Uncle, Brother, and Friend

Even in the busy holiday season as Ecclesiastes tells us “There is a time to be born and a time to die.”  My uncle Gary was one of those whose time to die just happened.  He did not want a funeral service, but I felt a need to write a brief tribute here to mark his passing. 

Because my mother had five younger brothers I have always been blessed with lots of uncles.  As of this week only two of those five uncles are still living.  I have not been geographically or emotionally close to any of the five for many years, but the death of the youngest, my Uncle Gary, this week has touched me more than expected.  I have only spoken to Gary a few times in the last 50 plus years, but there was a time when he was more cousin/brother/friend than uncle to me.

You see Gary, who was “Butch,” as he grew up was only four years older than I.  When she heard about Gary’s death my sister Sue said, “Ouch, Gary was awfully close to being a part of our generation.”  Technically, she’s right.  My sisters and I are all baby boomers, and Gary was not, being born in 1942.  But personally Gary/Butch felt like he was part of my generation as we were growing up.  He was the only one of my mother’s siblings who was still at home as I grew up.  So when we visited my grandparents Butch and I would explore the barn or the woods on their farm together.  Because he was always there the nickname my sisters and I had for our grandmother was “Grandma Butchie.”  

My mom’s family was big on nicknames.  Her dad, Alma, was ”Hooker,” although he was just “Grandpa” to me.  In addition to “Butch;” my mom, Sarah, was “Sadie” or “Sal.”  Carl was “Bud;” John Franklin, “Hank;” and Forrest, “Frog;” Now, only. The latter two are alive, but this blog is about Butch.

It’s funny what memories survive over 70 years.  I’m sure there were many other things that Gary and I did, but here are the recollections that have stuck with me.  I had a great big problem with homesickness until I was at least 12.  In truth it was still hard when I went away to college when I was almost 20, but at least then I didn’t have to call my parents and ask them to come get me.  My earliest memory of time with Gary was probably when I was 8 or 9.  I was supposed to spend the night at Grandma’s farm.  When my mom delivered me to the farm one afternoon Gary and I ran off immediately to explore the woods that was maybe a quarter of a mile from their farmhouse.  My mom was talking with Grandma when we took off for the woods, and all was well until I saw her driving off from where we were in the woods.  I’m sure she was thinking it might be better to leave without a big good-bye scene, but I was devastated she had left without letting me know and started running toward the road in a futile attempt to catch up with her.  Later that night I was so homesick my grandma had to call my parents to come get me.

Another memory seems like a scene out of time so far removed as to be hard to believe.  My grandparents did not have indoor plumbing until I was in my teens.  Their water came from a pump outside and their bathroom was a two-holer outhouse.  You heard that right, and yes I remember sitting side by side in the outhouse with Gary doing what people do in a privy.  By this time I’m guessing he was about 14 and I 10.  It was in that outhouse that I got my first sex education from Gary.  Living on the farm, he had the advantage of first hand learning about sex from the animals they raised.  I doubt that the education I got from him was 100% accurate, but it was better than any I got anywhere else till I got to a college biology class.  I also remember running naked from the outhouse to the house, something my parents would have been horrified about.  But my grandma who had raised 7 kids, 5 of whom were boys, just smiled as she watched us from the kitchen window.  

Gary and I actually attended the same school for a couple of years.  When I was in Jr. High our Jr. and Sr. High Schools were housed in the same building, which as an aside was the same building my mother graduated from almost 20 years before.  Old Blume High School was showing its age, but our very far-sighted school board had planned very well for the baby boom that my class initiated; and they built a brand new high school that opened when I was in 8th grade and Gary was a senior.  By that time Gary was nearly an adult and I was still his much younger nephew.  At least that’s my speculation based on how he appeared to be too “cool” to acknowledge his scrawny and too smart for his own good little nephew when our paths crossed at school.  

After that Gary and I lost touch with each other.  I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t even know what he did after high school.  I was much too busy with my own life and plans to go on to college and beyond and unfortunately turned my back on that part of my life and family.  My parents moved 60 miles away from my home town while I was in college, and I am sorry to say I felt superior to my relatives because I had two degrees and most of them did not have even one.  I think Gary was also a victim of a family feud that occurred when my grandmother died.  I never knew what it was all about, but it left in its wake a never-healed division resulting in brothers not speaking to brothers.  

