When I was a kid saying “uncle” to someone was the verbal equivalent of waving the white flag of surrender. My actual uncle took great pride in hearing the kids in his life scream or giggle cry that in the middle of a tickling frenzy. The tickling got way out of hand. It turned into a battle of wills between the victim and their own bladder. Many of us lost the internal conflict, there’s only so much tickling a kid can take before they spring a leak.
Similar games were played in my uncle’s pool. This added a whole other level of danger to the activities. There were multiple near drownings. Then there was that time when my cousin got chased by an angry swarm of hornet’s after he disrupted their nest. That wasn’t actually my uncle’s fault, it just happened in his yard. Joey had more than 30 reminders of that calamitous event. Eventually the swelling went down and the pain subsided. It was most unfortunate that some of the hornets found their way into his swim trunks. I bet he still can’t pass a nest without a flashback.
My Uncle was a loud, gregarious, larger than life personality. I remember childhood holidays spent at his house with a heady cocktail of emotions. Angst and wonderment were abundant in equal measure. We were amazed by the gourmet chef inspired meals and horrified by the table topics at dinner. It was a hazing ritual with elements of cannibalism and we all wanted to avoid the hot seat.
For the bulk of my childhood, Uncle Jack was married to Aunt Dolly. That marriage went off the rails some 30 years ago but the memories remain. Aunt Dolly was from the South and her mother Mimi made the trip North at least twice a year. I loved their accents and their sweet smiles. I had never heard of ambrosia until they came along. Who doesn’t love tiny marshmallows in a salad that doesn’t even pretend to be healthy.
Aunt Dolly told me I had a face like Venus, the Goddess of Love. She said that when I was in the height of my awkward ugly stage and no one was sure if it would all work out. She gifted me with a ray of hope that I would not always be an unattractive lanky tween with buck teeth and stringy hair. She saw my potential and it wasn’t just looks. She noticed when I did more weeding than the other kids and argued with my uncle to better compensate me. She paid attention to me when no one else did and I will always cherish her for that.
We spent a lot of holidays at my uncle’s house growing up. He had the big house with the pool and plenty of space. They had an Atari gaming system which was the sh*t in the early 80s (Breakout and Space Invaders, the best). I was usually by myself because the other kids divided into two groups of two. My brother with our cousin Joey and my cousin Jenny with Tammy, Dolly’s daughter from a prior marriage. They weren’t particularly mean, it was just clear that I wasn’t in the mix. By this point, I learned to read people and saw myself out before anyone else could make the suggestion. I split my time between Atari and my grandparents.
Meal times were the absolute worst. It was like a twisted family style version of Survivor minus the camera crew (or the exotic location). Most of the adults were inebriated by the time dinner was on the table. Dinner time always got pushed back to some ridiculous time like 9 or 10 O’clock, apparently drunk people are lousy at keeping track of time. My uncle was a fantastic cook so that offered some redemption.
While we ate, the topics would vary between politics and religion. If those topics got stale then someone at the table would be fodder for the discussion. This was awful. My uncle would spew merciless hateful nasty comments at whomever had the bulls eye. It was usually, Tammy. We were all too scared to speak out against him. This was his house, his food, his f*cked up show. I wish I could go back to 10 year old me at Christmas Dinner and say “what is your problem man, why do you need to pick on a 12 year old every damn holiday”. No one did that, that girl was verbally abused at 90% of holiday meals. I’m ashamed for all of us.
Like most people, my uncle wasn’t all bad. He was always thoughtful when it came to gifts for my brother and I. One year he gave us 10 speed bikes for Christmas. For our birthday, he gave us season passes to Great Adventure. Those gifts meant the world to us and gave us experiences and mobility that we would not have had without his generosity. I know he helped my mother financially from time to time, despite their thinly veiled animosity.
My mother hated my uncle. She would lash out from time to time but not enough to stop taking us there for holidays. They would often spar in alcohol/dysfunctional family fueled debates that were horrendous to witness. My mother stopped drinking in the 80’s and our trips there stopped a couple of years later. They disagreed on everything from politics, money and the best nursing home for Nana. They have remained on non-speaking terms since my grandmother died in the early 90s.
I haven’t talked to Uncle Jack in years. After his second marriage dissolved we lost touch and eventually he moved to Florida with his third wife. I have some contact with my cousins and his daughter contacted me this past weekend to tell me Uncle Jack was asking about our side of the family.
Turns out the third wife was on an information gathering mission. Honestly, I’m not sure if my uncle even inquired about us. When we spoke on the phone she cautioned me that my uncle is “forgetful”, that is code for dementia. My grandmother (his mother) had dementia and his wife wanted to know if my mother showed any signs. I haven’t noticed any at this point and I passed that along.
My uncle definitely has some dementia, it was evident to me in the few minutes that we spoke. His wife told me that they plan to move from Florida to Delaware in about 6 months. I cautioned her that a move would be disruptive to him. I work with people that have dementia and change is a real struggle for that population. He will likely decline from that move and he won’t bounce back, they never do. She has family near where they are moving so I understand the practical points.
In the handful of minutes I had with my uncle, I told him things that I thought would be meaningful for him. Like how I always think of him when I hear “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley. He wore that record out every December. I also told him how he made the best mashed potatoes that I ever had and that I was not able to duplicate them despite my best efforts. He chuckled out those memories and I think they resonated with him, if only for a moment. I see a white flag in his future and it’s sad, uncle.
*Photo credit attributed to: This is the Front cover for the Single Blue Christmas by the artist Elvis Presley. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, RCA Victor, or the graphic artist(s). Front cover of picture sleeve of original single release of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” (RCA Victor 447-0720)