The last of a family

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My last blood uncle has died. Uncle John left this world on Sunday, August 23rd. He was 95, frail with Alzheimer’s, and as so often the case, had suffered a debilitating fall from which he did not recover. By blessed grace, his two sons managed to return to Holland from their homes in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to be by his side all through the last days and final hours.

Uncle John was the last of my paternal grandparents’ large family of ten children. Some died young – Egbert at 62; my Dad at 67. Others lived into their late 70s and 80s, and three aunts made it well into their 90s, including Annet, who died at 99 years of age.

Given Uncle John’s advanced age, I had been expecting to hear of his death for months. Even though we weren’t particularly close, the actual news has lodged a heavy stone in my heart. Gone is that family. My mother and her immediate family are all gone too, so these two branches of my ancestral tree have reached their inevitable and yet unbelievable end.

And now, as poet Linda Pastan reminds me, it’s my turn: “We are the elders now/ with our torn scraps / of history.” And yet, these scraps comfort me. Lately, my mother and father keeping showing up in my mind, and their presence is welcoming and tender. I find myself smiling with them at some genetic commonality in look and action that I observe in myself.

I imagine both Dad and Mom among the crowd of siblings and in-laws gathering Uncle John into their arms, celebrating his graduation into their august circle.

The Last Uncle

The last uncle is pushing off
in his funeral skiff (the usual
black limo) having locked
the doors behind him
on a whole generation.

And look, we are the elders now
with our torn scraps
of history, alone
on the mapless shore
of this raw, new century.

~ Linda Pastan



  1. Janice

    September 1, 2020

    Dear Mary Lou, what an elegant, poignant tribute to your last uncle. It truly is a significant ending and our ‘torn scraps of history’ truly are what comfort us going forward. I’m touched by your image of your parents and others who welcome John, ‘celebrating his graduation into their august circle’ – exquisite! much love to you, Jan

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      September 1, 2020

      Dear Jan – thank you. And double thanks: you introduced me to this poem. Grateful to you. xoxo


    September 1, 2020

    Ahh, Mary Lou, what a sweet tribute to your father’s family as your Uncle John drifts out from this shore. I’m struck by the line in Pastan’s poem “our torn scraps of history”. I think of all the stories I don’t know from the generations behind me, just torn scraps. I have one dear aunt left in my parent’s generation, my father’s sister who has been so dear to me in the last 30 years, and now at 98 is slipping deeper into Alzheimers, the same disease that took both her brothers. It is my genetic material too. And here we stand at the outer edge of our lineages gazing out over the water as the last ones drift beyond sight. I’m struck with a sense of holy responsibility to be carrying the genetic story in my body that will in some way shape the rest of my life. Offering all I will never know of their lived stories to the wind.

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      September 8, 2020

      Dear Wendy: “I’m struck with a sense of holy responsibility to be carrying the genetic story in my body that will in some way shape the rest of my life.” Thank you for this wise reflection. xo ML

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