Last night, my mom, dad and I walked up to restaurant on a hill in the woods in Mount Gretna, Pa. Louis Armstrong played softly from the outdoor speakers, the air was cold, and the smell of burning wood made the place feel rustic.
We walked into the large hall filled with people milling and chatting who were there to honor Uncle Hank. People lined up for the buffet — mashed potatoes, corn, pasta marinara (when I saw the menu at Aunt Gretchen’s, I thought it said “pasta marijuana”), turkey and every pie you can think of: pecan, lemon tart, chocolate mousse, apple, cherry.
After dinner, several people stood at a microphone and gave touching tributes. One of the themes, and Gretchen said it was very fitting, was Dickens’ line: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
Then cousin B. announced that she wanted to get a family photo. In the next five minutes, she said, she wanted husbands, wives, kids, long-term partners to make their way to the sun room. “Show your birth certificate or give a blood sample,” she said.
As I made my way there, I walked past cousin J., who was laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“No one knows who that lady is,” he said under his breath, and he nodded to a woman sitting in a too-tight black floral dress with a round belly and straggly hair. She was clearly intoxicated.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, she’s not part of the family. No one recognizes her or knows her connection.”
“She’s a funeral crasher?”
He nodded and laughed.
Aunt Gretchen said the woman went to their church and was “off her meds.” To be fair, everyone who was at the funeral was invited to the reception — essentially the whole town of Lebanon, Pa. Someone said the woman went to high school with Aunt Sue, but Aunt Sue didn’t remember her.
I saw my cousin T. and said, “We have a funeral crasher. I better warn the men, she’s here to sleep with someone!” He looked at me skeptically and said with a chuckle, “Uh, no. You don’t have to warn anyone. Trust me.”
When everyone finally made it into the sun room, some 60 relatives gathered around my mom and Aunt Jo, who were sitting. The cameras started flashing. Then the funeral crasher walked over and stood in front of the whole family and howled with laughter — her back arched, you could practically see her tonsils. And then everyone in the family laughed — it was the ripple effect — and then the funeral crasher put a Budweiser bottle on her head and stomped her foot she was laughing so hard and the family screamed with laughter till everyone was practically rolling on the floor. It didn’t stop for what seemed like five minutes.
It was crazy.
After the photos were over, the rumors started flying. The woman was suing her children. She got kicked out of the country club. She was running for office and was asking people for signatures. She said her daughter was single-handedly hunting down Bin Laden.
Of course, after a while, it got old. Cousin J., who runs a psychiatric hospital, noticed that all of the kids were gathered around her, so he walked over and scattered them, waving his arm like an air-traffic controller: “We’re leaving, let’s go, let’s go.” But it didn’t last too long — the kids went back to talk to her. So J. went back, too, and the women crossed her arms, scowled at J., and said, “You again.” He came back to me and my dad and cousin saying she was more difficult than his patients.
The funeral crasher did finally leave, without incident. And I guess in some sense I felt bad for her. But she seemed to have fun — and by god she made the party.
And cousin M. made a really good point. She said no one would forget it. The funeral crasher would be a story for years to come. And it was so fitting that we would all laugh so hard at a reception honoring Uncle Hank, a man who made all of us laugh and laugh.