Winston Daniels stood in line at the Donnelly-Nolan funeral home waiting to pay his respects to the family of Katherine McMullan. He had returned to his home town for the first time in years for this specific occasion knowing it was the right thing to do.
He was wearing his dress whites Navy uniform so he certainly stood out in the crowd. Soft music filled the building as Winston slowly made his way down the center hallway of the funeral home. Several people said hello, thanking him for his service even though he hated hearing that line knowing it had been derived mostly as a political slogan to justify an unjust war. Some of the guests figured out who he was and said hello to him by name.
Senior Chief Daniels signed the guest book and he took a prayer card and then he stepped into the parlor full of mourners. Mrs. McMullan lay in the opened casket in front of the room which was surrounded by flowers. Several photo boards of her life were on display in front of the room. Winston smiled as he glanced at the many photos starting from Mrs. McMullan as a baby and spreading across the time line of her life. The most recent photograph appeared to be only a few weeks old with Mrs. McMullan sitting in a hospital bed, still smiling although her once full amber hair was white gray, thin and short. It was clear from the photo that she had been sick – thin and wrinkly but smiling nonetheless. Winston had forgotten how strikingly beautiful Mrs. McMullan had been in her younger years as he saw a photo of her in her twenties placed near the coffin.
Winston knelt on the kneeler in front of the casket when the person in front of him cleared and he said a silent prayer for Mrs. McMullan's soul.
"Thanks for being such a great mom and person and for being so nice and neighborly to me when I was growing up. You did good – now enjoy your heavenly reward. I know Mr. McMullan has been patiently waiting for you".
He made the sign of the cross and then stood and patiently waited for his turn in the receiving line. He watched Mrs. McMullan's three children politely greet the mourners coming through the line ahead of him. He recognized all three without a second blink even though more than twenty years had passed since he last saw any of them. There was Iris with her dark curly hair and brown eyes, Kathy who was a dead ringer for her mother at that age, and Sean, as handsome as ever. Each sibling had the Irish McMullan look – wide smiles, deep eyes, full hair, good looks!
And suddenly Winston was next in the receiving line. Iris was looking at him with squinting eyes, not quite believing she was seeing who she was seeing.
"It's me," Winston confirmed, giving her a hug and he noticed that Iris held onto him for an extra long moment.
"I can't believe you came," Iris said softly, brushing a tear from her eye. "This is the one bright spot of an otherwise dark and sad day."
"I wanted to come," Winston smiled, taking her hand in his. "It's really great to see you, although I'm sorry it's under these circumstances."
Iris nodded her head in understanding. "Dan-Man, this is my daughter Elsa," she said proudly, stepping back so Winston could see the younger woman standing next to her mother.
Iris was pregnant with Elsa the last time Winston saw her. He smiled and cordially took Elsa's hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you," he said as all sorts of thoughts raced through his mind, the primary one being 'she could have been mine'.
Elsa was as tall as the other McMullans' but her skin was much darker and she had tightly curled fine hair, much lighter than her mother's.
"Winston grew up in the house next door to us," Iris explained. "The house the Pelletiers live in now."
Elsa nodded but didn't say anything and Winston knew he needed to move down the line out of respect for the people waiting behind him. He smiled at Iris, squeezed her hand one more time, and then moved to Kathy who blushed slightly at first glance.
"I knew it was you as soon as I heard your voice," Kathy said, giving him a hug. "God, it's wonderful to see you, Dan-Man."
"Thanks," he grinned, hugging her in return. "Sorry for your loss."
"I don't know what we're going to do without her," Kathy sighed as they broke the hug. She looked a little awkward and nervous as she introduced her husband to Winston "Dan-Man, this is my husband Steve."
Kathy looked like she was holding her breath, as if maybe Winston was going to say something embarrassing or inappropriate.
Winston shook the tall man's hand. The guy looked like an accountant with wire rimmed glasses and a serious demeanor.
"We met in college," Kathy explained, giving Winston an almost pleading eye. "Our two teenagers are running around here somewhere."
"Great," Winston smiled, giving the always beautiful and lovely Kathy and envious smile.
"Thanks for coming," Kathy said and Winston moved down the line to greet the kid brother Sean.
"Mac," Winston grinned, shaking the kid brother's hand. "You look terrific."
"Thanks, Dan-Man," Sean smiled. "You look like the Good Humor Ice Cream man in those duds!"
"I figured I owed it to your Mom to wear the uniform," Winston explained.
"Say hello to my wife, Kathleen," Sean grinned.
