Why I wanted to be Uncle George

They laid my Uncle George to rest today with full military honors and a button box band.

It’s the way he would have wanted it.

I’ve often told people I wanted to grow up to be Uncle George.

George Unger met Ellen Stevick, my dad’s youngest sister, at a wedding. That night he told his mom she was the girl he was going to marry.  They were married for 46 years and had four children.

I knew Uncle George the best out of all my Stevick aunts and uncles, probably because he was around the longest. The Stevicks were a large family of four boys and three girls who all died relatively young, many before retirement age. George outlived them all enjoying life more each year.

My first memory of Uncle George was when I was 12. I spent a week at his house visiting my cousin Joy. Joy and I are a month apart in age. We laugh at the same things. She gets my jokes. My husband says we’re each one half of the same brain.

That week Uncle George had a glass of wine with dinner. I thought it was the most sophisticated thing I’d ever seen. When my dad wanted a beer he went to the Churchill Valley Lounge.

While other couples bounced their way though polkas at family weddings, George and Ellen were elegant dancers, a polka Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. After she died in 1997, he held a picnic every year to celebrate her life.

Uncle George owned a vending machine business in the 1960s at first using his Volkswagen Beetle for deliveries. By the 1970s, he was also selling recreational vehicles.

He was the first person I ever saw using a Blackberry long before I stood next to Hillary Clinton’s aides tapping away on them during a rally in Central New York.

I never discussed politics with Uncle George. He certainly knew where I stood, however, and on my birthday he handed me a $3 bill with Hillary’s picture on it. Cracked me up!

George owned a Cadillac and a Smart Car. He fell in love with motor scooters, driving his kids to distraction whenever they learned where he had been on his rides. He bought his last one about two years ago to celebrate a good medical report.

He baked bread and made his own wine, freely giving both away.

George played the button box accordion practicing at all hours, holding jam sessions with his buddies in the barn and playing polka masses.

Musicians playing the button box for Uncle George

The Ungers always had a dog around the house, a series of collies or golden retrievers who greeted you as you got out of the car. The last was Lucy, a golden doodle who bounded after Uncle George when he drove his Gator, robe flapping in the wind, up the steep driveway to get the morning paper.

In January, Uncle George turned 89. He had slowed down. Cancer gnawed his bones. His ribs cracked. It hurt to breathe. He went to the hospital.

A couple weeks ago, Uncle George returned home.  His children, Kevin, Joy, Jill and Heidi, and the grandchildren took turns watching over him. Lucy stayed by his side.

At about dawn on May 6, he died.

Today my Uncle George was buried in the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies. He picked a plot there because he told me he liked the view.  There were full military honors, with a gun salute.

Oh, and a button band played at the funeral home before the service.

When I grow up, I want to be Uncle George.

Military honors

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