What Takes Our Breath Away

The Atlantic|June 2020

What Takes Our Breath Away
An undertaker reflects on the one thing death can’t steal: our stories.
By Thomas Lynch

My father’s uncle, Thomas Patrick Lynch, got the Spanish flu. He was 12 years old, the youngest son of Irish immigrants who’d escaped the perennial potato blights, political mischief, and poverty of County Clare in the late 19th century. They’d found their way to Jackson, Michigan, where what would eventually be heralded as the “largest walled prison in the world” was a constant work in progress through the Gilded Age, providing plenty of work for Irish laborers. Thomas’s father, my great-grandfather, worked his way up from grunt work to janitor to uniformed guard.

Thomas, for whom I’d later be named, survived the scourge, and his mother proclaimed that God had spared him for a “special calling.” Thus, though he remained wheezy and croupy into his young adulthood, he entered the seminary and became a priest of the Holy Roman, Irish-American, Catholic Church in 1934.

The panoramic photo of his first “solemn high” Mass that year, taken outside St. John’s Church in Jackson, down Cooper Street from the prison, remains a fixture in our family households in Michigan and in Moveen, on the coast of County Clare, whence his people came. Vocations follow famines, the Irish bromide holds; no less pandemics, truth be told.

It was a watershed moment in our family history.

PHOTOGRAPHS HOLD their moments in time, free of the future or the past, and through the generations, time brings these moments into truer focus. Among the housebound multitudes, I imagine that many like me—alone on a lake with a dog—fill some of their quarantined hours rummaging through old photographs and the stories they tell.

The child seated in the center of the photograph of that day is my father, Edward Lynch Jr., in knickers, ankle socks, and saddle shoes. He is 10 years old and seated beside his parents. In two years, he’ll meet my mother in the fifth grade at St. Francis de Sales, where he’ll play right tackle on the football team. After graduating in ’42, he’ll enlist in the Marines and end up in combat in the South Pacific and return to marry Rosemary O’Hara, with whom he’ll raise me and my eight siblings. In the photo he is poised to become the man he’d be, the founder of our family firm of undertakers in Southeast Michigan.

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June 2020