she’d say. “Wherever you want to eat is fine.” “What’s a good time for you?” (It must be noted this trait applied only to unimportant decisions; Winnie never hesitated to express an honest opinion—or ask a probing question—when it mattered.) This time, however, I didn’t ask; I just knew I had to take her.
One of the reasons we became friends so easily, even though I was fresh out of college and Winnie was nearly 40, was our Irishness, and our big, rollicking Irish-American families. Winnie’s parents, like my grandparents, were born in Ireland. From Winnie, a redhead with a melodic laugh, I’d learned to call Irish fiddling “deedle-dee” music. From me, she’d learned to expect Irish soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas. We’d consumed barrels of tea in each other’s company over the years, and when we gave each other gifts, they were as likely as not to have some connection to tea, and/or to Ireland. Sometimes we joked about the sappy sentimentality of the Irish; other times we got sentimental together over practically nothing.
I knew Winnie so well that even before we got to the movie, I was anticipating how she’d react to certain characters and scenes. I knew she would love Jude Hill, the young actor who plays 8-year-old Buddy in 1969 Belfast. I knew she’d want to talk afterwards about the boy’s wise and funny grandfather, played by Ciarán Hands; and then about the bottomless marvelousness of Judi Dench, who plays the boy’s granny. Then once the lights went down, even in the dark, I knew Winnie would be swaying along to the Van Morrison soundtrack, like me. (Later, over an imagined thermos of tea in my car, because, you know, Covid, Winnie and I would agree that while Morrison’s music remained irresistible, his support for anti-vaxxers was inexcusable.)
As the movie unspooled, I could sense the familiar, exaggerated roll of Winnie’s bright blue eyes every time religion was used to stir up trouble; and I could feel her solemn approval every time a counterpoint was offered. I knew she would think the actor who played Buddy’s father was handsome. I knew she’d remind me later that she’d worn miniskirts like Buddy’s mother way back then, and what were they ever thinking? But the moment in the film she liked best—as I had known she would—was when the tipsy aunt belts out “Danny Boy” at the end of a family gathering in front of Buddy’s house, in plain view of the neighbors. I felt Winnie elbow me in the ribs pretty hard during that scene.
When Winnie and her husband Paul suddenly moved to Florida seven years ago, he kindly wrote to tell me what had happened. She was settling into a memory care unit, while he had an apartment nearby in the same senior community. Almost overnight, in her early 70s, Winnie had gone from a physically active, mentally sharp, engaged retiree who doted on her college-aged grandkids and volunteered for several community organizations to an often-agitated Alzheimer’s patient whose memories had mostly been erased. For a few years, I learned, there had been some early signs of dementia—mood shifts and other atypical behavior; certainly not anything I had noticed, although by then Winnie and I only saw each other once or twice a year, and stayed in touch mostly through email. But something had snapped, and she’d needed specialized care, quickly. Her sister in Florida had found a place where Winnie and Paul could both move in, right away.
In the intervening years Paul sent a few updates, including a picture of Winnie blowing out candles on her 75thbirthday cake. Her hair was pure white by then, not a hint of that gorgeous auburn remained. But her smile was the same. I still thought of Winnie often, because she’d been such a presence in my life. It haunted me that I’d not had a chance to say good-bye to the friend I’d known, although I was a little bit relieved that I’d only known her “before,” and never seen her “after.” Sometimes I had news I wanted to share with her; sometimes she was the person I most wanted to gripe with about the news-news. In November 2016, I dared to hope Winnie never had to know the outcome of the presidential election; although I knew that if she did, she’d be every bit as outraged “after” as she would have been “before.”
Then last September, I got another email message from Paul, after a long interval. “Winnie has died,” it began. Peacefully, thank goodness, at the age of 81. He told me there would be a funeral mass in Delaware the day before Thanksgiving, and I assured him I would be there. Online, I found an obituary that noted “her zest for life” had made her the longest-tenured resident in the history of the memory care unit where she’d lived her last chapter. Zest, oh my, yes. Winnie was one of the zestiest people I will ever know.
