We sat at the table in his kitchen. Coffee had been brewed, or was brewing. We each had a cup.
Actually, I wasn’t there. My wife was. My uncle was telling her about stewing and canning hot peppers. He gave one of the last jars he had to her to take home.
There were other jars on the stairs, he told her. He could always make more.
Leap back twenty years or so, to a night in July or August. I’m inside the great room they’d just built onto the back of their house, sneaking a look at The Specialist on television. I never saw the movie all the way through, but I knew enough about it from previews to know that I’d just stumbled upon one of the steamier scenes between Sharon Stone and Sylvester Stallone.
Maybe fifteen seconds pass before I hear him yelling from out on the pool deck, through the open window, “Oh, no. Not in my house.”
Leap forward another handful of years to a Thanksgiving at our family home. He has all sorts of short mystery novels to read, but asks instead to read something of mine.
I’m a junior in college, and have just gotten serious about writing. I hand him a story about a man and a woman who’ve just lost a mutual friend.
When he finishes reading he doesn’t say anything about the story. What he does say lodges itself fully and clearly in the doorway to this particular memory.
If you want to do this, then do it. Go all in. No excuses.
My cousin was doing his medical schooling down in Florida. They drove down there together to visit the school.
During the drive, my uncle experienced stiffness in his knees and ankles.
A day later, my mother was boarding a plane with my aunt to fly to Florida.
It still shakes up my cousin. Of course it would.
At his wedding, several years after his father died, when he stood and thanked everyone for coming he choked up when he began talking about his father.
There were pictures of him on a table along the wall.
They had left a chair open for him at the head table. A place of honor.
I think for a while my cousin — the newlywed, the doctor — had to have felt guilty. I can imagine his thoughts: if not for the car trip, if not for his wanting to attend medical school in Florida, instead of in Cleveland or anywhere else closer to home, he might still have his father.
At that time, things had been looking good. My cousin and my uncle were working out together, eating right. Accountability buddies, sort of. My uncle had the Eat-Clean Diet cookbook and talked about how much he loved the white bean chicken chili recipe.
It was his heart. He’d had a procedure done a few months before, and had been warned by his doctor that if things didn’t change diet-, stress-, and exercise-wise, then he would likely find himself at the bottom of a pretty steep hill.
So my uncle and cousin went to the Buehl Club in Youngstown and hit the weights. My uncle started walking the Hubbard High School track, just like my grandfather had done when his lifelong cigarette addiction had finally climbed on top of his chest and started stamping and stamping.
We used to go when we were younger to a cabin in Pennsylvania. My grandfather, the one I just mentioned (lifelong smoker; track-walker), owned some land in Cook’s Forest. The cabin was more like a house, with upstairs bedrooms, a barn outside, a wide lawn I remember as being big enough to host a small peewee football tournament, and a fishing pond that had to be fenced in to keep out black bears.
There was a river nearby. I canoed that river with my father and my uncle and cousins. We saw hawks floating the currents above us. I was young enough and naive enough to think they were eagles nesting in the cliff face rising up in our right side.
- My uncle, a carrier strapped to his back, one of his sons sitting up inside, impossibly young-looking. Both give the camera cool, dead-serious looks.
- My father and uncle in a canoe.
- Sunlight through trees.
Another memory: that pond. There’d been a water snake, a poisonous snake, I don’t know what kind of snake (black snake? Water moccasin?) in the water.
My father and uncle took out a hard plastic case. Inside this case was a handgun, a little silver revolver. Also ear mufflers. I got to put the ear mufflers and for a while I stood outside and watched my uncle aim into the water and fire. Fire. Fire.
My mother took me inside and I watched them through the window. I felt huge, connected to the protective act my father and uncle were engaged in. What if the snake got in the house or slithered into the grass where we kids were playing? It had to be dealt with. My uncle fired. I wore the mufflers and watched and felt huge inside.
I wrote another story in grad school, about two brothers on the afternoon of their father’s funeral.
The younger brother, a nerdy kid, gets caught in a compromising position by the older brother, who has just come home after spending the night with his girlfriend. There’s a struggle; the older boy hits his younger brother across the face and the ring he’s wearing leaves a mark on the boy’s cheek.
The funeral comes and goes, and the burial. At the house afterward, the younger brother tries to get his older brother in trouble with his girlfriend by telling her about getting hit in the face and cut by the ring in his older brother’s hand.
