Elegy for Louie Kunas

Louie Kunas and Myra, 1980.

Delivered at Louie’s funeral service, May 5, 2021.

I want to tell you about the time I saw Louie Kunas cry.

First I should tell you that I knew Louie Kunas for half of my life and not quite a quarter of his. I was dating his youngest daughter Myra when we first met. He didn’t much care for that. By the time I married her I think he’d started to come around and by the time he left we were full-on family. That’s not a designation I take lightly, because for Louie Kunas, “family” was the highest honor a person could claim.

Above all else, Louie believed in family. That makes sense, as he had a lot of it. He was the youngest of eight children born to two Polish immigrants who’d settled into a challenging but rewarding life of farming the fields of Southern Illinois. Those family ties stayed strong over the decades. All but one of the siblings headed to Northern Illinois eventually, where they spent their adult years living no more than a 45-minute drive from each of the others. 

They squabbled and feuded from time to time as all families will — and I can attest that they could squabble with the best of them — but it’s a rare family that manages to stay as close-knit for as many years as that generation of Kunases did. Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s gatherings thrummed with energy as multiple generations of the Kunas clan piled into Louie’s sister Steph’s home in Chicago (and later at his niece Valerie’s and his daughter Amie’s), everyone sliding easily into the familiar rhythms and fraternal jousting that can only be generated by family. And at all of those gatherings sat Louie Kunas, off to the side with a cup of impossibly weak coffee in his hand and a wry smirk on his face, goading the grandchildren into mischief and swapping stories with the grown-ups that delighted everyone present even if they’d already been told a dozen times over.

Louie took even more pride in his role as the head of an equally boisterous family of his own. He got a bit of a late start at fatherhood for a man of his generation, but once he was in, he was all in. He managed to raise a son, three daughters, and a granddaughter, serving as a single parent while working a full-time job and doing part-time piece work on the side. Louie kept on working and fathering well past the point in life when most men have gratefully retired from both, but it was evident to anyone who ever observed him in the act that there was no other way he’d rather have had it. 

He thrilled in sharing his life experiences with his children, whether that meant rambling across the country in the family RV, seeking out tiny towns and roadside oddities on obscure Illinois backroads, or just sitting up late at the kitchen table trading anecdotes over a grocery store pastry and a cup of that objectively awful coffee. Bantering with Lyle about the latest happenings in Hampshire. Trading late-night drunk dials with Diana. Paging through a book of old family photos that Amie put together. Filling Myra in on his early years during their Sunday night phone call. Taking Isis out to see the latest Pokemon movie or taking her to the Chik N Dip for an ice cream. Louie thrived in the company of his children, and they in his. 

I want to tell you about the time I saw Louie Kunas cry.

First I should tell you that I never saw Louie cry tears of sorrow, even though there was ample opportunity for that. No one lives 90 years without experiencing loss, and Louie saw more than his share. He arrived amidst the Great Depression and departed amidst a global pandemic. He saw half a dozen wars and served in one himself. In his time, Louie buried his parents, all of his siblings, countless friends and relations. An infant son. A beloved daughter. I have no doubt that Louie cried for those losses in his own time and place, because he was a man of deep emotion and abiding love. But those tears were private. In public he had to be the stoic head of the household, the stalwart father figure that his family could turn to for strength. 

I want to tell you about the time I saw Louie Kunas cry.

Myra and I were seated at the perpetually cluttered kitchen table in Louie’s house when he told us there was a movie he wanted us to see. He turned on the tiny TV-VCR that sat on the counter by the toaster oven and popped in a tape of “The Straight Story,” a 1999 movie starring the very fine actor Richard Farnsworth. The film is based on the true story of Alvin Straight, an elderly Iowa man whose failing vision disqualified him from receiving a driver’s license, leading him to drive a riding lawn mower 240 miles across Iowa to see his estranged and ailing brother. It’s a lovely little film that I had seen before and was happy to see again.

The emotional thrust of “The Straight Story” comes in the encounters Alvin has with various people along the way. One of the people he meets on his journey is a pregnant teenage girl who has run away from home and is hoping to hitchhike her way out of Iowa. In the middle of a conversation around the campfire, Alvin hands the girl a stick and tells her to break it. She’s understandably puzzled, but she does as he asks. Alvin then hands her a small bundle of sticks and tells her to break those as well. When she can’t do it, Alvin explains that the sticks are like people — taken as individuals, they break easily under pressure, but when they hang together as a family, their combined strength makes them a single unit that can’t be broken by the outside world.

That was the time I saw Louie Kunas cry. I looked across the table as Alvin imparted his parable and I saw Louie with a warm smile spread across his face, silent tears trickling down his cheeks. Myra saw it too, and soon enough all three of us were in quiet, loving tears as we sat at Louie’s kitchen table watching an old man navigate the Midwest on a lawn mower. 

It was a beautiful moment between the three of us, but you all were there too. If you’re here today in this room, it’s because you were part of Louie’s family. It’s an exclusive club, but it’s not a small one. It includes not only those of us gathered here today, but many who couldn’t be here today. And many more who have already departed. And even more who are still to come. Whether by blood, by marriage, or by friendship, every one of us is part of Louie’s big, beautiful bundle of sticks. It hurts to be here today without him. It’s never not going to hurt. But hurting isn’t breaking. If there’s anything that would put a smile on Louie’s face, it’s knowing that the bundle he built over 90 wonderful years will never be broken.

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