Fortunately, I have not yet reached that reputed age where one finds funerals enjoyable events to attend. Yesterday, however, I went to one held in what New Yorkers often refer to as "the cemeteries"--the mass of mostly Jewish and Catholic graveyards that line the north side of the curving Jackie Robinson Parkway (nee Interboro, which was truly descriptive of the road's linking Brooklyn and Queens in that the Queens-based Mets descended much more from the [Brooklyn] Dodgers than from my old N.Y. Giants; the parkway appropriately recognizes baseball's pioneer).
Though my uncle was 99, his death on Monday was still a surprise. I'd seen him not long ago and he was his always alert, wise, and delightful self. Yes, he seemed frailer and didn't get around that easily, but it was wonderful spending some time with him. He was the youngest and last surviving sibling of five; he left sons, daughters-in-law, granddaughters, and great-grandchildren.
Important to him, though, were the 29 courses he had audited at the English Department of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., where he had lived for the past two decades. Now that I'm attending various classes and lectures much more often than I ever seemed to have the time to savor previously, I look to his example.
He followed a good policy: as an auditor who was several years--actually, decades--older than the paying college students in the class, he would never volunteer to speak but would respond if the professor called on him. I knew he was a good writer, not only because he always responded to any holiday letters I might incautiously send to him along with others -- his response invariably identified not only errors of style but of fact -- but because I remembered that he had written short stories, many published, when I first got to know him when I was in grade school.
He came by his writing ability both naturally and as a benefit of a career that started out on the editorial side of journalism before he profitably shifted to the business side. His father, my grandfather, was a successful lawyer turned historian who had started out with nothing as an immigrant boy on the Lower East Side; he not only graduated from CCNY and Columbia Law, but received an M.A. in English from Columbia. My uncle was the last surviving member of his class at Washington & Lee. He attended many of our college graduations.
The brief talks at the graveside service emphasized how he had been a treasured friend as well as wise adviser to his sons and his grandchildren, and I recalled how he had visited my first cousin and I when we were at college. While taking us to dinners at better spots than we would likely have gone to dine on our own, he provided helpful guidance on matters great and small. I have nine first cousins on that side of my family and I think he maintained a relationship with all of them.
He was always living in the world, reading The Times daily by noon and often travelling to see us as well as his grandchildren when he was able to travel. He was aware of what was happening in theater, books, art, and music as well as being deeply troubled by current politics. He was the easiest Yankee fan not only to like but to talk baseball or opera with. He truly was a mensch, an appellation he would have declined as pretentious. I'll miss him a lot.