Uncle Jonathan’s Wake (a poem)

Of tales I’ve been told in my youth, years ago,
there’s a few that I really can’t tell anymore
if they’re stories of make up and yarns of pretending
or memories with almost all truth at their core.

It’s the ones that the parents of my parents told us
and the ones that they’d heard at the same age as me.
On the knee of some elder by kerosene lamplight
in houses in places where homes used to be.

While the wood in the stove crackled warm in the night
and brew in the kettle boiled blacker than tar,
they’d sit round the table in towns since forgotten.
So long ago now no one knows where they are.

No power for TV, no money for books,
no radio stations with top forties songs.
They lived off the land, off the sea and the shore,
and their muscles were sore, but their hearts were strong.

While the boys on the mainland were lining their pockets
and patching the elbows on suits that they owned,
they’d wake in the night with a terrible fright
of the frost driving nails through the cracks in their bones.

And they’d kindly recall, in tales that were tall,
of the things that men jigged from the waters so deep,
of horse-headed mummers, burned ships in the fog,
of fairies and worse that made away with the sheep.

Most of them are gone now – faded with time,
we never wrote any down, and now I wish that we did.
At this point the only ones I can remember
are the stories I witnessed firsthand as a kid.

But the thing that I wonder at most of it all
is my memory of Great Uncle Jonathan’s wake.
And I’ll tell you the best that my mind can remember
but I can’t guarantee how much sense it’ll make.

It was just after Christmas and my toys were still out.
There were just a few days left until the new year.
We had Uncle John’s wake in my grandparents’ kitchen
and Grandfather gave me my first taste of beer.

Old Johnny was flat on his back on the table
with his Sunday best on and brand new wool socks.
Aunt Maggie, his widow, was yarning with Grandma
lining bottles of rum by old Uncle John’s box.

Us kids were all wary round Uncle John’s corpse
cause he’d told us old tales that had filled us with dread.
But my father assured us: “Old Johnny won’t ‘arm yas,
not a ‘air on yer ‘ead, neither livin’ nor dead!”

So we laughed and we danced to accordion music
and chased ’round the kitchen like little kids do,
and Grandma caught Grandpa trying to give me some grog
and said “Only some beer! Just a small sip or two!”

And Grandpa obliged and opened a homebrew
as black as molasses and older than sin.
It tasted like earth, all murky and bubbling
and he clapped on my shoulder with a devilish grin.

The cold night rolled on and the wake came to life
with a stomping on planks and a musical roar.
Not a one cheek was dry, from crying or chuckling,
by the time a loud knocking rang out on the door.

“Oh mummers! T’is mummers!” Aunt Ellie announced
and the kitchen broke out in a cheer and a shout:
“Merry Christmas, good mummers! Come in, ‘ave a grog!
We’ll dance, take a look, and figger you out!”

There was one with a mask made of old burlap sack,
mitts on the wrong hands and pants stuffed full of straw.
A couple had bloomers on top of their heads,
but the one in the back was the strangest of all.

His old beaver hat hung down over his eyes
and from it, old feathers stuck this way and that.
His clothes were all colors, blue, yellow and green,
and his smile was wicked, like a sneaky old cat.

The rum flowed like water and the pot belly crackled
and the room got so hot Mother tied back the door.
Then the power went out so we fired up the lamps
and the mummers broke out in a jig on the floor.

When no one was looking, that feathered old mummer
took a flask from a pocket on his colorful chest
and drank back a swallow and passed it to Johnny
who sat up in his box and drank down the rest!

I jumped to my feet, and I let out a cry
but Mother and Father just laughed at the sight:
“Ol’ Johnny looks jealous that we’re havin’ all the fun!”
and my late uncle started to dance with delight.

Old Johnny was shuffling and prancing around
with his thick wooster socks slipping ’round on the boards
then the room started clapping and singing along
and not a tear in the place was sad anymore.

His toes flew a-tapping with his hands at his hips,
and we all started clapping along with the beat,
and poor Uncle George with his fingers a-fiddling
couldn’t match the lightning in Uncle John’s feet.

He swayed to the left and the right, all around,
and danced up a storm of a jig for the crowd.
His stocking-clad feet tapped a flurry of steps
as he jumped on the table to applause that was loud.

Then the door flew open on Grandpa’s wood stove
and flankers and smoke whirled out into the air.
While I rubbed out my eyes, I thought I could see
more shadows than just Uncle Johnny’s up there.

He jumped back to the floor without missing a step
and was joined by the mummers, laughing loudest of all,
then he finished the jig with a stomp and a bow,
but when the music had stopped, he appeared to grow small.

Uncle John asked the mummer for another good drink
cause his legs had gone stiff and his feet cold and sore,
but the mummer sighed “No, that’s the last of my grog,
but I’d say you’ve got time for just one good dance more.”

Then my poor Uncle Johnny took Aunt Maggie’s hand
and old George played a waltz that I haven’t heard since,
and the wife and her husband shared a good long embrace
as graceful as any princess and her prince.

And when it was over, they had tears in their eyes,
but they must have been happy – they were smiling too.
Then they sat with the rest, to call out the mummers.
That was my favorite bit – finding out who was who.

There was Una and Gord, from down ’round the Cape,
and Young John and Sadie and her cousin from town,
but the last of the mummers, the one with the feathers,
must have snuck out the door when we’d let our guard down.

Now by then it was late and the rum near all gone
and the parents said “Youngsters, you best get to bed,”
and we never found out who the sixth mummer was,
and if the grown-ups found out, they for sure never said.

You can laugh all you want and call me a fool,
say my story’s made up and my head’s full of rocks,
but the next day before we all buried old Johnny
Mom stitched up the holes worn through his new socks.

And that mummer? Well we never saw him again,
not one Christmas after, but we did hear some things.
Queer stories of things that happened in winter
when strangers with costumes came to dance and sing.

Now the mummers are gone, for the most part at least.
And Christmas is not like it was long ago.
As a child I know I’d have laughed at the thought
of a mummer come knocking, but the doorman saying “no.”

So much has been changed, and it’s not all for bad,
but I hope that some old ways still have a chance.
I know I’ll never forget Uncle Jonathan’s wake
or that stranger who let him have one final dance.

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