Before he died at age 103 in November 2012, Uncle Morris had, for years, been the last living member of my parents' generation. He drew an unenviable hand decades earlier, I thought: youngest child and sole son with four older sisters in my mother's family. In the early 1940s, World War II, his kinfolk sent him off to his Army assignment in Alaska, of all places. For over a year, with little to do, he sharpened his skills at card playing. Back home in Texas, he turned those skills into a career unidentified, but with the trappings of a gambler.
"You should move in with us," my mother told her brother when he returned as a bachelor in his mid-thirties. Forgetting to ask my opinion, she assigned him to the other bed in my bedroom. As I was dressing for high school, he would return from a night out, bedraggled with the faint smell of cigarettes. He occasionally alleviated my discomfort by foisting a $20 bill my way. "Here, Stanley, take this," he would order. "Thanks, I couldn't," I'd reply, pocketing the money.
Morris sought his own apartment at a moment that did little good for me, as I departed for college in the Midwest. I had decided that he and I would remain bachelors, but after moving to New York later, I heard from my mother that he was dating a woman named Dorothy, beautiful and not Jewish. It seemed a betrayal to our pact, though one he knew nothing about.
In his mid-fifties, he and Dorothy were married. She retired from her job -- he had no job to retire from -- and the two traveled together and invested together (often led by Dorothy). They bought a condominium duplex apartment far enough from his family to make dropping in inconvenient. They had a great marriage.
Morris developed a tremor in his hands, but Dorothy suffered a worse problem. She was diagnosed with breast cancer; a mastectomy and a barrage of treatments followed. I called from New York to hear her voice progressively weaken. Finally, I held her hand as she lay in bed at home, little left of the once beautiful woman.
"Dorothy," I said, "I know the next time I see you, you'll be all well again."
Barely able to speak, she whispered, "And I know you wouldn't lie to me, Stanley."
Now it's 25 years since Dorothy died, about as long as she and Morris were married. Though he met other women, they were never his wife's equal, and those relationships never became serious. When I once took him to see a new assisted-living place, he dismissed any suggestion to moving. "Those women there are all old," he said, then 85.
His tremor grew worse, a urinary infection left him wearing a catheter permanently and excepting occasional jaunts to a casino in Louisiana, chaperoned by a nephew (not me), his gambling days ended.
Loving neighbors drove and shopped for Morris, he managed to remain in his apartment and thus he passed the century mark. Small and not athletic, he continued to climb the indoor stairs ("it's my exercise") and spent his days keeping vigil on the stock market and sports. Prior to a Super Bowl, he knew not only which team was favored, but by how much. He kept apprised of everyone in his family, refrained from telling others how to live and even at 103, he said of a relative I once scorned, "You can't expect more of a person than he can give."
For years, I dutifully phoned my uncle every weekend. Our conversations were brief and sometimes brittle. Still, Morris appointed me executor of his will, and on every trip I made to Dallas, he updated me on his investments and where to find his important papers. In July 2012 he had a fall that put him in a skilled nursing facility, and that is where I saw him a couple of months before he died. I pushed his wheelchair to the dining room at lunch. Sitting with shaky hands next to other older gents, he popped off a good Jewish joke and tales of his erstwhile gambling days. They were amazed.
The atmosphere on that visit was tender of a sort we hadn't achieved before. "You've been really helpful, Stanley," he said more than once, an unwarranted compliment, since I'd done very little. I didn't know that would be out last time together, but he probably did. My sexual orientation was a matter he seemed to have accepted without discussion.
Back from the nursing home, Morris died at home, and he now rests next to Dorothy in the cemetery plot they bought years ago. His apartment got sold and memories of him and Dorothy erased for another owner. It's a moment that happened in our family before, but never when the occupant lived past 100. He told my niece Elissa that no one would remember him two weeks after he was gone. That was once when he was wrong.
More of Uncle Morris's story is in Stanley Ely's new book, "Life Up Close, a Memoir," in paperback and ebook..