For years, the death of a loved one meant trudging into church for a somber religious ceremony that dwelled on grief. These days, someone’s passing is more likely to be acknowledged with a celebration of life, giving family and friends a way to commemorate the deceased person in a less formal, more upbeat fashion.
Elements of both came into play this past weekend at services for my late uncle, Julian Flores Jr., and the symmetry couldn’t have been a better fit.
Uncle Junior, as he was known to all, was a big teddy bear of a man. He was the eighth of nine children born to my maternal grandparents, Julian and Mercedes Flores, and the youngest of my late mom’s three brothers. He died on Dec. 18th in his hometown of Salinas, California, at age 76, leaving behind a beautiful wife, four daughters and three granddaughters.
HIs family organized a funeral mass on Saturday, Dec. 28th, with a bilingual choir and a traditional Catholic service that was solemn in tone, and striking in the wide variety of family, friends and business associates who attended.
At the after-party that followed at a nearby American Legion hall, there were touching and humorous stories from his widow and several of my cousins that brought my dear uncle’s mischievous sense of humor to life. In addition, there was more than enough food, no shortage of desserts, and a DJ who kept things lively.
Uncle Junior would have loved it. True, he was a local businessman, as the longtime owner of a bookkeeping and tax services company and as a founding member of the North Salinas Lions Club. But nothing defined him better, at least in my mind, than the love and respect he held for all the women in his life.
My fondest memory of my tío was attending the 50th wedding anniversary of him and my Aunt Minnie, a retired teacher. When he died, they were up to 55 years and still counting.
There are very few of us cousins who’ve moved away from California, where the Flores clan — as well as the Rede clan on my father’s side — settled in three generations ago as farmworkers. I’ve lived in Oregon since graduating college in the mid-70s, which means I’ve often been outside the loop when it comes to family gatherings and milestones.
These days, unfortunately, it is funerals more than weddings that bring us together.
My mom died six years ago and my dad three years ago. I was grateful for the many relatives who showed up at one or both services, and glad that I could be there for Uncle Junior’s services. At this point, there is only one surviving aunt or uncle on either side of my family tree — my godmother, Lupe Rubio, who is 97, and the eldest of all her siblings.
Though I wish the circumstances had been different this weekend, it was still a pleasure to see cousins that I mostly keep in touch with via social media. (Heck, I even got to see my younger sister, who lives in Alaska.) Though we are separated by hundreds of miles, there’s nothing quite like looking into a familiar face and recalling times when we played as kids at each other’s houses while our moms cooked up the world’s best Mexican food and our dads sipped on a beer and shot the breeze.
There wasn’t enough time to get around to everyone before my sister Cathy and I, accompanied by a favorite cousin, Delia, headed out to a local cemetery to visit our mom’s gravesite. Following that, we spent time with my Aunt Lupe at the assisted living center where she now resides and then visited her oldest son, my cousin Ralph, at the regional hospital where he is convalescing after some recent health issues.
Sunday morning arrived way too early and I had to hit the road to catch my mid-day flight back home to Portland. It was a nice feeling to touch bases with many of those who’ve known me since I was a skinny, dark-haired kid nicknamed “Pudgie.” Go figure.