These last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about my uncle’s amazing life story into 3 much too short posts. If you missed the other segments, you can go read Love During War and Digging out of Poverty first.
As my uncle dug himself out of poverty, he also did something very charitable. He ended up sponsoring his youngest brother and my mother to come to America. My other uncle was able to come over here when he was 14, but my mother had to wait 20 years before she was granted a visa and her first steps on American soil didn’t happen until she was 36 years old. Apparently, young men were more desirable to recruit, especially with the Korean War just over and Vietnam right around the corner. My other uncle ended up enlisting in the service and was never the same after that. He had a falling out with the rest of the family and we didn’t see him much.
Slavery and Lack of Empathy
I’d love to say that my uncle was the perfect dad to his 2 children but he really was not. Can you imagine being in the middle of some teen crisis and trying to confide in someone who spent those years of his life in slavery? He just couldn’t relate to normal teen problems. He did all the things his parents didn’t do for him. His children were never hungry, they were never cold, and they never had to get a job in high school or college. Trivial things like someone’s social standing in school or their desire to get a pet or do hobbies was so irrelevant to him.
I don’t know if it’s true, but my female cousin said that he always treated me much more like an equal than he did with her. He was very traditional and he thought that a girl’s job was to find a husband and make babies. It’s strange, but I personally never got that vibe from him. Maybe it’s because I was all my mom had and I had to be the boy and the girl in the family, so it was expected that I not only get married, but I also fix my mom’s house and earn money to help her.
My parents never exchanged presents during any of the holidays or celebrated birthdays. It wasn’t until my cousin got older that she would go out of her way to get me a present and sometimes a cake. She also took me to movies and to the beach. Again, like my uncle, my family didn’t believe in leisure activities that didn’t result in food production. Those little excursions made all the difference in the world. Even though my uncle was a tightwad, when I was growing up, I always saw my cousins as having so much more than I ever did. They were 12 +19 years older than me, but I still saw them getting a brand new car when they got their license. They had video games and nicer clothes than I did. They had nicer furniture, a bigger apartment and a mom who was home all the time. They also weren’t alcoholics. They even got to go to camps and get to go to places like the girls and boys club. To me, their childhood seemed ideal. When it was time to go to college, there was money set aside to pay for it.
My uncle is tough
I thought it would be appropriate to digress a bit and tell you one of my favorite stories about how tough my uncle really is. Yes, he survived 5 years in a nazi slave camp and yes he was a roofer which is tough work, but he remained a tough old man deep into his 70s. Once he retired, he fished a lot. One day, he was deep in the woods fishing a stream with his gaiters on. Somehow he slipped on a rock and tore the ACL in his knee. He was all alone and this was before the days of the cell phone (not that he would have one anyway). This brute of a man, hiked out of the woods, drove back home in his V8 manual transmission pickup truck, and hiked up 3 flights of stairs before he called his son and asked to go to the doctor’s. He really was that tough.
Was Life too Good for the Kids?
Whenever someone survives such a traumatic event like the war or the Holocaust and then has children, there are very high expectations for those kids. The parents believe that they survived because their children were meant for greatness. I guess it’s a pretty tough spot to be in. My uncle believed that my older male cousin would go on to be a doctor or lawyer. He gave him every leg up that he could have. My cousin didn’t have to work in high school or college. Then partway through his schooling when my cousin got married, my uncle actually gave him 6 rental properties to manage and live in. Imagine being given free housing and the equivalent of $40K/year (today’s $s) of monthly income to cover all your expenses when you’re in your early 20s?
Well, it took this cousin about a decade to get his community college degree after some issues with drugs and trying to find himself. He never did become a doctor or lawyer. My uncle was hoping that he’d at least become a dentist but that didn’t materialize either. Eventually, he did get a job as a car salesman and one by one the apartments fell empty. Fast forward 20 years and the apartments had lost at least $200,000 of rental income and were in complete disrepair. He sold the properties and moved into an expensive and prestigious suburb of the city we lived in. His mom gave him some additional money to help fund this purchase (behind the back of my uncle). My cousin always thought very highly of himself even though everything he’s ever had was given to him. The first time he gave us the tour of his home, he made us walk the property line to show us how much land he had and he also pointed out the prestigious professions of his neighbors. I’m 100% sure I’ve logged more hours in the working world than he has and I’m almost 20 years his junior.
