We have considered writing this piece every single day since our brother, Michael Donald Ellis, died on January 24, 2019. It wasn’t the dread of a chore which kept us from it; it was the magnitude and complexity of describing the outlines of a man who always shied away from the limelight he so often deserved, while respecting his fervent wish to go unnoticed at all times.
In every family with multiple children, there is always one sibling who handles the family chores and duties without complaint, who holds the structure together as best he or she can while the passage of time and the growth of individual experience threatens to bring it down. In the case of the Ellis family of 802 Boyer Avenue, Walla Walla, Washington, that person was Mike.
Mike was the middle child of Don and Betty Ellis, outranked in age by his sister Barbara and brother Frank and elder brother to Steve. He always played his role well, whichever it was meant to be in the eyes of the individual family member who was the audience of the moment. He played it with a quiet integrity that downplayed his own importance in sustaining and improving the sense of self worth of the rest of us. For Mike was a boon companion to each of us, always in the manner that best suited our individual needs as a member of the family: to Don, the hard-pressed father, Mike was his companion in mischief and pranks; to Betty, the often overworked family chatelaine, he was the dutiful and obedient performer of a myriad of common chores and the mainstay of her ability to remain independent as she grew old; to Barbara, he was the source of laughter, bad but funny jokes, and a constant reminder that life was not to be taken too seriously; to Frank he was the little brother who shared the foibles, fantasies, and fun of growing to manhood together; to Steve he was the older brother who was there to console him, keep him company when he became old enough to become a thorough nuisance to all of his older siblings (Mike included), and protect him from the worst perils of childhood. That each of us saw him, in some manner, as his or her closest family friend speaks volumes about the love of family that he brought to the task of keeping us together.
But to emphasize this trait of maintaining the family’s integrity runs the risk of denying him his due as an individual. Finding Mike the individual is difficult because he wanted it that way. Mike was a chameleon, desiring and able to blend into the background of our family, his own family, his work, and his community. He was always present in each, always performing his role and his duties with caring, humor, faithfulness and without serious complaint, always shining a light on someone else and always doing his best to remain in the shadows and not to be seen, always striving to appear as just an insignificant part of a much larger whole. He was self effacing to a fault. He hated the limelight and would always shrug his way out of it at a speed faster than the very light shining upon him. He always played the quintessential rube – Art Carney’s Norton to Jackie Gleason’s Ralph. In reality, he was much closer to being a P G Wodehouse character – Jeeves the butler who served the flighty and inept Bertie Wooster well by always giving Bertie the credit for his, Jeeves’, own innate common sense and practical solutions to whatever problematic scenario was at hand.
He was this way by disposition as much as due to a sense of inferiority. He was intelligent but never a good student. He was never a good student because he grew up dyslexic in an era that did not understand the term much less know it, an era when the prevailing culture was fond of labels, an era that was prone to use those selfsame labels to imprison individuals and entire populations in tightly sealed coffins for the purpose of the jailers’ convenience and shorthand reference. They did so to Mike and, unfortunately, he took the labeling as gospel. Despite his dyslexia, he became a voracious reader of history and detective novels and always shared his latest enthusiasm with us. We each acquired the acquaintance of many good books from his recommendations.
He was the only one of the family siblings without the benefit of college, and, being intellectually curious himself, was embarrassed by the lack. He needn’t have been. According to the record to date, he is the only one of us to ever be mentioned in an article in The New York Times, and to be on a first name basis, and to breakfast occasionally, with a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, accomplishments that he never spoke about unless he made a mistake of some sort that hinted of them and one of us yanked the subject matter out of him as if we were trying to pull a bad tooth with a rusty set of pliers.
But these accomplishments meant nothing at all to Mike. While the average person might preen at, and tell stories about, what are, after all, mere peripheral successes, Mike forgot all about them the day after they happened. He reserved his feelings of accomplishment (in the sense of giving to others and to his community) for:
- Assisting older men in maintaining their independence for as long as possible by helping them with shopping, repairs, doctor and dental appointments, and whatever else he could do;
- Reading to patients at the Veterans Hospital on many an evening;
- Assisting older folks with necessary home repairs and on more than one occasion paying for the parts himself if the homeowner couldn’t afford them;
- Mentoring and straightening out young men who came to the Y in some sort of difficulty or legal problem, and giving each effective, thoughtful tough love advice which was palatable to the recipients only because they knew Mike cared for them and truly believed that his advice was the only route for them to achieve success. His advice, while always about a specific problem, was, as well, always about how best to move forward in the world in general;
- Giving whatever he could, including cash he could ill afford, when someone (perhaps a perfect stranger, but most often a friend, even if only of ten minutes standing) was in need;
- Being Exalted Ruler of the Walla Walla Elks Club, but, more importantly to him, an active member of its ritual competition team for many years;
- Doing chores around the Y or for a Y project that needed doing even though they weren’t his responsibility; because they were there to be done and he had the necessary skills. And, if we know him at all, never asking for overtime. It simply never would have occurred to him to do so. In his mind, he wasn’t a Y employee; he was a senior contributing member of the Walla Walla Y family who labored exhaustively for its success.
The simple truth is that Mike cared. About everyone and about everything. While he never tilted at windmills, if there was something practical he could do for someone in need, something within his experience and capabilities, he always pitched in to help as best he could. And if he needed help, he’d drag someone along with him, most often one of his long suffering family members.
There was joy in Mike’s life. He never made large sums of money, but that wasn’t important to him. He inherited his mother’s sense of fairness – an ill-defined standard of care and justice determined only by the beholder (either our mother or Mike) that somehow demanded a response of the beholder or of someone else they never hesitated to identify. And in making whatever response that he felt was demanded of him, Mike found happiness and joy. You could hear it in his laugh, an always present sort of high pitched giggle, whenever he was telling the story of the event in question in which someone else always figured more prominently than he did.
If it sounds like we miss him, you are correct. If you’re wondering why none of us are here, it’s because we are all in ill health of one sort or another and not fit to travel, all of us having achieved the same status of Old Fart that Mike did (he told us to say that). We’re here in spirit. We’ll always be near Mike in spirit. Mike was our pilot light and our brother – our brother in every conceivable meaning that word possesses or implies. While we miss his physical presence, he is an essential part of our respective memory’s DNA.
To be read at the celebration of Mike’s life in Walla Walla on May 1, 2019, his birthday.