A knock out woman with flaming red hair, freckles and the whitest skin Winston had ever seen stood next to Sean and Winston couldn't help but smile with wide eyes.
"Kathleen, this is the legendary Winston The Dan-Man Daniels."
"I'm no legend," Winston said, taking Kathleen's hand in his. "Nice to meet you but what are you doing with this guy?"
Kathleen laughed and squeezed his hand. "I've heard all the legend stories, Winston," she said. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
"Really sorry about your Mom, Mac," Winston sighed with sincerity. "She was a terrific person and a great neighborhood Mom."
"Thanks, Dan-Man," Sean smiled. "She'll be missed."
"I'll see you around," Winston said, leaving the receiving line to make room for others.
Several people recognized him – or at least the uniform – and they stopped the Senior Chief as he moved through the parlor. He was pleasant and cheerful and enjoyed several conversations with people from the old neighborhood, school, and the community but he eventually made his way to the front door because he didn't want to upstage the McMullans.
Winston drove to St. Patrick's Church a few blocks away, the parish of his youth where he received his first communion, served as an altar boy, and was confirmed. He once thought he'd get married there too but that never happened.
The church hadn't changed much. Some new flowers planted outside, a fresh paint job and a few new statutes inside but basically the church was stuck in a religious time warp and Winston found that warm and comforting. He eyed the pew his family often sat in back in the day and he glanced to where the McMullan family sat, remembering how he used to peer at both Iris and Kathy when he wasn't on the altar serving.
He genuflected in front of the tabernacle, knelt on the kneeler in the pew and said some prayers – even if he hadn't been to Mass in years. Then he sat and listened to the choir in the loft behind him practicing for the funeral. People began to enter the church and take their places and eventually the Donnelly-Nolan staff rolled in Mrs. McMullan's flag-covered casket followed by the somber family as the choir belted out some solemn hymn, almost drowned out by the loud organ.
Winston recognized Father Fitzgerald who had just arrived at the parish when Winston was leaving town but he missed Father O'Casey, the priest of his youth, a rollie-pollie round man with perpetually rosy cheeks and an Irish brogue that made Winston think of the Lucky Charms leprechaun.
Father Fitzgerald celebrated the funeral Mass and Winston was impressed with the Homily which captured the essence of Mrs. McMullan in just a few sentences – a proud daughter of Greenville, a graduate of the Green College Nursing School who served her country faithfully as an Army nurse in Vietnam, returning to Blue County to marry the love of her life John McMullan also of Greenville. She was a long time nurse at Blue County Medical Center ("Doing God's work," said Father Fitzgerald), settling in Hillsboro where John established McMullan The Florist and Nursery.
Father talked about Mrs. McMullan's support and encouragement when it came to her three children whom she adored, her great sense of humor, her warm personality, and her many talents and unending energy. She sang in a local folk group, performed in community theater, and she was active in the parish as a CCD Teacher and a member of the St. Patrick's Catholic Women's Council. She was well read, well dressed, and an excellent gardener. She could be found at McMullan's Nursery during her spare time, especially when her daughter Iris took over the business following John's unexpected death at a too-young age.
Father took about her unyielding Catholic Faith which was why today really wasn't a sad day if one wished to honor Katherine's beliefs and Faith in Jesus Christ and the promises of Heaven.
Winston thought it was a lovely service with wonderful music and fine representation by the parish community for one of their own. He saw Iris and Kathy both bringing tissues to their faces several times to wipe their eyes and noses. Winston had to admit that he got a little choked up, especially when the choir sang "On Eagle's Wings" and "Amazing Grace".
The funeral Mass concluded with the blessing of the casket and Winston followed the other mourners from the church to the parking lot, joining the procession of vehicles for the two mile ride behind the Hearse to the cemetery where an Army Honor Guard played taps, folded the flag and presented it to Iris (with Senior Chief Daniels also saluting the flag since he was in uniform). Father Fitzgerald said the final burial prayers on a warm and sunny summer afternoon. Winston saw the death date of Mr. McMullan engraved on the stone and he realized it was only a few years after he left when Iris' dad died.
Those gathered began to return to their cars at the conclusion of the burial services.
"You're coming to Serguci's, right?"
Winston turned to see Kathy smiling at him.
"Sure," he said, appreciating the personal invitation. "Looking forward to it."
"I'll see you there," Kathy said before joining her husband and two children.
Winston saw Iris walking to her car with her daughter and he smiled sadly to himself as he walked to his car. He wondered how things might have been different had he not felt like he had no choice but to leave town all those years ago.