In mid-June Uncle Teddy came to my mother’s Hyannis Port home for a drink before dinner. My family and I had just arrived from Santa Monica. Even though we were tired, Teddy and his wife Vicki wanted to welcome us to town. So a little cocktail party was planned.
They arrived at 6:30 p.m. in a golf cart, just the two of them. We went out to meet them. “How’s Mummy?” was the first thing he said. “We’ve got to see Mummy.”
Of course he loved my mother, but this is also the Irish way of saying hello to us! My wife and daughters were thrilled and escorted Teddy and Vicki into the room where my mother was waiting.
After some smiles and applause for our 6-month-old daughter Rosemary, we settled into the real reason for all family cocktail parties: Gossiping about other members of the family. To wit: What was Ethel doing, who had won what races, who was expected for the weekend, how was the sailing and what about the new puppy?
But Teddy always went for something big. He knew this time it had to be good, because my mother really needed cheering up. She was very sick. I could see him thinking, “What can I say that will get Eunie fired up?” Suddenly, he had a glint in his eye.
“Eunie,” he asked, “was Joe a good sailor?” He was referring to their oldest brother, who had, indeed, been a very good sailor.
“Yes,” my mother nodded.
“What about Bobby, was he any good?”
My mother looked a bit irritated, as though this was a silly question. “Not serious,” she suddenly said.
Teddy laughed. “Not serious, not serious. Really? I thought he was pretty good.”
My mother frowned. Her little brother was egging her on. She wanted to talk about debates going on in Washington. She usually wanted to talk about that.
“What about Jack?” Teddy continued.
“He was serious,” my mother said, in a very matter-of-fact way.
“Well, we can agree about that,” Teddy said, laughing. He knew that Mother always stuck up for Jack no matter what. Even though she was very sick and could not speak well, she was sticking up for Jack. That was good!
“OK, Eunie,” he said. He knew he had a live issue now. He smiled. He, too, was very sick. Some of the words did not come to him immediately. But the smile came and stayed.
“Let’s rank them all then. Serious or not serious.”
My mother frowned again and looked away. But there was a touch of a smile. Her baby brother had gotten to her. She loved ranking people. She particularly loved ranking people as sailors. She felt she was an excellent judge of talent.
“OK,” she said. And she smiled. In those days, it was hard to get her to smile.
Teddy began, “OK, what about Joe?”
“Serious,” my mother said.
“Kick?” he said, referring to their sister Kathleen.
“Harrump,” said Mother. “Not even interested.”
And so it went through their nine siblings. They laughed, and disagreed on one or two. They were having a fine time.
“Now let’s ask the big question,” said Teddy.
My mother looked at him. What was he up to now?
“Who was the best sailor of us all?” he asked with a wicked smile. Of course he knew what her answer would be.
“I was,” my mother said with no hesitation whatsoever.
We all howled. She was so aggressive.
“Come on now, Eunie, I was pretty good, wasn’t I?” he said, being the little brother all the way. And of course, no kidding, he was an excellent, excellent sailor, as was she.
Mother looked at me with that “Teddy is crazy” look. So I joined the game. “Not even close, Mother? Is that what you are saying? It’s not even close between you and Teddy?” I played my role.
She gave me the look that only a mother can give to her son: Not disgust, not even disagreement — worse than that. It was more like, “Are you really related to me?” Teddy gestured to me to protect my head as though she might reach across and smack me!
“Absolutely not,” she said. Teddy howled. He loved to get his older sister fired up.
Seven weeks later, she passed. And now he is gone, too. Many words about their legacies, and the family’s work and legacy, will be written.
For me and my family, this moment of simple joy — the laughter, ribbing, competition, and intimacy — is our jeweled memory of their last days. We hope to live out our lives not only in their spirit of service, but also in the spirit of fun, family togetherness and love embodied in this short evening moment.