I am thinking of my Uncle Mike because he died recently, at the ripe old age of 97, and because after his death I had the belated realization that I had at some point come to believe him immortal because of all the people I ever knew, Uncle Mike was the most able to joke about death. I wonder if he lost his sense of humor and died of the loss.
Every boy at some point worships his father. I had twin idols: my brother Daniel and my uncle Mike. Because I worshipped the ground Uncle Mike walked on, I tried to joke about death, too; but because I acquired the habit during World War II, while the world stood around watching the extinction of our extended family and the rest of European Jewry, I found that my early efforts at emulating Uncle Mike were a little tone-deaf. Like many eleven- or twelve-year-olds, I figured out how to be callous before I learned anything about reflection. This tendency, like a number of others more or less salutary, I absorbed from Daniel…but he has been gone long enough that I can no longer mourn him, and Uncle Mike’s passing is fresh in my mind.
I’m an old man now, or at least the approach of my seventieth birthday makes me feel old, and like many old men I am trying to figure out why I was the kind of young man that I was. Trying to put in order my understanding of my previous self, the way you put your worldly affairs in order when you realize that you’re closer to death than birth. The answer has to do with Uncle Mike, but more importantly with my brother Daniel, who in February of 1942 shocked the entire family by not only entering the PS 319 spelling bee but winning it—and this as a fifteen-year-old eighth grader of no academic distinction whatsoever. Because he hadn’t turned sixteen or started high school, he was going to be eligible for the national tournament if he got through the regional that spring. The mystification of the Rosenthal family of 327 South Fifth, Williamsburg, was complete. None of us even knew Daniel could spell. His grades had sure never given any sign, and I don’t think I’d ever seen him read a book in his life. God is mysterious that way.