My Uncle Hank
Uncle Hank was 18 years old when I was born. In the eyes of a little kid, big people are all old, of course, and a lot of time had to pass before I realized that I’d known him when he was my mother’s little brother and Grandma Brodacki’s baby boy—that is, I first knew him as a very young man, a single man, going to agricultural college at Michigan State University. Even then, he knew he wanted to be a farmer.
Graduating from high school was a big deal in our family in those days, and the idea of going to college was something of an impossible dream. Hank’s six brothers and sisters hadn’t even finished high school, and there he was off to college. You can see the pride in everyone’s face in the old photographs they took of him in his cap and gown posing with his family. There is a photograph of my mother trying on those symbols of success, trying to imagine being a high school graduate like her kid brother and going off to college. Hank was the first in our new American family to take such giant steps
With three older brothers fighting in World War II, Hank had been too young for the draft, and besides, he needed to stay behind on the farm while Stan, Joe, and John turned Grandma Brodacki into a Three Star Mother and a believer in miracles when all three boys came back from the war. Those were the days when it had been every single American’s duty to win the war, whether they contributed to the war effort overseas or at home. Uncle Hank stayed behind and trapped muskrats and beavers in Coon Creek to sell their pelts to make money for the family and to pay for school.
When I was a kid, living with Grandma at 21447 32 Mile Road, those symbols of America in the 1940s were still hanging in our house in the 1950s, in the deserted upstairs or tucked away in Grandpa’s trunk or in my mother’s cedar chest. The photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt, those souvenir pillow cases Joe sent to his mom from the Pacific. I also remember Uncle Hank’s old muskrat traps hanging on the side of one of the sheds and Grandpa Brodacki’s amazing foot-pedal-operated knife sharpening machine.
I was three years old when Grandpa Brodacki died, and being the eldest grandchild, I am probably the only one of his grandchildren who has any memory of him at all. At the house on 32 Mile Road, I can still see him in the garage, laughing when I locked him inside. I also remember his funeral, and how he was laid out in the parlor at home. I remember asking my mother and Aunt Mary, “When is grandpa going to wake up?” and making them cry. Uncle Hank was just 21 years old when he lost his father.
My first memory of Uncle Hank was when I was rough-necking around the living room and knocked over one of the matching lamps on the tables on either side of the davenport, as we called the couch. He asked Grandma if he should spank me. They both–being the kindest, gentlest, sweetest people I have ever known or ever will know–decided that the answer was no. Instead, he talked to me. Did I understand that it was wrong to break Grandma’s things? Did I understand that we were not rich and couldn’t just run out and buy a new lamp? At the end of his talk, I think I understood, even at age 3, why those lamps, which were bought before I was born, still had the plastic wrap on their shades.
I was there, at Uncle Hank and Aunt Betty’s wedding, 60 years ago, when Cousin Margie was the flower girl, and I remember how different it was then; when a Catholic guy married a Methodist girl, it was considered a “mixed marriage.” Of course they showed everyone over the years that theirs wasn’t a mixed marriage at all; it was a marriage made in heaven, as all true marriages are. We came to understand that these were two people whom God had joined together.
I also believe that in his marriage Hank found the father he had lost, in his father-in-law Albert Both. I will never forget the sight of them working together, building a new house for the young couple, building it to last, and watching it turn from a hole in the ground into a home.
I also remember Uncle Hank and Aunt Betty showing up at family gatherings for several years childless. This was of great concern to everyone, as I recall. Now, it is impossible to imagine Hank and Betty as a childless couple, surrounded as they have been for so many years by their loving children and their families. I remember the calls to the house when he told his mother the good news after each of his daughters was born. I remember the joy on his face as told his mother in person that she was a grandmother again.
I remember when Uncle Hank arrived every Sunday to take his mother and my mother and me to church at St. Mary’s Mystical Rose in Armada. Rain or shine, he finished his chores, polished himself up, grabbed the girls and came. He had it timed to the minute. Sometimes we were late and I was humiliated when we had to march up to the front of the church after mass had already begun to claim the only seats that were not taken. Many years later I wondered not about my humiliation but about why the congregation filled in from the back instead of the front. The better to see who was late, I suspect. I still marvel at how disciplined Uncle Hank was to show up for Sunday mass without fail, a practice he continued his entire life, even when the entourage started including some rambunctious young girls too. Many years later I understood what it took for a farmer to finish his chores and arrive in a good-looking suit, shaved and smelling of Aqua Velva to take his mother and his sister and his nephew to church. I remember the coffee cakes Grandma made for everyone to eat after church, and how Hank would chat with his mom in Polish.
Uncle Hank believed in leadership by example. Being the eldest of his nieces and nephews, and an odd fatherless only child in a big Catholic family, I know Uncle Hank felt and accepted graciously a certain responsibility for making an educated reasonable adult out of me. He challenged me to learn something new every time he saw me, whether it was how to prime a pump or to memorize the name of an Italian ice cream that he brought to share with us (dort totoni, I remember it to this day), or to memorize all the words to dozens of Christmas carols (which I remember to this day).
Even though I was fatherless, Uncle Hank never really tried to be my father. He was wise enough to know that that was not going to work. He was really more like an older brother who protected me and tried to show me, not tell me, the way to conduct my life. He never bullied; he never judged. But he and Aunt Betty did the most important thing you can do for your children, or any child. They showed me what happy and caring adults look like. They valued education and good citizenship. Hank encouraged me not to do as he did but to do what I did best. If it were not for them and for the privilege of working on the farm during those summers before college, I am sure I never would have chosen a career in education or journalism. Without Uncle Hank and Aunt Betty, I might have been, who knows, a juvenile delinquent or a miserable laborer at the New Haven Foundry.
Uncle Hank was in so many ways like his mother—gentle and kind. That people such as Uncle Hank lived in this world, that we had Uncle Hank for as long as we did, that he lived and died doing the work he loved to do, is reason to give thanks. He has given us memories that his father could not give to his children and grandchildren, and we can treasure them.
Henry George Brodacki, youngest son of Antoni and Helena Brodacki, Polish immigrants who came to America for a better life and gave us the lives we enjoy today, died August 30, 2012, from injuries sustained in a fall from a ladder as he worked, at age 83, removing asbestos shingles from his barn roof. He survived nine days with a broken back and fractured neck—long enough to say goodbye to his family. He leaves behind a legacy of courage and strength–the courage of a real man, who had the guts to be gentle and kind, to love and be loved. He will be with us, all of us who loved him, for the rest of our days.
This entry was posted on Monday, October 8th, 2012 at 4:08 pm in Current Issues.