We laid my Uncle Bob Kobus to rest at Calverton National Cemetery on November 14. A World War II Navy veteran, Uncle Bob was called home by God on Veteran’s Day after a long battle with cancer.
I will never forget the quiet dignity of my mother’s sister Mary — Uncle Bob’s wife of 61 years — as she received the American flag from two young Navy sailors, who solemnly thanked her for my uncle’s service to his country. My heart went out to her and to their children, especially my cousin Ken, who, along with his wife, remains in Vietnam awaiting the adoption of a new little daughter and could not return home in time for the funeral.
It is always hard for me to say goodbye to one of that generation. Not “The Greatest Generation” of Tom Brokaw fame, but “that” generation — the aunts and uncles who still call me “Baby” or “Alice Marie.” There is a part of me who will always want to run barefoot in Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary’s waterfront yard, raiding the kitchen for white bread to feed the swans, or keeping watch for boats at the bulkhead.
As I thought about these things, my mother’s brother, Uncle Tom, stood up to tell a story:
“A few months ago, I visited Bob for the last time. We knew he was dying, and I said to him, ‘Well, Bob, you did pretty well for yourself for a kid from Astoria. You came home from the South Pacific after the second world war, got married, and had five children. I remember when you worked two jobs just to put a roof over their heads, food on the table, and clothes on their backs.’“
Uncle Bob’s response? “Well, I got a lot out of it.”
I got a lot out of it. What is it about those simple words that brought tears to my eyes?
Truth, uttered with profound simplicity by one who lived it, grips the heart and makes it cry “yes” in tears of recognition. The tears become that much more insistent as we are starved for truth in the public square. As conventional wisdom turns away from families, drumming it into us that raising children hampers a career, costs money, and causes inconvenience, my uncle’s words ring out above it all, trampling worldly concerns to dust.
Every year during Advent, my husband reads “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens aloud to our children. Over the years of listening to the book repeated, it has struck me more and more that Scrooge’s philosophy sounds all too familiar. We hear it every day in the voices who turn a cold eye on the unborn and the aged, declaring “if they are going to die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” It clouds the expression of those who mutter in disapproval at the sight of a large family, “I’ll retire to bedlam.” It clangs in the cash registers of retailers who urge us to spend during December while observing the unwritten law of the land, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
As secularism seeps into the culture, replacing Christianity as the backdrop for our collective thinking, we are left, not with a utopian “brotherhood of man,” but with the unconverted Scrooge. Secularism and Scrooge stand alongside Pontius Pilate demanding, “What is Truth?” and waiting in vain for the answer.
Whatever the world may tell us, the faithful know that the answer is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. We find it burning brightly in the beacon that is the Catholic Church. We see it reflected in the likes of my Uncle Bob, who gave to home and country without counting the cost, always with the manly recognition, “I got a lot out of it.”
And so, with a prayer for the repose of his soul, I wait with eagerness and love for another Kobus — Uncle Bob’s newest granddaughter — to come home from the South Pacific.
(Previously published in The Long Island Catholic)
2010 Alice Gunther