Bristol bar bids farewell to a devoted music fan

HATCH 31 BARTENDER Matt Igler and Irene Lawrence developed a special bond. Lawrence was a devoted fan of the Bristol bar’s Friday night bluegrass band and the Tuesday night blues jam, and Igler would walk her home at the end of the night. On the night before she died, he arranged for her to hear the Friday night band one last time.

BRISTOL — Irene Lawrence acquired a few nicknames during her 33 years in Bristol.
To the town residents she greeted from her porch — or from out front of the Corner Store or Main Street Diner — she was known as the “Bench Hugger.”
So strong were the 87-year-old’s spirit and will to live that her doctor called her the “bounce-back kid.”
Her grandchildren called her “Nana.”
But for a few sweet minutes toward the end of every Friday night at Hatch 31 on Main Street she was just “Irene.”
“Good night, Irene,” Hatch’s Friday bluegrass band sang to her just before she went home for the evening. “Irene, good night.”
“The Hatch was her community, and we always loved her and cared for her,” said Lonny Edwards, who plays bass with the Friday night band. “She loved the band and she loved it when we sang ‘Goodnight, Irene.’ It was very special for her.”
So special, in fact, that on Irene’s very last Friday night, Jan. 3, as she lay quietly in a bed at Porter Medical Center, the folks at Hatch found a way to bring the music to her.

Toward the end of her life, Irene Lawrence was known for her devotion to Hatch 31’s live music scene.
“One of the fondest memories I have is when Irene attended one of my blues trio shows last year,” said local musician Tom Caswell. “Her eyes were fixed on the band all night and the music was flowing through her. She just loved music and Hatch 31. It was a joy to play for her.”
Irene especially loved country and bluegrass music, said her granddaughter Michelle Kilbreth.
Sometimes, though, Irene would discover new favorites through her grandchildren.
“One day I was listening to (musician) Kid Rock in the car and she was getting into it, clapping her hands on her legs,” Kilbreth recalled. “She really loved the song ‘All Summer Long.’”
For Irene’s 75th birthday, Kilbreth took her to a Kid Rock concert in Essex.
“We were in the front row and she was holding a sign and shouting ‘Kid! Kid!’ I said, ‘Nana, he can’t hear you,’” Kilbreth said, her voice betraying a smile. “But she loved every minute of it.”
When Hatch 31 began hosting live music on Tuesdays and Fridays, Irene was always there.
Bristol resident Annie Harlow remembered her fondly.
“She always had a seat at the end of the bar,” Harlow said. “Everyone saved a spot for her. And when the music got going she’d be there on that stool, tapping her foot.”
Irene was very “present,” Harlow added, which was part of why everyone loved her so much.

Irene didn’t have to travel far to hear some of her favorite music. Her apartment and Hatch 31, her “home away from home,” were in the same building.
“She had a group of people who really enjoyed her at Hatch and it seemed like she really found her tribe there,” said Matt Igler, who tends bar there.
When Igler started working at Hatch a couple of years ago, Irene took a real shine to him.
“She had a deep friendship with Matt,” Kilbreth said. Irene would joke that he was her imaginary husband. “She would say ‘I love him,’ and I would say, ‘Nana, he’s like 25 years younger than you are!’” Kilbreth said.
On the nights he tended bar, Igler always took care of Irene, checked in with her, made sure she had what she needed, including her special drink — cranberry-seltzer with lime.
When she was ready to go, he’d walk her home — even if the bar was busy.
“Things would slow down for a minute,” Harlow recalled, laughing. “It was like, ‘Yeah, you’ll get your beer, but Matt’s taking Irene home right now, so just chill out!”
At the door, Irene got her “stubbly kiss” goodnight.
“It was always good fun,” Igler said. “She was always super-grateful to be taken care of.”
Irene was always Matt’s “Lady.”
“It was me and her every single night that I worked,” he said. “If she wasn’t there, we knew something was wrong.”

On New Year’s Day Igler visited Irene in the hospital so they could say their final goodbyes.
“At that point she was still hoping to go home,” he said, his voice catching. “But that didn’t happen.”
Before Igler left her that day he promised he would arrange for her to hear the bluegrass band one last time.
On that Friday night, using a videoconferencing app, he connected the band at Hatch to Irene’s daughter Roxanne Bigelow, who was with Irene in her hospital room.
Then the band played “Goodnight Irene.”
Their biggest fan was not awake for the music, her family members said, but a tear appeared at the corner of her eye, then rolled down her cheek.
Irene died a few hours later on Saturday, Jan. 4.
Later that morning, a brief, undated video clip appeared on Facebook and was widely shared.
In it a quartet of bluegrass musicians stand among the Christmas lights at Hatch, singing Irene’s song. The camera pans to the left, and there she is, in a baby blue turtleneck, her elbow on the bar, nodding her head, swaying to the music — forever Irene.
There will be a celebration of Irene Lawrence’s life on Jan. 26, 1 – 5 p.m., at the Bristol American Legion.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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