And now as my parents’ generation is almost all gone I realize the loss is mine for not staying more connected to those family members.  The education they could have given me about a blue collar life style would have been at least as valuable as any grad school class I took in helping me connect and communicate with a diverse and important part of the larger community we all belong to, even if we fail to realize it.  

So Rest In Peace, Uncle Gary.  Regrets for the connection we lost, but much gratitude for the good times we had as carefree youth.  

Prayer for a 70th Birthday

O God. All of my friends are turning 70 this year. And my turn is coming very soon. Just two years ago we celebrated 50 years since high school graduation with a big reunion, but this milestone has spread through us first wave of boomers like a thief in the night, picking us off one at a time on a steady march from January to October and the toll keeps climbing.

Our 50’s and 60’s came and went with “Over the Hill” jokes and some solemnity, but being 70 seems much more serious. Denying our aging gets harder every year, but 70 has the extra power of biblical authority. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalms 90:10). OK, maybe the Psalmist was just having a bad day when those words were written, but they still are hard to shake for those of born in 1946 or sooner, no matter what the actuarial tables say about our increasing life expectancy.

For me there’s an added omen. My mother died of brain cancer when she was 70. It was only 3 months between her diagnosis and her death. She didn’t have much time to make a bucket list, but then Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson didn’t popularize that term until 14 years later. Even though that 2007 movie highlighted the most serious of topics in a comic fashion, it’s not such a laughing matter as my peers and I hit the big 7 0.

Yes, I know, we have birthdays every year, but those ending in zero always seem bigger. Reflecting on being 70 reminds me of the Christian practice of giving up something for Lent, a good spiritual discipline. But Lent only lasts 40 days, Lord. The things we give up at 70 are often forever. At 60 I could finish first in my age group in a 5K race. Yes, I know there weren’t many in that age group running, but now I read the morning paper on line because my aging body rebels at walking 500 feet to the end of the drive to pick up the newspaper. I would love to play softball or football with my grandkids, to ski some moguls again, or to chase down those difficult tennis shots the way I used to. Lord, I’d even like to be able to mow my grass without pain or to stay up all night reading a great book. Alas, the mind and spirit are willing, but the flesh gets weaker every day!

What’s that Lord? Yes I know it is much too easy to get turned in on my aches and pains. Even when I vow not to do it my conversations with my peers seem to inevitably turn to recent medical tests and how much time we lose going to the doctor. We often lament, “I don’t know how I ever had time to work.” Forgive my little pity parties, Lord. Remind me I have a choice about where I focus my attention. Lead me not into the temptation to bemoan what I’ve lost to the aging process and deliver me from the evil of criticizing the “younger” generation. When I find myself saying those things my parents said that I swore I wouldn’t ever say, gently nudge me to live in the now, free from regrets about the past I cannot change and liberated from the fear of what lies ahead.

Help me live in gratitude for the things I can do that would have been impossible a generation or two ago – travel opportunities, world-wide information available 24/7 anywhere I am (unless I forget my smart phone), medical advances that enhance and extend the quality of life for those of us who are privileged to have access to them, mind-boggling discoveries about the infinite mysteries and marvels of the universe we live in, and the freedom in a comfortable retirement to reflect on it all.

Lord, it breaks my heart to know how many of your children lack the basic necessities of life that I take for granted. Even as I give thanks for all I have, remind me that even in my advanced years that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Remind me that the word “retirement” is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Discipleship is a lifetime commitment. If we stop growing in our faith at any age we cannot maintain the status quo but regress.

Let me not, O Lord, rage against the realities of age, but instead to faithfully embrace the present as the gift it is. Knowing that negativity and fear immobilize, let this birthday teach this old dog to treasure every day because they are finite. Adjust my trifocals to focus on the joys of life so I can make the most of what is instead of regretting what was or is no more. Blessed with 70 years of life experience, let my prayer be “For all that has been, thanks; and for all that is yet to come, Yes!”