The Uncles

Clarence’s fern…

Dear Rosa,

It’s amazing the things we value. When I look at that photo of you with Mary and little Frank, I can only imagine its importance. It’s all I have of you and I’m so grateful it has survived all these years.

Of treasures I write and simple things. There’s nothing grand about my life – I’ll leave only memories and these stories. As I brushed past my fern today, it jolted me into writing this post. Because, although we have a plethora of ferns that grow in my yard and my driveway’s named “Fern Hollow” this beauty is something altogether different.

This was Clarence’s fern.

A few years ago, I was visiting my brother here in town. His wife, my sweet sister-in-law, asked if I wanted a cutting from one of her plants. Let me back track and tell you that Cheryl has a green thumb like none other does. Plants thrive under her gentle care and this one was enormous.

But a fern? Really?

I’ve just divided it, Cheryl said. You have to every few years or it’ll get too big.

Um, thanks?

She caught my dubious stare and explained.

It was Clarence’s fern. I’ve had it since he died.

But that was 30 years ago!

Her smile said it all. Something so treasured, so important deserved a chance to thrive.

I took the small plant, given by someone who understood – this was all that she had left of Clarence. It was up to me to keep it alive, like she’d done for so many years.

It took a while to learn its rhythms. When to water, when to not. Where to place it so it got the right amount of sun. Imagine my fear when it seemed to be withering and my joy when it launched itself into full growth.

Ah, the dickens that fern has caused.

Birds fly into the window, thinking it’s just a natural part of the forest. I hear that dreaded thump and cringe. At least they’ve all recovered. I’d hate for my fern to be a bird-killer.

It’s showing its michevious side now that it’s reached maturity. Snags my youngest daughter’s hair each time she passes by. When she grumbles, her older sister responds… he’s just giving you a little hug.

So now that bad-boy needs dividing. You might be tempted to ask, will I tackle that job?

Heck, no. I’ll just kill it.

With Christmas eve coming and as Cheryl’s hosting this year, I may just have to bring that beauty with me. I’ll bundle it up in cute fern pajamas, protect it from the snow and cold and beg her to do the dirty deed.

I know that with her gentle touch, Clarence’s fern will live on to torment another generation.

Here’s to you, Clarence. I miss you. I’m so glad a piece of your joy lives on.

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The Uncles

Fly boys…and a girl, sort of

Dear Rosa,

Five of your grandsons served in the Second World War but you wouldn’t know that. You passed before the War to End All Wars even began.

Dad, my dad, trained to be a fighter pilot. Too young to serve in the war, he missed the atrocities, finished his active duty without the black memories that scarred his brothers. Couldn’t continue training, Gram wouldn’t allow it. Wouldn’t see another of her boys in danger. But he found a way, years later, when he got his private pilot’s license.

Hiram, my dashing uncle, handsome and bright and full of life. That’s how I’ll always remember him. He only came to visit once or twice a year when Gram was still around. Visited less when she passed. He lived out-of-state with his beautiful wife, Rae and god how I idolized them.

Hiram called me “Kitten,” and always had a smile. Ray was a petite southern lady with impeccable manners, impeccable dress. When she asked how I was, she’d pat my arm and say, wonderful, dear. You’re a beautiful girl.

Kind words from strangers.

I wished they lived closer.

Hiram was an aerial gunner in the Air Force. Think he was the one shot down over enemy lines. He, like his brothers, never talked about the war and I never dared bring it up. Closed subject. Life was now and he had no time to dwell on painful memories.

Hiram and Rae went dancing every Saturday night. I never saw them, but it took little imagination to see them gliding across the floor, without effort, with the practised skill of 40 years of togetherness. Rae called him “Terry.” Couldn’t understand where that nick-name came from, especially since his last name was Ferry… (I’ll let you sound it out).

Rae died first. Hiram soon after. Sad, but somehow it seemed fitting – they simply shouldn’t be apart.

I’ll never learn to fly a plane, not like my dad. I’ll never do anything heroic, not like Hiram, but when a chance came recently for me to jump in a helicopter, well… some genes just dominate.

What a blast.

The Uncles

Paul

Dear Rosa,

I wonder if you knew that quiet spoken man who married your grand-daughter, Lilah. Paul Dole, my uncle. My favorite uncle. He was much older than Lilah, by some twenty years, and yet I felt their connection even as a kid. He was loyal to her. I loved seeing them together.

