There is a poem I love called The Last Uncle by Linda Pastan. It captures the feeling I had when my own last uncle died. My mother’s brother John was the last person I knew who had witnessed the Great Depression and WWII. Everyone who knew me as a child had now left the planet. There were no more grownups to call on, never mind that I was a senior citizen myself.
The other day, I read a 2015 journal entry from a day I called Uncle John. He was over 90 and as usual, happy to hear from me. In what was probably our last phone call, his voice wavered as he said, “the world is sad, people are getting shot.” He once told me he was so homesick shipping out at the start of the War that he cried himself to sleep. My mother loved him for making her laugh. She and her sister took care of him when he was small. They filled his baby bottle with creek water full of polliwogs and snuck him through the back door so their mother wouldn’t see the mud on his little dress.
I told him I was giving up on watching the news. We all say that. Don’t we? Now it’s seven year s later, and what has changed?
When I visited Auschwitz, I wanted to stay on the bus, but talked myself into going inside because of the deniers who say the Holocaust never happened. I told myself I had a duty to be a witness, to confront the remnants of evil there – the shoes, the hair, the dishes, the piles of suitcases.
Today I’m sad about the Supreme Court’s striking down abortion rights, about voter suppression and racism and climate change, about book bans and hate speech. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed and collapse onto the couch with a good novel.
But I want to be more than a silent witness. I am sending texts, emails, and postcards to voters. Sometimes I even attend a protest. These are low risk activities. I don’t have a job to lose. My friends won’t desert me. They share my beliefs. But there have also been times when I kept my opinions to myself, afraid of confrontation.
Every time I lead a Taking Action tour at Pearl Buck’s House, I remember that in the face of threats and criticism, she used her words to advocate for human rights until her death at 80.
On that last uncle’s side of the family, I’ll probably be the first aunt to go. I’m the oldest of the cousins. My mother taught me to be proud of that. The first and oldest can remember things. She can be a witness.