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.

Nothing left but memories

The house in which I spent my childhood no longer stands. Nothing is left of it but memories.

Here is the history of that house. Late during the Great Depression, my grandparents bought a farmhouse on three acres of land; they also acquired a barn and a chicken coop with that purchase. Their house was half a block from a one-room schoolhouse, about two blocks from a railroad station, and several blocks from a tuberculosis sanitarium. The village had fewer than two hundred inhabitants.

My grandparents bought three acres because they wanted their son and their daughter to live next door when they were grown. After my mother (their daughter) and my father were married, they were invited to choose between the northeast and northwest quarter of the property. They chose the corner on the quieter street, and they had a house built. It was a ranch house with three bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, dining room, and kitchen; it also had a full basement. A spring-fed creek ran along the property line to the north.

Over the years, the village grew. The sanitarium became a major regional hospital. When my mother graduated from eighth grade, she had one classmate; when I graduated from eighth grade, I had ninety classmates (separated into three homerooms). Since my grandparents, uncle, aunt, and cousins were neighbors, holidays and birthdays and wedding anniversaries were all family events. I walked to school, even in the rain and the snow, and at the end of the day I walked home again. Each of these uphill journeys involved passing three other houses.

The summer I turned ten, we had a forty-year flood. (Since there have been five such floods since that time, you can calculate my age.) Due to heavy rain, the creek rose over its banks, inundating the property. Four feet of water rose in the basement. I spent the next few days playing with “driftwood” that had washed onto the property. About the only benefit from the flood for my family is that it helped us locate precisely a leak in the natural gas line in front of the house by the bubbles that rose through the floodwater.

The next forty-year flood happened in the early spring after a winter of record-breaking snowfall. One day the temperature reached sixty degrees and it began to rain, melting the upper layers of snow while the lower layers remained frozen. Since the creek was also frozen, all that water had nowhere to go except for the property and the basement. Overnight lows dropped into the forties, which is memorable since the basement flooding had required my family to turn off the furnace.

After those two floods, my parents were required to purchase flood insurance. When flooding happened, the insurance company would pay money to replace damaged equipment such as the furnace, clothes washer, drier, and deep-freeze. They would also pay a set amount per square foot for cleaning what had been flooded. They did not cover furniture, hobby and craft equipment, or other improvements people might make in a basement.

By the time I was an adult, my father was ready to move out of that house. Understandably, my mother was reluctant to move. That difference of opinion created some tension in the family over their later years, although most of the time we handled it well. My mother’s opinion prevailed; the two of them remained in that house until the last week of her life, when she was hospitalized until her death.

Since that time, my father has moved to a different state. A government agency bought the house and property. Because it is in a flood plain, they have destroyed the house and will allow the land to remain undeveloped. I doubt that I will ever see the lot; I have no reason now to return to my hometown. Only memories remain of my childhood home. J.