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Creative Nonfiction Inspirational

It’s Labor Day afternoon, 2020. I take my seat in the tight semi-circle of my two cousins and their kids outlining the cluttered work area in the middle of my uncle and aunt’s small living room. My uncle fumbles or maybe trembles, I can’t tell, as he searches among his precarious stacks of papers, books, and magazines arrayed on tables behind him. His angular bowed body and sagging skin retain only the faintest whisper of the once vibrant, husky, tall man with a ready wit and scholar’s mind I’ve always admired. He deftly slides a finger into the jumble of items and brings forth a newspaper clipping dated February 1968. It has my name and high school photo filling one column reporting my first-place achievement at a speech contest. The clipping is yellowed but uncreased secured inside a letter that my grandmother wrote to this son 52 years ago.  

Uncle Lou is 80, ten years my senior. The cancer in his jaw and head deny him clear speech or any appetite. Broken vertebrae in his back that will never heal deny his  body the ability to stay upright for long, without excruciating pain. Still, he commands the small work table where he parks his wheelchair in the center of our mask-wearing family. His two sons have dropped by with lunch or groceries and a gaggle of  grandkids who head to the pool. Through the patio door, we can hear their laughter and life-affirming splashes out back. From his tiny platform, my Aunt Marilyn, his wife of 50 years, monitors his work space as she chats with us, searching for any small way to ease a burden that only he can carry. From time to time, he holds or rubs his head. Maybe this relieves the pain or perhaps this helps to keep his thoughts clear, I’m not sure.

He hands me the clipping and I read an article from our hometown newspaper about a minor acclaim I nearly forgot. I laugh as I recall how I breezed through the first round at the District Speech contest delighted to read my well-prepared interpretations of Emily Dickenson only to be given the abysmal choice of Archibald McLeish to interpret at the State level. I placed third. “That’s great to know,” comes the voice from the head he can’t raise up anymore. “Had no idea when I read that. Now we know the gory details.”

Then he laughs. Uncle Lou’s distinctive laugh is a more audible and welcome sound in the living room where we are keeping a safe distance from this fragile being.

And on it went for several hours, slowly over the course of one blessedly cooler September day in Chandler, Arizona. Back and forth between these brothers, my two uncles, the remaining pillars of my mother’s immediate family we volleyed bits of this and that:  where we were, who lived down the street, why that wasn’t how it happened, the garden behind their house, foods we made for celebrations. Of course, both uncles denied any memory of how they allowed me to fall out of a not-yet parked car once. While Uncle Lou was very eager to detail that Saturday morning he was roped into babysitting my brother and me when he was 13 and I was about eight, crying and swearing to our mother and his mother how he would never do it again. But of course, he did.

And we laughed. A lot.

I came here on Labor Day in the midst of a pandemic to spend a few days with my remaining uncles, the progeny of my grandmother’s second husband, another good-looking Italian man like the father of my mother.

 My mother left us first, much too early in 1974; another uncle and aunt passed on just a few years ago. These three were the children of my grandmother’s first husband who died when they were all very young. These two uncles sitting across from me are the last of five siblings. The lights within my family are growing dim too quickly. I feel the heat rise in my chest as I count the missed visits and opportunities to be with those other kin now gone and take a deep breath behind my mask and remind myself: ‘I’m here now. I’m here now.’

Uncle Lou’s brother, Uncle Jim, younger by two years and the baby of this family, directs me toward a cache of letters in a drawer in the end table next to my seat on the sofa and to several more bankers boxes on the dining room table in the next room. He tells me that he and Uncle Lou have been working on these piles for months. Uncle Lou saved every letter, card, note he received from his mother, my mother and other people in his life, since he left home at 18 in 1958. The brothers have opened each letter and made small notations on the envelopes to indicate something of their contents, simple words like “baby due soon” or “hope the weather is good for Christmas” so all five children and their families would be able to join together at grandmother’s house.

As I open one and another of my grandmother’s letters, even though it’s not addressed to me, I feel her hands, I see her in her house or apartment putting pen to paper. I smell one of her prize-winning pies cooling on the windowsill, I see her with my mother, needles pushing up and down on opposite sides of a quilting frame glancing up to laugh at Red Skelton on the black and white tv, I hear her voice talking about the prices of food, reciting poetry for me as a child as she does dishes, asking about one or another of my children,  or telling me that a certain cousin’s birthday is next week and she has to buy a card. She never forgot our birthdays. Even with grandchildren numbering over 20. She didn’t need a Google calendar; those dates were written on her heart.