My other female cousin fared a little better. She was always an A student and got into a very good school. She only went there a year before she quit though. She wasn’t sure she knew what she wanted to do with her life either. She went back to school 2 more times. Once to be a travel agent and the second time to be a computer programmer. You see, when you don’t know anyone in the white collar world, you don’t have any role models. It’s hard to imagine what jobs will be like without mentors. Although I came from a similar background, I got lucky because one of my teachers saw my potential and sponsored me to go to a women in engineering week long camp. I was also dating an engineering student at the time. I actually could imagine what it’d be like in that profession as a result. Thank you Mrs. 3M speaker who told me all about the chemistry that goes into the glue of the back of a sticky note.
Anyway, with both of my cousins, they did not like to work, but also had this narcissistic desire to get more and more and more. No matter how much they seemed to have, something was always missing in their lives. It most often manifested itself as the need for more money to buy either stuff or experiences. My mom and uncle are both very hard working and simple people. To this day, I don’t know how I got lucky and ended up being the hard working one of the family. With all the things going against me with my loser alcoholic dad and the crazy sheltered existence I had, I should have been the screwed up one. I still scratch my head and wonder what could have been done differently to the upbringing of my cousins to allow them to be happy with what they have. Part of me definitely thinks that they never really got to understand how hard it is to earn money. They always had the bank of mom and dad to fall back on whenever they needed something.
In her late 70′s, my aunt had a stroke. It was a tough blow for the whole family. She was always the one who brought the family together. She made big holiday meals and always had something cooked from scratch. She was one of these people who would fight you if you tried to kiss or hug her. I’m trying to remember a time when I didn’t see her with an apron on in the kitchen. None of us were ready to lose her. She did survive the night and then another 8 years after. The last 3 years though she was bedbound. It was really sad to see her deteriorate from such a vibrant, independent and active woman.
My uncle took care of her all up until the last 2 years of her life. He also had prostate cancer and about 3 years into it, he was given 3 months to live. That tough old bastard fought and lasted another 5 years. I think he fought for many reasons. He wanted to outlive his wife so she had someone to care for him. He also did not believe in god, so he believed that once you’re dead, that’s it. After enduring the evil that he has in his life, he no longer believed in a god that would allow such things to happen.
Towards the end, he allowed my male cousin to help. He gave him power of attorney over his assets. The first thing my cousin did was put my aunt in a nursing home. It was at this point that she shortly lost her ability to walk. They stopped taking her out of bed and poof, now she was bed bound. Very little time elapsed before the temptation to abuse his power of attorney was too strong to resist. My uncle was suspicious because his son was going through his paperwork while he thought his dad was sleeping. Then he found out the unthinkable. His son had gone from bank to bank and emptied every account he could get his filthy hands on.
During the last days of his life and with the help of his daughter, my uncle hired a lawyer to try to get his money back from his son so that there was something left to take care of his wife with. My male cousin was outraged. He called elder services and accused my female cousin of elder abuse for taking him out of bed. He also claimed dementia and his dad had lost his mind for suing him. He couldn’t believe his son could do these things to him. He thought that at 50, he had finally changed and grown up, especially after all the money and houses he’d given him over the years. I’m talking hundreds of thousands of dollars and that was just the obvious stuff. It was sad.
I remember my uncle wanted to give my newborn son some money as a present and he was happy he found a $20 bill stashed in his bedroom that he could give him. He confided in me that he felt so violated that he didn’t have control over his money anymore after all those decades of scrimping and saving. It was all for nothing. This broke my uncle’s heart and shortly after he gave up the will to live. The physical pain he could endure, but piling the mental heartache on top of it was just too much to bear. My mom said my uncle told her he thought his son had given him a bowl of soup with poison in it. I think he did ultimately kill his father but it was with a broken heart and not with poison.
About 9 months before this happened, I had moved my mom to town with me. I wanted her to be closer to my new family and I also knew that my uncle was no longer able to take her grocery shopping and visit her. We lived 2 hours away, but during those last 6 months despite having and infant, we turned our lives upside down so we could be there twice a week. We filled the fridge with home made food during every visit so that my uncle wouldn’t have to live off of meals on wheels. My mother was sleeping on the couch by his side on the night he died. His daughter was also there in the end. She lived in one of the apartments and continued to take care of my aunt for 2 years after. It was a sad and very tough ending.
During the funeral, my mom and I cried our guts out. We cried for the terrible life that my uncle had to live. We cried for the misfortune of having such a wretched son who was running around shaking hands with everyone accepting condolences like nothing happened. We cried that his son didn’t even have the decency to buy him flowers. For all the good in the world, this guy got very little of it and we were sad for him. Last but not least, we cried because he was gone and we loved him.
