My wife is one of nine children. Last week, her mother, the tour de force we all called “Dar,” passed away peacefully at 94. It was not unexpected but still a shock. We all thought she would live forever.
One of my favorite John Cheever stories is the tale of The Worm in the Apple. It’s about a family (the Crutchmans) who are all so outwardly happy and loving that the narrator assumes there must be a worm hiding in their apple. He searches through all the nooks and crannies of their lives, lifts every little tea doily looking for the telltale dust bunny that would prove that not all was as spotless as it seemed, but try as he might, he isn’t able to find the worm in their apple. Along the way, however, he does uncover some sad chapters in the Crutchman’s otherwise merry saga but in every instance, the family is able to swallow each bitter pill like an elixir that only makes them stronger. They cross every bridge in their lives with truthfulness and grace and in the end, the narrator is forced to grudgingly admit that there really is no worm in the Crutchman’s apple.
Well, the fictional Crutchmans have a lot in common with the real-life Conleys and Dar was their indisputable and vital matriarch. Her original nine children produced twelve grandchildren and that generation swelled the family with eighteen great grandchildren. If you add the spouses to the mix—I currently count fifteen “outlaws”—that brings the total number of diners at the family table to fifty-three. (If you’re checking my math—and you should!—one of the original nine offspring passed away in 2015.) And now the place at the head of the table is empty.
Dar was twice married. Her first marriage lasted thirty years and produced those original nine children. Her second marriage lasted twenty years and gave all her grandchildren and great grandchildren someone to hold dear and remember as a grandfather.
Dar was elegant, entertaining, and energetic, traits she passed down the family tree. With such a titanic and lively crew to manage, she also needed to be both a boss and a drill sergeant, more DNA she contributed to the family gene pool. She was a devout Catholic with a sustaining faith that contained a firm moral center but she was also able to find enough latitude and flexibility in her belief to accommodate the changing times. She was also a devout Republican (a bit less so of late!) but thankfully broadminded enough to tolerate a modicum of Democrat dissent from a few of us. She loved all the family shenanigans and chaos and insisted on a dance-or-go-to-bed philosophy that still permeates every family gathering; I can testify to its power because the Conleys have kept me up way past my bedtime on many an occasion.
Which brings up an interesting dichotomy within the family circle. I’ve come to understand that the Conleys and their offspring need each other like yin needs yang; without one, the other would be incomplete. Together, the Conleys make a whole that is far greater than the sum of their individual parts. At the same time, they are inclusive to a fault even though at times the family circus can become a bit overwhelming to the uninitiated. I’m speaking from my outlaw perspective when I confess this, but I admit that as the years pass, what seemed absolutely loco at first now seems almost—almost!—normal. When it gets too crazy, I just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Dar fell and fractured her hip last Sunday. Knowing the risk involved, she underwent surgery to repair the break and the next day, when she asked her physical therapist if she would still be able to do her Michael Jackson moonwalk, we dared to hope. But broken bones and major surgery took their toll on her frail ninety-four year-old body and she took her last breath later that afternoon. Dar left this world the same way she inhabited it: beautifully, gracefully.
Dar was a shining star to her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Everyone adored her. She was our mentor, model, and guide—a gifted natural teacher who taught all of us—inlaws and outlaws both—a million different life lessons. The most powerful one she taught me was the power of love.
Now she can dance until dawn if she wants to; she never, ever has to go to bed.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com