At 2:15 on the morning that I was to later attend the funeral Mass for our beloved uncle John, I was awakened by the persistent ring of a telephone seemingly far off in the distance. Aroused finally from a deep sleep, I was greeted with our son Jimmy’s voice, “Mom, can you come over? Amy says it is time.” I dressed quickly, assured my husband that since he had to work the next morning, I was okay to go alone, and made the short drive to their house.
Later, unable to fall to sleep while reviewing all that had occurred in just a few short days (Uncle John’s death, a four-day Michigan vacation with our other three children’s families and now this), I was reminded of a line that struck me in Dorothy Day’s autobiography, “Joy and sorrow, life and death, always so close together.” I felt blessed.
Blessed to have spent some time with such a beautiful person as my uncle John; blessed to have had a wonderful four-day vacation with family; now blessed to soon have a new grandchild. A book I read in my 20’s by Conrad Richter was titled “A Simple, Honorable Man.” Shortly after my sister called with the sad news of Uncle John’s loss as we traveled to Manistee for our vacation, that title autoplayed in my mind repeatedly. It would easily fit his biography. He was both.
Simple in that he had few wants. He lived most of his married life in the small town of Fort Branch. He loved his family (his wife of 59 years, Clara Mae, was a perfect match), his friends and especially his Catholic faith; and his life was a reflection of that. He was the best gardener I have ever known. As Father Tony Ernst said in his funeral homily, “The first time I saw his tomato plants, I wasn’t sure what they were.” That is because they resembled something grown in a tropical garden — six feet tall, lush, green and loaded with tomatoes.
For many years he grew an acre of Illini super sweet corn; and before the spring planting, he had customers’ orders from a many-mile radius waiting for his yield. When he wasn’t in his garden, he enjoyed hunting with friends and family or watching his 15 grandchildren in various activities. For 30 years he took great pride in mowing and manicuring Holy Cross Cemetery (this year was to be his last) along with many other yards. His work ethic was unmatchable!
Uncle John was content with the simple things life offered. He was the man God intended him to be; and his spirituality radiated to all through his kindness, his generosity and his loyalty to church, family and friends. He followed through with his life’s commitments. For as long as I can remember, he called my mother (his older sister in Indianapolis) every Sunday evening to see how she was faring. In his eulogy, his son Gene said that Dad’s idea of a vacation was three days and two nights away from home. He couldn’t be far from the place that was God’s treasure to him.
Turning to Uncle John’s grandchildren, Father Tony acknowledged that their
grandfather’s life was a tough act to follow; but he challenged them to carry on their grandfather’s legacy by emulating the lessons he had taught them. I was reminded of having a similar thought 33 years ago when I walked away from my grandmother’s (John’s mother) grave: “Who would take her place?” As the years passed, it dawned on me that we who are left must become the new role models.
Leaving his gravesite that day, my husband and I received the call — our 21st grandchild, a precious baby girl Katherine Clare, had arrived in this world. And although it will be painful for so many of us to let go of Uncle John, her birth was a reminder of another quote I had recently read: “Loss and grief will accompany all of us in this life. But before we ‘stop holding on’ to those we love, we can recall Mary at the tomb and remember that grief is often a sign of great love. How blessed are we to have loved and been loved.”