On the 28th of August, 2018, we bade farewell to a cherished member of the family. Surrounded by immediate family, John G. Siebert, better known to me as Uncle Johnny, took his last breath.
At 89 years, he was the last living sibling of my mother’s family. His entire life revolved around working the family farm in Marion County and raising a family.
Only weeks before his passing, we gathered for a Siebert family reunion. Cousin Patricia and I were responsible for the planning and coordinating.
Finding a date that was generally acceptable to most family members was elusive, at best. Relatives from far away Ontario, Canada, were going to attend. After a series of phone calls and emails discussing alternative dates, we finally settled on a Saturday in early August.
In retrospect, timing was the important key for the event’s success. As that day began, the significance of that moment became vividly apparent.
Mindful of Uncle Johnny’s declining health due to the later stages of cancer, we prepared the agenda to allow for as much interaction time his strength would permit. We were unsure that he would even be able to come.
Johnny summoned every ounce of strength he had and surprised everyone by not only showing up, but he was able to interact and speak with clarity and purpose. He was holding court, and yet he was humbled by being the center of attention.
Immediate family members surrounded his seat, waiting their turn to speak and share their memories; Aunt Ruby, Johnny’s spouse for 67 years, sat alongside. Children, spouses, grandchildren and great grandchildren, all enjoying the moment with grandpa.
Storytelling has an important place in the family. It is how we share hopes and dreams. It is how we teach children important concepts in life. It is how we share experiences which cements and strengthens family bonds. We laugh and cry together. We sing and share our joys and sorrows. We express love and affection, knitting our hearts together as family. We rise up together when tragedy strikes and mourn for the loss. But also, we comfort one another and provide necessary aid when all other hope is lost.
It is what we do, for family.
A LOT OF FAMILY: Three generations of the family of John B. Siebert came from as far away as Ontario, Canada for a family reunion shortly before his death. The event allowed the family to have a day of interaction and sharing memories with their beloved Uncle Johnny.
At the reunion, we laughed — then cried — as children recounted stories like the time Johnny was breaking a horse and was thrown, breaking several bones. Aunt Ruby found him in the pasture, ran back to the yard, drove the loader tractor to pick him up with the bucket and called the ambulance to pick him up.
When talk subsided, someone spoke up and began another round of shared experiences. Sometimes, they asked questions. Other times, it began with the guest of honor chiming in and adding to the story.
Every story, every comment seemed almost as if it were choreographed at the right moment, by an unseen hand. Each individual, mindful of the sacred moment, was cherishing the day, wishing it would never end.
At the end of the day, my beloved uncle, carried home in the loving arms of his children, did not stop speaking about the day’s highlights for hours. Even as they prepared him for bed, he could not be silent. It truly was a wonderful celebration of life, of family, of God’s unfailing love.
Soon after, his strength sapped to its limits and succumbing to the ravages of cancer, Uncle Johnny slipped into unconsciousness, and his journey in this life ended.
Although saddened by his passing, I am encouraged by the way my uncle lived. Generous to a fault, his generosity brings out the best of humanity.
My first crop of wheat began its journey in his grain drill back in the mid-70s. He was my “go to” guy for all things agricultural in nature, via late evening chats — on a party-line phone — after his farm work was done.
After our farm was established on more permanent footing, we were neighbors. Many a “field trip” began and ended in each other’s “test plot,” also known as “the fields along the road which every farmer can see.”
He was there to pull me out of mud holes. I reciprocated by harvesting wheat when his combine broke down. Although he resisted the offer at first, after an encouraging nudge from Aunt Ruby he relented.
Uncle Johnny loved his family dearly. No sacrifice was too great. Every child and grandchild was important to him.
Uncle Johnny will be truly missed.
Penner is a Marion County farmer and past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.