uncle dan

My godfather, Dan Weber, passed away on February 3rd. He was an amazing man, and leaves behind a prosperous legacy. His five children and many grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and more distant relatives like me, all celebrate his life this weekend. His wife Judy, my godmother, is surrounded by family and I send my heart to her as well.

Aunt Judy described him as her rock, and I know all of us are picturing a few specific rocks when we hear that metaphor used to symbolize his strength of character, his stable assuredness. Our summer family vacations all revolved around Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, where Weber point is a landmark we all know well. This slab of bedrock angling up out of the lake at the tippy end of Pork Bay where our family properties and cabins were concentrated, was encrusted with lichens, visited by loons and beavers, forested with paper birches and conifers, and in August, sprinkled with fresh wild blueberries. Another rock a short hike from Aunt Margie and Uncle George’s cabin Benchmark on Fish Creek is known simply as “Big Rock”, another pilgrimage destination for all cousins looking for adventure. Though his point comes to mind first, his presence was more reminiscent of the Big Rock variety of rocks – proud and solid and upright, casting a towering reflection across the surface of the lake. From up high on Big Rock, the view was expansive; likewise Uncle Dan’s sights were always set on greatness, always focused on the big picture. His obituary captures this magnitude in describing his stature in the wider world, but Aunt Judy’s words best capture his foundational bearing in the family.

A tiny species of wildflower, a bleeding heart, grew on Big Rock. I noticed it one summer when I was in high school and made an effort to check for its blooms each year thereafter upon visiting Big Rock. Up on the side of this massive bedrock heaved and carved into being by the gargantuan processes of plate tectonics and glacier retreat, this impossibly small blossom could be easily missed, and reflecting back, I imagine it was missed by most. Its delicate root system could easily have been wiped clean off the face of the rock by ice and snow, but it persisted. Its life there depended upon the elements, the fanciful flights of birds depositing its seeds from somewhere else, a root tendril grasping a crack in the rock. Not built to withstand the type of geologic processes that formed and weathered a boulder, and yet born to stand up to the test of time by living and dying in ephemeral cycles, able to receive a small component of its nutrition from the minerals in the rock itself, but mostly relying on the reliability of rain, the certainty of sunlight, and an ability to go dormant and disappear in winter, for meeting its needs.

(borrowed this lovely photo of the probable flower species, Dicentra eximia)

Whenever I saw Uncle Dan, he called me his Pretty Girl. “How’s my Pretty Girl?” he’d ask, and I’d blush and tell him I was fine, give him a hug. I was an unnoticeable flower in the presence of a towering boulder. His attention, his affectionate “Pretty Girl,” was like sun and water on the tiny flower. He managed to make each of us in the bouquet of children feel like we mattered.

His philosophy was that anyone could achieve success if they put their mind to it. A wildflower could become discouraged and find her self-worth diminished by such a philosophy, looking up at all the tall trees growing off a large boulder, while she struggled to take root in a negligible amount of soil in a tiny crack on a rock. The flower could wonder whether this philosophy was just for other entities who already started off large, those with muscle to throw around, whether maybe success wasn’t intended for pretty girls at all. Yet it is easy to feel warm towards his optimism about the American dream and anyone’s potential to achieve it, even while I acknowledge my own belief that the amount of opportunity available to a flower or a pebble or a beetle is not the same as that available to a giant rock, to achieve boulder greatness. His belief was in the inherent goodness of all, the essential sameness in all of us, with which I can and do resonate, and while privilege plays a role in actual outcomes and successes, there is always reason to dream big and believe in ourselves. My own view embraces different versions of success than just the boulder variety, and I have come to feel it is good and right for me to belong among the wildflowers in a world that tends to value rocks.

We are all busy digging through photos of him, patriarch of the Weber clan. I can tell you that none of my photos of him, mostly from when I was first let loose with a camera in high school, are of his business successes or his wealth or status in society. What they show is the way I remember him, the things I loved about him: up at the lake, up a ladder with a hammer in his hand, or waist-deep in water, if he was building a dock instead of a cabin; with a baby on his lap having a bottle, or with a kid on his lap getting bounced or told a story; sitting around a table telling a story to a wider audience, over coffee and danish.

Then there are the memories not pictured. I remember him stoking the fire in the conical red wood stove, while Aunt Judy worked the red handle to pump fresh water for one of the kids to stir kool-aid into, the screen door slamming behind whoever had just returned from the outhouse, the sliding door out front simultaneously shuttling in the rest of the kids, out of breath from running up the pine-needle covered trail and the flight of stairs up from a morning of fishing for sunnies and perch off the dock, one or two of us with a smaller toddling cousin on our hip. I remember kids lined up along the ladder to the loft of the A-frame, before the A-frame transformed into a spacious chalet to hold the ever-expanding Weber family with running water and flush toilets. I remember his blazing grin and the sparkle in his eyes, his methodical way of telling a story, his voice soothing (the same way I feel about my Dad’s) but in a Long Island accent. I remember being his Pretty Girl.

This little bleeding heart is going to miss him.

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