In my last post, my first post (of the new year) I mentioned that some stories end while others are just beginning.
One final chapter in our family's history closed officially on Tuesday of this week when my Uncle Johnny died.
At the age of 94, Johnny Ourednik lived a very full life. An extraordinary life, really. Kind, generous, a friend to all, a beloved protector of children, a servant of the humble, the disabled, and the fatherless. He was a true angel walking the earth. A true hero. He and his wife Patsy have changed our family forever for the better. Although I know this much to be true about him, probably much of his story cannot be told by me, because I only know part of it, the part that touched me personally and connected with my Mother. But the faces in the photo above, most of them passed away now, could tell his story very well, I'd imagine.
The people in the picture above are my family. My Grandma in the glasses seated on the right, my Grandfather next to her, who I never knew because he died when my Mother was a 4-month old baby. My great-aunt Carol, the child whose back is to us. And Johnny, front and center, and his wife Patsy who has his arm around Johnny.
There's so much to tell about these great people, as I said before, gathered on this one occasion, eating outside, at a table set so nicely, celebrating the September birthdays in our family...which would include Johnny's.
Johnny and Patsy were my Mom's Godparents. When my Grandma became widowed with an infant, Johnny and Patsy stepped in and played the role of loving guardian in more ways than I probably know.
Most famously, Johnny took my Mom into town to visit Santa Claus, and when she needed her diaper changed, he simply passed her into the woman's bathroom to the attendant, and the baby was passed back out to him when she was clean again.
But those aren't the stories that I remember personally. What I remember always about Johnny is that Johnny always told jokes. Hundreds of them.
And humor was a magical gift that our family most definitely needed in the face of such tragedy. I'm sure Johnny developed that gift as his own coping mechanism. His son Jeffrey was born with a disease (which he later died from) that caused him to spend all of his years confined to a wheelchair. I remember visiting them as a child and being slightly uncomfortable with Jeffrey's condition. Johnny told joke after joke, which had punchlines usually set up or told by Jeffrey, which had us all laughing and feeling good before long.
I can't imagine how unselfish a person must be to always be turning the conversation toward the comfort of others.
My favorite memory from that time was that Johnny had a drawer in his back room full of wonderful (to me) treasures. Sometimes he'd tell us to go back and get his harmonica, and we would. And he would play all sorts of fun tunes. This was when we discovered his "laughing box". It was a small sound box that emitted the most outrageous laughter when turned on.
Somehow, we ended up with this box. At that time, I owned a beloved doll called "Baby Soft Sounds". She too had a voice box that made sweet, lovely baby gurgling noises. One night, my sister and I switched the baby noise box out for the laughing box. We laughed so hard every time someone new discovered our "laughing" doll.
Four years ago, I interviewed Patsy and Johnny and compiled their favorite jokes in a joke book that I gave to my family for Christmas. I'm so that I did! To have his jokes to read and remember is priceless.
Another thing I'll remember about Johnny is how generous he was in all ways. This was a small demonstration of his generosity, but it happened so often it must be noted, that whenever we visited him, as we said good-bye, he'd press a dollar or some coins into our hands as we parted. He still does this when my children visit him, and he, as far as I know, was not a wealthy man.
And speaking of children. His love for them knows no bounds. I recently called him The Baby Whisperer, because he is so good with babies in particular.
In the last two years, we've dubbed Honor "his girlfriend" because they've been such sweet friends together.
Here he is letting her steal some fries off of his plate.
Here he is letting her steal some fries off of his plate.
And when we would visit, Johnny often loved to let Honor climb on or push around his walker. They were just adorable together!
This year, we wanted to make a special gift for Johnny and Patsy, so as a family, we found our favorite kid jokes and compiled them in a book. My children illustrated the pages with pictures to go with each joke. We had such a good time writing this book and did it over a couple of weeks. When it was finished, my children would proudly tell their jokes to their friends, over and over again. And I realized before long, that our gift to Johnny was actually a gift to us. We laughed more than he probably ever would at these jokes...and again, Johnny and his jokes, were bringing us joy.
This is the first time that I really considered what a powerful thing it is to be able to laugh and to make others laugh. To remain childlike. What a gift.
At Thanksgiving, we made it a priority to hand-deliver our joke book to Johnny and Patsy. They sat and read the jokes aloud with the kids and laughed, although I'm sure we didn't come up with anything they hadn't heard a million times before. Then we sang them a few songs. Honor ate the chocolate out of their candy-dishes like a mad-woman. And then Johnny sang us some of the songs that he knew as a kid. We felt the spirit that night very strong. As we drove out of town, we all just felt a goodness and contentedness inside that was undeniable.
Hearing that he had died, I was even more glad that we had gone to visit them so much in the last few years...even though they live 5 hours away from us, we've been able to build our relationship with them through visits and phone calls and letters.
This is a rather incomplete tribute, but I wanted to get something written down, before we head off to his funeral in the coming days.
I said that this chapter, Johnny's chapter, was closing, but really I hope it never ends. I hope that knowing Johnny has changed me enough to want to bring laughter into the lives of others from here on out, and to value laughter a little more than I have in my life thus far. To think of other's happiness above my own. To love with a generosity of spirit that I've rarely seen in others. I look forward to remembering Johnny with my family this weekend, and I hope that we can all emulate his legacy in the year ahead.