“Ted, are you just about ready to go? We need to get to the family picnic on time, so I can set-up the games for your younger cousins.”
Marge Dalrymple lived for the annual family picnic. She was on the planning committee along with her two sisters, ran the games for the younger nephews and nieces, and supplied an inordinate number of salads, tossed and gelatin-based. Marge even made reservations at area hotels and motels for the out-of-town relatives who were a bit too problematic to stay at another relative’s house, like her older brother Daryl with all the bumper stickers on his car. She honestly didn’t care that he believed the moon landing was faked, but she wondered what the value was in promoting that idea via bumper sticker. Who’s really going to honk if they believe the moon landing was faked? Marge went out of her way to make sure that Daryl and his family were comfortable and enjoying the amenities of the Regal 8 Motel while in town, despite having an unoccupied in-law apartment at one end of her own house.
“Ted, did you hear …,” Marge’s voice trailed off at the sight of Ted arriving downstairs. She did her best to compose herself before continuing, “Ted, what is that doing on your head?”
“It’s Uncle Ed’s toupee, Mom. Dontcha recognize it?”
“Well, of course I recognize it,” a flustered Marge replied. “I want to know what it’s doing on your head. You’re sixteen years old with a full head of hair. It doesn’t even match your hair color or texture.”
“It never really matched Uncle Ed’s hair either, but he wore it anyway,” explained Ted. “And I kinda hafta wear it now. It wasn’t sitting well on my own hair, so …”
Ted lifted the front of the hairpiece to show his mother that he had shaved the top of his head.
“Oh. My. God. Look what Dorkenstein has created now,” commented Laurie, Ted’s older sister, as she breezed back into the house for her earbuds. She hoped jamming them in her ears would completely eliminate any possibility of having to speak with relatives at the picnic. “It’s just so, so you, dweeb. Not many people can pull off a shaved head covered by a bad wig that reeks of stale cigar smoke like you can.”
Ted shot back, “Shut up, Laurie. It’s Uncle Ed’s toupee.”
“Oh, really? What a shock! I thought it was a decomposing possum you found under our back deck.”
Marge did her best to regain control of the situation and keep the picnic on schedule despite this unexpected detour into the absurd. “Laurie, mind your business. Ted and I are sorting this out.”
“My pleasure. Enjoy your conversation with Little Lord Baldo,” said Laurie as she fluttered down the hall.
“Ted, what are you doing with Uncle Ed’s hairpiece?” Marge asked evenly.
“Well, I know you are slowly cleaning out Uncle Ed’s apartment, but I noticed his hair was still in there. This will be the first family picnic without him. He always loved the family gatherings, so I thought wearing it would kinda make it seem like he was at this one.”
On her way back out of the house, Laurie couldn’t resist deepening her voice and mocking Ted, “I always loved being a doofus, so I thought I’d shave my head and put roadkill on it.”
“Laurie, please,” cajoled Marge as the front screen door slammed behind her daughter.
“Ted, what were you doing in Uncle Ed’s apartment?”
“I’m in there almost daily. Sometimes I just sit there, Mom. It calms me a bit, kinda like Uncle Ed used to calm me.”
“He did? I didn’t know that, Ted. I mean, I knew he was your favorite uncle and you enjoyed visiting with him. You used to love those tricks he did with the half dollar.”
“Yeah, like when I was six. These last couple years when he was really sick, his hands were pretty shaky. He could barely hold a fork let alone do his sleight of hand.”
“I know, Ted. It was hard to watch. So, what did you do when you visited with him?”
“Sometimes nothing. We’d just sit, and he would smoke one of those Swisher Sweets cigars he liked so much. I hate to admit that when he’d offer me a puff on his cigar, I was afraid that I’d catch his cancer. I never took one puff. I wish I had now that he’s gone.”
Marge gently asked, “So, you sat there and said nothing while he smoked?”
“Toward the end, yeah. I was just being there more for him than for me. Back in middle school, he was there for me. We’d talk about everything. He got me through those three years. Uncle Ed. Not you or Dad. I mean, I’m not blaming you. I know you guys were busy working to pay for the house and food and shit. Oh, sorry. I meant stuff. Uncle Ed was just always there after school and very willing to talk. More importantly, to listen. He was my best friend.”
