March 13, 2010
Okay, it’s not the next day. Still, I have more to say on the subject.
Anyway, when I told Mom Uncle Richard was in town, she reacted with simultaneous joy and anger. How wonderful! Why hadn’t he called her himself?
I decided to ignore the anger for the time being, figuring it wouldn’t help at that point to remind her the state of her relationships with her siblings. Instead, I focused on the joy. We (I) called Uncle Richard and told him yes, his sister would love to see him – and then I handed her the phone.
To say I will never understand my mom is probably an understatement, but after five years, she greeted her brother as if they’d talked yesterday. They laughed, they joked, they bonded – while I sat contemplating the fact that despite my love for everyone involved, I was an outsider. The go between. When they finished a few minutes later, she hung up.
“So,” I asked, “are you going to see him?”
“I don’t know, he’s going to call later.”
Now, call me crazy, but if it had been my brother, I’d have been at his hotel 10 minutes after hanging up. But then, I’ve never gone five weeks without talking to Eric, much less 5 years.
“Do you want to go now?” I prodded.
“No. He’s here for a week.”
Two days later, Uncle Richard called me again.
“So kid, where the hell is you mother?”
“I don’t know. At home? Why?”
“I’ve been trying to call her for two days, and she hasn’t answered her phone.”
See, that’s another thing about my mom, she doesn’t answer her phone. I promised Uncle Richard I would track her down and hung up. The great thing about Mama is that she only doesn’t answer when she knows the person calling. Strangers she’ll talk to anytime. So when I can’t get in touch with her on my cell phone, I cheat, calling her from my home phone – a number she never uses and so doesn’t recognize. It works every time.
A few minutes later, I was back on the phone with my uncle, determined to get him and my mom together before the week was up. It took a few more calls and 12 hours for everyone to think things over (What things, I wondered. Why couldn’t this be simple?), but the next morning, I picked up mom and we headed over to meet Uncle Richard.
We planned to have lunch at Showmars, not fine dining, but friendly and within walking distance of UR’s hotel. Mom and I pulled in as he was walking down the street. He’s had two heart surgeries since I’ve seen him, and I couldn’t help but notice how tired and drawn he looked. Mom, who hasn’t seen him in years, was equally surprised, but true to her nature couldn’t admit why. Instead, she covered her real concern and absence in his life with a triviality.
“Oh!” she said. “He’s bald! I don’t like that.”
“He’s not bald, Mama.”
“He looks bald.”
“He looks older.”
“Five years and two heart surgeries will do that to you.”
“Two heart surgeries?”
I ignored this plea of ignorance, hopping out of the car. After hellos and hugs had been traded, we headed in for lunch. Looking around at the spare restaurant – the billboard, counter and waiting cashiers – Uncle Richard said “What the hell kind of joint is this?”
He had chosen it, on the advice of his wife, my Aunt Judy, so I didn’t want to say anything disparaging. “Um, well, it’s nice enough.”
“Really? I try not to eat in places where you line up like cattle to order.”
“Oh. Would you like to go somewhere else?”
“No, no. You said your mama likes it, that’s good enough for me.”
So, up to the counter we went. Mom ordered her usual fish, I ordered a vegetable pita and Uncle Richard – he ordered a Jack Daniels. And this is when I remembered just how eccentric the Shirleys can be. How loud, and wild, and unruly. When the girl told him they didn’t have alcohol, Uncle Dick said, “No problem, I’m not suppose to drink anyway.” I exhaled. Then he looked at her partner, a young man of about 20, and said. “What about you? She says I can’t buy a drink, but you must have a joint you want to sell.”
In a second, I flashed back, remembering my cousin’s high school graduation. The party was at a nice hotel and everyone was on their best behavior. Until that is, my grandmother, Nanny Shirley, tried to sell my cousin’s friends drugs from her coat pocket. “Want to buy some coke,” she kept asking. To this day, I have no idea whether she really had any, but with Nanny, nothing was impossible. As I had then, I simply smiled – and tried to act like everyone went to Showmars to buy pot. Fortunately, the kid behind the counter took it well, saying only “Huh, I wish.” We got our food and sat down.
When I was little, Uncle Richard was the only one of Mom’s siblings who would drop by unannounced. He’d bring his guitar and he and Mom would sit at the kitchen table talking and singing for hours. One of my fondest memories is falling asleep to the sound of their murmured voices and music. It was great to have him in Charlotte, to see him and Mom laughing and happy. As happens, their talk turned to the past. All three of my uncles served in the military – Uncle Richard and Uncle Wesley in the Army, the youngest (my uncle Baba, or Rodney) in the Navy. For hours that afternoon, Uncle Dick talked about the years they spent in the service, including time in Vietnam.
I won’t go into the details, but I will say, this is what I love about lazy lunches with family. Back when I was a kid, no one much talked about the war or my uncles’ time in the service. The sum of what I knew was that Uncle Wesley and Uncle Richard got out as soon as they could, while Uncle Baba made it his carrier, spending 25+ years on various submarines, travelling all over the world, and getting married in Korea. As I sat listening to Uncle Richard’s anecdotes, each one sprinkled with hilarity, profanity and wisdom, I saw a side of him I had never seen before. His love for life and for his brothers was palpable.
As he ran down a list of the countries he had been to, I asked him if he was glad he had joined the service.
“You know, I am. I was just a dumb shit from Capital Heights. I’d never been outside a paper bag before then.”
And so it went. I knew I had hours of work ahead of me, but I couldn’t bring myself to end the afternoon. Instead, I sat quietly in that orange vinyl booth, absorbing the rhythm and solace of my childhood, happy to have even a small faction of my family together again.