His real name was Arnold, but he answered to other names. Some people called him Jim, some named him Skis, but I never knew why. He was different, a little odd – definitely marched to the beat of a different drummer than most folks.
As far as I know, he never drove a car. For certain, he didn’t own one. Instead he walked everywhere he went or hitched a ride with someone. He never married. He stayed with relatives and for only a short time had a place of his own.
I don’t know what jobs he ever held, if any. I suspect he just took odd jobs here and there whenever someone offered him some honest way to make a little cash. He never had much money, which was evident.
He didn’t have many words to say either. Every once in a while, he’d mutter something that you’d have to really strain to hear. You couldn’t tell what he was thinking or feeling because for the most part he guarded his thoughts and words, probably because he had been ridiculed on one too many occasions.
He was a mystery to me. Part of me was a tiny bit afraid of him, yet part of me wanted to get to know this strange man. He was my uncle, my father’s older brother.
By the time I was born, he was middle-aged, but I always thought of him as an old man. Many years ago, he passed away, but for some reason, this eccentric relative crosses my mind lately.
My husband and I lived in another state when my parents called to tell me that this uncle had died. I don’t imagine many people – other than a few relatives – attended the viewing or funeral. My uncle didn’t appear to have friends. Living so far away, I couldn’t attend either, and after the phone call announcing Uncle’s death, I felt like weeping.
Weeping for a man who no one, including me, really knew…or understood…or took the time to know or understand. And that made me incredibly sad.
My family alluded to his being a little “off,” maybe a mental illness or a nervous breakdown, but I never knew the real story. He often just showed up at our house unannounced, never strayed beyond the kitchen, never accepted the invitation to sit on the good furniture in the living room.
He’d only sit in a kitchen chair a few minutes, then jump up, pace back and forth, jingle coins in his pants pocket, look out the kitchen door, and then mumble, “See you” and he’d depart. My mother, who treated him kindly but found him exasperating sometimes, would shake her head after he left, say “That man’s too nervous,” and continue whatever she was doing.
Sometimes he appeared at the kitchen door holding out in silent offering a honey comb from the bees that he kept. I know he had discussions with my father, his younger brother, but for the life of me, I can’t remember one thing they ever talked about around our kitchen table.
A few vivid memories of Uncle from my childhood linger in my mind. A tiny trickle of water ran through a marshy area on our property with weeds, cat tails, and reeds growing around it then into a culvert under the road. In the spring, the little stream rushed with extra water from melting snows and rain.
I loved launching little plastic toy boats into the upper part of the steam and watching them sail under the road into our neighbor’s yard. One day, shod in my rubber boots, I trampled through the weeds to find the perfect spot to set a boat adrift. Uncle showed up, asked me what I was doing and growled, “You better watch out for copperheads.”
Snakes? The thought had never occurred to me, let alone poisonous ones. I gingerly picked up my boat, recoiled from the swampy area, and marched back inside, a little angry that he had spoiled my fun. My 10-year-old mind was divided about his warning. Part of me wanted to call him a silly old fool, but part of me believed him and thought he was looking out for my safety.
Another memory I harbor is of Uncle watching my father take pictures with his movie camera. One spring the huge lilac bush in our back yard was lush with fragrant blooms. Dad grabbed the camera to take pictures and told me to get in the shot too.
As soon as I moved to the bush, Uncle bent a branch down low and near to me so blossoming flowers would be in the picture with me. But he didn’t want my father to take his picture, just like the reclusive uncle not wanting to be noticed. And I realize today that I have only one picture of this uncle when he was a young man.
My parents and I lived in what once was my paternal grandparents’ house. When I was growing up, Uncle lived much of the time with his oldest brother, another of my uncles, whose home had a perfect view of ours. Uncle seemed drawn back to his childhood abode – our house – but never visited us for very long.
I often wonder if Uncle just couldn’t bring himself to stay long in our house because all the memories of childhood and particularly his deceased family overwhelmed him. As a toddler, he lost a brother to leukemia. His father, my grandfather, died when Uncle was eight. His only sister succumbed to cancer. Uncle lived with my grandmother until she passed away, and then middle-aged Uncle was basically left alone.
I know he didn’t deal well with death because I witnessed that first-hand. Uncle stayed with his elderly aunt and uncle from time to time, who lost their home to a fire. A few years later, his aunt – my great-aunt – passed away. It was summer and I was home from college at the time. My uncle showed up at our house, plopped down at the kitchen table, and did something he rarely did.
He looked straight at me and asked a question, “Are you going to town today?”
I looked back at him, noticed his weepy-looking eyes and answered hesitantly, “Noooo…I wasn’t planning on it.”
“Okay,” he answered, jumping up and starting for the kitchen door.
“Wait a minute,” I stopped him. “Do you need something?” I felt really sorry for him for some reason.
“I just wondered if you’d get me a new white shirt to wear to the funeral home,” he replied. “But never mind.”
I was actually impressed that he wanted to look presentable to go to Great Aunt’s viewing, so I told him I would run his errand for him. Did he want to go along? A brief look of panic crossed his face as he pressed some money into my hand, muttered his shirt size, and darted out the door.
That evening, looking uncomfortable in his stiff, new white shirt and tie, Uncle sat alone in a corner of a far room at the funeral home. No one really seemed to notice him; no one seemed to care to speak with him.
I quietly sat down beside him, noticed he looked upset, and asked if he was all right. He nodded his head yes, then hung his head and that’s when I noticed huge, quiet tears streaming down his face. It occurred to me that when Great Aunt died, he again lost one of the few people who probably were ever kind to him, one of the people he loved.
Because of his odd ways, people tended to shun him. And I was just as guilty as they were. But that evening was a turning point for me because that’s when I began to view this strange uncle as a real person with real hurts, fears, and the capacity to love. And I wept there with him, not so much for Great Aunt but for him. Years later, I again wept when Uncle left this world alone.
Even now, 30 plus years after his death, tears well up in my eyes as I think of this misunderstood uncle, lost in the world’s shuffle, that few people may even remember. Today I wish I had taken the time to really explore his life, ask him questions, and try to understand him.
Opportunities present themselves to us every day, often we just aren’t wise enough to embrace them at the time. When we realize we missed the chance to touch someone’s life in a positive way, it’s too late to make amends.
On this beautiful day, Page 18, Chapter 8, in my life’s book of Opportunity, I remember you, Uncle, but you’ll always be a mystery to me.
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