At the church, I was welcomed as a member of the family, introduced as Winnie’s dear friend, my name familiar to her nearest kin, even some I’d never met. Her kids were happy, but surprised, to see me, because they hadn’t known how to reach me; I explained that their 91-year-old father still had my email address. It made my heart happy to see Winnie and Paul’s three beautiful, grown-up grandchildren, whose early years I’d enjoyed witnessing through photographs and occasional encounters. Their son Tim confirmed for me that Winnie had, unfortunately, understood the outcome of the 2016 election, although perhaps not the 2020 result. Damn. He didn’t mind the question, but he did remind that me that I’d best not mention that topic to one of his aunts. I told him I knew to tread carefully there.
The reception after the mass was held in a rustic room built into a hillside overlooking Ashland Nature Center, one of Winnie’s favorite places. Several people in that room had walked around Ashland with Winnie, some of them many, many times. Often a dog or two was involved. A wall of windows was lit up by the midday sun, filtered through November’s bare tree branches. Winnie’s ashes sat in an unadorned white marble box, next to a vase of flowers, on a small table by the door. She would have liked that—being tucked into a corner where she could watch this gathering unfold.
By way of introduction, as I moved around the room and met nieces and nephews, grandkids and in-laws, I’d told them Winnie and I had worked together for close to 25 years, in two different organizations—first at a children’s hospital, and later (basically across the street) at a pharmaceutical company. I explained we’d stayed in touch long after we’d both moved on from that second place, back in 2005, although we didn’t see each other quite so often after that. I told them it had occurred to me recently that I’d probably had more lunches with Winnie than with any other person in my life. When we worked together, we weren’t always in the same department, or even in the same building; but we often sought each other’s company at lunchtime. We shared a cast of workplace characters that stretched all the way back to my first job out of college. Most of those characters are all mine now—no one but Winnie would remember them, or at least not in the way we had remembered them together over the decades.
Winnie’s daughter, Erin, offered a beautiful eulogy at the reception. She celebrated the fact that her free-spirited mother had at last been released from the illness that had stolen some (but not all) of the joy from her closing years. Erin then invited others to share their memories. And that’s when the real fun began. Because it was impossible to remember Winnie without laughing out loud at her mischievous ways, her irrepressible spirit, her wicked sense of humor. Some of the stories that made me happiest took place in Florida—“after”—when Winnie’s essence shone through her illness. She seemed to have understood that whatever had been taken from her had also endowed her with extra cover for being “naughty” on a regular basis.
When the stories began, I’d only planned to listen and smile along with the family. I thought—maybe we all did—that Paul, along with Winnie’s sisters and two sons, might add a few words to what Erin had said, and then everyone would quietly slip off to finish Thanksgiving preparations. But one story led to another, and suddenly the room was filled with laughter, warmth, and Winnie. The memories were bumping into each other left and right. People were competing for the next chance to speak. Winnie was right there with us—as a sister, a wife, a mother, an aunt, a cousin, a godmother, a grandmother. I realized I was the only person out of the three dozen or so in that room who was not related to Winnie by blood or by marriage. I was the only one there who had known her strictly as a friend and a co-worker. She was someone who’d always made friends easily, someone people confided in, and trusted. I’d met some of her same-age friends years ago, women who’d been young suburban moms together in the 1970s. The two I could recall had long since moved to other states. The ones we used to work with—including Winnie’s “lunch ladies,” because she and I didn’t always eat together—maybe hadn’t known why she’d disappeared from Delaware years ago, and could easily have missed her obituary in the local paper back in September.
