Salut, mon, mon oncle
The last time I wrote about my Uncle Marcel was way back on October 17, 2018. You might remember that my favourite uncle was, among many other things, a one-time dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, current first-string violinist with a semi-professional symphony orchestra, and Holocaust survivor, whose life I had begun to document on video. He was also, then, an apparent cancer survivor, and Raven and I returned to interview him twice more, the last time coming in mid-January of this year.
We got most of his life down for a total of maybe 10 hours of tape, but we didn't get to sitting down with him to go over the photos he had managed to bring over from Belgium or the other documents relating to his long and frankly illustrious life.
In January he had complained of feeling tired and by March it was official. The pancreatic cancer was back, and he was given no more than three months to live. He died on Friday, May 24, 2019, less than a week after Raven and I had driven to Laval to say goodbye in person. His obituary is here. We had the pleasure of showing him a few minutes of the footage we shot, but he was tired and the visit was a short one.
What follows is the eulegy I wrote for him, and which I read (along with one written by my father, who wasn't up for the drive) at the funeral. If you're interested, the entire service (audio only) is online here. If I remember right, the rabbi stops talking around the 10-minute mark, giving way to his daughters and to myself.</a>
Needless to say, I still miss him.
It isn't often we can say of a man who died in his 88th year, that death came for him too soon, but I can't help but feel that way about the passing of mon, mon oncle Marcel Chojnacki.
Though I in fact Lydia and I visited from Ottawa only two weeks ago to say goodbye, and so I saw how that strong man had been rendered so physically weak he could barely sit up on his own, when Morgan called me one week ago to tell me he was gone, the expected news still came as a shock, one almost as strong as when she had called me more than a year ago with the bad news that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
I am trying to take comfort in the fact that he went into remission for a year, that he was able to play two more concerts, and continue to care for his wife, my aunt Lillian, that he had the chance to put his long and accomplished life on the record in video.
I am trying to take comfort in that delay, from that surprising extra year, but it is hard to face up to the fact that he is gone. As I said, gone too soon.
Marcel Chojnacki, as we all know very well, was a remarkable man. Orphaned by the evil of the Holocaust, he not only built a life in his adopted country, the life he built was a full and a giving life, steeped in the grace of love and generosity of spirit.
Together with his wife Lillian, he made of their home, 5150 Boulevard Sainte Rose, the most welcoming home it has been my pleasure to visit (and to live in, more than once). The door at 5150, literal and proverbial, was forever open — as Marcel would be the first to tell us, were he somehow able to speak to us from the beyond at his own memorial. Make no mistake, he was a proud man, if one with very much to be proud of. And that is the difference between pride and hubris; the former is based on accomplishments, the latter on mere self-regard.
Kidding aside, 5150 is a beautiful symbol for the life made by mon mon oncle Marcel Chojnacki. Little more than a shack when Lillian and Marcel bought it in the early 1960s, 5150 Boulevard Sainte Rose grew bit by bit, as Marcel built his own life from the ruins of his monstrously destroyed childhood.
His home (their, was a mansion of the spirit, filled with music and art, with food and with drink — speaking of pride, no doubt there are few here now who have not had the pleasure of drinking Marel's wine, of eating his break — and, so often, with guests. With friends and with family (and unlike too often in this world, the two were often one).
My uncle was a generous man, but not to a fault. Though he was an artist — a dancer who painted, and later a musician in honour of his late son Daniel, he was also a husband and a father, a provider and later on a caregiver, who knew the importance of living in the physical world as well as the artistic.
Life for all of us, if we are to be full human beings, is a matter of balancing matters of the spirit with the exigencies of the real world. Better than most, mon mon oncle accomplished that and more.
During the last year of his life, it was my pleasure and privilege to interview my uncle on video, documenting his many stories for posterity and, yes, for my own selfish desire to know him better than I already did.
As we all know, he had a lot on his plate, and looking back at our third session, in January, he seemed a little tired; I think he was already starting to get sick again. Yet, he was kind, he was funny, he was (yes), generous, insisting on feeding us and even taking us on a trip out to the Oka cheese factory.
I'm going long, and feel as though I haven't scratched the surface of the man I knew for my entire life. But really, what are we here for except to say goodbye? And so I say, Salut, mon mon oncle, je t'aime.
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