There’s nothing like a funeral to focus your mind on what’s really important.
Sunday, I attended the funeral of my uncle Harold–actually, he was my first cousin once removed in the arcane language of family trees, but he was my mother’s age, so my sister and I grew up calling him “uncle.”
Harold would have been 93 next month, so it was rather remarkable to see 250+ people of all ages, genders and races crammed into the funeral home. As Rabbi Sasso noted at the beginning of the service, Harold led a full, rewarding life. The eulogies from his children and grandchildren were clearly heartfelt, full of genuine love and affection, and that affection was shared by the many nieces, nephews, cousins and other family members in the crowded room (too many of whom, I regret to say, I see only at weddings and funerals these days). Even though he was 93, his death was a shock; he had always been healthy, and he’d been out and about until just weeks before he died.
During the service, I considered what Uncle Harold had taught our large, quirky family.
Everyone who spoke reiterated a central theme: here was a man who never said an unkind word about anyone, who looked at the world through rose-colored glasses and saw the positive side of every situation. He was absolutely devoted to his family. He made everyone he came in contact with feel important. He had a great sense of humor, and was the MC of choice at family gatherings.
But perhaps the most accurate description came from his nephew, my cousin, who described him as a man of fundamental decency.
Uncle Harold loved sports, especially basketball and golf. In the 1950s, his favorite basketball team was Crispus Attucks. At a time when segregation was strictly enforced in Indianapolis, Harold, his young son, and my cousin would be the only whites sitting in the stands behind the team, cheering them on.
Harold had become close friends with the legendary coach, Ray Crowe, when he financed the coach’s first car; his finance company was one of the very few that made no-down-payment auto loans–or any loans–to blacks in those days.
When Crispus Attucks won the championship in 1955, blacks couldn’t even hold a celebration on Monument Circle. The team members–even its star, Oscar Robertson–were unwelcome in most of the city’s restaurants and bars, so Uncle Harold took the whole team to Broadmoor Country Club for steak dinners. He also found summer jobs for several of the players, and forced restaurants owned by friends to serve them. To my knowledge, he never talked about any of this; I came across the information in a book about Hoosier basketball.
There is a Yiddish word for people like my uncle Harold: mentch. The best translation is “a real human being.”
As one of his sons said during the service, Harold died a wealthy man. Not because he was financially comfortable, although he was. His was real wealth–the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who adored their “peepaw,” the genuine affection of many good friends, the ability to enjoy–and be grateful for–the gifts life gave him, and something money and power can’t buy: a good name.
A life well lived. And a hard act to follow.