I wrote this post over six years ago, shortly after I’d moved back to Michigan. I was so excited to be back around extended family, and I had taken a trip to visit with some of them. I’m dusting it off today, because yesterday, my Uncle Louis died at the age of 92, on a Covid unit in a hospital. He was one of the sweetest men I have ever known.
I have been on a little excursion. I travelled to my childhood home on Saturday and have had one great moment after the other since.
It started with dinner on Saturday with my parents and my brothers followed by worship on Sunday with the whole family. After church, my niece and I saw a movie. I’ve eaten well, slept famously, and have had many walks down memory lane.
This morning was particularly special. I drove about an hour to visit my aunt and uncle — my father’s older brother and his wife. My godparents, Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret, are the most precious of gems.
They have showed up for everything. Everything. My baptism. My confirmation. My birthdays. My wedding. My grandparents’ funerals — my mother’s parents, not just my father’s. None of this probably seems astounding, but let me tell you why it is.
My parents were divorced in the 1970s. Divorce was not very common back then, particularly not among ‘church folk’. In those days, when divorce happened, it was fairly common for the mother to get sole custody of the children and the father to fade into the background, sending financial support and visiting occasionally. This was way before shared custody.
To complicate matters, my parents divorced around the same time that my dad was relocating to take a new job several hours away.
My three siblings and I stayed with my mother, as was the usual course of events, while my dad moved. While I am thankful that during my childhood and adolescence we had the stability of one household and the ongoing involvement of the relatives on my mother’s side, I have been sad over the years because of the diminished relationship with my dad and his side of the family.
We saw my dad, but because he was several hours away, those visits were infrequent. We usually stayed with him in the summer for a week or two, talked on the phone regularly, and saw him around the holidays. Sometimes, when he came to Michigan , he would take us to see my grandmother, his mother, who for most of my childhood lived a nursing home, but of his five siblings, usually the only one we visited was my Uncle Louie, and his dear wife, Aunt Margaret.
Whenever we stopped by their house, Uncle Louie would pull out a cardboard box of toys that they kept just for our visits, and Aunt Margaret would magically produce some kind of sweet — cookies, cake, or maybe some donuts. They wanted to hear what we had to say. Aunt Margaret asked all the questions; Uncle Louis was pretty quiet, until he spoke in his soft bass voice. Whatever he said, he said with a smile and sparkling eyes.
Sometimes they told stories about their snowmobiling adventures, my Uncle Louie’s job as a postal worker, or my Aunt Margaret’s love for hand-painted china, but the best story they told was their love story. When they shared their ‘scandalous’ beginning, they both looked mischievous as they took turns in the telling, as though it were a scripted piece they’d been telling over and over for years.
The love story of Louie and Margaret began with a one-month courtship that quickly escalated one night right before they were both supposed to punch in for their second shifts at the factory where they worked. They were sitting in the car when Aunt Margaret suggested that they drive to Indiana instead of going to work. In Indiana, she said, right across the state line, they could get married the next day, without the waiting period required in Michigan. Uncle Louie, apparently no longer concerned about his factory shift, turned the car back on, drove home to borrow $20 from his mother, stopped to pick up two witnesses, and headed to Indiana. They changed into their wedding clothes in a cornfield and were married by the justice of the peace the next morning. They stayed married for 71 years.
They were always together, those two. They took lots of drives looking for antiques and visiting family. They had just one son who was a bit older than we were — he, his wife, and their three children were the lights of their lives, but they had space enough for all of us, too. Three out of four of us were their godchildren, although my Aunt Margaret always said, “I alway include your brother in all my prayers, too.” They took their role seriously, and weren’t going to drop off because of a divorce.
Instead, Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret regularly drove an hour to come see us at our mom’s house. They said, “Your mom is still our sister; you are still our family.” It may not sound that remarkable now, but, believe me, it was very unconventional at the time.
They came to every birthday party and special event. They always hugged my mother when they came and when they left. They modeled for me how to treat family, even in the midst of brokenness. I never saw judgment or distance from them — just love.
When I grew up and had a family of my own, they would then drive two hours just to drop by and say ‘hello.’ Their big yellow Oldsmobile would pull into our driveway, and I would say, “What? You drove all this way?” They always hugged us — Uncle Louie with his big compression hugs — and said, “I love you.” Aunt Margaret wrote long letters and would share news from my dad’s side of the family, including family history that I didn’t know much about. I always felt loved and treasured by my godparents; I have been so thankful to have them.
As my husband and I have faced divorce and other brokenness in our own extended family, we have often referred to the example that Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret set. While it is heart-wrenching to watch family members experience pain, it has given me some measure of comfort to know my role. My job is to show love, to give hugs, and to communicate belongingness, just like Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret have done for me.
Of the many things in my life I am thankful for, Uncle Louie and Aunt Margaret are near the top of the list. I told them that this morning and reminded them of the special lesson they taught me.
since God loved us, so also we ought to love one another
1 John 4:11
postscript January 17, 2021: In the summer of 2018, my Uncle Louis fell in the yard, breaking his hip. He never returned home after that. He went from a hospital to a nursing home where he lived out the rest of his days, separated from the love of his life. It was a hard hit that came not too long after the death of their only son from cancer. My heart has ached these last two years watching these two gems finish their days apart, especially since Covid kept Aunt Margaret from sitting next to Uncle Louis for his last ten months. When he was admitted to the hospital a little over a week ago, Aunt Margaret said, I just wish I could hold his hand. Now I know she’s just longing to be with him again.