Yesterday, I attended the funeral of Robert McShane, the eighty-seven-year-old father of one of my best friends Peg McShane. I loved McShane as soon as I met her as a freshmen at Mother McAuley High School; she’s a riot. (At McAuley, we called girls by their last names if their were other girls with the same name – which happened a lot.) Bob and Marie McShane raised six children on Chicago’s Southside in a raised ranch in Queen of Martyrs. As high schoolers, we used to walk to McShane’s after school, plop down on her bed in our uniform skirts and bobby socks, and sing our hearts out to James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. Mrs. McShane worked at a grocery store a block from my house, and at our first meeting, she recognized me as one of the kids who used to cut across the alley to pick up milk, butter, or eggs for my mom when she ran out. With ten children in our house, Mrs. McShane got to know me well.
I marveled at McShane’s house, so much like mine, yet different. First off, McShane shared a full-sized bed with her sister Maureen, strange to me because our barrack-like bedrooms had rows of twin beds, and I couldn’t imagine touching my sister Eileen, let alone sleeping with her. The record player itself amazed me because it was actually in her room. Secondly, my mom and dad relaxed in the small family room in the back of our house while Mr. and Mrs. McShane hung out at the formica kitchen table strewn with newspapers, Newsweek and Time magazines, coffee cups, and an occasional highball glass. My parents only drank coffee in the morning whereas the McShanes always had a fresh pot brewing. I wondered about the need to stay awake and thought their lives were full of discovery.
Like in my house, the McShane living room was off-limits to kids. My parents’ secret radar alarmed if we tip-toed from the kitchen linoleum to the dining room carpet. Abrupt “Hey, hey, where are you going?” questions came out of nowhere from around the corner. Did they have a sensor that lit up when we tried to cross over into that adult world of whispered dialogue and quiet murmurs? Both the McShane and Neylon living rooms were decorated in select pieces of Irish Belleek china and Waterford crystal, no wonder kids weren’t allowed.
As teens, conversations with my parents and the McShanes were very similar complete with connections, reflections, cross-examinations, and assurances. Throughout these metaphoric dances of inquiry, the parents would probe relentlessly: we’d be asked where we were going, what we were doing, who we were going to be with, what time we’d be back, and where the parents at the destination were from. The banter with these first-generation Irish adults was a game of associations, and we rarely disappointed them. Background checks about Catholic parishes and high schools, graduation years, street cross-sections, and even counties in Ireland would eventually lead to the desired concluding point: “Yes, we know them.” No matter what, we left smiling and feeling loved.
At Mr. McShane’s mass (forever titled with his name), Peggy Kerrigan, Laura, Shannon, Erin, my sister Eileen and I shared a pew as we prayed for peace for the McShane family. Watching the McShane sisters escort their mother up the aisle behind the casket, we joined in love, empathy, the traditions of our heritage, and an indepth understanding of our family histories. When the priest went on a tad too long in his homily, we bonded in our hope that he would stop talking. Instinctively, we knew that he had crossed the Irish line of appropriate tribute, and collectively we knew that Mrs. McShane would not want to inconvenience the church goers any longer by taking too much of our time. When the kind priest lilted back for the third time to the same point about Bob McShane’s generosity with his gifts, Kerrigan touched my hand and rolled her eyes. I whispered, “Mrs. McShane must be dying,” ironic considering the setting. We both started laughing, and I wisely closed my eyes and prayed for composure. Later, McShane told us that her mom had been twirling her right index finger in her lap in a hopeful nonverbal gesture of “wrap it up.”
At the end of mass as Michael McShane eulogized his dad, all focused on every word as he beautifully captured the essence of this beloved St. Leo man and Korean War veteran, honorable, hard-working, provocative, witty, devoted, faithful, brilliant and fun-loving. Michael described parties with family and friends, and how his parents’ friendships impacted their children’s perspective on life. Michael thanked his dad for teaching his children how to be a good friend, a trusted “Kemosabe” as Mr. McShane confidently referred to himself in all of his relationships, including those with his sons and daughters.
“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” concluded the mass and captured the McShane family magic. I reflected on the wake the night before when Mrs. McShane greeted mourners at the head of the coffin of her husband of sixty-three years. When Tim and I reached the front of the long line, I hugged her and told her I loved her husband. She tipped her head back, looked me in the eye and asked, “How’s that beautiful granddaughter of yours? Peg shows me pictures,” and she winked, smiled, and stole my heart away.