Uncle David

I have a running list of posts I’d like to write, but I have been too busy living life here lately to reflect on it enough to write about it. Between Emerson being in 10th grade and me being the program manager at my school, we have both had a lot more work to do than when we were here three years ago. For me, this weekend and last were taken up with preparing for a joint seminar with Mongolia International University and Handong Global University in Korea on “Community, Sustainability, and the Local University” sponsored by UNESCO. It was good to be able to participate and learn more about what HGU and its faculty are doing, and I hope it may lead to a visit to Korea and possible collaborations in the future.

Last weekend, on November 6, I also learned that my Uncle David, my father’s younger brother, died of congestive heart failure. He was 85 years old, the same age my mother was when she also died of the same thing in 2009. So a lot of memories have been bubbling under the surface while I have been trying to make it through my days. We only saw my uncle and his family sporadically while I was growing up; we lived in New Jersey, and they lived in Kentucky, and it was a time when people didn’t fly quite as much as they do now. In fact, the one visit I most remember from my childhood, we drove out, staying overnight somewhere along the way. As an adult, I mostly stayed in touch through my father (as I did my mother’s family through my mother).

We reconnected around the time my father died in February 2007. David and my cousin Laura flew out to see my father before he died; unfortunately, they arrived the day after my father passed. My Aunt Helen, his wife, died the following year, and then my mother died the year after that. Uncle David was the last of my parents’ generation on both sides, and my last real connection to the deep knowledge of the Burg family that he possessed.

We hadn’t been able to visit Uncle David since Easter, 2018, because at first, we were in Mongolia, and then the COVID-19 pandemic made us cancel our planned visit for Easter 2020. We were hoping for one more visit before we left for Mongolia, but the persistence of the pandemic in the USA prevented that. Still, Emerson and I feel fortunate that we were able to visit him every year before that. We usually went for Easter (Emerson’s spring break), but once when my teaching schedule wouldn’t allow it, we went during the summer, for the July 4th weekend. Temperatures broke 100 every day, and I vowed never to visit Kentucky during the summer again. I believe it was also one of the last times my uncle ran in the Bluegrass 10,000, an annual race in Lexington.

from our first visit to Kentucky in 2009

Emerson and I loved our visits to Kentucky. They were often very brief, just four or five days, but they were full of good conversation and family lore. My uncle was by nature and profession a historian, and he would regale us with accounts of local and national history, as well as Burg family history. My father, a scientist, was not as forthcoming about his family’s past, though he did start a family tree project during his retirement and collected information about both Burg and Schenker (my mother’s family) ancestors. But my uncle was passionate about it.

What I mainly loved was the storytelling—Uncle David was a skilled storyteller, and even if he told the same story several times, it remained compelling. One of his favorites was about the slow death of his Grandmother Burg, who apparently was bleeding internally and would “sit straight as a board in her chair, and when a trickle of blood would spill from the corner of her mouth, she would dab it with a white handkerchief.” Her stoicism was legendary.

I also loved visiting my uncle’s home on a wide, graceful, tree-lined street in the historic neighborhood of Ashland Park, Lexington. The neighborhood is named for Ashland, the home and estate of the 19th century statesman Henry Clay, and the neighborhood as well as nearby Woodland Park was designed by the Olmstead landscape design firm (of Frederick Law Olmstead fame). The house itself was built in 1918, and is filled with beautiful and whimsical objets d’art, including my Aunt Helen’s extensive frog collection and a wide assortment of wind-up toys that were a source of fascination for Emerson when they were small.

In fact, visiting my uncle’s house when Emerson was young was quite stressful, as they would run around and try to handle everything. Fortunately, there was a big box of random small toys, plastic animals and such, that Emerson loved to play with as well. We would dump it out on the living room floor, and Emerson would spend hours immersed in stories and adventures while my uncle and I talked. Emerson also loved climbing up the steep wooded stairs from the second floor to the garret, my uncle’s workspace, which also contains an assortment of toys and other fun objects, including life-sized stand-up cardboard figures of various Star Trek characters.

For a while, we alternated between staying at my uncle’s house and staying with my cousin Laura and her partner Dee. That had its own stresses for the parent of a young Emerson, in the form of two dogs that Emerson needed to learn boundaries around. Laura and Dee live in a house not far from my uncle’s that they have renovated themselves (work I truly admire), with a beautiful back garden, complete with a fishpond and waterfall they also built.

The last several times we visited, though, we stayed with my uncle, because I knew that time with him was precious. Since he died, Emerson and I have shared memories of her introduction (and my re-introduction) to the Pippi Longstocking movies cobbled together from the 1969 Swedish TV series. We watched them all, with my uncle and his partner Iya (they eventually married), up in the garret. I since acquired the series of films, and they are among the movies we brought with us to Mongolia. We also spent hours playing the French card game Mille Bornes, with Iya usually, which has remained a family favorite. And the best memories were sitting on the back porch after dinner, telling ghost stories or just talking by candlelight.

There are so many things to say about my uncle, so many things I have left out. The time we spent with him was brief but somehow infinite. I have so many memories. The walks over to Woodland Park to play at the playgrounds there and admire the many trees. The trips to the Kentucky Horse Park, which I remembered from my own childhood; a visit to the Woodford Reserve bourbon distillery; a frigid early morning spent watching the racehorses training at the Keeneland racetrack; an afternoon at the races when Emerson was a bit older when I neglected to put money down on a horse Emerson picked that indeed won its race; an extended family hike at the Natural Bridge; regular visits to Iya’s book and gift shop Sqecial Media; a visit to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to see the house the Burg brothers grew up in and other family sites. We also had always planned to do a tour of some of the thoroughbred farms for which Lexington is famous, but that didn’t happen.

I hope we will be able to visit Kentucky and see Iya, Laura, and Dee when we are back in the US, likely this coming summer. I wish we could attend the celebration of my uncle’s life which will be held this coming January, but it’s a bit far to travel to from here. In the meanwhile, we will talk about him, look at pictures, and hear his voice telling us stories for as long as our memories last.

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