The evening is closing in on us and it’s a 30-minute drive to my Uncle Jim’s house. I will leave early in the morning to fly back to New Mexico and the comfortable home with my daughter where I’ve quarantined since March. When I will return is not certain. As we stand beside the car and pretend hug and wave goodbye from the driveway, Uncle Lou wheels himself through the front door. I hear something but I can’t quite make out his words and my aunt interprets: “He says he loves you.”

I put myself back within the pale porchlight in front of him six feet away and reply, “I love you too” and tap my heart.

I know the next time I’m here there will be only one uncle and a widow at this house. We open may even open the boxes of letters for cousins who have gathered for a farewell remembrance, if COVID will allow. Searching through each shoe box or folder, maybe they will find what I discovered: a slice of their lives to reconnect them with a part they may have forgotten or delight them with something they never knew about themselves or their family.

I have saved only a few of my grandmother’s letters myself, safely stored inside a trunk that I have moved across the country far too often and rarely had time to open. I swear silently to myself that when I move into my new home next month, that trunk will be the first to discharge its contents so I can search through my boxes of photos and letters just to make sure they are still safe from mice and moths.

My children will find them one day, all the cards and letters they sent to me over the years before texts and emojis and email took away these slightly yellowed, gently creased and folded tactile connections with one another. I can’t imagine what they’ll do or how they will react. I don’t want to. They are already too swift to toss and declutter Christmas cards and invitations to school functions or birth announcements. I face the truth that they may not understand these are parts of who they are, fragments of their lineage, their history, their roots. Love made visible in the palm of their hand.  

The ride back to my Uncle Jim’s house is more silent than previous nights. We both feel the burden of what is ahead. In one hand is that yellowed newspaper clipping of a high school achievement and in the other is a recipe for a type of sweet pickles in my mother’s beautiful script which she wrote out for Lou’s first wife so I know that must come from a letter in the late 1960’s. Everyone commented on her penmanship. Lou says she was always proud of her handwriting.

I remember these pickles because they took so long to make, yet I cannot recall how they tasted. Next summer, from the garden I envision growing at my new home on the land in southern Illinois, not so far from where my grandmother was born and grew up, I will gather cucumbers and pull out this piece of notebook paper from its plastic sleeve and make “Sweet Ring Pickles” for the first time in my life. I didn’t know such a recipe existed until now and I bless my uncle over and over in my heart for his instinct to keep what might seem trivial and unimportant to others. My eyes fill up just looking at the handwritten lines  in my hand as I realize just how very few mementos of my mother I possess.

Her instructions are precise, and the task is tedious, 10 days tedious. Thanks to the divine foresight of Uncle Lou, my mother and I will join forces in the kitchen, curing ‘cukes’ as she called them, making brine, pouring off and renewing the syrup on successive days. For this brief time, the decades without her will fade and the distance between us will be as slim as the paper recipe in my hands.

I text my Uncle Jim when I arrive safely back at my abode the next day. We do this now all of us when we travel. It’s the times we live in to be concerned about a strange virus, air travel, and the crazy way people drive these days. I ask him to give the folks in Chandler a hug from me. Then add “Tell them I’ll send them a letter when I get unpacked.”  In a few days, I can see it take its place, safe among the others in my uncle’s house, waiting for another someday, perhaps for one of my grandchildren, to discover.

The next morning, there is an email from my Uncle Jim addressed to all of us cousins. His brother has signed himself over to hospice. Better meds, less pain, and for that I’m grateful. And for the one laughter-filled, cooler day in Chandler, Arizona when my grandmother’s letters transported us to another time and place, when we were all young and healthy, when this time seemed so far, far away even as I realize that in a few years all that may be left for me are these envelopes and letters in my grandmothers’ familiar scrawl.

I open up my computer to send a message to a daughter in the Midwest. We haven’t connected in several weeks and I want her to know about Uncle Lou. As I wait for the word document to open, I catch a glimpse of my box of notecards with a pair of dragonflies on the front, hesitate, and reach for a pen. 

August 18, 2023 18:09

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1 comment

Mary Bendickson
04:51 Sep 01, 2023

Family memories. Cherish them.


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