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Monday, November 28, 2011

My Uncle Mike

Today, November 28, would have been Uncle Mike's 100th birthday. He was my mother's oldest surviving brother ( a first born boy had died at the age of one). He was strong and tough, worked in coal mines and farmed, never buttoned up his shirt and coat unless it was 30 below, and was a natural mechanic. Although he had been born in Edmonton and lived there until he was 13, he loved to plow and till the land.  He was often in the shadow of his younger brother Nick (who will be 97 in December) because Uncle Mike wasn't an academic, book learning type of guy and consequently thought he was dumb.  Nick helped that along by telling him that he was dumb. Nick is not a nice a person. But this blog post isn't about him!

My grandparent John and Katherine Kowalski and their sons. Uncle Mike is leaning against my grandmother.  He was named for his paternal grandfather.
Before I was born, Uncle Mike came to see my parents and find out why there was no word yet about a nephew (I was 5 1/2 weeks late)!! My mother promptly told him, that the baby might well be a niece, you know.  He considered that for a moment, and then figured, yeah, that would be okay too.  When I finally did arrive, it was as if he was born to be an uncle.  I should mention that neither one of my mom's brothers got married.  There was a special bond between him and I and he never let my being a girl get in the way of things he figured I should learn how to do. When I was 9, he showed me how to work the levers on the caterpillar tractor and I happily rolled up and down the pasture.  When I was about 14, he showed me how to drive a tractor.  As I got into my later teens, but didn't have a driver's license yet, he let me drive his brand new cars!!  Around the fields of course, not on the highway...but still!!  He had such confidence in the whole driving thing himself, that I in turn felt far more confident. When I got my license and bought my first car--affectionately known as Blue Belle--I gave him the honor of being the first in the family to try out my car.  It seemed only fitting.

Dressing up my uncle!!
When I moved to Saskatoon, he was sad.  He used to say to my mom, when they would be out at the farm having a meal, that he missed his partner--we sat on the same side of the table, side by side.  When I came back to Edmonton, he always commented that he had his partner back.  One day I was helping out during combining time and I was to move the end of the auger while he lined up the top end at the granery window. If you have ever lifted an auger, you will know how heavy they are.  Well, the first try, I couldn't lift it. Uncle Mike said, "Oh, you need more kapusta!" Kapusta means cabbage in Polish/Ukrainian--actually it's the sauerkraut. This started me laughing, but I was able to lift up the auger and move it over!!  Just before I moved to Red Deer to teach in 1987, I went out to the farm . He and I were in the kitchen--he had just finished washing the dishes and we were having tea.  I knew he wasn't too happy that I was moving away again, but at least Red Deer wasn't as far as Saskatoon. Then he said something that turned out to be prophetic," Maybe you will meet a cowboy down south." He was right--I met a cowboy turned welder and married him in 1989.

Good looking snowman!! This was c. 1975/6.  Uncle Mike never fussed about his clothes!

Sadly Uncle Mike passed away 6 months after Dave and I got married, and just 2 weeks before his 78th birthday.  He hadn't been feeling well for at least a year, hadn't been able to eat, and was passing blood.  It turned out he had a huge hole in his stomach and on top of that he had lung cancer.  He was a heavy smoker and although we all had tried to get him to cut down, if not stop, he didn't.  Working in coal mines for years would have already weakened his lungs and smoking didn't help.  The ulcer--I think it was partly from drinking coca cola all the time, and partly living with Nick, who caused him a lot of worry over the years and in the last years was always threatening to sell the whole farm.  Uncle Mike just wanted to live out his life on the farm that he loved. Uncle Mike ended up in Sturgeon Hospital in St. Albert--he never went to doctors and didn't want to be in the hospital. On Sunday, Dave and I came up from Olds, picked up my mother and went out to see him.  He said he wanted to see everyone--I think he knew the end was near. He had clasped my hand and held it so tight.  I couldn't help but feel that he was holding on to me for dear life--literally.  And I gave him all the strength I could, to hold on until everyone was there. I sat on the bed, and even though I was in an uncomfortable position, I didn't care and wasn't going to move. Mother phoned my dad to come and Dave went out to the farm to get Nick.  Nick didn't want to come and Dave had to be quite stern with him, telling him that his brother was asking for him, so he'd better get his coat. Everyone arrived, and Uncle Mike fell asleep and after about 2 hours, let go of my hand. By supper time, we all decided to leave and let him sleep. Dave and I drove home to Olds.  I slept very poorly that night and had a pain in my abdomen.  The next morning Mother phoned to tell me that Uncle Mike had passed away that morning around 9 AM.

In 1947, The Edmonton Bulletin did a story on the Samis Coal Mine at Namao, where Uncle Mike worked in the winter. This picture was part of the article--I have always loved the picture. My grandfather was a coal miner/farmer too.  So I'm a coal miner's granddaughter and a coal miner's niece!! And proud of it!!

I lost not only an uncle, in fact the only real uncle I ever had (Nick is a strange one and never talked to me directly until I was in my 30's, and as Mother didn't like my dad's relatives, I never met my other uncles or my aunt), but I also lost a friend. He was the one in person in my family who had loved me unconditionally, even when I made choices that he didn't think were a good idea, he never reproached me or railed at me.  If you know my family at all, you know that unconditional love was rare.  I miss him more than anyone else who has passed away, I think even more than my mother, in some ways. For these 22 years, I have cried more for him and wished he was still here. But I have also always felt his presence very strongly--he is with me, looking out for me as he always did.  Happy 100th Birthday Uncle Mike!! One day your partner will see you again. ♥♥


J. said...

What a beautiful post and tribute. It brought tears to my eyes. I can see so much of you in Mike...the twinkle in his eyes, his smile.

I like to think that our loved ones never leave us. And he's probably as proud as can be of all you've done in your life.

Thanks for sharing him with us...


Excellent story. The world could use more Uncle Mikes.

We are sure he has been watching over you all these years.

Dog Speed,

Essex, Sherman and Dog Dad

Jane said...

A lovely tribute to your Uncle Mike - growing up we all need someone like that (outside of our parents) in our lives to look up to and who accepts and encourages us along. It's obvious you and your uncle had a special bond.

LaelShine said...

I've named my bike Blue Belle:)

What a touching tribute. Uncle Mike sounds like such a lovely man. I feel sad knowing he's gone. What a loss.

onecollie said...

what a wonderful post Dianne, thanks for sharing. Uncle Mike sounds wonderful!! I had an Uncle john, a brother of my mom's that was so similar. He never married & all his nieces & nephews LOVED him!!!
Love those old pictures you have, you're so lucky!

Dianne SS said...

Thank you all for your touching comments.They mean a lot to me. Jolene--that's so neat that you had a very similar uncle!! I don't have too many of the really old pictures--wish I had more, but I am happy to have these. And J., I always thought I could see some similarities between Uncle Mike and myself, but thought maybe I was just seeing what I hoped was there. So it was really neat that you saw this too. Thanks you ♥♥!!

Dianne SS said...

That should be "Thank you"!

Squishy said...

Oh that's so sweet. What a wonderful relationship you had with your uncle. Nice post and I am sure he is with you and waiting til you can see him again.