My Uncle Emil died last week. “He had 88 great years, one bad week,” was the family refrain as we laid him to rest on Monday. Funerals are such bittersweet occasions, aren’t they? They are full of happy memories of time shared with our loved ones and sadness for the reality that we will no longer share hugs and kisses. This funeral and family gathering was no exception…and it was so much more. I am blessed that I was able to reconnect with some family members that I had not seen in more than 17 years—some even longer. Even though much time and distance had separated us, Emil brought us all together again: children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and friends. In an instant, I was welcomed into the family fold. I was aware of the love and history that bind us.
Our family patriarch, Milos, came to this country from Croatia in the early 1900s. He married my grandmother, Frances, and together they had four children: Mildred, Michael, Emil and Thomas. Thomas—Tommy—was the youngest, and my father. He was the first of that generation to die. He was only 67. My grandmother, who we call “Bubbie,” outlived her baby boy. She cried, “God took the wrong one! It should have been me…” But God clearly had other plans. Bubbie lived to be 103. Her third child, Emil, was the last to go…and it is he who we honor and remember this week.
As I listened to each of Emil’s children share their memories of him…as I watched his eight grandchildren serve as his pallbearers, it struck me that we are all connected, whether we are related or not; whether we live in our bodies or in spirit; whether we were born in this country or another; whether we are alive now or lived in another century. We are all connected. We belong to the same family—the family of man. It’s been said that it is in our DNA to love and respect one another. Science—quantum physics—teaches that we are born to be community. We are born to be our brother’s keeper. If science didn’t bear this out, how would we know this is true? Here’s how: All we have to do is hear the stories of acts of kindness and compassion, and that part of our DNA is activated. Think back to the aftermath of 9-11 and seeing the stories of how people from all across our country—all across the planet—came together to help us heal and rebuild. More recently, when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, how did you feel when you saw the news stories? When you heard the stories of people helping people, of triumph or perseverance? You no doubt experienced a feeling in your heart. It’s that feeling that connects us to the community at large; that reminds us that we belong to a whole greater than who we are as individuals. And that feeling is all the more pronounced when we are with our family, given or chosen.
This is the legacy that Uncle Emil and his generation, and the generation before them, leave for us: A sense of deep contentment and deep connection for having belonged to them. A knowing that we belong to something far grander than the eye can see. It must be felt by the heart and communicated by the soul. This is what I felt and heard as I walked away from Uncle Emil’s grave site on Monday. As I passed by one tombstone after another that bore the names of my people—Kovacevic, Luketic, Verbanovic, Matalski—a deep and abiding pride swelled up inside me: These are my people. These people were good, hard working, loving, family driven. These people built this community and contributed to its success. These people are part of the fabric of our great nation. I am proud to belong to these people.
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Denise Yamada © 12/2011