That’s no joke. On one side, my German and Dutch people came to Hammond, a couple blocks from where I talk every morning, in 1871. They walked down here after the Chicago fire.
“JED, this is so-and-so. You guys are related.”
It happened when I went to Indianapolis on Friday to see my nephew Jack play in the state Little League tournament. My brother-in-law, Mark Foreit, made the introduction.
“Jim, this is so-and-so Certa. His kid is on the team with Jack. You guys are related.”
“Short for Certakowski?” I asked,
“My mom’s maiden name was (something-something)-ski. “
“That explains it.”
It was a little obnoxious when I was out prowling around as a wayward youth and once in a while I’d wind up in a gal’s apartment waiting for her to “freshen up.” I’d be sitting there looking at the photos on the end-table, and I’d notice – “what’s uncle John doing in this photo? And aunt Evelyn? And my cousin Dennis?”
And the gal would come out of the bathroom in something other than what she wore to the bar. We’d talk for a moment, realize that we were related, and then instead of rolling around on the sofa, we’d go out for an innocent enough late-night breakfast. This happened to me twice.
Enough of that. It’s a Sunday morning and the British Open is on, so I’d really like to squeeze out Another Thousand Words for the three or four of you and then move on. I’d like to address my uncle Duane’s 80th birthday party yesterday.
My dad and his sister, Gayle, were there. There were four original siblings – Duane, Jim, Gayle and Ed, the youngest. Ed died of stomach cancer a few years ago. He graduated from Morton High School and then went to Purdue to play football for a couple of years before he somehow migrated to Brigham Young University. At BYU, he met Carol, whose dad was an elder in the Mormon church. Somehow Ed and Carol moved to Orlando, Florida, where they had eight kids. Yes, I have eight Mormon cousins and they have a bunch of kids too. They’re all really tall.
Anyways, each tendril of the family has a story. And there were many stories at my uncle Duane’s farm in Crown Point yesterday. Only one of my siblings – my brother Jeff – could make it. But there were still a ton of people.
My cousin’s kid Kevin King flew in with his family from North Carolina, where Kevin has worked for the power company for the past ten years. On our many trips to Orlando, where not just the Mormon side of the family lived but also a lot more relatives, I would take Kevin to Little League practice. And then I’d go across the street from the field and sit in a bar, alone with air conditioning for two hours until practice finished up. It was, sometimes, the best part of my vacation. It was at least the most peaceful.
My cousin Roger, who grew up in Highland, was there from the north side of Chicago, where he’s run the service department at a Honda dealership for a lot of years. My cousin Duane, the former mayor of Hammond, was there. He took an interesting turn after he left politics. He went into the deaconate of the Catholic church. He’s now a chaplain at St. Margaret Hospital in downtown Hammond. I haven’t seen him ply his new trade, but I’ll bet – and so will any of you who ever knew Duane when he was the mayor of Hammond for 11 years – that he does a really good job consoling people. It’s his nature.
With Duane Jr. and eight of my other cousins, we’re related on both sides. You have the stern white people – the Germans and Dutch. And you have the earthy Polish people, who tend to laugh a lot, even while we’re peeing in the bushes at a backyard party. Here’s how the labyrinth plays out.
My uncle Duane, who turned 80 yesterday, and my dad, Jim, are brothers. Simple enough.
But my aunt Irene, who was married to Duane long enough to bear him nine children, was actually my mom’s aunt. My mom’s name was Jean.
It’s a great story, or so I’m told, in that my mom and dad actually got together at the wedding of Duane and Irene. I wasn’t there. That would come a few years later.
What’s interesting about all of this is that my uncle Duane and aunt Irene had nine children. And my mom and dad had five children. And while the 14 kids were growing up, my dad and uncle Duane and a lot of other relatives worked for the family construction company.
We were always together, the 14 kids. It was a huge crew of barely-behaved Dedelow kids going confirmations or on trips to northern Wisconsin or just to work together on the weekends and then to sneak into bars in Gary at 14. There have been some very kind and successful people who have emerged from this mass of humanity, but I get the feeling that it’s in spite, not because, of it.
Yesterday, my cousin Doug manned the barbecue. He’s also delivered, I’m guessing, more than a thousand babies in his life. My brother, Jeff, has detected cancer in perhaps roughly the same number of people. Duane was mayor. The list goes on.
