A demise that occurred last year and a recent long-distance death chased the final week of July into the first week of this August.
Jerry died in August 2020. Covid circumstances delayed any memorial or, if preferred, celebration of his life until 2021.
A month ago in Quarropas, Wilson, my last uncle, succumbed to age. He was 93. Brain cancer had taken Jerry, a contemporary of mine.
Actually, Jerry was more than a contemporary. He was a peer.
Wilson had been the oldest male remaining in both branches of my family. His departure now leaves me in that spot.
There are many older women, my sister, aunts who’ve been widowed, in our family. If true succession played out one of them would be recognized as “the head.” But father’s side believed and adhered to primogeniture.
Okay. Me too.
In this modernizing world, I’ll be the last bearer of such prerogative. The cousins who’ll follow me will respect birth order, not gender. If their daughters are older than the males, well, then, all those younger should pay them some sort of deference if/when the occasions arise.
Jerry’s death wasn’t unexpected. Frankly, his an instance where one hoped it wouldn’t occur today. Or tomorrow. Not for many tomorrows. For a while these days passed into others. His stubborn resilience kept him among us. Until the weight of inevitability won and inexorable fate could no longer be denied.
It will happen to us all.
Again, Jerry became a peer. Yes. Other friends, associates, and acquaintances of mine have died. Kind of unavoidable, isn’t it? A few barely had graduated high school when collegiate nights on the town auto accidents snuffed whatever potential awaited them. Others reached their late 20s, early 30s, years verging on finally comprehending adulthood fuller when diseases or ailments brought on by bad habits snatched them too soon.
Between 20 and 30, they were really taken too soon. A good refrain “taken too soon.”
Now, in my early 60s any contemporary who leaves has me seeing their deaths as shortening the line; a foretaste of my own farewell from our mortal coil. It means my own end is just one less person closer. Trust me, as a young adult into middle-ages I never troubled myself with that contemplation.
Who does? If you’re in my same age range or older, did you? Nope.
By further reason of strength, Wilson lived well beyond four score years. While mourning his passing one didn’t feel his life had been chopped short. He hadn’t been cheated of life insofar as length.
Nicknamed “Sonny,” Wilson had been the youngest of five brothers and three sisters. Two of the latter died nebulous deaths, these occurring between 1911 and 1917. The girls’ survivors never mentioned their missing sisters. I only discovered them while researching my father’s life.
Not to be hardhearted but theirs was an agricultural family. The rhythms, rituals, and cycles of sowing and harvest, of breeding and slaughter, somewhat distanced them from the effusive displays of sorrow now common and quite expected of generations farther removed from the land. They carried this attitude with them along their migration from the rural Jim Crow South to the Industrial North.
And while I’ve never gutted and dressed a pig, or canned vegetables and fruit, aspects of the above remove have imprinted me – though nowhere near the seeming severity of father’s branch. Of course, on mother’s side it’s almost Faulknerian: the dead remained to wander among them. One needn’t have inquired about that side’s predecessors. Frequent chat sessions between mother and sisters, grandmother, maternal aunts, uncles, cousins, let even the most casual eavesdropper know from whence and whom half of him had derived.
Sometimes one almost expected the long-gone topic to stroll in or phone in and participate in conversations. Had this had happened it wouldn’t have surprised. That’s how corporeal mother’s side made the spectres.
Eight years separated father and his oldest brother Frank, 10 stretched between father and Wilson. Age dynamics made Frank an 18-year-old adult at Wilson’s birth.
The absence of two sisters whose presences might’ve lessened Frank’s domination over his siblings instilled in the man who became eventual head of his branch a gruffness which weighed upon all under him. Later, Frank wouldn’t spare his sons the same. Maybe that led to both dying before their father, therefore way too soon.
It fell upon father to be the brother his siblings depended on. They asked him for advice, support, not Frank. Having known Frank’s lashing tongue best, father became a sort of conciliator. A surer man, father had nothing to continually prove.
At father’s funeral Wilson acknowledged him as having been his “best buddy.”
Although my junior by a year, I never knew Jerry at Arizona. Our interests then must’ve overlapped. Who knows how many times we crossed one another on campus, at establishments or events? If so, none of them were indelible.
We met years later in New York. At alumni functions. He worked in a production capacity at a local TV station. Then, I still could still smell my newspaper byline.
College basketball cemented our merger. In 2000, the Wildcats had come East to play UCONN at Storrs. One or the other of us had tickets. Probably me because he agreed to drive.
