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Elissa Ely

An uncle, a photo, and a funeral

In the photo, my great uncle is 103. He’s eating a Lil’ Hoagie sandwich, as he did every Saturday at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Dallas. He didn’t like having his picture taken, partly because of some undiscussed but dark legal dealings in his past. We also thought he had a poor view of his own fashion sense — though after his death, a pair of very costly green alligator-skin loafers in his closet led us to wonder about that assumption.

He is smiling slightly, coaxed by the cameraman, and by someone else, a young woman with her arms around him and her head pressed to his. He is recognizable — the Super Bowl XXII hat slipping over an eyebrow, the alertness and intelligence, even at 103 — but she is unfamiliar.

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A few months after that picture was taken, we held a graveside service, about 11 of us. We talked about his extraordinary, invisible generosity: He had no children, but put generations of family through school, co-signed for their houses, paid for their nursing care, and buried them when required. This part of his life was mythic. I regretted knowing nothing about the green loafers.

The 11 of us at the funeral were his caretakers, his family. But a couple stood off to one side, speaking to each other in an unfamiliar language. I recognized her from the photo.

Her husband did all the talking. “The world has loosed a great man,” he said when I introduced myself. Every Saturday they had served him the Lil’ Hoagie and a free custard. When he was hospitalized, they had brought the barbecue to his room. “We all knew his habits,” the man said. “When he walk into my establishment, he was the highlight of the crowd. Our world is not going the same.”

They weren’t able to stay for the service because they had to open the restaurant (“on Preston and Beltline,” the man said, in case potential customers lurked). While he was explaining this, his wife walked to the coffin.

Though she was weeping, I envisioned her putting put her arms around the ghost of my great uncle, and smiled. He was dear to them at Dickey’s, and now, this woman I have seen twice and will never see again, is dear to me.

Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.
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