On the Occasion of the Passing of Uncle Joe

Brothers Aaron, Joe & Reuben
Brothers Aaron, Joe & Reuben
My partner Sally’s uncle Joe died this past Monday from complications of pancreatic cancer and other ailments at the age of 83. Along with Sally’s dad Reuben and their older brother Aaron, “Yoseph”, as his siblings and other close family affectionately called him, was one of those larger-than-life characters that are a feature I think of many big vibrant family clans.

I never myself called him that, with my shyer demeanor and being of a younger generation more likely to address him with the honorific “Uncle”. But with his family in town this weekend for his burial service last Friday in Culver City, “Yoseph”, aka “Uncle Joe”, got what seemed to me like a pretty good sendoff… full of remembrance, songs, tears and a fair amount of smiles and laughter too.

Joe had a literally in your face way that he greeted people he knew and loved. He would sight you, call out your name with exuberance, grin, his eyes would light up and his big hands would grab your head and pull it against his for a kiss on either cheek full of genuine passion and love for life and connection. When I first met Uncle Joe at a family gathering (maybe it was our wedding), I think I was maybe a bit uncomfortable with this over-the-top greeting, even though I have always been more of a hugger than hand-shaker. But I have come over the years to be comfortable with Joe’s “face hug”, though I would not replace my own more conventional embrace to acknowledge people.

Joe’s signature embrace was employed with family but even beyond, that larger circle that a “suckee” family (that also happens to be Jewish) calls “mishpocha”, that wonderful Yiddish word for extended family and close friends that come to be like family. His two surviving brothers, Reuben and Aaron, also employ the face hug at times, so the practice in the family will not die with Joe.

A note for those not familiar with the technical term “suckee”…*g* My partner Sally’s marriage and family therapy graduate school professor and mentor coined the term to label those families that tend to draw more and more people into their circle, even those beyond blood or marriage relationship. This as opposed to her other basic family type, “blowee”, that tends to send family members out in every direction (like my birth family).

The three brothers had made a pact as young adults, that even though their life journeys were taking them in three different directions, they would make every effort (including long overnight train and car trips over the years) to stay connected and be present for each other’s family milestones. More than half a century later, after numerous birthdays, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, Passovers, and now this funeral, the three brothers have made good on that promise and leveraged the occasions to bring their families together. Joe’s partner Ruth of 60 years and their five kids and grandkids are all in town to acknowledge and honor his passing.

We humans are social beings, and part of that sense of connected souls, collaborating consciousnesses, is that on the occasions that bring us together, happy and sad, we acknowledge and even call out the themes and imperatives of our connection and how we are enriched by each other. So I want to call out that these three brothers made this pact and continuing effort (despite all the factors of geography, work and other elements of our contemporary lives that can keep people apart) to keep their families connected. And then also to broaden that connection their larger sense of “family”, beyond blood and even beyond marriage.

I have been the recipient of that blessing, certainly being treated in no way differently than my father-in-law Reuben would treat his own kids. Even Joe with his warm embrace and interest, not even my own father-in-law, always made me feel not at all different than one of his own progeny.

Then I need to call out Joe and his love of music, flowing down to his kids and grandkids which then emanated outward to inspire the whole family circle to sing and play. I can attest with great pleasure that at virtually every big family gathering (and most of the smaller local ones too), even when Uncle Joe was more than a 1000 miles away, someone pulled out their guitar and songs were sung, including such family standbys as the 50’s “Little Things Mean A lot” and the 60’s pop song (from my generation of music) “I’m Into Something Good” by Herman’s Hermits.

Sally and I ended up putting up Joe’s first cousin Arthur (their mothers were sisters), who came to town for the funeral. While spending a couple mornings together at our house, prior to the family gathering for that day, he shared with me his own journey and how much he looked up to his older cousin Joe and how important Joe was in being there for Arthur when Arthur was going through difficult personal struggles.

Arthur shared with me the narrative of his family’s journey, his father in the Russian army during World War I, then coming to America and becoming just another immigrant struggling at the lowest rung of the American economic ladder, and all the issues that swirled around that.

What I thought was particularly insightful, was Arthur’s observation that there has been in fact a sea change in family behavior, and particularly the relationships between parents and their children. Arthur grew up in an age when children were expected to be “seen and not heard”, but all that has fundamentally changed in just a generation or two. He felt that technological change had contributed significantly to that evolution, that there was now a much more abundant sharing of information about what could be called “best parenting practices”, rather than the older patriarchal wisdom that a “man is king of his castle”.

I have heard other people’s take that though technology has changed profoundly in this last century, human behavior and attitudes have not changed as fast. Arthur clearly does not buy that, and based on his personal experience sees great progress during his lifetime in the human condition, and seems to have great hope for that progress to continue with his daughter (now 32) and the rest of her generation.

Arthur, Joe and his brothers, are male people of the same generation as my dad, politically and socially progressive, yet still people wrapped up in their generational context and its definitions of what it means to a male parent, particularly those labels “father” or “dad”. I think all of them have done a good job wearing that iconic hat while trying to be emotionally genuine at the same time. And I think they are happy to see the younger generation of their male “mishpocha” taking the next steps toward more emotionally genuine, less patriarchal relationships between the generations.

2 replies on “On the Occasion of the Passing of Uncle Joe”

  1. As a part of Joe’s extended family (I married one of his daughters) I can also attest to the fact that this is one exuberant, welcoming family! I, like Cooper, am a bit more introverted, so it took me awhile to get used to all this exuberance. After a while, I felt valued for who I was–and even if I didn’t play a musical instrument, I became comfortable singing along.

  2. Stewart… Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It was good to have the opportunity to connect with you more and discover all the areas where we seem to be spirits. I hope we have the opportunity to get together again soon.

    Here’s to continuing the effort at connection that Joe and his brothers championed for many years!

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