So I waited for an opening, and I took my turn. I started by explaining that I’d met Winnie nearly 40 years ago, and so when it came to her extended family, “I know stuff,” I said. Big laughs, especially from Winnie’s two surviving sisters. I told them Winnie had known stuff, too—about me, and my extended family. I also told them I grew up in the same kind of family as theirs, that my Dad’s sisters all went to the same Catholic girls’ high school in West Philadelphia as Winnie and her four sisters. I mentioned all the movies, all the plays, all the lunches, all the cups of tea. I told them Winnie was a great person to work with, always generous with ideas and willing to roll up her sleeves to get things done. I told them I’d learned a great deal from her, about work, about life, about family. I could have spent an hour reflecting on all the ways the world of work had changed—and yet stayed the same—over the decades we’d known each other; and especially for women, of Winnie’s generation and of mine.
Then I mentioned that something Erin said made me remember that Winnie had long been one of my best book buddies. Beginning in the early 1980s, whenever I found a book I loved, I couldn’t wait to share it with Winnie. She did the same with me. Once we’d both finished a book, we’d have to get together for a debrief. I told her family that Winnie and I gave each other dozens of books over the years. Winnie’s sister Ronnie chimed in: “I can vouch for that. Because one year you gave her a book with a lovely inscription for her birthday, and later she wrapped it up and gave it to me. I still have it!” Two more people popped up with similar regifting anecdotes, and that led to more laughter, more memories, more stories. Winnie never seemed to care about possessions. I can’t recall one single time when she said, “I wish I had a …” She preferred to keep things circulating, rather than holding onto them. She flat-out loved letting go of objects. I recalled that Winnie was philosophically opposed to locking doors—to houses or to cars. “Help yourself,” was the implied message, “maybe you need it more than I do.” Until the book stories started at the reception, I’d forgotten that decades ago, Winnie had given me her mother-in-law’s ancient (original?) copy of “Joy of Cooking,” because I had just moved into my first apartment, and she had a thing that maybe I could use.
My favorite family memory came from Winnie’s youngest sister, Patsy. Parts of the story were familiar. I remember Winnie telling me that their oldest (and bossiest, sorry, but I do know stuff) sister, Maryellen (may she rest in peace), would sometimes insist that all five sisters converge at their beloved mother’s grave. Then, arms linked, she would lead them in a rousing (or not so) rendition of a maudlin old Irish emigrant song, “A Mother’s Love’s a Blessing,” exactly the type of sentimental pap that provoked Winnie’s patented eyeroll. (By the time I was 10, I knew the words to this and countless other Irish songs by heart. Every gathering at my paternal grandparents’ home included an Irish sing-along.) The last line of the chorus is: “…For you’ll never miss a mother’s love ‘til she’s buried beneath the clay.” As Patsy told the story, every time Maryellen instigated this ritual, she would belt out the words while the other four sisters would sway along and softly sing something like: “hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm…” Every time, Maryellen would yell at them for mumbling; and every time, Winnie would insist they didn’t know the words. And Maryellen would say, “Yes you do.” “No we don’t.” “Yes you do.” Months later, they’d repeat the whole show again, four grown women trying not to make a scene in a cemetery, one aiming to do precisely that. Until the one time Winnie came prepared, with five copies of the printed lyrics, so at last they could satisfy Maryellen. Which they did not do, because when she started belting out her version of the lyrics, while the rest of them confidently sang the words from the printed pages, it became clear Maryellen had never known the actual words to the song. Classic Winnie.
I’ve never had so much fun at a funeral. I wasn’t watching the time, but the stories went on for well over an hour, probably closer to two. I didn’t want to leave, because I knew this really was the end of the long good-bye I’d been saying ever since Paul had told me about their move to Florida. I said my farewells to the grandkids, to Paul Sr., and Tim. Paul nearly did me in when he said, “This is probably the last time I’ll see you.” I’d barely recovered from what he’d said earlier: “You were the first person I sent a message to after Winnie died.”
I could see Erin standing near the door, and saying goodbye to her would be the hardest. More than anyone there, she understood what Winnie and I had meant to each other as friends, and as independent-minded women navigating a world that was not optimally designed for us. I remembered a conversation with Winnie—maybe our last one, while we ate ice cream under a tree in July—where she mentioned Erin had a milestone birthday on the horizon. “I must be getting old,” I said. “Erin was just a kid when I first met you.” Winnie had responded, “You were just a kid when I first met you. You’re not much older than Erin.” True. But Erin was still in high school, and I was already a working girl. A very young working girl, but still.