“Wow, that’s really sad on so many levels,” Laurie opined as she stood just outside the front screen door. “Middle schooler with no friends settles for older, disabled relative as best friend after being ghosted by the flowerpot on the front porch.”
“Laurie, please! Now what is it?” asked an exasperated Marge before Ted could explode.
“I need to get my book. Have you seen it? It’s a best seller titled ‘How to Make Friends by Being Related to Them.’”
“Shut up, troll,” screamed Ted.
“So clever. Ugh, never mind. I’ll look for it after you two are done with Ted’s psychoanalysis.” With that, Laurie retreated toward the car that her father was carefully packing with kid’s games, folding chairs, and a cooler.
“Don’t let your sister bother you so much, Ted,” his mother pleaded.
“She’s one of the reasons I needed Uncle Ed during middle school. He seemed to know exactly how I felt as the younger brother of one of the most popular girls in the school for the two years we were together.”
“I think he did know. Your Aunt Violet was very popular when we were kids. Ed was next in line in age. I’ll bet he knew exactly how you felt,” explained Marge.
“Although I find I don’t need our talks as much now that I’ve grown a bit in high school, I still miss Uncle Ed. I know how important he was for me. What he did for me. And now he’s just gone. Like, poof, he magically disappeared. Sometimes I just sit in his room, breathe in the lingering cigar smells, and look at his stuff you haven’t packed in boxes yet. And I’m not blaming you for packing his stuff up. I know you want an art room. It’s just that I miss him and want to hang onto memories and whatever else I can of his. I guess that’s why I shaved my head and am wearing his toupee. To honor and memorialize him.”
Marge reached for her son and hugged him as hard as a high school boy will allow himself to be hugged by a parent. “Wait right here, Ted,” said Marge as she headed down the hall toward the garage. She returned with a couple of boxes.
“If you really want to honor my brother, I can’t let you go looking like that. Your Uncle Ed would be okay with the T-shirt and shorts you are wearing, but he always had a special shirt over his undershirt.”
With that, Marge opened the boxes and unpacked a wide variety of Hawaiian, bowling, and retro-1950ish shirts. “Take your pick of any of these to wear to the family picnic. I think your relatives will get a kick out of seeing a younger version of Ed there. And take whatever shirts you want to keep for yourself. I never thought to ask you if you wanted any of them. They’re all washed and ready to give away. I can’t think of a better person to wear them than you. But sorry, the cigar smell is gone.”
Ted grabbed his mother and gave her a hug so hard that it elicited a startled “Oh!” from Marge. Ted quickly settled on a light blue bowling shirt with Ed monogrammed over the left breast pocket.
“Your uncle was quite a bowler before he got sick. You probably don’t remember back then. That was before he moved in with us when you were little.”
“But I remember him wearing this shirt. I like the silky feel to it and the monogram,” said Ted excitedly. “Can I look through the rest of them when we get back from the picnic?”
“Of course, you can. Whatever you want is yours. And if you’d like, we can start calling you Ed. You know your given name is Edward. You were named after my brother. We just started calling you Ted for short after Ed moved in with us. You know, to avoid confusion. Feel free to use Ed or Edward at any time. It’s your name.”
“Yeah, I thought about that, Mom. Thanks, but I think it’s best that there’s only one Ed in the family. That makes it easier to remember Uncle Ed. Ted’s fine for me.”
At that point, Ted’s father, Frank, came through the squeaky front screen door with Laurie in tow and announced, “Marge, the car’s packed except for your salads.” Upon seeing his son, he inquired, “What or whom do we have here? You look like your Uncle Ed ready for a night at the bowling alley.”
“See, Daddy? He’s gone totally unhinged. I’m not riding in the car with that,” declared Laurie pointing to her brother.
“Marge, is this all under control?” Frank asked hopefully as Marge nodded her assent.
“Great! You look swell, Ted. Laurie, you’ll ride up front with me. Wear your mom’s big floppy gardening hat and slump down in the car. Nobody’ll see you. Mom and Ted will ride in the back seats. Or is it Ed now?” Frank inquired.
“No, Ted’s my name. There was only one Uncle Ed.”
“So true,” agreed Frank. “I’m ready to pack those salads now, and then let’s hit the road. Maybe we’ll stop on the way for some of those cigars Ed liked.” Frank sent a wink toward his son.
“Mom!” exclaimed Laurie to no avail as Ted sported the biggest smile since one of his last chats with his Uncle Ed.