My Uncle Bob passed away last week. And my Uncle Kenny died on New Year’s Day. I am now officially uncle-less. And nearly aunt-less. Aunt Pat left us five years ago, six years after my dad. One aunt, Corky, remains. My indomitable mother, Corky’s older sister, turns 97 this fall, God willing.
The elders of our family are fading away. It’s a sobering reality.
I wasn’t particularly close to either of my uncles, but I cherish them both for being memorable men in our family circle.
Uncle Bob and Aunt Corky raised their blonde brood on a farm outside of Beaver Dam in southern Wisconsin. My maternal grandparents lived in the same community while my family lived in a small town eighty miles away.
Because the family critical mass was in Beaver Dam, mom and dad piled the kids in the Chevrolet and drove there for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and either Easter or Mother’s Day. Food always took center stage at family gatherings. My favorite was Fourth of July when Uncle Bob grilled burgers and brats, along with cobs of corn still in their husks.
Summer kid swaps meant the cousins would come home with us for a week or two and vice versa. I loved my weeks at the farm. Uncle Bob taught me to drive a big truck in the fields while he and a hired man loaded it with hay bales. I don’t believe I ever shifted out of first gear. After other chores, like collecting eggs and slopping pigs, I’d retreat to the cool barn, perch on a prickly bale, and read.
As we kids grew up and into our own lives, family gatherings were few and far between. Uncle Bob and Aunt Corky took to spending half the year in Florida. There he earned medals for golf and shuffleboard in the Senior Olympic Games. He golfed until 93!
My last heart-to-heart with Uncle Bob was probably twenty years ago when I was in Wisconsin for a 50th birthday “return to my roots” pilgrimage. On a cool summer morning, we wandered along a lane through the farm talking about family. A red-winged blackbird landed on a nearby branch, and I reminded him that it was he who had introduced me to the bird decades before during a summer stay. I’ll remember him for being the salt of the earth.
Uncle Kenny and Aunt Pat were high school sweethearts and inseparable for more than seventy years. He quietly basked in the aura of my father’s outspoken sister. Yet he was not beyond an eye roll when she was over the top or a “now, mother” when her high horse needed reining in.
Because Uncle Kenny and Aunt Pat and dad’s parents lived in southern California, our get-togethers were infrequent. Mom and dad traveled there to introduce them to their first grandchild when I was an infant. When I was seven, my parents, two small brothers, and I journeyed by train to Los Angeles. It was then that I sensed that Uncle Kenny was a safe harbor.
Whenever we visited as children and even teenagers, Disneyland was on the itinerary. How many times did Uncle Kenny and I indulge Aunt Pat by joining her in a small boat to cruise through “It’s a Small World after All,” her favorite attraction? He was the perfect companion for “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
Once their families had grown, mom and dad and Uncle Kenny and Aunt Pat often traveled together, to Florida, on cruises, even a dude ranch. When mom and dad moved to northern Nevada, just down the road from my husband, Joe, and I, Uncle Kenny and Aunt Pat made regular road trips north to visit, and we did the same in the opposite direction. Thanksgiving in Las Vegas became an annual rendezvous while my sister was living there. Ah, margarita memories!
When Aunt Pat needed skilled care near the end of her life, Uncle Kenny visited her every day, often sweeping her off for lunch at a favorite restaurant. When she passed away, he continued caring for their beloved dogs and spending time with a trio of adoring great-granddaughters.
A few weeks before he died, Uncle Kenny received a new pacemaker. But there were complications. And then he contracted Covid. The world lost a sweet, gentle soul.
Losing family elders challenges my own sense of mortality. I am the oldest of five siblings and nine cousins. Soon—but not too soon, I pray—I will be the family elder. Does this bestow special power? Or require deep wisdom? Or somehow make me responsible for the well-being of my relatives? I don’t know that anyone else will have expectations of me when I’m the elder.
Yet, I can’t help but feel that the legacy of our small family is on my shoulders. And it feels like a heavy woolen coat, the kind one wears during winter in the Midwest where we all grew up. When the time comes for me to wear it, I hope the coat fits.