As I started to say good-bye, Erin asked if I wanted to join a few family members who were going to scatter some of Winnie’s ashes at the top of a hill at Ashland, her favorite lookout for hawks. I hesitated, even as Paul Jr. approached with a short stack of small cardboard boxes containing ashes that had been withheld from the white marble box, which would be interred two days later. “Or,” Erin offered, “you could just take one of the boxes and scatter the ashes somewhere else.” I knew in a flash that Winnie would have wanted me to carry a trace of her home with me. And so I took a little white box with a blue label from the crematory affixed to the top, confirming the legitimacy of its contents. I most certainly had not expected to leave this gathering with a party favor, especially not one with such deep sentimental value. I felt honored to be given this gift. I assured Erin I’d think of someplace special to scatter the ashes. But then it hit me: I didn’t have to scatter them right away. I could still have one last little adventure with Winnie. Something we could enjoy together, and then talk about after it ended. On the spot I announced to Erin and Paul Jr., and a couple of their cousins, “I’m going to take her to see one last movie.” “Belfast”? Erin asked, because I’d already recommended she see it. “Belfast,” I agreed. “I just know she’s going to love it.”
I drove back to Pennsylvania with the little cardboard box safely lodged in the passenger seat behind my purse. At home, I gently placed it on my coffee table. It took me days to get up the nerve to remove the rubber band and look inside. This was as close as I’d ever been to anyone’s cremated remains. Under the lid I saw a tiny plastic bag that held just a few teaspoons of Winnie. Teaspoons. That was it. I hadn’t wavered in my intention to see “Belfast” with Winnie. But I’d been fretting over the logistics. Should I buy one ticket or two? Should I keep the little box out of sight at the bottom of my purse, or should I place it on the seat beside me?
I have a collection of teapots and teacups, more than one of which came from Winnie. I selected an elegant porcelain teapot—designed for brewing just one cupful—which I bought in Ireland more than 20 years ago. I lifted the tiny lid, and tucked those few teaspoons of Winnie (still in their plastic bag) into this most perfect vessel for a most unusual outing.
This being a special occasion, I took a day off from work in early December and bought a ticket for a matinee screening of “Belfast” at my favorite arthouse theater. The wee porcelain teapot slipped easily into my purse. When I got to my reserved seat in the sparsely populated theater, I nestled it into a cupholder. Throughout the movie, my left hand gravitated toward that teapot, gently cupping its lid, while being careful not to jiggle it. Winnie would have found it hilarious if I’d inadvertently scattered her ashes on the floor of the theater; I, however, would have been mortified, even though it’s the kind of place where they would have understood, even celebrated, her presence there in that way.
As I’ve reported, Winnie loved the movie, like I knew she would. I kid you not when I say I could feel her poking my ribs when that tipsy aunt sang “Danny Boy.” I imagined Winnie throwing her head back and laughing heartily at the clichéd scene, and the sentimental song, which always strikes a chord for those of us with Irish roots. In my father’s family, it was the grand finale for any sing-along: voices had to be warmed up before the high notes could even be attempted.
After the movie, I took my little teapot full of Winnie back home. I incorporated it, along with the movie ticket, into the Christmas decorations on my dining room table. I decided to keep her with me a bit longer because…why not? A few days after Christmas, I finally released my few teaspoons of Winnie back into the universe. I’m not sure I should say where, although I did Google “scattering ashes in Pennsylvania” first. Let’s just say I have every reason to believe the sprawling lilac bush beneath my kitchen window, and a few other garden favorites, will be zestier than ever this spring. If you happen to wander by, you might catch me humming “Danny Boy” into the lilac blossoms, or you might pause to listen to the toe-tapping deedle-dee music floating out through an open window.