Unknown-grave-marker-8-p.-27I don’t normally regale AC with stories of “personalities I have known and loved,” but I can’t help but comment on an obituary that recently appeared in a local paper, (which shall remain nameless.) It provided much food for thought. I mean no disrespect in my comments. I am apologizing in advance, so you know that someone will take me to task but remember: the names here (for the most part) are fictional.


 I was sorry to see that a former student passed away at a relatively young age. (Defining “relatively young” is difficult. For me, it is anything under 100, but the former student was 52.)


What I remember about this student from my very first year of teaching is that, when I…. a brand-new teacher struggling to come up with creative writing assignments…. put 6 possible theme suggestions on the board, taken from a Scholastic Books Teachers’ Guide book I had been given, for the year’s first writing assignment, they all incensed the deceased. The deceased (well, NOW he’s deceased; at the time he was very much alive and kicking) protested that writing on ANY of these topics was “an invasion of my privacy.” Then he marched off to the Principal’s office.


The topics in the Scholastic Teachers’ Guide included a number of situational ethics ideas, which someone other than me who wrote for Scholastic Books had thought up. The topics seemed to make him uncomfortable. Here’s one example: “If you knew that your best friend had cheated on a test you were both taking, what would you do, if anything?”


 There was also the hoary theme assignment (please no “hoary” jokes here), “What did you do over your summer vacation?” (I was really struggling and only 21 years old at the time to come up with interesting writing assignments, so bear with me.)


But nothing suited the young man, who protested the assignment by marching to the Principal’s office to loudly complain about the theme assignment, and I was then, of course, called on the carpet by the administration (although not as quickly as today’s teachers would be. Now, it is instantaneous to side with Junior and teachers are constantly hauled in to defend anything and everything! In my day (1969-1985) the administration was slightly more supportive. I explained why I had made the assignment and showed the Principal the book from Scholastic that he had given his first-year teacher to use.  What he said to the student I do not know. Whether he wrote the paper I do not remember.


My take on this protest, from the vantage point of decades later: said student was trying to get out of writing a paper. Period. He had 6 choices and one of them was as tame as they come, unless he had spent his summer hijacking cars.


 What I DO remember about the family and the children I taught (yes, there were 3 of them) later, his sister was shot in the butt in a “drive-by shooting” (pellet-gun) in a nearby city—okay, it was Rock Island, Illinois— very late on a Friday night. She was 12 at the time. For that matter, the deceased, Guy or “Guido,” if you prefer, was 12 at the time, too, and was with her at the time of the shooting. They claimed they were “caught in the crossfire” of a gang-related shooting.


 Later, in a MacKenzie Phillips moment, the sister accused her father of incest, but then recanted before the in-house authorities would have had to notify the Family Services.   These anecdotes may give you an idea of what I was dealing with in trying to teach English to 7th and 8th graders as a first-year teacher. (Five of my former students were on Death Row when former Governor George Ryan abolished it, just before going to jail himself for the drivers’ license scandal in Illinois.)



But what really struck me about this obituary I will reprint pretty much as it appeared, (minus the real surname(s) and some of the first names, of course.) “Guy was a commercial fisherman and worked construction in the Florida area. He never married. Since he loved living in Florida, and all his good friends are here, the family has decided to celebrate his life by riding Harleys to Florida next summer (written in early September) and chartering a boat to spread his ashes at sea.”
Every single member of the immediate family had a nickname, duly noted in the obituary.  Furthermore, the entire family (men, women and children, are going to drive Harley Davidson motorcycles all the way to Florida (from the Midwest) for the funeral? Is this a cost-saving measure? (No casket, ergo, no funeral fees?)


 I think of my 91-year-old mother-in-law on the back of a Harley. It just does not seem like a good plan. She fell down last week while walking across her lawn and got a concussion. Is everyone in the Vandella family young?  I wonder what would happen if my mom or my husband’s mom or…perish the thought, me… were to try to come to a family funeral several states away on the back of a Harley, especially one driven by the individuals mentioned in the rest of the article? Would they risk being shot in the butt by a pellet-gun…or worse? 


Is it even legal to scatter someone’s ashes at sea in this day of “let’s clean up our oceans” and anti-pollution sloganeering? [Don’t know; can’t tell you.]
But let’s read on, (with some of the first names and the last name definitely changed to protect the identity of the family):


Guy “Guido”Vandella, 52, of  (fill in your own Florida city here) passed away at Solaris Innovative Hospice Care on  (Fill in date of your choosing).


Per his request, cremation followed. (This was followed by information about where memorials could be made.)


“Guy was born on (fill in your own date here) in (fill in your own small Illinois city here). He was never married. He was a commercial fisherman, worked construction, and loved living in Florida. Since his friends are there, the family had decided to celebrate his life by riding Harleys to Florida next summer (written in balmy September, mind you) and will charter a boat to scatter his ashes at sea.”


This gave me pause. Especially when the survivors’ names followed:


Amy “Rose” Vandella (sister); Beth “Sissy” Vandella; John “Johnny Boy” Vandella; Kenny “The Hammer” Vandella, Brooklyn “J.K” Vandella, Myrna, “Big Momma” Vandella, and, my own personal favorite, Judy “Butch” Vandella.


Does anyone wonder why I quit teaching in this district? More importantly, does anyone want to be a fly on the wall when this family group gets on their Harleys, en masse, (come spring), and starts the trek to Florida from Illinois?  Does anyone, (besides me) wonder why they don’t ride their motorcycles down there NOW, since it has been unseasonably warm and balmy? Why wait several months? Is the family motto “Better late than never”?


I know one thing: If I were going to this funeral, I would not want to be riding shotgun on Judy “Butch” Vandella’s Harley.