Uncle Benoit’s Wake
When I was ten, just after my mother had buried my grandfather, Uncle Benoit died in a spectacular late night car wreck. Uncle Ben, as he was called by us kids or “Mon Onc’” as he was called by his own generation, was my father’s uncle on his father’s side. My father’s mother Eugénie had married Gaston Delaire, acquiring Benoit as a “beau-frère.” Gaston had died several years earlier of pneumonia. Another brother, Arnaud, took holy orders and became an Edmundite missionary in South America among the rainforest people.
Uncle Ben and his wife Colette had a pristine farm off Route 100 in North Hyde Park. A hundred and fifty acres and as many Holsteins and Guernseys produced thousands of pounds of milk each day and a good living for their growing family. Uncle Benoit won countless “Green Pastures” awards from the Ag Department for his exemplary farm. Just behind the house sat a 120-foot dairy barn and farm equipment shed, and a smaller barn to the south sheltered poultry.
The “viewing” was to be a two-day affair at the farm to accommodate the many relatives already making their way from the logging camps of northern Maine, the convents of Quebec, and the trailer parks of western Florida. White’s Funeral Home could neither dedicate two days to the event nor feed and house the stream of relatives already en route to Hyde Park.
Benoit’s surviving brother, Père Arnaud, had been notified by telegraph and native runner and was already aboard the first of three flights from Cartagena to Burlington.
News of Uncle Ben’s death spread quickly through the community by word-of-mouth, overheard party-line conversations, a notice in the News and Citizen, and remembrances from the pulpits of Lamoille County.
The Delaire family was known and respected for their industry. Gaston and Eugénie ran a transportation service. At its heart was the jitney between the train station in Waterbury where, daily, they greeted New York Central passengers on the northbound Montrealer and the southbound Washingtonian and took them to the inns and ski slopes of Stowe. They also owned the Peoples Academy school bus contract, chauffered the Trapp Family Singers on their North American singing tours in a “stretched” passenger car specially built for the tour, and provided ordinary taxi service for those needing transport.
For the wake, my father wore one of his two grey wool suits. I wore my scratchy church clothes and my nine-year-old brother, Paul, twisted uncomfortably in woolen pants, a starched white shirt, and one of Dad’s ties knotted to allow the right length in front but a large amount of unused tie in the back which he then stuffed inside Paul’s shirt, leaving an unruly bulge. My six-year-old sister, Ann, looked like a fleur-de-lys in her first communion dress.
Dad knocked firmly on the front door of the farmhouse, an indication that this was to be a solemn affair. Only out-of-town salesmen or “state boys” approached the front door of a farmhouse. Comings and goings were through back or side doors leading into kitchens, usually through a wood storage area with a rusting second refrigerator or chest freezer. Living rooms were used only for large gatherings or formal occasions, when their prized furniture and additional space were needed to accommodate and impress guests. Winter saw farm families gathered in their kitchens near the woodstove or sleeping in chilly bedrooms under heavy blankets and patchworks quilts.
The door was opened by Bruno and Yves who looked both solemn and pleased to see us. After a brief expression of sympathy by my father in French, we were waved in and immediately to our left I saw Uncle Ben laid out in a shiny wooden casket with two large brass handles. He seemed very much alive as he lay there in what had been an anteroom, now cleared of denim coats and barn boots. A faint odor of manure persisted underneath the strong smell of lilies cascading from vases behind the casket. A prie-dieu borrowed from Holy Family Catholic Church in Morrisville was centered in front of the casket. I kept waiting for Uncle Ben to sit upright as he lay in the profusion of white silk, smile broadly, and greet us loudly, as he often did when we came on him during his nap after the large noonday meal prepared by Aunt Colette for all the boys and hired hands. My father nudged us towards the display. We followed his example, kneeling down on either side of him on the padded kneeler and bowed our heads while keeping a curious eye on Uncle Ben. We had never seen a dead person before except in the movies.
Uncle Ben had been a source of wonder to all of us kids. The only family elder who seemed to enjoy children more than adults, he would often erupt in laughter at our antics. He took us in turn on his knee and taught us to count to ten or recite the Lord’s Prayer in French, his breath smelling faintly of whiskey or his own homebrew.