July 14, 2008

Uncle Joe

Four years ago today my favorite uncle died at 53. A while back I wrote a piece about him on my But I'm Not Groovy blog, where I'm writing along with a book about memoirs by Natalie Goldberg. One of the prompts was to write about an uncle or grandfather. Uncle Joe was a big part of my life and always someone special in my heart, but I had never really "verbalized" that in such a way as when I sat down and wrote about him, our history.

We talk about things in such bits and pieces in our daily lives never really competing a thought, never really seeing the profundity of some things. I am beginning to see the benefit of a therapy session where someone sits and listens and quietly leads while you "get out" an entire story, an entire thought. It's good. It helps to synthesize all the little memories and reactions and emotions into a story. And the story tells you something about yourself that you may not have fully realized before.

Telling the story of Uncle Joe reminded me of being loved unconditionally by another person, something I haven't really considered for a long, long time. What an essential and precious gift. Uncle Joe loved me from the day I was born, I was a special sparkle in his life. I think in some ways I made it possible for him, a teenager, to go back to his childhood and play. Run in the fields of rye, play hide and seek, show me the things he was discovering himself like music and how when he pulled the key out of the ignition of his first car, it'd keep going. I remember us laughing with wonderment about that as we headed down the country road to visit our grandfather's (my great-grandfather's) farm. He also liked teaching me things. We were buddies and of course this was immensely fantastic for me.

This exercise has inspired me to write about each and every one of my relatives. Whether it be a small memory of an event or afternoon, or something more, I think it would be a valuable thing for generations to come.

He was the light of my little life, he was my brother. My mom's brother Joe was 14 when she had me and I spent most of my earliest days with him and my grandmother. He was a skinny, freckled, fun-loving kid with a stubborn streak. The youngest of 4, the surprise, late child. When I was with him all was right with the world, he was my coolest caretaker. He called me 'Butch.'

My earliest memories of him are a scattered smattering of happy days, all sunny, all fun. My dad and Joe having a water fight in and around the small brick house where we lived on the main floor. A bucket of water being propped on a back door. My uncle's screams, in that breaking young male voice. He had a great open laugh that contained a twinge of persecution at the end, like to make him laugh was causing him just the slightest bit of humiliation. He was probably 19, my dad in his late twenties. I remember his light blue Mustang, his motorcycle. I remember sitting on his back and tickling it while he laid on the living room floor watching television. We'd take turns writing letters on each other's back and trying to guess what they were. At night we'd make that popcorn in the plastic bag with two compartments - the corn with salt and the orangey oil. He had a brown birthmark on his calf that I fancifully imagined was icing from chocolate TastyKakes in Grammy's cupboard. He rode me around town on his bike that he rode thirty-some miles to visit us. Later when I was an adult he reminded me of a conversation we'd had, me sitting on his handlebars in the parking lot across the street from my home.

Uncle Joe, do you smoke? No. Do you drink? No. Do
you curse? No. When I grow up I'm never going to smoke or drink or curse.

I sometimes imagined that he'd marry me when I was old enough. He was my first innocent love.

When Uncle Joe went away to college there was an emptiness in my grandparent's house. I'd visit and hang out in his room, which had been my mother's before him, with the built-in shelves painted light pink. His drawers and shelves were filled with pencils and pens, odd paper for his mathematical pursuits, protractors, rulers, all types of erasers, things I didn't have a name for. I'd fiddle around with these things, leave him a note taped to a shelf that I missed him and awaited his return.

When he did come home, he played for me the music he learned to love while far away in a place called "college." If I could save time in a bottle...so melodramatic and sad. I sat on his bed and he played it for me on his record player. I'd never heard such contemplative words. I didn't know what this meant for us, where the fun was, how to go back. There was no going back. He had become a person I didn't know anymore. He still loved me dearly, but things were different.

Uncle Joe decided that he wasn't going into math, he was going to be a preacher. He was going to seminary. I didn't see him much in the years to come. He was in Texas and I was in New Jersey living my own life, busy with school and friends. I'd hear about him driving home for breaks, driving straight through with friends and how they accomplished their missions home in record times. It seemed thrilling and dangerous and so far from my life. I lost track of him and who we once were.

Before I knew it, he was getting married to a young girl he'd met in Texas. Cappie. She was just 17, he was 24, I was 10. I called her my aunt, but she always giggled when I did. It's almost as if she felt we were closer in age than she was with her husband. When Elvis died she took me to a flea market and we bought big black t-shirts that read in silver letters, ELVIS LIVES. My uncle didn't appreciate them, after all, Elvis wasn't Jesus or anything. I felt a little ashamed wearing mine, but really didn't fully understand why. What's the big deal, I thought. Furthermore, I didn't really know anything about Elvis, it was just something I did with Aunt Cappie since Uncle Joe wasn't all that fun anymore.

