When I was born, I had a full complement of aunts and uncles. Though my parents’ families were nowhere near the size of some Dubuque clans, my mom had a sister and two brothers, and my dad had — let’s see – two sisters and two brothers. Dad also had two very nice step-sisters by the time I was born. I never got to meet his sweet-looking sister Bernice, since she died, like so many, in the 1918 flu epidemic.
My parents had a quirky similarity in their families’ structure. Both Mom and Dad were preceded by older siblings, each just a few years apart from the other. Then the families seemed to stop, as if Harold (my father) and Iona (my mother) were destined to be the last in their lineage, at least until they grew up and had children of their own.
But in each family – the Kresses and the Rippertons – a late, last “surprise” baby came along after many years. So when he was ten, my dad’s parents had a final son, named Robert. And when my mom was – get this! – fifteen, her mother bore another son, named Clayton. A bonus baby, you might say. Mom didn’t know her mother was expecting until a neighbor lady told her. She thinks her mom was too embarrassed to tell her teenage son and daughters there was going to be another baby in the house.
And so Clayton arrived, when his sisters were old enough to date, to drive, to swoon over Frank Sinatra, and when his brother, Dacil, was about to ship off with the Navy.
One of my favorite family photos shows Dacil and Clayton on the front porch of their plain little house in Davenport. Dacil is reading a book to Clayton, who is much too young to read. I’d give anything to know the name of that book, or how old Clayton was when his brother moved away. Dacil ended up in Texas, with a wonderful bride named Arvin but no children of their own. They visited often, and I grew up knowing both of Mom’s brothers as adults, as if they were close in age.
Dacil and Arvin, Ethel and Albie, Iona and Harold, Clayton and Joanie. (Clayton would later shock the clan by divorcing her and marrying Maureen, who is the last family member to exchange real, from-the-heart, letters with me.)
Aunts and uncles are just there, you know? A part of your life and your family. You’re always a bit of a kid to them, it seems, even when you have babies of your own and bring them back home to be passed around the circle in the living room.
I don’t know how it is with most other families, but when my father died and my mother began to falter, I felt like I’d been suddenly catapulted into real grown-up-hood. Ready or not, there were decisions to be made, and since my only sibling is mentally handicapped, it was all left up to me – but in a good way. They supported whatever I felt was best. I visited them, just me or with one of my kids, both for support and for the kind of understanding only a close family member can give.
Now there is only one uncle left. The Kresses are all gone, though they left plenty of offspring. Of the Rippertons, there is just my Uncle Clayton, and he is dwindling fast. Of those four siblings, the ones with the old-fashioned names, first Iona and then Dacil were robbed of their peaceful sunset years by the scourge that is Alzheimer’s Disease. More years ago than I care to count, my Aunt Maureen began confiding in me that Clayton was falling prey to it, too. This past Christmas brought yet another distressing letter, this one telling me that despite her best efforts and most fervent desires, she was no longer able to care for the man she loved at home, and he was now in a nursing home. It is near their house, but as she put it, she could not believe the two of them would never live together again.
I’ll confess, it’s been too long since I saw my Uncle Clayton. They lived just far enough away that I could not manage a trip to see them when I was in Davenport to visit my mom. They did, though, come along with Ethel and Albie and one of their sons to visit Mom in the Dubuque nursing home to which I finally brought her. Even after all that time, and the ravages of age, each of those voices was so resonant, so much a part of my childhood, it was a joy to have them all together one last time. (In the same way, my sister’s voice, no matter the trouble she causes me, is the one sure thing that gives me back my childhood for a moment.)
Of those four Ripperton siblings, only Aunt Ethel escaped the curse of Alzheimer’s. Even thinking of her now makes me smile. She and Albie were the most cheerful people I’ve ever known, and even when he could no longer walk and she could no longer see, a visit to them never failed to buoy me up. Just being in that house, where so many holidays had been celebrated with beer and roast beasts and cigar smoke, was a comfort.
I fear now that the next letter from Maureen, if not the next phone call from a cousin seen only at funerals these days, will be the one that tells me all my uncles are now gone. John, Robert. Dacil, Clayton. Not so many, after all. But more than enough, way back then.