Today is my Uncle Tom Stansfield’s birthday. He would be 87. The fact he passed away last year (June 14, a Sunday) doesn’t lessen my wish to celebrate him on this day. So here is a rough reprise of my parts of Tom’s eulogy, delivered along with my brother Chris, at Holy Family Church in Union Beach, N.J., 9 long months ago. My notes were still sitting on my nightstand, which tells you something. Maybe you knew him and this will bring him to your mind and heart. Or maybe — if you’re lucky — you have your own Uncle Tom.
The Uncle Tom I knew was a man who never saw a line he didn’t want to cross — often followed by his wife Betty’s “Tom!!!” Sometimes angry, sometimes resigned, sometimes a bit of both. But it was a playful, not hurtful transgression. There wouldn’t be so many people here otherwise.
Tom loved a good funeral in a way he loved any time people got together. He loved ’em so much he worked at a funeral home after retiring from managing the movie theater. He’d want us to laugh today — and he’d want us to cry a bit too.
The first time my future-wife Virginia met my extended family was at Tom’s 60th birthday, back in the ’80s. He quickly conspired with a fellow “outlaw.” My mom tells me that after his last visit to Pennsylvania, on the ride home, he remarked how much he enjoyed the meal. Outlaws, they stick together. And I was always grateful for how he embraced the person I loved.
Tom hired every young person he knew — family and non-family — who lived within 10 miles of Middletown to work at the movie theater. He was his own Jobs Works program. And that gave me an experience of my uncle outside of family, as a real person in the real world. He always wore a suit. He loved being around people. People liked him even if he told the same awful Viagra jokes there that he and my dad passed back and forth with rueful glee at family events. And he was good at running a business where most of the workers were kids. My first conception of a good boss was born with my Uncle Tom—even if all we kids didn’t think so back then.
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I have this theory that as we get older, we condense and distill. We become more ourselves. And as Tom’s heart slowed and he slowed, he became more himself. He become more about the people he cared about, more about a shared meal and a shared laugh. He was for me part uncle, part friend, part dad. He was a character with character. And I’ll carry him, like Betty and their son Tommy, in my heart forever. I wish the same for all of you.
Related to the idea that we distill as we age, I wrote a poem called I Want to Be a Little Old Man.
I’d love to read other people’s reminiscences of their favorite family members, if you care to share.