Dorothea Lange, End of an Era: Funeral Cortege in a Small Valley Town, California, 1938

End of An EraEnd of an Era

Uncle Bob was the last of the elder generation to go. It started when my great-aunt Louisa passed two years ago. A steady stream of the older generation falling away: Uncle Larry and Aunt Kay died within days of each other in their home, too weak to tolerate the flu, the doc said. My mother was next, on New Year’s Day, cancer I suppose it was technically, but she was just worn out at 101. Then Aunt Gertrude who tripped over her dog, breaking her hip and making a steady downward decline. Last was my cousin Ned, who was killed in a car acident. Even my old nag Ticket wasn’t able to hold on amid all this death.

You might think I should have gotten used to death, given I’d seen so much of it. That I should have somehow accepted that this older generation’s time had come and gone. But it doesn’t work that way, does it?

The news about Uncle Bob felt unreal. He was the fun uncle with the golden hair and the eyes that seemed to be always crinkled in a smile, the uncle who brought a party with him whenever he visited us as kids. He was the uncle who bought us booze when we were teenagers. The uncle who stayed up late and danced until the wee hours at every wedding and New Year’s party. The uncle whose jokes were actually funny.

Funerals aren’t made for men like him. All that pomp and reverence and talk of God. We nodded and prayed and placed flowers on the casket, but there was no trace of Uncle Bob in those gestures.

The drive home from the funeral took us past the trestle bridge where Uncle Bob and his brothers would sneak cigarettes as kids. Those innocent cigarettes that would become a trademark feature of my uncle, the wisps of smoke trailing after him, his teeth yellowed, his lungs–eventually–blackened.

I watched the smoke rising from the nearby factories and the trains puffing in the distance and thought of my uncle’s body. Of his life, which was so defined by a physicality that mirrored these factories. He had churned in life, always moving, doing, improving. Nothing was untouched in his presence. A casual meeting on a streetcar was transformed, by the alchemy of his charisma, into a lifelong friendship. A dull piece of history sparkled in his retelling. A burned dinner became a funny story. A tale of childhood woe, evidence of personal character and stoicism.

His story was finished now. The last traces of smoke coughed out.

And so onward we move, as though nothing has been lost. As if the new replaces the old. As if regeneration is enough.

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