Remembering my uncle

He was my uncle. When I was a boy, he was also my neighbor, my keyboard teacher, and my mentor. He passed away December 23, 2019, at the age of 97.

During the Great Depression, my grandfather went to a famous food company and offered to work at any job they had available. They had him loading trucks for a few weeks, until one company official discovered that the new man was very talented mathematically. They hired him as a bookkeeper, a position he held for many years. By the end of the 1930s, my grandparents had purchased a farm house and three acres of land in a western suburb. They intended that their son and their daughter, after each of them married, could have a quarter of the property on which to build a house. My uncle and my mother accepted this gift, and so the family remained in close contact. Traveling east to west, or west to east, one would encounter a street, a front yard, a house, a back yard, a garden (two adjacent cultivated gardens, one belonging to each household), another back yard, another house, another front yard, and another street. Both households had a small orchard at the north end of the garden, and journeys through the orchards from one household to another were common. There were also paths from each household to my grandparents’ house to the south.

My uncle was hired as a chemist by the same company that had hired my grandfather. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War II. His company was among the waves of soldiers that continued the invasion and occupation of German-held France in Normandy after D-Day; he and his fellow soldiers landed on June 8, 1944, the third day of the landing, and he saw action in France during the war.

He had two sons and two daughters. One daughter preceded him in death (due to cancer), and one son became estranged from the family. His four children were all older than me; in fact, during family gatherings I frequently joined the two sons of my cousin, playing in the basement while the adults visited upstairs. The family came together to celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Even children’s birthdays were marked by multi-generational gatherings that featured cake, ice cream, and (for the adults) coffee.

When he was working outside, my uncle would frequently have a young boy following him. That boy was me. My uncle teased with riddles. (Can you identify the longest day of the year? It’s the day each fall when we turn back our clocks to end Daylight Saving Time, because that day lasts twenty-five hours.) I learned a great deal from my father and from my mother, but my grandparents and my uncle were also part of my life nearly every day.

My uncle played the piano. I am sure he taught his children how to play. My sister also took lessons from him. When she wanted to quit, I was ready to start. Since I was only in the first grade, my parents doubted that I was ready for lessons, but my uncle was willing to give it a try. I still remember the triumph of mastering the piece that had frustrated my sister, leading to her quitting and my starting the lessons. But I did not practice on a piano. My grandparents had an electric organ on which I would practice my assignment every weekday afternoon. When I thought I was ready, I would make an appointment with my uncle and play the piece for him. He would either suggest improvements or pass me and assign a new piece. We completed all three books of the Thompson Method, and then he suggested various classical pieces for me to learn. His favorite was Schubert’s “March Militaire.” Because I practiced on an electric organ, I did not learn the fine points of piano technique until I was in high school, where I finally had regular access to pianos.

Eventually I grew up, took on a full-time job, was married, had children, and only occasionally visited my parents. When I stopped by the old place for a visit, I usually took time to cross through the orchards and visit my uncle as well. In his later years he battled failing sight, hearing, and strength. Despite these limitations, his mind remained strong, and provided I didn’t mind shouting and repeating myself, I was able to converse with him.

The death of my uncle produces a mild melancholy, not a deep grief. He had a long and meaningful life, and I have many fond memories of our time together. I know that I will still think of him from time to time. I am thankful to the Lord for my uncle’s place in my life and in my memories. J.

Categories: Education