We lost my uncle Jack this morning. He was my mom’s oldest brother.
Jack was my favorite. When I was small, he and his first wife, Jackie, moved to New Mexico. I wrote him letters and he always wrote back. They moved back when I was 12 or 13, and he became a much more regular presence in my life. He used to take me fishing, early in the morning, and in the quiet we’d just talk. He always really listened to the things rattling around in my young brain and took them seriously. When he offered wise counsel, he did it gently and with great respect for my thoughts and feelings. I didn’t get that anywhere else.
Jack remarried while I was in college to a wonderful woman named Maxine, who passed a few years ago. Jack’s been on his own since, mostly spending his time golfing and driving around in his truck.
While my sons were young I made sure they got to know Jack. Here the three of them are in 2009.
Here are my sons with Jack and Maxine in 2011.
And then Jack and me.
I last saw Jack last fall when we scattered my parents’ ashes. He had become quite skinny, and didn’t always track with conversation, so it was clear that he was in decline. I happened to call just this week to see if he would be around Saturday; perhaps we could drive up (to southwest Michigan, where he lived) and take him to lunch. But the call went to voice mail, and the mailbox was full.
Jack’s stepdaughter called last night to say that he was in hospice, with liver cancer that had metastasized. She didn’t expect him to survive the week. Indeed; he died this morning.
My favorite memory of Jack is from Christmas in 1981. The big family to-do was at my parents’ house in South Bend that year. When the party wound down, Jack and Jackie invited Rick and I to come with them and stay a couple days. They planned to go out to a piano bar that night and thought it would be fun for my brother and me to come along. (This was perfectly legal in Michigan then.) Off we went, and our grandparents met us there. We all sat around the piano bar, singing Christmas songs. I had recently bought a book collecting old MAD Magazine bits and one of the bits was parody Christmas songs. My brother and I could remember a few of them, and so we sang them for everyone in the bar. People seemed to think this was hilarious. It helped a lot that my brother and I were both in the school choir, could carry a tune, and could project our voices. People came up to us and gave us cash! One guy in a wheelchair gave each of us a $20 bill, which was a lot of money in 1981.
I happened to be in a used bookstore the other day and found that MAD Magazine book. I photographed one particular song we sang at the piano bar, just to text it to my brother. (Click the pages to enlarge them.)
Jack, Jackie, and my grandparents were still going strong well past midnight as my brother and I had reached our limit. I said to my grandmother that we needed to head toward bed. “I’ll ask Jack to drive you back to his apartment so you can sleep,” she said. “But Jack’s had quite a lot to drink!” I said. I couldn’t believe what my grandmother said next: “Don’t worry, Jack drives better when he’s drunk.”
Jack, my brother, and I rode three abreast in his new Ford F-150. We’re gliding down the highway when Jack suddenly said, “I know a shortcut!” — and turned to drive right through a farm field. That shook us all up pretty good! But sure enough, we exited the field right into the parking lot of Jack’s apartment complex.
Jack was 84.