The Words of the McCarthy Family
“Do you remember Raymond? RAY!... RAYMOND HENDRICKSON? HE DROPPED DEAD... DROPPED DEAD THIS MORNING in his garden... awful! …the poor thing.”
That was my Aunt Ellie... if anybody “dropped dead” within a 100 mile radius around Aunt Ellie’s house... she knew about it. She even had a police scanner set up in her bedroom to get advance warning of any overnight... well... droppings. And, let it be clear, for Ellie, the proper term to use when someone died was always: “dropped dead.” People didn’t die, pass away, expire or go home to Jesus. They “dropped dead.” And it was always “awful.” And whoever it was that had dropped dead would, henceforth, be known as “the poor thing.”
Some folks said Aunt Ellie could hear the sound of a body hitting the ground 30 miles away. Nobody in Monmouth County, NJ passed through the pearly gates without first checking through with Aunt Ellie. In fact, we heard that St. Peter had, at one time, considered outsourcing some of his workload to Ellie...but the deal fell through when the Angel of Death nixed it, worried that Ellie would start showing up at the home of the deceased before he got there.
For as long as I could remember, my Aunt Ellie was old... In fact, the day Ellie was born, they say, she was already 68 years old. Aunt Ellie was so old that she was one of the few people living that could claim to be a country girl from Jersey. You see, when Ellie was born (at age 68) there were actually areas of New Jersey not covered with buildings or cement. Aunt Ellie had a special position in the family owing to the fact that when my father was a boy, she had rescued him -- some say kidnapped him -- from the adoptive family that had been abusing him. Aunt Ellie just waited outside the local schoolyard one day, snatched up my father and brought him home. It would be the only family-life he would ever know.
She was an Irish classic -- a Hagerty -- tough as an old shoe with the proverbial heart of gold... but mostly, folks got to see the old shoe part. She used words like “youse” for “all of you”, “wersh” for “wash”, and “zink” for “sink”, and other words that you only hear when you are out and about in places like Cranbury or Hightstown, N.J. She was old Irish -- not lace curtain Irish, either -- she was working class Irish-American, and proud. “Youse kids put your dirty dishes in the zink so I can wersh em.”
Aunt Ellie was unpredictable, full of quirks and disjointed interests. She loved bingo; betting the ponies; she babysat Bruce Springsteen when the Boss was just a tyke; collected swizzle sticks; rooted for the Mets and I don’t mean she just pulled for the Mets either -- I mean she could also tell you Darrel Strawberry’s slugging percentage or when Mookie Wilson had developed a hitch in his swing. Aunt Ellie also had the uncanny ability to decipher the age of any woman on the face of the earth; especially any woman, who tried her best to keep such information secret -- my mother for example. “Now, let’s see, Virginia, is 46 and Shirley is 48, so Eddie is 53, then Charlie is 55, so then, Gladys that would make you, let’s see... ” Ellie’s formula was later embraced by mathematicians at M.I.T. and became the basis of a new quantum theory of gravity.
But with all of Aunt Ellie’s hobbies and interests involving the living, her interest in the dead... I mean the newly dead, that is, the freshly dropped, was renown. When someone dropped dead, it wasn’t just something that could be mentioned in passing -- oh no -- it was something that had to be revealed... and it was done with a flair, a ritualistic pomp and circumstance that would rival a high holy mass at the Catholic church.
The order of service in Aunt Ellie’s observance of death, would always proceed like this: The phone would ring. Aunt Ellie would pick it up and sit down. She would be motionless, listening silently, a stoic expression revealing nothing. The stillness would be broken with the uttering, softly at first, of ritualistic lamentations, each one building in the level of angst and distress: “Awful... Awwful... Aw, the poor thing... Awful... Oh dear God... Awful.”
Of course, after so many years of this, we all knew what it meant. If someone was being referenced to as “the poor thing,” it meant they died, I mean, dropped dead. Us kids would start snickering and mouthing the words -- DROPPED-DEAD -- knowingly in anticipation. This sacrilege would usually send some adult’s elbow headed our way to quell our blasphemous attempt to preempt the order of service.
The call would end and Aunt Ellie, placing the phone slowly back into the ceremonial cradle, would bring us all to attention. At the proper moment, she would invoke the incantation to signify that the next order of the ritual was to begin:
“VER gin YA?!!”