A subject on that beer and bullshit ride through the Land of Steady Habits – that’s Connecticut to you, bub – was Wendy O. Williams. Astoundingly enough we both knew the name of the Plasmatics’ lead singer. Well, maybe more like WOW’s aptitude with electrical tape as well as her vocal range while wailing tunes. Even more phenomenal was each of us having watched the band’s early 1980s performance on the old Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder.
Talk about remembering being where you were, with whom, when something batshit crazy happened.
Not to be morbid but we were also aware that two years before our racing into Storrs Wendy O had committed suicide there.
While I envied Jerry’s domestic bliss – a fab spouse and two sharp children – what I most admired about him was his having clutched the Stanley Cup. A New Jersey resident, he rooted for the National Hockey League Devils.
One of the seasons the Devils won the Cup, likely 2000, some promotion brought the big grail across the Hudson into Jerry’s TV studio. Just seeing the Cup, being close enough for my breath to fog a portion of its surface, would’ve been enough for me. However, Jerry got to lump that.
Alerted he was a rabid fan, team officials allowed him to hug the Cup. Hug! Not hoist because that’s a privilege only extended to winning team members and personnel. But hug! There’s a photograph of him cheesing like hell while he’s pressed so tightly against the trophy he could’ve mind melded with the thing.
I know neither of the two recollections presented about Jerry are poignant. His widow Karen, their children, both families, childhood/longtime friends provided no shortage of these cherished moments. Moreover, didn’t Covid conditions ease the grief his mourners ought of felt had the celebration of his life occurred last August? The 12-month gulf between burial and memorial certainly softened the delayed day’s sting, no? Nonetheless listening to people who knew him with far greater intimacy than me acknowledged we’d all lost a big-hearted man. Quotidian as moments I’ve described are, don’t they comprise the bulk of all our lives?
Why did Wilson take it on himself to organize the repasts for his brothers and sister? Was his service a duty to his elders? Had he believed himself obliged? Or did he perform such because these gatherings concluded chapters however lived better than Scripture intoned over lifeless remains above a hole?
As the 1990s yielded to the 21st century the pace of funerals, repasts increased.
We were grateful Wilson belonged to a lodge. He just wasn’t a lodge member, but one of its big mucky-mucks. A poohbah, the facility, its members, sat at his disposal.
Puckishly, with Wilson absent, I wondered who organized his repast.
Mourning as maybe our families should’ve been, there weren’t a lot of reminiscences of the departed. He or she was missed, yes, but not fulsomely lamented. No wailing. No rending of garments. I bet the restraint shown might’ve put off strangers who didn’t know our crowd.
Instead, the attendees used these gatherings to catch up. In them they resumed basking in one another’s company. The older ones, a rapidly diminishing number to be sure, had been raised along similar straits. Mules, outhouses, substandard housing, pervasive denial of opportunities to advance, youth marked through necessary hard manual labor defined them until Northern migration permitted lives beyond rising at dawn to merely sustain the body through rural impoverishment.
Onerous as their lives once had been, they were then truly glad to be alive.
The sense of having survived and thrived pervaded these hours together. All their backgrounds included plenty of left-behind Southern relatives and acquaintances whose futures had been stymied then shortened. Sometimes abruptly.
Most of those attending Jerry’s celebration occupied a different spectrum. The first Saturday of August, we convened outside of Tucson. There, in a home his family bought and relocated to after his retirement, relatives joined by fellow Boomers honored Jerry.
Boomers, we represented the great middle-class’ apogee. We had aspirations. We fulfilled many of them. We could.
Our parents remembered the Depression’s hardships or had been born close enough to that era of economic devastation to have been singed by recollections of any having suffered 1930s deprivation firsthand. Given opportunities and benefits by people who acutely recalled what it was to have been without much, our Boomer cohort broke all records running with the advantages of plenty.
One saw that at Jerry’s repast. Common was the ease of life and assuredness it provided throughout us all. While every life contains episodes of struggle, ours had been feathered. Compared to previous generations one could state Boomers like us had been cosseted for the most part. We will likely be the most swaddled Americans ever.
The memorial presided over by Karen comforted, secured, and reassured us. Delicious platters accompanied no shortage of chilled libation. Heyday harkening music yanked grayhairs back to thinner waists, straighter postures, some blissful irresponsible state before children, and decades yet before we started examining our lives.
Shared experiences during an approximate time period in the same locale made us a homogeneous group … again. There’s plenty of succor to be drawn from immersion in the plentitude of familiarity.