Mortality & The Melingers


“Well, that’s cast rather a pall over the evening.”

If all goes according to plan, I will turn sixty this year.  So I’m just now gaining a bit of perspective on this whole life/death thing.  The presence of death becomes less theoretical as you begin to notice the people around you dropping like flies.  One minute they’re there, and then…poof.  No more!

I don’t feel the need to dwell on death, although it is the National Pastime of Judaism.  But I got to thinking recently about Thanksgiving 1976, at my parents’ house in Baytown, Texas.  Yeah, things crop up like that for me.

Really, I was thinking about it because we just came through the holidays and hosted Thanksgiving here.  And we had ten family members & friends gathered at the table.  Only two of us–me and my sister–were seated at that table in 1976.

Back in ’76, the world was a very different place.  The nation was about to elect a peanut farmer from Georgia POTUS–a deeply moral man, maybe the last one we had to serve as President, whose reward was to age forty years in four.  I was a 20-year old UT student just beginning to explore the world on my own.  I didn’t know much, but I did know two things without a doubt:  A. I would live forever, and B. Never would I marry and have kids.

Wrong on both counts, as it turned out.  But enough of me!  Who else was at the table in 1976?

At the head, my father, of course.  Alfred Melinger, who had just turned 68, was basking in late middle-age.  He would have another sixteen years to go before he shuffled off this mortal coil.  Not a bad run for a man with diabetes, angina, and a host of lesser ailments.  He wasn’t running any Iron Mans, but he was doing all right.

Next to him, my mother Helen.  She was the reason we were all gathered at the table, because she was the Family Extrovert.  Besides my brother Alan, we didn’t have any of those.  For Helen, Family was First, Last, and Always.  And if our family gatherings weren’t big enough, she wasn’t shy about adopting other ‘orphans’ to fill out the table and justify using her mother’s china.  (Her mother Sadie Blum had passed away the year before, and her father Harry nine years before that, leaving her an orphan at the tender age of 56.)

So, who else was seated at the table Thanksgiving 1976, besides my parents?  Me, my sister, my Uncle Maurice (mother’s brother), my brother Alan and his wife LaVerne, and family friends Bruce and Earlene Causey and neighbor Leon Brown.  For those keeping score, that’s ten people.

How many of those folks are still breathing?  Two.  Me and my sister.

Helen passed away in August 2014, at the age of 94.  I’m happy to report that her last twenty years were spent here in Austin, surrounded by kids, grandkids, and even a few great-grandkids.  And she continued to organize and officiate at family gatherings, pretty much to the end.

So in the case of my parents, you can kind of say, “Of course.  They had rich and full lives, zeit gezunt.”  And my Uncle Maurice had a pretty good run as well, into his mid-nineties.  But what about all those other folks?

My brother died just shy of his 39th birthday, of a heart attack.  His wife LaVerne died just shy of age 53 from liver cancer.  (They had two kids who are thankfully still with us, and those kids now have kids of their own.  But neither of those generations were around in 1976.)

Earlene Causey died at age 72 of a massive brain hemorrhage, without warning.  That’s one of those types of death that really make it clear that you can go anytime, anywhere.  I could go that way before I finish typing this sentence.

Whew!  I made it.  But you get the gist.

Earlene’s husband Bruce outlived her by almost ten years, probably dying of a broken heart.  They had been married 47 years.

And Leon Brown, editor of the Baytown Sun and a man who joined us for so many Sunday lunches that I thought he was an older brother nobody was fessing up to?  Dead at age 71, when he fell in a bathtub while on vacation and broke his leg.  He died under anesthesia in the hospital.

So for those at home scoring Thanksgiving 1976 Mortality (only me, I’m sure): Eight dead people.  Two younger than I am currently.  Two others suddenly and unexpectedly, at roughly a dozen years older than I am now.

Just a little freaky for me.  The family dynamic has now shifted from me being the youngest to being the Patriarch, or last man standing.  Like John Huston observed in Chinatown:  “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”  I guess I now qualify, but don’t ask how.

But consider my mother.  She outlived her husband, brother, son, and three best friends.  As the years wore on, most of her other friends died off as well.  Helen kept her wits until the last year or so, when she began forgetting things.  But what we call ‘senility’ may simply be the body’s merciful way of erasing the pain of loss you would otherwise have to contend with every day.

Heaven and/or the Afterlife?  Well, I’m certainly not an observant Jew, but I gotta tell ya…I wouldn’t count on it.  Just always struck me as far-fetched.  That goes for reincarnation as well.  Don’t get me started on the mechanics of how the hell that’s supposed to work.

Of course, if you need that to behave yourself well while you’re here with the rest of us, then by all means, go for it!  Everyone will thank you.

Just don’t try to “save” me.  When it comes to mortality, take my advice and “save” yourself.  If it turns out I was right and there’s no Afterlife, I promise not to gloat.  And if I was wrong, we can all have a good laugh about it later.

Much later.


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