I do not see this mass of humanity nearly enough, and I can tell you with direct honesty (whatever that is) that I miss them all more than I realize. My cousin Doreen was there yesterday from Nashville. She used to hang out with my wife Alexis at a bar called Edo’s for a few years before Alexis and I met. It was actually my family – Doug, who worked with Alexis at Edo’s, and Doreen, who kept them in business, and Dave, who went to Bishop Noll with Alexis … it was actually knowing my family that made Alexis feel safe enough to open her apartment door in the middle of the night to let me in.
Without the strength of the 14 kids, Alexis would have left the door closed. And that would have made all the difference.
I know now, 1180 words into this, that I’m rambling about my family and that it doesn’t have that much to do with the death of radio. But it does have something to do with a death, a horrific and sad death.
There have been many sad deaths in the family. One day I’ll write about my mom’s death. That was horrible. She was sick for a long time while my sisters were in high school and then she died a couple weeks after my sister won homecoming queen. I could write a story about this tragedy. And there’s my aunt Cecilia and uncle Jimmy and uncle Charlie and uncle Dennis. The list goes on.
But the death that I’m thinking about right now wasn’t mentioned at all yesterday at the 80th birthday party for my uncle Duane. That’s because it’s too sad. It will never not be fresh.
You see, after a while, my uncle Duane and my aunt Irene divorced. That was a very sad occasion not just for his nine children, but also for us five children… and my mom and dad too. It was probably inevitable, but it was still sad.
My uncle Duane then married Connie Brewster, the daughter of Kingman Brewster – former head of Yale and ambassador to England, I believe. Despite her cheeky East coast upbringing, Connie adapted to life in the Calumet Region and has been here for more than 30 years. She’s also got a pretty good sense of humor. She’s my uncle Duane’s wife, so she would have to.
You know who else has a pretty good sense of humor – my aunt Irene, the first wife. And I realize this because I was in charge of taking the family photo yesterday. It took forever to line everyone up in the chairs and to try to get the light right. And then I put the timer on for 10 seconds and ran around and sat on the end. Voila, there’s the family picture that you see above.
Then I took my aunt Mary home to her place in Highland, and came home to my kitchen table to post the family photo.
That’s when I noticed the activity at the middle of the photo. On one side of my uncle Duane is his current wife, Connie, and on the other side of him is his former wife, Irene. And in the middle of all of these people smiling while waiting patiently for my 10-second timer to go off, both Connie and Irene are kissing Duane on the cheek.
I couldn’t believe it. And, possibly, neither can you. It just goes to show you that if you wait long enough, anything can happen.
Now, finally, I’m gonna get to the one person who was not there and will never be there when we all get together. And that is my cousin, Luke. He died from leukemia at the age of 19 or so.
Duane and Connie had two children – Shannon, who was there with her adorable little daughter, and Luke. Shannon and Luke were twins. One day, on a trip actually to see my sister Allison in Long Island, Luke had some discomfort down below. He went into a hospital. Some time later – during the reception for my brother Jeff and his wife Laura’s wedding in Bloomington, Indiana – we found out that Luke had leukemia.
That was a surreal situation. As a couple hundred of us gathered on an outdoor veranda at a golf course outside Bloomington to toast Jeff and Laura, several people were inside crying. Luke, I believe, was 18 at the time. Not too long after, he died.
And that’s the thing that’s gnawing at me right now. Luke wasn’t there, at the home he grew up in. It really was a beautiful afternoon. Many of my siblings and even my wife and kids couldn’t attend. But I was there, and perhaps because I didn’t have anyone with me but aunt Mary, I drank a little more freely and stayed a little bit longer. The former mayor and I even got to move away from the crowd and talk about a couple of things politically that are bothering me. Duane counseled me as he has in the past – “Patience, Jimmy, patience. Good things come to those who wait.”
It’s not in my nature to wait, Duane, but for some reason in the specific case that I cannot share with the three or four of you, it is perhaps the best strategy.
Still, Luke wasn’t there. He was the youngest of Duane Sr.’s 11 children. He loved the Cubs and he loved playing basketball with his older brothers and cousins, and he loved his twin sister, Shannon. He would have loved being there for his dad turning 80. He just wasn’t given the chance. That’s about all I can say about it on a Sunday morning in late July when it’s 80 degrees by 8am. It’s a great day for a bike ride. I’m thinking of riding the 15 miles or so to a certain cemetery in Schererville where both Luke and my mom are buried. Maybe I’ll stop by Luke’s grave up on the hill, tell him that although he wasn’t there in body, he was in spirit. And I’ll remind him that the Cubs actually did win the World Series. Then I’ll ride my bike down to the flatlands of the grounds and tell my mom the same. Then I’ll ride back home.