Sunday, January 5, 2003

Necessary men

Too bad they can't be cloned


The sanctuary of the church was still decorated for Christmas. The whiff of pine in the air came from a tree, not from cleaning solution. The organist was the real thing, too. A pro. She never hit a sour note, and we'd have known. The hymns all were old family favorites.

As the music swelled and crested, the pastor stood with impeccable timing and a nice sense of drama. He looked toward the closed coffin in the aisle. And at us. At our red-rimmed eyes. At our obvious anguish.

He shook his head and smiled.

"He was ornery," he said of the deceased.

It would not be one of "those" funerals, the kind where it appears that simply leading a good life is not good enough. The kind with so many embellishments that you finally wonder what saint they are talking about, surely not the real person you came to mourn.

But this preacher never hit a sour note either. And we'd have known. Like the music, Uncle Dick was an old family favorite.

A Dutch uncle

If you're lucky, your family has one of these guys. For one thing, he always showed up. At every holiday. At every birthday party. At every wedding and funeral. Not just for his kids, but for nieces and nephews. "My dad wasn't around much," one of my cousins said. But Uncle Dick danced at her wedding.

Once he told me - a typical Uncle Dick kind of observation - that my brother's hair was too long and my skirt was too short. College students home for the holidays, Steve and I were reassured that we must look just the way we'd hoped. Mildly scandalous.

Most people edit themselves when they're around their pastor. "But Dick never did," the preacher said, miming perfectly our Aunt Peggy putting her hands over her face and saying through the lattice of fingers, "Oh, Diiiiiicckk." Making two syllables of his name. For 52 years.

Uncle Dick would look a little shocked. "What? What? What'd I say?"

He was not conflicted about modern life. A man's job was to take care of his family. A man didn't "talk dirty" in front of women. A man disciplines his children and spoils his grandchildren. A man serves his country. A man goes to church on Sunday. Before the football game.

A carpenter, he sent his boys to college - making their lives easier, better than his had been. After retirement, he fixed everything that sagged or creaked in their houses. His sons are good men, a family trait owed not to genetics but to the power of observation.

One of the most offensive questions in the reliably offensive debate about human cloning is whether men now are unnecessary. As if all we expect of them is a dose of their DNA. We joke about cloning the good ones, as if we could find them in a petri dish. The ones who take the training wheels off your bike and help you balance the rest of your life. The ones who dance at your wedding. The men who build things and fix things.

Necessary men. No eloquent pretense. Just a lifetime of being real.

And real good.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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