Wednesday, December 20, 2006


My family has seen several members die right before the Christmas holidays. I suppose that’s not so unusual since the onset of winter is particularly hard on the immune systems of the elderly. Those already struggling with frail health simply cannot cope with the viruses that seek shelter from the cold in their warm bodies. I’ve had two family members buried on Christmas Eve, one on the day before Christmas Eve, and one two days after Christmas. I don’t bring this up to be a downer, but rather to share some observations I’ve made about the cycle of life during a time when we celebrate the birth of one of the Earth’s most famous former inhabitants.

I grew up in a blue collar town where most of the residents were employed at the steel mill, the auto plant, or one of the many other industrial plants that surrounded the community. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and his brother, my Uncle Jack, came from England in the 1920s to seek jobs in one of these industries and ended up working for several decades at the steel mill. Technically, my Uncle Jack had a white-collar job at the plant, but he still made his living from America’s booming industrial revolution. My grandfather, my Uncle, and their contemporaries built a community in the town. A savings and loan (which still exists today as a full-fledged bank) was started in my great-grandfather’s dining room with the help of community members. The town was loaded with clubs and organizations, many of which my great-grandfather, grandfather, and Uncle Jack were members. By the time I came along, the town was filled with gray-haired men and women, some retired, some about to retire, who made up the backbone of the community. They had made good livings, maintained their homes, supported the local businesses, and contributed to the community.

Back in the 70s, I was in awe of these people, especially when comparing them to the young people who were growing up in the same town. Long-haired, bedraggled, undereducated, and blissfully unaware of the industrial collapse that was about to grip the country, these young folks took for granted that the jobs their fathers and grandfathers had would still be available to them as a birthright. Perhaps you can forgive them for not seeing the economic shift in the country, but you couldn’t forgive them for drifting into lives of drinking, drug use, and criminal behavior. Even if the jobs had remained, many had not prepared themselves to accept the responsibilities of those jobs, or to assume the mantle of community activism the way the previous generations had.

My Uncle Jack’s funeral was the first I had ever attended, on Christmas Eve 1976. He was only 74. I was only 12 (here I am that Christmas with my Space:1999 stuff). In addition to my family, the funeral home was packed with gray-heads, blue-heads, and white-heads who were friends of my uncle. I sat through a series of ceremonies presented by various groups that my uncle had belonged to. Each time, a group of four or five elderly men, wearing ornately decorated aprons over their suits, would step up and recite some gobbledegook, then say some nice words about Uncle Jack. It seemed to go on forever, but my normally jumpy 12-year-old consciousness didn’t mind it. This was the first time I had witnessed such an outpouring of respect and affection for a deceased person, and I was fascinated by how many people my uncle had affected outside of my own family. It was a bitterly cold day, and the ceremony at the cemetery was brief. They couldn’t even dig the hole for the casket, the ground was so hard. Still, the sun shined brightly and the sky was clear, and I was filled with a sense that, although he died relatively young, my Uncle Jack had done okay.

Ten years later, on a rainy Christmas Eve, my Uncle Henry was buried. He was my grandmother’s sister’s husband. He smoked Camel unfiltered cigarettes all his life and, unsurprisingly, died of lung cancer. There were fewer old folks at this funeral, and the ones that were there seemed markedly less robust than those at my Uncle Jack’s ceremony. I was just about to graduate from college. A college degree was essential now as the job market shifted from an industrial to an information age. Those from my high school who had hoped for a factory job were finding little luck. Many were leaving town altogether. These senior citizens were holding the town together, but they “just couldn’t do what they used to anymore.” My Uncle Henry’s funeral was briefer, less elaborate, but a strong crowd of friends paid their respects.

Eight years later, my maternal grandmother died and was buried on the day before Christmas Eve. She was 89. I was 30. She and my grandfather had moved into a retirement community because taking care of their house had become a burden. I bought their house, not because I really wanted it, but because property values were down and buyers were scarce. By this time, many of the old folks, the spine of the once-thriving town, had died off. The few who were still alive, like those that showed up at my grandmother’s funeral, had also moved away. No one wanted their old houses since there were few jobs in the area anymore. Folks were selling to anyone who would buy. There was enough riff-raff in the neighborhood already, so I lived in the house and commuted 30 miles each way to work. My office was in a growing area on the other side of the county where large white collar firms were settling. That was the new thriving community.

Nine years on, and my grandfather died at the ripe old age of 102. His funeral was two days after Christmas. There were quite a few gray heads at the funeral, but they now belonged to my grandfather’s children and grandchildren (me included). All his contemporaries were gone. Members from one of his clubs showed up and performed their ceremony in their ornately decorated aprons. These members were kids or at least young men when my grandfather was active with the group. They barely knew him, but did their club duties with respect. I had long since sold my old house - my grandparents’ old house - and moved away.

The town still exists, and efforts are being made to gentrify the area with plans for new shops, night spots, improved housing. It’s a long way off, though, and what remains is something of a shell of its former self. I’m now old enough to have watched a strong community wither and die. And the residents who made it strong, who struggled through the Depression, who built the armaments of war during WW II, who helped the community grow even more during the post-war boom years, I watched them wither and die too. The loss haunts me.

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