We are in Philadelphia this weekend, helping Aunt Barbara with the final cleaning of Uncle Bill’s house. Bill died on the anniversary of my own father’s death back in July. He had fallen a few days before and suffered a stroke, or perhaps the other way around. In the end, Bill was 95 and a half years old and my children were disappointed that his death came the day we shipped out to Europe, meaning that we would miss his funeral. Adding to the disappointment was knowing how many aunts and uncles on my side would gather in Philly for Bill’s funeral.
As it turned out, his burial was in Ireland a day before we touched down there, so we missed that too. Still, we lit candles for Bill across Europe and kept him close as we traveled. Bill and Barbara were together for more than fifty years. He proposed marriage once, she declined, and so they lived separate lives and yet were together always. Every memory I have of weddings, funerals, and trips to see Barbara always included Bill. Even when Aunt Barbara, dad’s only sister, would visit Tennessee with my grandmother, stories and greeting from Bill followed. When Barbara and I drove a half dozen times or so to be with dad during his sickness, I was privileged to hear the whole story – from how they met to her regret that he never asked for her hand more than once.
He was the youngest of ten children, born outside Belfast. Even the story of his birth was fascinating. His mother had delivered twins (children 7 and 8) so when the doctor came to deliver child number nine, he could not imagine there would be two babies. He delivered Hugh, Bill’s brother, and then departed, sure his work was finished. The hemorrhaging continued for two days until the doctor returned and, much to the surprise of everyone, delivered Bill – a twin born two days later. The bleeding had been too much, and Bill’s mother died in the process. Bill would often joke that he must have been an ugly baby, because, “my mother took one look at me at died.” Nothing was off limits when it came to Bill’s sense of humor. In today’s world, there would be lawsuits and endless news about the doctor, but this was a small village in Ireland in 1923.
He left Ireland in his 20s and joined the Army. Later in life, he owned a successful landscaping business and drove a truck for Sun Oil, Co. We know all this not just from stories from Aunt Barbara, but because we found all the receipts from the business and the jacket that still fit Bill from 1947 among all his belongings. With every piece of paper, picture, and receipt, there is a story. Bill’s house, an old Victorian home converted to apartments, was where he lived since 1979, renting rooms to those in need and hardly ever raising the rent or getting paid on time. It was as much a mission as it was a business. All the apartments are empty now and as we finish taking bags and boxes to St. Vincent de Paul, the finality of Bill’s absence is settling in.
There was never a time when my children didn’t get handed a few dollars from Bill. There was never a baptism, birthday or a holiday when Bill was either present of the children got a call or a card. His refrigerator has his few favorite memories, according to Barbara – notes from his family in Ireland and two photos – one of Bill and my Katie and another of my children and Aunt B and Bill at the Philadelphia Zoo. He loved my children and they loved him, perhaps more so since their own grandfathers had passed.
I expected complaints as we planned to spend a few days working, but I now understand that the children see this work as a way to honor Bill – and a way to serve the woman he loved. As we bag and box up the rest of Bill’s life today before we head north, we will whisper a prayer of thanksgiving for a kind and generous man whose life of generosity and humor will always be a part of us.
Photo – Uncle Bill and my father, at a party following Katie’s Baptism in 2009.