Virginia, Aunt Ginny, was Aunt Ellie’s daughter… and was the official designate attendant for the next part of the ceremony.
“Vir GEN ya!... Vir-gin-ia DO YOU REMEMBER Helen Gordon?”
Aunt Ginny, God love her, after all these years, knew exactly her role in the ritual. She knew well that if Aunt Ellie ever asked her if she remembered somebody, it meant the somebody had just dropped dead.
Despite this knowledge, Ginny would still display the necessary degree of feigned ignorance about the nature of the call and what it portended for the latest poor thing. Ginny would just dutifully offer up the appropriate required liturgy every time:
“Yea, Ms. Gordon, from down at the bingo?”
Now the ceremonial altar was fully set for the stirring crescendo of Aunt Ellie’s ritualistic exaltation:
“SHE DROPPED DEAD!...Dropped DEAD this morning... Fell right over into her laundry basket …Awful...The poor thing.”
And that was another odd thing; it seemed that none of my Aunt Ellie’s friends ever simply died in bed; they always seemed to go out with some signature maneuver that branded their passing (dropping) in a memorable way. Ms Gordon dropped dead and fell over the laundry basket or some other poor thing got drunk, hit his head and dropped dead in his kitchen. Clara dropped dead in the produce section at the A and P... awful... the poor thing. It seemed that a lot of Aunt Ellie’s friends dropped dead in their gardens. In fact, so many of my Aunt Ellie’s friends died in gardens, I started to think that if I could manage to avoid gardens after I turn 68, I might add 5 extra years to my life. Come to think of it, it may be related to why New Jersey is called “the Garden State.” It just seemed that an unusually high number of my Aunt Ellie’s friends were planting themselves in rose bushes and vegetable patches of all sorts... ”DROPPED DEAD in his tomato patch... awful.” In fact, when I saw the movie, The Godfather, with the scene where ol Don Corleone, himself, dropped dead in his garden... I wondered if Mario Puzo had ever known my Aunt Ellie.
I guess I should mention why I’m telling all of you about my Aunt Ellie. I was sitting at the breakfast table with the newspaper the other morning. I hadn’t given it much notice; I just open my newspaper and head to the same section every morning. I’ve been a morning paper reader for years. When I was a kid, the first section I’d go to was, of course, the comics. As I got older, it was the sports section. A little older still, and I moved up to the front page, needing the news of the world first.
But, this recent morning, over my coffee, I noticed that I was at the obituary section. I realized that it was becoming newly interesting to me and that, more frequently, I was going to that section first. I started to have some realizations. I realized the reason for my new found interest was a simple one: I was recognizing more names. A few times, I even caught myself about to call out: “Carol, do you remember Edna Sanders”?
In other words, the timeline of our life is marked, not just by numbers, but also by the events we shared with those we love. We go from the events of our youth to who’s getting engaged, who’s getting blessed in marriage to who’s having a baby... ”did you hear who had a baby”? Life moves on. It goes on to whose kids are graduating; going on to college...to their engagements, and their own marriage day... then it becomes, “did you hear who became a grandpa”? And then, well... here we are. And now I know, when my phone rings or I open the paper or an email comes...more frequently, it is bearing news about someone I know. And now, it’s life’s final event come upon us. “Virginia, do you remember...?”
What I’m trying to say is that I think I understand something about my Aunt Ellie that I did not understand back then. Each time she announced that another person had “DROPPED DEAD”, she was also providing us a subtle lesson. Just as a Roman conqueror would have his slave stationed nearby whispering in his ear “all power is fleeting”, Aunt Ellie was providing a similar advisory to remind us that we must not be deceived by the veneer of earthly life. As real and permanent as it may seem, it will all abruptly end... dropped dead. And when it does, we all must be ready to move on to the next phase of life in the world of spirit. In fact, I think the memory of Aunt Ellie has been whispering in my ear for quite some time and has probably helped to guide me away from a materialistic life view and toward a life view that embraces eternity.
Some years have gone by since my Aunt Ellie, unpredictable to the end, quietly passed -- in her bed -- at age 96. Now I’m sure, on that day, she was greeted, on the other side, by all her family and friends and in one loud voice they shouted: “Do you remember Ellen Wade? SHE DROPPED DEAD!” Afterwards, I bet they had a great laugh together and then they all headed off to the bingo.