She leaves, and the older brother leaves, but later the brothers, finding themselves together in a bit of a lull, drive way out into the country to launch a model rocket. The older one tells the younger he can’t just say things like they are all the time.
The younger brother doesn’t know what to do with this bit of wisdom, but he feels his brother trying to help him, trying his best to do right now that their father is gone.
I shared this piece with my cousin, asking for his feedback. I was trying to reach out to readers, develop an audience. Get feedback on my writing. (This was before I’d even considered blogging.)
My cousin wrote back with three pages of comments. Criticisms. Concerns. Encouragement. He was in his residency at the time, in Cincinnati, living with the woman he would soon marry. I asked him because he had asked me about my writing in the past. He was super busy, and yet he still had time — made time — to say he felt like the writing was the kind of thing he’s read in a magazine.
He worked as a shoe salesman. Before that, he worked as a sawyer out in Oregon. One of his co-workers made his own wine. “Dago Red,” he’d called it. My uncle said the wine had come to the mill in a handle jug made of green glass. It tasted thick. Rich. It tasted like the wine a neighbor of his had fermented in his basement.
We drank some.
This was on that Christmas when he’s stewed and canned the hot peppers he told my wife about over coffee. That had been the morning after the wine. The morning after the last Christmas we’d spend with him.
At that time he had been taking computer courses. He was trying for a better job, a more stable gig. A securer future.
He and my aunt had given everything they had to their children. Their oldest daughter has two daughters of her own now, and she does the same for them.
One of them was just baptized. She cried when the priest scooped the baptismal water over her head.
I know her mother, my cousin, was thinking of her father when this happened. I know this because she told me more than once that she feels his presence all the time, especially during the big moments and especially when her daughters are involved.
She has said she felt his presence at the birth of both of her daughters, for example.
And her brother, despite his staunch resistance to church-going, seems to feel a similar presence. There was the empty chair at his wedding, for example.
There are the photos of the man all over. Especially of that last Christmas. He was sitting on the couch with my aunt and mother and father. All of us kids stood behind, making serious faces, then silly faces. My cousin and brother in one shot stand holding up my youngest brother above both their heads.
It’s a little agonizing not to have been more mentally present at that event. I have so little in my guest-room closet of a memory that pertains to that day, that couple of days. I remember the photos, and the talk about the wine, and drinking the wine. I remember my uncle had donned a Santa hat when it came time to exchange gifts.
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? You’re never as present in any moment as you should be. Maybe we could be, if we all the time thought to ourselves, “Gee, this could be the last time we’re all together like this. I should pay attention, just in case.”
What triggered this reminiscence?
Fellow blogger and friend Marsha Nathanson has recently put up several achingly powerful reminiscences of her own on Medium. Each post has brought back to mind those people who’ve left marks on me, set examples which I feel I ignore at my own peril, and otherwise have just really, really, really been missed.
And there’s this:
The other night, my wife said, not for the first time, that she thinks our house is haunted.
“I know I’ve felt your uncle hanging around,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it.
She couldn’t believe I couldn’t believe it.
“He really was proud of what you were doing with your writing,” she said.
I hadn’t thought so. I remembered him saying almost nothing to me the one time I shared a story with him. Maybe he told other people stuff he never told to me himself. Maybe he hoped his message would spread and overtake me, seeming more powerful coming from multiple channels.
Maybe, again, I just hadn’t paid enough attention.
I mentioned his influence on me in an author’s note I wrote to accompany a piece of fiction I had published in Souvenir Lit.
They kept a garden. The zucchini: big around as a runner’s calf muscles. They grew tomatoes, too. Peppers.
He said he could always make more of those stewed peppers; my wife and I savored that jar he gave us. It was the last jar of the last batch of peppers he would ever stew.
His son pickled garlic for us. And his wife, my aunt, gave us applesauce, stewed tomatoes. She still makes jam. Her raspberry jam may be the best I’ll ever have.
He was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan.
He told my father a story when I was super-young (ten, maybe twelve) about this kid who’d played shortstop on his Pony League team.
This kid, according to my uncle, got to every ball, made every throw. Had grace. Could have been great. A pro, even.
Until one day, when he was mowing the grass, he pulled the lawnmower back over one of his feet.
He’d laughed a little as he said this — not in a condescending way. It had been a wincing laugh, a deeply empathetic laugh, which carried a lot more knowing and regret and understanding — and probably identification — than I could grasp.
I republished this post on my profile at Medium.com