…It was dusk, 09 November 1965, when the biggest power failure in U.S. history occurred as all of New York State, portions of seven neighbouring states, and parts of eastern Canada, including Ontario and Quebec are plunged into darkness. The Great Northeast Blackout as it was called began at the height of rush hour delaying millions of commuters, trapping 800,000 people in New York’s subways, and stranding thousands more in office buildings, elevators, and trains. Ten thousand National Guardsmen and 5,000 off-duty policemen were called into service to prevent looting. And it was also on this day that my Grandfather was laid out in a funeral chapel as the first of his three days visitation began.
My grandfather died of a stroke, in his sleep. I recall the Saturday morning that my Dad was called by his mother to come up to the assisted living complex and check out his father. Granny seemed non-plussed about the whole thing. Perhaps that stoicism of hers was a by product of her Irish blood or Irish Catholic background or perhaps it was from the years and years of infighting that occurred between her and her Scottish husband, my Grandfather, as they fought and cussed about who suffered the most from those dastardly Brits. The Irish or the Scots? Bonny Prince Charlie and Culloden or William of Orange, King James II and Derry? Or perhaps they were both a tad cranky about the outcome of the Battle of Killiekrankie between the Jacobites and the British Crown. Whatever, my Grandparents on my Dad’s side had the Irish blood and Scot’s whisky in their DNA, and long memories? They could really hold a grudge. Always at war with one another, always another drink and always the peace offering with the accompanying bagpipes to the tune of Scotland the Brave. Whenever they had a party, at our house of course, and the cops were called by the neighbours due to the cat scratching bag-piped noise bellowing out into the street, my Grandfather would greet them at the door, regale them with the secret Highland handshake and invite them in with a shot of crappy Scotch. It always worked. If anything my grandfather was a happy man albeit a tad drunk and continually hung over in his retirement years.
When my Dad arrived at the home he checked on his father, realized he was indeed dead, and then called the police and the funeral home – Catholic funeral home. Of course they did not have any pre-arrangements other than a small life insurance policy that they hoped would cover the costs. It didn’t and the siblings had to come up with the rest. Not to worry as my Grandfather would always say. I’ll be dead!
So they laid him out. The whole family had to prepare for and attend the wake. An open casket in a big open living room: 2-4, 7-9 daily for three days. On that first evening, my sister and I became very bored, very quickly. Squirming with restlessness and boredom, we decided to explore our surroundings, that being the funeral home. What we would find in a funeral home one could only guess but one could only imagine especially one with an active imagination like ours. So off we went, dumb as we were, exploring in a funeral home for heaven’s sake.
There were a few other living rooms in that home: some small, some large and some very private. There was also a canteen in the basement that was open for coffee and small snacks. There were other rooms that were locked or out of bounds to all but funeral home staff. There were the offices of the director, the assistant director, and the assistant assistant director: fitting rooms, plush seats, sofas and the like. And there was a second floor. And our attention was suddenly piqued toward the stairs. So up we went, stair by stair, egged on by mutual self gratifying courage with our strength in numbers. Neither one of us would dare bolt. We could see some light at the top or the stairs, which indicated some open spaces. We had to see what was up here. When we reached the top landing we came to a door that was slightly ajar. We pushed it open and walked right in, but slowly, inspecting our surroundings. We were in a small hallway that opened up into what seemed to be a fairly large room. But we could not make out what the room held. And, at that precise moment in time, the lights went out and we were suddenly thrown into total darkness. We couldn’t see the hands in front of our faces. My sister gasped, didn’t scream, just gasped. We held on to each other for moral support. What to do. We better get back.