Monday, December 10, 2012
A Tribute to Uncle Ralph
My father's brother Ralph passed away recently after a period of illness, and what follows is what I said at his funeral. It took a while to write and I got a lot of good feedback on it afterward, so I thought I would share it here on the blog as a further tribute to him.
Ralph was with us for 75 years, and all of us have mental snapshots of some segment of that time with him. My own go back to the early 1970s, when I was a young kid. Ralph was not yet married, and spent the vast majority of his time then driving truck for his god friend Joe up and down the east coast. It didn’t make much sense for him to have a place of his own to maintain if he was only going to be there a few days a month, so when he was in town, he lived with his parents, my grandparents, Mark and Verda. I was a frequent visitor to my grandparents then, so I saw Ralph often when he was in town. He was always easygoing and loved to tease me, my brothers, and my cousins. As kids, we could always count on Ralph to be light-hearted and fun.
When he wasn’t on the road in those days, Ralph liked to catch up on the sleep he didn’t get much of when he was on the road. Trouble was, Ralph could sleep very long and very deeply, and an alarm clock just wasn’t enough to roust him. So it fell to my grandmother to wake him when he needed to be up and getting ready to head out again. Waking Ralph up was a very, very difficult thing to do. I can still hear my grandmother upstairs, in a sharp voice that was not at all in character for her, saying “Ralph! Ralph! Time to get up!” She’d learned long ago that the gentle approach got her nowhere when it came to getting Ralph out of bed. He’d typically ask what time it was, she’d tell him, and then she would head back downstairs. Five or ten minutes would pass with no stirring from above, and she’d go back up and try again. By the third or fourth time, you could almost see the smoke coming out of her ears as she went up the stairs. There were days I’m sure when she would have picked him up and lugged him out of bed herself if she could. My grandfather, wisely, stayed out of it. Eventually Ralph would get up and have to race around to get out the door, and even then he was usually running late.
If any of the grandchildren were around and willing, Gram would send one or more of us up there to try to rouse him. I personally found that yelling and drumming on the foot of the bed tended to do the trick, though that was one of the times when I think I saw Ralph’s easygoing attitude start to waiver. It wasn’t the gentlest way to be awakened, but he’d already had his chance to get up peacefully when Gram had tried.
Procrastination was a part of Ralph that sometimes drove those around him bananas, but it was part of what made him who he was. Gram liked to say that Ralph was probably going to be late for his own funeral. Well, he passed away 13 days ago and we did not have the funeral until today, so you be the judge if she was at least partly right. She usually was.
Ralph drove a tractor-trailer for 45 years, and as a young kid I was always intrigued by Ralph’s truck. I always kept my eye out for it when we drove past Joe's place on the way to my grandparents’ house. His truck and Joe’s looked identical, except that Ralph’s was blue and Joe’s was red.
Ralph often liked to tell us about the things he saw and did when he was out on truck. Being the tease that he was, some of what he told us was kind of “out there”, especially if his audience was quite young. Gram always made sure to monitor his tales and didn’t hesitate to step in and set it all straight if Ralph got a little carried away. Nonetheless it was clear to us that he enjoyed his job and his life. Sometimes the stories he told about his trips into cities like New York and Boston made them sound like fun and exciting places I’d like to see someday. I remember being very impressed that he had seen the Statue of Liberty and Bunker Hill in person, even if it was through the windshield of his truck.
At other times though, his stories made the big cities sound like places I never wanted to set foot in as long as I lived. The shady characters and dangerous situations he sometimes encountered on some of those trips to the inner city were pretty hair-raising. I believe Ralph was robbed more than once while loading or unloading his truck in dark city depots late at night, but in the retelling it never seemed to bother him. It happened, he was smart and survived it without injuries, and he moved on. And it never scared him away.
To the young kid that I was at that time, Ralph made driving a tractor-trailer seem like quite an adventure.
Years passed, and lives changed, as they always do. Ralph got married and had a family. My cousins, siblings and I grew up, moved on and started lives of our own. I didn’t see nearly as much of Ralph in my adult years as I had when I was a kid, but when I did, he still seemed like the same old Ralph that I remembered, right down to the procrastination for which he was so well-known.
One of my most recent memories of Ralph is from the winter before last. We had just had a large snowstorm, and I had driven out to his place one morning to do some snowshoeing. The plow had come by while I was out on the trail, and my car got stuck in the pile of snow at the end of the driveway as I went to leave. Even though it was brisk and windy, and the snow was deep, Ralph didn’t hesitate to come out into the cold with a shovel and offer to help me get my car out of the snowbank. It made more sense for my bulk to do the digging and pushing, and for him to get in the car and work the accelerator. That car was very mired in the heavy wet snow, and it took us quite a while. I was getting frustrated and was ready to call my father with his four-wheel drive and a chain, but Ralph kept his cool. He had some ideas, we tried a few, and eventually we got the car unstuck. Incidentally, the following spring, I traded that car in for an all-wheel drive.
It’s kind of nice that one of my last interactions with Ralph was like that. For me, it was a good representation of the man he was: kind, easygoing, helpful and giving.
There were good times and bad times in Ralph’s life, some easy ones and some very difficult ones. Through it all, he stayed true to himself, and I respect him for that. You always knew what you were getting with Ralph. He missed his wife Carol a lot over these past 11 years. It’s time now for him to rest in peace with her, and time also for those of us who knew him to hold on to the fond memories he gave us.