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May 27, 2024

Remembering Uncle John

By Dan Mulhollen

The title is an impossibility, of course, as my Uncle John died at age 4 of the Spanish Influenza a long time before I was born. I might wonder what his life would have been like. Like a number of other uncles, he probably would have served in World War Two. He might have made the exodus from his tiny Pennsylvania mining town to a then prosperous Rust Belt community (so many people having done so that the town's yearly reunion was held at a amusement park not too far from where I was raised -- although for a ten year old, the 45 minute drive did seem like an eternity).

But funerals were a common thing for people with parents who came from large families. In rural Pennsylvania 1910 - 1940, choices in after-dark activities were limited, and given the high mortality rate of children of the time, large families were common and sensible. This is not even taking into account the risks faced by coal miners. My father often talked about his first job as a paperboy and having to be out well before sunrise as the miners liked the morning paper with their breakfasts. Say what you will about small mining towns -- at least the inhabitants were literate.

Funerals provided a chance for the living to sit around and reminisce and bore their children to nearly as dead as the deceased. This was always followed by that terribly uncomfortable moment when someone breaks out crying and the entire room suddenly erupts in cathartic tears (Eastern European funerals are said to carry this a step further by have something of an "official griever," an elderly woman who laments the deceased and reinforces the already somber tone). At one funeral I noticed a small shelf with a jar of smelling salts -- so all you cynics, people actually do faint!

Funerals were also the time to renew old family bonds. At one aunt's funeral, I was reintroduced to some cousins I'd long forgotten and would spend many happy hours at their home. As the years have passed, I can now remember some of those once-forgotten memories. Mainly I remember the houses. From my grandparent's large house with its pot belly stove, my grandmother's collection of porcelain salt and pepper shakers, and lack of indoor plumbing, to a cousin's very nice suburban home with its huge bedrooms and central air (Coming from a house with only window fans and cold beverages, drinking hot coffee in August was a rare treat).

There are also the unintended consequences of a family member's death. Shortly after my mother's funeral, a cousin and I were cleaning out mom's dresser drawer, over a decade after my dad's passing. Near the bottom we found an ancient, dilapidated soft latex sex toy with feathers! Given her death was not a surprise, and her fatally intense sense of propriety, one might have thought she'd have thrown the damned thing out. I'm not sure whether she was keeping it as a souvenir of happier times or making a joke at me and my cousin's expense from beyond the grave.

A Catholic education -- well, kindergarten through grade four--has had many unintended consequences in my life. My Kindergarten teacher, Miss Julie, was telling the story of Christ's life. I was puzzled by the gap between his wowing the Temple Priests at age 12 and setting out on his ministry at age 30. When she was unable to fill in that gap, questions were formed in my mind -- what was he doing during those lost 18 years? My own opinion is rather elaborate and probably blasphemous.

In the first grade, Sister Felicia explained the difference between venial and mortal sins in terms of a telephone line. A venial sin only causes static between you and God. A mortal sin cuts the connection. Here my mind started to wander. I imagined myself having just died and greeted by many deceased relatives.

When my family was given a large Bible for Christmas, I read it with an intensity that would make most Evangelicals seem agnostic. I was troubled by both the Old Testament's inhumanity towards people of different faiths and the New Testament's reactionary Epistles -- when St Paul (a man torn between his Hellenistic upbringing and having "seen the light") wrote "It is better to marry than to burn," did he mean with passion, as most interpreters would have it, or in hell? This Biblical intolerance, prevalent throughout the Good Book, raised a lot of doubts in me, so much so that by my mid-adolescence, I could only consider myself marginally Christian.

At that time, paranormal and occult topics were very popular. NBC in a stroke of brilliance had three programs with linked titles -- Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow (only the first two survive -- and let's be honest, neither Jimmy Fallon nor Jay Leno can hold a candle to Johnny Carson). The last show (hosted by the chain-smoking Tom Snyder) dealt with controversial subjects. Several episodes featured atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a constantly angry person -- who even when attempting to sound jovial, came off profoundly vitriolic. And then there was Sybil Leek, a delightfully batty English woman who called herself a witch. I was at something of a spiritual crossroad and the difference between these two women helped point me on the right track.

I started reading up about her witchcraft, properly Wicca or Neopaganism. Many aspects of this belief system were in sync with my sensibilities. And then there was their opinion of the afterlife. That between death and rebirth, the soul travels to a place called The Summerland, where the dead meet with deceased relatives and reminisced. This was exactly what I'd fantasied in the first grade!

A parent's death forces one to face their own morality. For me, this was most acute after my father died, where I'd wake up in panic when thoughts of eventual demise invaded my semi-conscious state (modern medicine attributes this to pressure placed on a particular nerve by the colon -- or being full of shit). This extreme thantophobia has diminished over the years. My own medical emergency helped -- a dangerously high blood pressure -- I was a stroke waiting to happen, as a friend who is an RN put it.

Those three days spent in the hospital are a weird, blurry memory. The hallucinations I encountered due to the rapid drop in blood pressure were a fascinating and in retrospect, a very funny experience -- particularly when I'd imagined the patients across the hall decided to go out a non-existent utility door and hang out on the roof, a three-story drop from the floor our rooms were on. Now I'll sometimes pass the hospital, look at my old room and the roof, and call you, "Hey you kids, stop playing up there!"

But maybe Pagans got it right, and a grand reunion is in all our futures. I will definitely ask my mom about her dresser drawer. And if I'm lucky, meet my Uncle John. Ask him about his all-too-brief life, and if he has any advice for those now living through the present pandemic.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-11-09
Image(s) are public domain.
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