At the time it did not at all seem odd that Uncle Jack lived with us, though none of my friends, in fact nobody that I knew, had an uncle in residence. That seemed not to matter, perhaps it did not even occur to me. Uncle Jack was a member of our household, he simply was there.
My folks and I moved into the first house they owned when I was five years old. Along with the three of us, Uncle Jack at age thirty-four and his mom, my grandmother, moved in too.
Uncle Jack had not had an easy childhood. He was three years older than my mom, the youngest of her three brothers. Their dad died of pneumonia when my mom was almost two, Uncle Jack not yet five years old. In all the years I knew him, Uncle Jack never once spoke of his childhood. Not a word.
It was the early 1920s and their mom, like many immigrant women of the time, had no education or skills and did not even speak English. She was simply unable to provide for four children, the oldest barely thirteen. Thus the three boys spent time intermittently in what was essentially an orphanage.
As a young man, Uncle Jack was considered attractive; tall, lean and muscular. The picture in his high school yearbook, as well as the picture of his college graduating class, shows a young man with dark hair, lively eyes and handsome features. He was very popular with women and had many girlfriends over the years. He never married, though, and often would say about women, particularly in response to my mom's relentless sisterly encouragements, "They try to get their hooks into you."
While Uncle Jack was a member of the household, he was in some ways apart from my folks and me. My grandmother, a warm, wonderful and always elderly woman, cooked his dinner and he often ate at a different time than we. He went out at night, to places and with people unknown. He usually got up later in the morning than everybody else. For a number of years I did not know where he worked and had only a vague idea of what he did. Uncle Jack was not silent or withdrawn, in fact he could be friendly and charming, but it seemed somehow he had less to say than he might, always just a bit distant as if one could never get very close.
Still, he often joined us for the typical evening activity of the 1950s -- watching television. Many times he accompanied my folks and me on daytrips to a beach or lake or park. For my special birthday parties when eighteen of us ten- or eleven-year-olds spent the day playing baseball with a cookout, Uncle Jack participated with us, picking up and delivering my friends and helping along with my folks to control the child mob. At holiday dinners with extended family, he was affable but seemed to prefer to stay quietly in the background.
I was very fond of him and I believe he was of me. He bought me my first baseball glove and a couple of times took me, just he and I, to Boston for Red Sox games. He drove me to school sometimes when I was running late. He never failed to remember my birthday. He was easy to be around and enjoyed telling bad jokes.
"How Long is a Chinaman's name ..."
I never thought of Uncle Jack as a father or a brother, but he was to me far more than an uncle. I am confident that he thought of me as more than a nephew. In the lifetime I knew him, we never exchanged a cross word.
Uncle Jack was a bit odd. My mom a few times said he was peculiar, in part but not entirely a result of his failure to heed her relentless entreaties to marry. He would suddenly, out of the blue and for no discernible reason recite a line or two from a quotation or poem. "Omnis Gallis tres partes est divisit" from Caesar's writing that he had doubtless learned in high school or "I shot an arrow in the air, it fell to earth I knew not where." Or he might deliver little ditties; "I never went to college, I never went to school, but when it came to dancing I was a shagging fool." But these and other habits were to me endearing.
Sometimes I wonder if he held back intentionally to avoid possibly intruding on the bond between my dad and me. He had not grown up with a father, indeed his intermittent time in the orphanage had precluded even being in a stable family setting. Perhaps he simply did not know quite how to act in the secure family in which I grew up.
At age eighteen I left home to go to college. Within a few years my grandmother died, my folks moved to a smaller home, Uncle Jack moved into an apartment in town where he lived alone for most of the rest of his life.
A visit home to see my folks often included Uncle Jack, whom my mom frequently invited for dinner to coincide with my visit. I was always happy to see him and we would greet each other warmly. He continued to attend holiday gatherings and when my folks visited me and my family over the next decades I often asked my mom to bring Uncle Jack along. Uncle Jack continued to be a happy presence even as attention was focused on others.
Gradually, Uncle Jack's hair turned white and sparse, he became stooped and frail, he needed a walker to help him. The orphanage where he had spent part of his childhood had evolved into a nursing home and that is where Uncle Jack went. The building was modern and in a different location but Uncle Jack was back where he had begun. If he recognized the irony of the situation he never mentioned it.
Entry did not seem to trouble Uncle Jack at all -- except for the fate of his automobile. He had owned for many years an old Mercury Grand Marquis which he had rarely driven those last few years but there was no place for it at "the home" and the idea of giving it up distressed him greatly. With no solution forthcoming, I offered to take it to my home in the neighboring state and keep it in my driveway, promising that it would be returned should he leave the nursing home. He immediately agreed and was delighted when I reported to him that I had cleaned it thoroughly inside and out and it had been inspected and routine maintenance performed. On my subsequent visits to him I would always report on the car and he would listen carefully, smile, and say nothing.
I last visited him in very early summer on a trip to town to see my folks. As usual I arrived in his room unannounced and as usual we greeted each other with the same measured warmth typical of fifty years. I noticed atop his nightstand the birthday card I had sent him a couple of months earlier. After a few minutes he handed me without comment a piece of paper which was his signed medical directive to avoid any extraordinary treatments or resuscitation. I read it, handed it back to him and said, "Okay, Uncle Jack."
Uncle Jack died in mid October, 2004, thereby missing by weeks the Red Sox World Series victory. He was eighty-seven years old.
At his funeral several members of the Masons appeared. They approached my mom, Uncle Jack's last living sibling, who allowed them to perform some Masonic reading. Just like Uncle Jack, I thought; none of us had even known he was a Freemason.
My grieving was not difficult. Thinking of him might prompt a smile or a shake of the head. He had so few possessions after entering the nursing home there was little through which to go. His automobile, which we had dubbed The Jackmobile, was sometimes driven as a convenient extra vehicle.
One morning, a few months after his death, alone at the kitchen table reading the newspaper I suddenly had a very odd sensation, a sense that Uncle Jack was nearby, just around the corner or perhaps in the next room. I was not at all frightened or alarmed by this, merely thought it very strange. It lasted only moments. My reaction was a simple shrug of the shoulders and a "huh."
Every few weeks this same strange feeling would recur, unpredictably and irregularly, always when I was alone, always very briefly. There was no sound, no shadow, no sense of movement. I usually let the moment just pass though I admit I once did get up from my chair and walk into the next room -- just to see. Of course there was nothing. I wondered why this was happening and concluded that it was just the way I perceived Uncle Jack to have been; in the background, sort of out of sight, apart. I was not distressed at all by this, merely found it curious.
Then I had the dream.
I am standing in front of my old house, the house in which I grew up, the house in which I lived with Uncle Jack. The house was on a hill and there were eight or ten concrete steps from the street to a small landing and then another three or four concrete steps up to the level of the house.
There, on the landing, his back to the house, stands Uncle Jack. It is the Uncle Jack who lived in that house, lean and tall and erect, his hair dark and full, his skin taut, his features sharp. I am so excited to see him and jump up into the air and exclaim, "Uncle Jack!" I do this three times.
Uncle Jack says nothing but the expression on his face tells me he is so very pleased at my joy in seeing him. I move forward to shake his hand or perhaps embrace him but he puts his hand up, palm out, in a gesture to stop and I know I must not touch him. Then he wordlessly places something in my hand, I do not see what.
And then I woke up, the dream clear in my memory as it is today.
For whatever reason I never again sense Uncle Jack nearby, around the corner, in the next room.
Originally appeared in the spring issue of Existere - Journal of Art and Literature.