When I was 13 I went to Indiana with Uncle Joe, Aunt Cappie and my new cousin, Joshua. We drove out together and I flew back home a week later. Joshua added a whole new dynamic. Traveling along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I made silly faces in the back seat and Joshua cried, scared. I didn't know how to be in this new situation...the aunt, the baby, and me. Uncle Joe seemed a distant fourth. We stopped at his friends' Wayne and Elton on the way out and had marathon games of Monopoly. At one point Joe got frustrated and dumped the table and the whole game went flying. Where was my uncle? Why was he changing?

In Winona Lake, IN Uncle Joe was taking seminary classes and they stayed in a trailer near the lake. He asked me a question one afternoon in the driveway, leaning against his car, "What do you want most in your life? What's your greatest wish?" I said To be happy, the answer most 13 year old girls would give. He gave a knowing smile and a fake breath of a laugh. "What about God? Don't you want to please God?" I was at once indignant, perceiving his question as trickery. Why doesn't he just talk to me? Why is he preaching at me? "Well, I suppose I wouldn't be happy if God isn't happy with me," I replied, something like that. I know he meant well, but I couldn't truthfully give him the answer he was fishing for at that time and I didn't understand why he'd choose to put me in that position rather than speak to me in an honest way. On that driveway with the lake in the distance behind him, I can't explain it, I felt him go. He'd left me, he'd left us. He was just my uncle then, a guy called my uncle. Perhaps some of his evangelizing were seeds that led me to the Lord. I must admit, I wish I could have kept my uncle in the process.

Cappie and Joe had three more children, his first girl named Jenifer. They moved around to many more churches and seemed to have a stressful marriage. When Stan and I decided to marry, the first person I thought of was Uncle Joe. He could marry us, I always thought he'd "marry me!" But after much discussion and pressure, he denied us. Stan wasn't ready at that time to take Christ as his Savior and Uncle Joe couldn't marry us if he didn't. My mother was angry, Stan was hurt, but I understood. It was Joe and his firm beliefs. So be it.

Years later, there would be much turmoil in his life, much disagreement in his marriage and his churches, much stubbornness. Uncle Joe was unhappy, trying hard to make things Right, the way he believed they should be. There were problems with the kids, one ran away two weeks before high school graduation. Uncle Joe had health problems, high blood pressure and early diabetes. The last time I talked to him he asked if he could take my kids to the beach when he came to town. I said I didn't know. Something made me feel uncomfortable about it, like he was depressed. I wasn't even sure I'd want to go with him. Then a few weeks later my mom called to tell me that his health was bad and he had gone on new blood pressure medication.

Something told me to call him and say these words: Uncle Joe, I love you. Please take care of yourself. We love you.

I never did. He died on his bathroom floor one morning. Aunt Cappie heard a crash. They'd been on the verge of divorce, something that would have and just might have killed him. Joshua, his only son, came to his funeral in flip flops. His daughter came with her new baby daughter and the boyfriend she'd run off with against the will of her parents. The guy wouldn't set foot in the funeral home, but sat out on the porch with his daughter until it was over. Later, he and Jamie fought loudly in the parking lot of the church where we were gathered to eat. Everything was painful. My grandfather at 90 had lost a child, his youngest son who'd called every Sunday to check on him and discuss the Bible, something they both loved to do. We had lost a light that had once touched us all beautifully. Our memories were a mixture of loving Uncle Joe as a that irresistible young kid and struggling to continue loving him as he became a stern, unflinching preacher who we sometimes could not fully understand.

His family is now scattered around the United States: New York, Texas, Georgia and Hawaii.
I have many tapes of his sermons. He knew the Bible and could teach it well and soundly. I listen to them from time to time and am comforted by his voice and his messages.

I'm sometimes visited by a hazy bittersweet memory of Uncle Joe. It was late one
night, 9 o'clock and dark. Seems like the fall. Mom and Dad and I were driving
away from Grammy's house after a visit. Uncle Joe and I had asked if I could
spend the night, but my parents said no. When we got in the car to leave, Joe
jumped on his bike in play, and followed our car out of the driveway and down
the dark country road. My parents were chuckling, looking back and driving
slower for effect and I was turned looking out the back window watching him
pedalling fast trying to catch our car. He was yelling my name, waving, telling
us to stop, not to leave. Even though I knew everyone was playing and joking, I
felt bad leaving him, my brother, my best friend. It still makes me sad to think
about it.

The story of Butch and Uncle Joe. Leave me a story of your uncle, if you have one to share.


Paul Nichols said...

My sister and I were born so late in my parents' lives that our memories of aunts and uncles boils down to just one: Aunt Crosie. Our first cousins are 15 to 24 years older than me. Kinda like uncles, then...

This is a good post.

rosemary said...

Uncle Sonny....the perfect Italian playboy and bad boy. He was a sailor with a girl in every port and wife at home. He was handsome, cheated at poker, ran numbers, sold stolen smokes, visited whenever he docked in California and loved me enough to bring me an accordion all the way from Italy. I have letters he wrote to me when I was a child....."Hi Rosebud, this letter is from your Uncle sonny who loves you a whole lot......"