We buried my last uncle yesterday. I am now bereft of uncles and aunts; our small family tree has been trimmed back to an even tinier size.
My uncle was a Marine, a decorated Korean War veteran, Purple Heart and Bronze Star. When he returned home, he devoted himself to studying and became a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, marrying my aunt along the way. They moved from our hometown to another small Illinois town downstate, where he bought a practice and served the community for almost forty years. My aunt and uncle had two children, two boys who were companions and playmates when our families traveled back to converge in our hometown of Dixon, Illinois.
At home, they kept a menagerie of animals and pets. I remember some raccoons from a childhood trip to visit them, and his granddaughter told me about a squirrel they rescued and which became rather domesticated, as well as a lion that passed through at one point. People knew him as “Doc” around town and I’ve met people here in Indianapolis who spoke highly of him when they lived in that town for the way he cared for their farm animals and pets.
He was also quite a character who loved adventure. He had his pilot’s license. He raced midget cars. He took far-off fishing excursions. He played as hard as he worked.
After he retired, he devoted himself to volunteer work, serving in various roles in the community, including Habitat for Humanity. I understand he always wanted the challenging jobs when helping them, the ones high up on the ladder. He also helped out at the local food pantry and served on various boards. My cousin, who helped manage his finances in his final years, said that he had a large stack of receipts every month from charitable enterprises he supported financially.
My uncle was a strongly opinionated and plain spoken man, especially when it came to politics. He once made the newspaper for putting up some anti-Democratic signs in his yard that people had defaced or stolen. I’m told that his Republican views and his opinions about bad drivers were the two things you could always count on him voicing. However, I was heartened that one of the people who spoke at the service yesterday was a card-playing buddy who is just as staunch a Democrat, and that they always got along well.
It was moving to me to stand in that small town cemetery yesterday and talk about someone who represented my own small town roots so well. I remarked about how, when you stand in a graveyard like that, you remain surrounded by your community — the resting places of your neighbors, friends, schoolmates, co-workers, and acquaintances emanate memories and connections that have formed the tapestry of your life.
Driving to the service, I passed through a tiny little farm village with a few cross streets on the edge of the cornfields. A little league baseball game was being played in the middle of town on a diamond built right in the midst of white clapboard houses and yards, their screen doors opened to let in the morning breeze. A runner was rounding the bases as a small group of fans cheered.
And at that moment, I had a smile and a tear for my uncle and those like him.