My uncle Donald Ritchie passed away last Sunday from cancer. It wasn’t totally sudden or unexpected–he’d received the dire diagnosis a few months ago and had been admitted to the hospital a few days before he died–but it was still very sad. We attended his laying out and memorial service on Wednesday, and I’m still trying to shake it off. It wound up taking Mom’s knees out from under her, because in a sense it was a funeral for her sister, my Aunt Shirley, all over again.
Aunt Shirley (known to her sons’ families now as Johanna, but she was Aunt Shirley to me for too many decades for me to change now) died in December 2010. Instead of a regular funeral service, my cousin David hosted a memorial get-together in his home. There were many reminiscences as each of us spoke about Aunt Shirley; but one thing that both surprised and touched me was one of Uncle Don’s memories.
He recalled how, driving back from one of our vacation trips, Aunt Shirley curled up in the back of their hatchback and flirted with all the truck drivers as they passed on the interstate. (In Uncle Don’s version, I was flirting right along with her, but I wasn’t; I was hanging over the backseat watching and laughing. I had neither the looks nor the gumption to flirt with anyone at sixteen, which is when I believe this episode took place.) What amazed me was I had been thinking about that particular incident ever since we got the phone call that Aunt Shirley had passed. I thought maybe I was the only one who remembered it even happened, and here was Uncle Don recounting it for everyone. He’d been busy driving that day; I wasn’t sure he was aware even what Aunt Shirley was up to back there.
As I said in this piece back in 2011, I always thought of Uncle Don as a man of few words. On those vacation trips I took with the family in the ’70s, he never seemed to say much unless prodded by his wife. He mostly was a steady, calm influence in the background, unless he was lugging countless suitcases and makeup cases and medicine cases and picnic baskets to and from the hotel room.
At family gatherings, usually at Grandma Martha’s, he was quiet as well. Of course, with a talkative wife and a talkative mother-in-law, he wouldn’t have gotten much of a chance to put in a word anyhow. (Come to think of it, Grandpa never said much, either.) However, he seemed game for anything Aunt Shirley wanted to do, from putting on a fireworks show in the backyard of their Bellevue home when I was about six (there were some touchy rockets and spinning wheels of fire, and I always laughed to remember how Grandma described those fireworks as “chasing Don up the back walk”) to hiding in the bathroom during a Halloween party so he could cackle on cue and flash a light through the transom across the kitchen ceiling during a scary story.
Through it all, though, we rarely spoke. I didn’t sense he necessarily wanted to talk, and I was always comfortable with silence. That’s why it came as such a shock when, after my aunt died, he talked to us more than in all those years before combined.
I was very glad to get to know him that way. Sometimes he’d call just to check in with Mom, and once he joined us for lunch at Cracker Barrel when Mom’s out-of-town cousin was visiting. He brought along several large scrapbooks Aunt Shirley had created, and his glow of pride as he displayed them to us was moving. I gave him a lot of credit for staying active and having a life after she was gone, but I also wondered what kind of pain he was in.
I’m so glad Mom and I were able to attend the surprise 80th birthday party his family gave him last July. I wasn’t feeling that great just then, coping with the radiation ulcer mess and the daily hyperbaric treatments, but Mom and I both wanted to be there. It was worth the effort. Uncle Don seemed truly surprised, and I was pleased at the contrast of that tidal wave of love and attention against the image of the quiet man in the background I’d grown up with.
He looked really thin at the time, although he seemed healthy and happy. I don’t know if the cancer was already at work under the surface. When we learned of his diagnosis over the winter, we were heartbroken.
In the end, despite the boy-thin, balding figure I barely recognized in the coffin, my overriding mental image is of him dancing. He never sat down once the music started at his 80th birthday party, dancing with his girlfriend, his granddaughters, friends from his dance group, even crouching over to dance with his great-granddaughters.
And, as a couple, I like to think of Uncle Don and Aunt Shirley roller skating. This memory goes back over 40 years, but we’d all gone to a roller rink here in Cincinnati, even Grandma Martha. I could barely skate then and still don’t know how to stop except to run into the wooden side of the rink, but Aunt Shirley and Uncle Don put on a show. He was always nicely dressed, whatever he was doing, and Aunt Shirley could seem flamboyant in something as simple as a short skating skirt and a tight sweater, with a scarf tied around her neck. They always skated as a couple and flew around the floor, clasped hands crossed in front of them, weaving in and out of the other skaters with a smooth, elegant style. I don’t think they did any flashy figure skating moves except maybe a few kicks that never broke their rhythm.
I do like that image of them: together, eye-catching, swift, graceful, flowing through life as though nothing bad could ever catch them.