My female cousin has had it pretty rough since that time. She was forced to care for her mom alone while battling her brother for the money he stole. She got burnt out and was a little bitter that our weekly food runs and visits got further and further apart. My mom and aunt never got along, so I wasn’t going to force her to do any more of it, so our visits became more infrequent. Plus, we were burnt out from all the driving and cooking too.
I no longer speak to my male cousin. I never particularly liked him but I tolerated him because he was family. After he did the unthinkable at my uncle’s death bed, I decided that was the last time I will ever see or speak to him. Now that I have a family of my own, how could I risk having this kind of person in our lives who’s capable of anything? He blames his sister for turning me against him. He tried making peace at my aunt’s funeral again by complimenting us to death. It was embarrassing and hopefully the only other public place I will have to encounter him at. I suppose in his mind he doesn’t understand why we would be mad at him as he didn’t steal directly from me. Nevertheless, the holidays are a lot more fun without him in the mix trying to run the show.
You know, I really struggle with this one…what did I learn from all this? Well my female cousin thinks that you can never trust anyone, not even your own flesh and blood. That’s sad.
Here’s what I think I got out of it:
- Choices and Options are Critical – As I think back to how my cousin could have done such a thing, I think it was because he was desperate. He was like a trapped animal with no way out. If you feel trapped by your situation, you become dangerous. This guy has never taken care of himself financially for over 50 years and suddenly his income was about to disappear. To him, his choice was to be without money until my aunt died or steal it. It never occurred to him that he and his wife could get jobs again and pay their own way in life. After all, jobs are for toadies and suckers. No matter what the situation, you must always find options, even if they are not the perfect ones and even if they are painful and require sacrifice. Options lead to freedom of choice and keep you from making bad choices and taking desperate actions.
- Allow Your Children Independence – At some point, earlier rather than later, you have to allow your children to stand on their own two feet. I’m convinced that if my mom had more money, she would have done the exact same thing for me. She’s that giving. I’m not really sure how to nurture independence. Ive always felt that burning desire to take care of myself and not have to depend on others. My mom even said that one of my first phrases was “I want to do it myself.” One thing you can do is cut the purse strings and let your kids figure out how to take care of themselves. I know with my friends, it was also helpful when their parents set the expectation of when they’d be cut off. (ie, I will pay $X for college but then you are on your own). I know I will find this very difficult to do myself, but I just have to remember what happ’ened with my cousin as motivation.
- Understand that spending time with family is a choice not a life sentence – If a family member is poisoning your life, remember that you don’t actually have to allow them to be part of yours. I always felt a sense of responsibility to see and spend time with family members even though one of them I could not stand. How silly that I didn’t see that this was optional sooner.
- Make sure you have a support network outside your immediate family – My aunt and uncle never invited non relatives over the house and my whacked out cousin didn’t even allow someone who I was engaged to to come over for holiday dinner so I skipped it. If it weren’t for me and my mom, my uncle would only have his 2 kids to rely on and when 1 is evil, that seems hardly enough. He did nurture and maintain his relationship with my mother and in the end, she was the one who was there for him on his last days.
- Think about what you’d regret if your loved one was gone and fix it – My female cousin has a lot of regrets. She didn’t have the best relationship with her dad. She thought it was really strange and was offended that my mom and I didn’t want to visit my uncle’s grave after he died. We thought it was strange that she was more comfortable talking to his headstone than talking to him while he was alive. I have no regrets at how I spent my time with him. I gave everything I could. However, it made me realize that I should treat my own mom better. So now, I try not to yell at her when she calls me the 20th time in a day. I try to make a date to visit her instead. I try not to break dates as often as I used to and I am glad she lives close by. If she died tomorrow, I would be okay with what our last years were like together even though I’d think it came much too soon.
- Don’t Forget to Give Yourself To Others – Aside from his immediate family, my uncle never gave anything to anyone. As far as he was concerned the only person that could take care of him was him. He never gave to charity, he never gave his time to help a neighbor fix something for free. He didn’t even give to the Red Cross who all those years ago helped him get resettled after the war. I believe in the Karmic aspect of giving. Whenever I give freely to someone, I always see something good come back my way shortly after. Who knows, maybe his life would have had more in it if he gave more of himself to others. Now, we’ll never know.
That’s the end of this story. I’m not sure what people will get out of it, but if you do get touched by the story, please comment below.