The e-mail from my sister Diane read: "Uncle Ralph died. The service is today. Bob and I plan to go. Just wanted you to know." And that was that. Diane knew it would not have been possible for me to travel so far on such short notice. And, it was not like we were close; I probably would have guessed he'd already died. Still I would like to have gone; he was the last of my mother's immediate family which had been such a big part of my life.
Suddenly, as it is with all deaths, all I had were fragmented memories of someone I really didn't know all that well. Most of those memories aren't mine, either; just what somebody told me.
My mother said he was awarded a medal in World War II [I want to say the Silver Star, but that's only a memory]. As I remember the story, he saved people from fire in HQ during a Japanese bombing attack. He claimed he only did it to save his transfer orders -- if he hadn't he figured on being in Burma forever.
As kids we liked to visit Uncle Ralph and Aunt June, they had a TV! It had about a 6" screen and the black and white picture showed the only station in town. My dad, building on his WWII training, worked on TV's; but we didn't have one yet.
About 1953, the highway came through and Uncle Ralph bought a two-story brick house and had it moved about ten miles. He then spent a year or more of weekends building a foundation under it brick by brick.
My Uncle Ralph was the second strongest man I ever met (the strongest was my grandfather. Ralph Sr.). Ralph Jr. worked most of his life on a loading dock. He moved stuff onto trucks and trains and airplanes before it was all that easy to do. We went bowling with him once at a Catholic Church facility and my mother told me he had been banned from some of the public Alleys because he was so strong he'd shatter the wooden Pins.
The last time I saw him was 2006 at my mother's funeral. He had lost his strength, the physical part. Somehow that is the only way I can picture him now, as an old man. Neither Kay nor I could quite remember whether he was older or younger than my mother, or even what year my Uncle Roy (the oldest brother) or Uncle Milton (my favorite uncle) had died. Memory is like that.
We say things like "he'll always be remembered", or this or that event will be remembered forever. But it ain't so. Six months after you're gone who outside your immediate family will remember anything you said or what you looked like 30 years ago? No one born in this century will have any personal memory of September 11 2001 (that was the year, wasn't it?). Memories pass when people do. The Apostle James put it this way:
"Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." (JA 4.14, KJV)
Uncle Ralph died. The service was Tuesday. I just wanted to remember.
David L. Lewis is an observer of and sometimes commentator on life who may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.