Thursday, June 13, 2013

Uncle Ski

Uncle Ski died this morning, months after receiving a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer. He was fortunate in that for most of the time, he was not hospitalized much, had made it through both chemo and radiation with relatively few bad side effects, and, in fact, was still bowling until a few months ago. In recent weeks, however, he had transitioned from "doing good" to "doing okay" to "this is not looking good." Earlier this week, aunt Gail said "enough" to further treatment and the remaining time unwound very quickly.

Ski was married to my dad's sister (and only sibling) Gail. Retired navy, he and Gail had lived in Chula Vista (way southern California, below San Diego) for years. When I was a child, I found their occasional visits back to Ohio exciting. They were the glamorous California family members, even though a half century away first around the world on naval bases and then in Southern California never did erase my aunt's Kentucky twang or Ski's eastern (Maryland, I want to say) working class "d" in lieu of "th"—"dem guys," "dose people."

Ski's real name was  John. The only time you ever heard him called John was when my aunt was displeased with something he said or trying to rein in his exuberant personality. "John L.," she would say warningly, giving him a stern look. He would duck his head and say, "Okay, boss." But except for that occasional "John L.," we all called him Ski, a nickname derived from his last name, Rubinowski. Yes, he was Polish; he may have been a first generation American. (I do not remember, but I do remember him speaking Polish with more than passing fluency.)

Ski always told jokes, lots and lots of jokes. (Too many, and Aunt Gail would utter "John L.") His specialty was Polish jokes. Being Polish, Ski felt his heritage was his own best target. Even decades later, I can still remember some of the punchlines. He also told a lot of Catholic jokes, being Catholic, and when a Polish pope was elected in 1978, Ski was elated because now he could blend all of his Catholic and Polish jokes.

Both of my children were fortunate enough to meet Uncle Ski more than once in their lives. It was Ski and Gail who launched Ben's Geobear back in 1998.  Geobear was a 7th grade geography project where students sent out small stuffed animals in the fall and watched and waited for them to "check in" via postcards, with the ultimate goal being the animal returned to school in the spring. Gail and Ski happened to be in Ohio when Ben started the project and took GeoGeorge (Ben sent a Curious George) on the train west with them. GeoGeorge eventually made it to India and Europe before returning to Ohio the following spring.

Ben, Aunt Gail holding GeoGeorge, and Ski, 1998

A few years later, we visited them for a day in Chula Vista. Ski took us all out on a boat tour of the naval harbor. Enormously proud of his years in the navy, he pointed out and named the different classes of boats we saw. Their house was a little tiny house in Chula Vista, not far from I-5. It was full of handcrafts made by my aunt; the backyard was a large garden and orchard. Sam took great delight in eating lemons picked right off the tree that day.

Uncle Ski, Aunt Gail, Ben, me, and Sam (holding the lemons, of course),  Summer 2000

Wherever Ski saw children, whether it was me and my brothers, or, a generation later, Ben and Sam, and  whatever age he was, he never had any problem joining in the games and creating his own special silliness. That was a huge part of his draw. He was happy playing and joking with children in a way that was not patronizing or self-conscious. I suspect children's youthfulness helped keep Ski young. When I look at the picture above, I suspect, judging by the grin on Ski's face, that he had just made a quip about grabbing back the lemons from his tree.

I had been told that Ski at one time planned to be cremated and have his ashes spread at sea. The thought made me smile, given his love of the navy and of the ocean. The plans changed over the years, the result I suspect of my aunt saying "John L." and giving her husband that look that he understood so well and had lived with so long.

Every child needs an Uncle Ski in his or her life. Someone a little larger than life with a booming voice, someone a lot sillier than your parents, someone who'd just as soon play with you as talk with the adults. Someone who ate prodigiously and who lived prodigiously. 

My brothers, my children, and I didn't need an Uncle Ski. We had the original. 


Ellen said...

My condolences on your loss. I'm sure his presence will be missed. Wishing I could have visited with you when you were out!

see you there! said...

Wonderful tribute to a man who sounds like he made a great Uncle. Every child needs an adult like that around.