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A Legacy of Two Elders

Paul Cohen is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Queens, NY.  He received his MSW degree from the Wurzweiler School of ...Read More

Within the past few months I suffered the loss of 2 uncles- my father’s brother “Bill” (who turned 91 shortly before his death), and my maternal aunt’s spouse, Samuel (who had reached the age of 94). In most ways, both men could not have been more different. However, both attained levels of personal satisfaction for which many people can only hope. It was only after his death that I fully realized this about my Uncle Bill. (Names have been changed in deference to family privacy.)

Uncle Bill was the last of my close blood relations on my dad’s side. He was a quiet, affable and simple man. He was not a scholar (my parents said he was passed out of pity), but he was skilled musically and was a natural talent with his hands. He was never highly regarded by his immediate or extended family – many of whom thought him to be a simpleton. Family poverty necessitated that he start working at an early age. Still, he was able to learn dental mechanics and was very skilled in that area. Unfortunately, he would have to curtail his work hours in order to take care of his wife, who had emotional issues, and struggled financially until his death.

Uncle Samuel was born legally blind to a middle class family, all be it a struggling one like most during the Great Depression. Unlike my uncle Bill, he was extremely gifted academically, and was encouraged by parents and other family members to overcome his handicap. He was also quiet, very gentle, caring and funny, but also very serious. He was encouraged to embark on a career in the civil services and became a psychologist for the New York City Department of Health. He was always highly respected for his abilities and success in overcoming his handicap.

Bill and Samuel came from different economic, familial and cultural backgrounds – with Samuel’s family emphasizing education much more – and Bill was no match for Samuel intellectually. Yet the emotional intelligence of both men -which was nurtured by the spouse that each took with him on his life’s journey-was, in my opinion, a decisive factor contributing to the happiness of each man.

Samuel found happiness with his lifelong partner, my aunt, with whom he shared values of career building, hard work and raising 5 beautiful and successful children of their own. He was a very nurturing parent, but could also be very stern. He and his wife enjoyed their elder years together, even though they both had serious illnesses. After the passing of his wife, he grew more feeble but held on for almost 3 years. He sometime recalled with pride, but also sadness, the achievements he’d had as a young man. (In contrast, he had always been overly-modest during his working years.)

Bill found happiness in his commitment as a caretaker to a woman with longstanding mental health issues – despite the difficulties. They each had interests and talents: my aunt in arts and crafts, and my uncle in music and carpentry. These talents, along with their shared love of children, contributed to their joint effort in helping to raise the 13 children of the Hasidic couple (their landlords) upstairs. My uncle and aunt had no children of their own. As they progressed in years, they both developed physical ailments, but in turn, garnered the energy to take care of each other. My aunt’s emotional problems eventually subsided. Life was not easy, and Bill and his wife lived more or less as shut-ins for most of their years together, but he never complained or expressed any regrets for the way he had lived his life or for events that had occurred.

I now see that regardless of their disparity in background and personality differences, both uncles achieved a significant measure of personal satisfaction and self-fulfillment. Despite their personal limitations, both individuals gave unique meaning to the adage of one who is “happy with his lot”. The solid devotion that each man gave to and received from his spouse, which in turn, served to reinforce their life’s purpose, was, I believe, the principal factor that helped see both men into advanced age. In spite of chronic ailments of aging, neither man was disillusioned in coping with his chronic conditions. These perspectives were reflected in the eulogies given by the people who truly loved them.

I was overcome with tremendous sadness and guilt – as well as pride – by the beautiful eulogies delivered by some of the children whom my paternal uncle helped raise with his wife. They spoke over and over of how “wise” he was, of his kindness, and of how he had always been there for them as a “second father”. My technically childless aunt and uncle had indeed been parents to 13 children! (As my brother remarked later that day, these children had been their main contact with the outside world.)

After this under-valued member of my family was lowered into the ground, I realized the true value of the man I had lost. Through my tears of pain and regret I came to realize that my uncle Bill was, like my uncle Samuel, a truly content man who emotionally grasped what my own parents and many other family members who regularly ridiculed him never did. Bill, in his simplicity, successfully saw the difference between obligation and being a true holder of another’s heart and trust. Devotion was his mission and he saw this as a chief redeeming value. In this, my uncles, both very different in temperament, nuance, ability, education and socio-economic status were very much the SAME. They personified dedication, loyalty and faith.

If I live to achieve but a fraction of their understanding, I will consider myself one of the luckier people on this earth.

Keep Reading By Author Paul Cohen, LCSW
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