The Dichotomy of Uncle Abe
Copyright 2013 Barbara Celeste McCloskey
I sat silently in the ornate church as the ancient Armenian chant wafted to the rafters. The heavy smell of sweet incense and the flickering candles added to the familiar funeral mood. Although I had no hint of the meaning of the strange words, the tone of the chant evoked reverence and peace. A perfect climate for reflecting.
I stared at the large pewter casket, which sat in the middle aisle and was covered with an ornate drape. It was humorous that Abe was here. Religion was extremely important to both sides of his family, but Abe never walked through a church door. His wife’s family was Italian Catholic, and they insisted St. Sebastian’s was the best church for his funeral. Abe’s brothers and sisters argued because Abe was Armenian, he should be buried from St. George’s. This controversy over his burial would have tickled him. I pictured him standing in the clouds with arms folded laughing, “Who the hell cares? Just bury me, already!”
Abe was boisterous and loved to make an entrance. His deep, bellowing voice would fill the largest hall, and he’d say, “So, how the hell are you?” and then he’d slap you on the back. He was a mountain of a man in personality and stature. His belt was hidden by his abundant paunch and when he walked, he rolled. He always wore a broad smile under a well-groomed mustache, and never left the house without a dapper hat. And today, we all cried heartfelt tears his gregarious lifestyle took him away from us when he collapsed on the kitchen floor from a fatal heart attack. But somehow it seemed fitting his big, generous heart just pooped out from so much giving.
Abe was a politician, and we all were benefactors of his service. He had been elected Village President several consecutive terms, and I saw him as the Harry Truman of our little village because the buck always stopped with him. When I stayed for dinner at his house, the phone never stopped ringing.
“Abe, my cat is in the tree. Who do I call?”
“Abe, our sewer is backed up. Send someone over.”
“Abe, I need somebody to haul away the garbage that was missed on pick-up day. Can you take care of it?”
Instead of being perturbed his dinner had been interrupted with these dumb phone calls, Abe would patiently take care of the problem with a big smile, gaining another vote.
The luckiest citizens of the village were the children. Abe loved kids; unfortunately, he never got to be a father. His only son Michael was stillborn and it nearly broke his heart. But instead of feeling sorry for himself, Abe found a solution. He filled the void by adopting all the kids in Sturtevant. Through hard-nose politics and annexation tactics, he saw to it that parks were built both ends of the village. He instituted a supervised summer recreation program, so every kid could go to the park, play safely and have fun the entire summer. In the winter, he was the first man on the fire hose nozzle to flood ice skating rinks where we played baseball in the summer. At Halloween, all the kids knew that Abe always had the biggest candy bars at Halloween and hundreds of kids put his house on their trick-or-treat route.
Abe also served his community as a volunteer fireman. But as the chairman of the party committee, he made sure there were plenty of games and prizes for the kids at the annual picnics every year. He also demanded that there was plenty of ice cream bars, cake, and candy, too. He arranged for Santa Claus to come to the annual Christmas party and we all left with a very nice present we wanted. Every kid in Sturtevant loved Abe, and today, they filled the church to say goodbye to a good friend.
Not only was he President of the village, he was also the leader of the AFL/CIO labor union where he worked. With his cigar stogy clenched between his teeth, he went from one smoke-filled meeting to another. He was cunning, intelligent, and diligent to get things done. One one intimidated him, and when he thought he was right, he fought like a bulldog biting his teeth into any matter concerning worker welfare and safety.
Because he was so quick to offer aid to most anyone, Abe put himself in debt more than once. He never felt remorse for his actions and this repeated behavior ran up debts so serious, his sickly wife Josie had to go to work in a drug store in a run-down part of town to meet the payments the bank required.
One of my fondest memories of my favorite uncle was Christmas Eve. Uncle Abe and Aunt Jo hosted a traditional Italian family dinner before everyone else went to midnight Mass. When we opened the door, strains of “Ave Maria” and “O Holy Night” were background for this once-a-year exotic feast. The house was filled with the heavenly aromas tomato sauce and garlic. When we arrived, Abe played the ultimate host, while Aunt Jo remained hidden in a hot kitchen in a soiled apron.
Tables were heaped with calamari, lobster, jumbo shrimp, imported cheeses, four or five pasta dishes, salads, and breads. My aunt worked for weeks preparing the excessive delicacies. She even had whole banquet table filled with platters of desserts and cookies. There was so much food that the entire village could have come for dinner, and there would still be leftovers. Abe’s contribution to the preparations was to kiss his wife on the cheek and slap her on the fanny as he told her what a wonderful cook she was. The rest of us were expected to “Mangia” until we would “roll” home.,
Abe and his Josie were married over forty years, and together they saw a lot of hardship. Josie suffered chronic illness for most of her life. She always joked that her wardrobe was packed for the hospital. But, Abe never strayed. He was by her side through everything, and he provided for her as best as he could. After her debilitating stroke a few years ago, he desperately fought to care for her at home. But after nearly collapsing from exhaustion, he had to face he longer keep “Josie” with him. When he had to put her in a nursing home, he lost the bounce in his step. Any stranger wouldn’t know the difference, though, because his usual blowhard charm would cover the whole in his heart. He’d enter the nursing home and ask the ladies, “Who wants me, baby?”
As the Armenian priest ended his chant and took a seat in the front of the altar, there was a moment of silence. I wondered if everyone was thinking about all the things Abe did in his life. When the priest referred to my uncle as “Abraham,” I thought it was sad this priest didn’t know the real man in the casket. But when he eulogized my uncle as a man of his word with a heart of gold, he got it part right.
The post is in response to The Daily Post weekly challenge — Tell us about a character in your life.