Uncle Irv and 4 generations of a family

I was in Pittsburgh last week for the funeral of my last uncle. My mother was the oldest of 12 children: seven sisters, five brothers. He was the youngest and died at 96, having easily outlived all the others.
Yes, death is a part of life. But a passing like this makes me think beyond that truism: Uncle Irv was not only the final survivor of a huge family, he was my last link, my family’s last link, to that generation of American-Jewish children born to immigrant parents, escapees from pogroms; children who went to school in the morning and came home in the afternoon to teach their mother and father English. To go with them to a shul where prayer book Hebrew was mixed up with a tangle of Yiddish and some European languages: Russian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Romanian.
My uncle lived long enough to watch my two great-grandsons grow from babyhood into schoolboys. Because of him, we were — for a too-few, too-brief years — a five-generation family. Not many families today can claim that exhilarating experience.
My uncle and his four brothers joined the surge of young patriots who signed up for military service the day after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. They were proud young Americans who saw the world as nobody should have to see it — France and Belgium, Africa and Italy — not as tourists enjoying themselves, but as boy-men with rifles poking uneasily into houses that looked unoccupied, but might conceal a Nazi who could shoot first.
My family was lucky. I remember my Boubby the Philosopher joyously removing her Five-Star banner from her front window when the last of them had, finally, safely returned. Yes, they were the Greatest Generation, but they were never again the carefree youngsters they had been when they left home.
The family’s final home — after moving from one apartment to another as the crowd of children grew larger and larger — was a big gift from the five returnees, made possible by their wartime pay. It had six bedrooms and cost $4,100 in 1945. The first dinner around a big table in its big dining room was for Thanksgiving of that year. There was so much to give thanks for!
One by one, the sisters left the nest to marry and have children. But the men didn’t have children — even the ones who married. They were too scarred, too afraid. They didn’t want to see another generation suffer as they had. The population of the big house dwindled, but the house itself remained the family hub, the gathering place for holidays and Shabbos dinners with chicken soup, and chopped liver, and white cake heavy with walnuts — where the women exchanged their stories in the kitchen as they washed the dishes by hand, and the men dozed in the living room. It was that kind of world then: Men worked hard all day, claimed their well-earned post-meal rest, and the women concurred.
So many years passed, but Uncle Irv still lived in the big old house, all by himself, after everyone else was gone. He wanted to do what today is called “die in place,” but it wasn’t to be; finally, he was in hospice care. Not quite himself toward the end, still there were flashes. My cousin Dave was his last family visitor, and heard the last full sentences our uncle spoke: “Why are you here? Don’t you have some errands to run?’” Completely in character for a man who was practical down to his final earthly moment.
I worked all the many family names — the living and the dead — into his obituary. People from at least a half-dozen states made the trip for the funeral and the shiva gathering afterward. Four generations now, we sat together, remembering. That’s our new job, to tell the stories to our children, grandchildren and great-grands, so through our memories, Uncle Irv will live on after himself.

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