When the uncles would gather at Gram’s, Paul would take the chair by the door. An unobtrusive place and it was way too small for his bulky frame. Kind eyes. He had the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. When I heard Paul was visiting with Lilah, I would rush down to Gram’s and risk her wrath just to see him. I guess he meant so much because he noticed me.

How’s school going, Sue?

He knew my name.

Are you still playing the violin?

He noticed my passion.

Keep going, it’ll get easier.

He encouraged me when no other uncle did.

Paul was a man of few words when at Gram’s, but he seemed okay with sitting there and taking in all the conversation. He’d sip his coffee, never in a rush and I swear peace just radiated from him. Found out later he served in WWI and was a Free Mason. Like others who served in the Great War, he refused to talk of it. Unlike others in my family, he didn’t resort to the bottle to numb the memories.

Many years after his death, I was visiting his daughter. She was clearing out her parent’s house and offered me her dad’s violin. What a gift. What a treasure.

I played as long as I could until arthritis set in, but don’t feel sad, I never was that good. Not like my daughter who plays so beautifully. I feel his song travel through the generations, down through Paul, to me, to my daughter and I’m so grateful for the gift of music.

I wish my kids could’ve met him, known his kindness, seen his beautiful smile and those amazing eyes. I wish I could’ve heard him play.

The Uncles

Clarence and Prince

Dear Rosa,

So, you must have known how much your daughter, Mary, loved dogs.  I was too young to have met most of them, but I remember Prince.

Prince, so grandly named, was a spit of a dog, a tiny chihuahua – and mean, too. In Vermont when we want to emphasize how over-the-top something is, we say “wicked.”

Prince was wicked mean.

One day, Clarence arrived at Mother’s with a gift for Prince. Bought him a small rubber ball on a long rubber string. Mary watched without speaking as he tied the string onto the handle of her good cookstove then sat down in his red velvet rocker and waited.

Didn’t take long for the little mongrel to figure out a good use for that ball.

You’d know the layout of her kitchen, Rosa, but others wouldn’t and it’d be best if they did. The cookstove lined one wall, then there was a pass-through to a side pantry, then Clarence’s chair was tucked into the corner.

So, onto Prince and his new toy…

A perfect size that ball, fit neatly into a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. A little experimenting and he figured out the rubber string. Clarence watched, narrating as it progressed.

Look at that little twit… his eyes fairly twinkled.

Prince growled and began backing up, with the ball in his mouth.

He’s up to no good… Clarence’s beautiful smile appeared.

A few more steps and Prince cleared the kitchen, passed through the dutch doors and into the dining room.

Clarence held his breath now, and watched Prince back up and take aim straight at him.

He’s gonna let it fly…

One final step and Prince could not get any more give from the rubber string. He growled and yanked, but it wouldn’t go further. So he did what Clarence predicted. He opened his mouth and let it fly.

Clarence ducked as the ball whizzed past. Into the pantry it headed and crashed into all the pots and pans that lined the open shelves. A holy ruckus it made and Clarence just roared.

Gram just sat in her spot atop a tall stool on the other side of the cookstove and grinned.

He’d keep at it, gathering the ball, backing up and launching at Clarence… until the string broke. Clarence simply tied it on again, but it lost some of its charm as the string got shorter and Prince could no longer create havoc with it.

Prince was wicked mean, but he did have a sense of humor. I guess I can forgive him all his nastiness.

He did make my uncle smile.

The Uncles

Clarence

Dear Rosa,

He was beautiful, your grandson, Clarence, wasn’t he? Ignorant to the future and perhaps that was for the best. He grew into a handsome man, movie-star really and just look at those eyes.

I remember him when he still drank. I was just a kid and it scared the crap out of me when he showed up at our house, slurring his words and striking out at dad. Henry seemed to understand and quietly bundled him up and took him home to sleep it off.

What drove you to such excess, Clarence? Was it the war? What ghosts were chasing you?

He sobered up soon after and settled into a life limited by a weak heart. I’d see Marcia, his daughter -I’d see the stress and just know; her father had another heart attack, or stroke. He had too many to count.

We pilgrimed to St. Anne’s Shrine, the whole family and spent a beautiful summer day praying for Clarence’s heart. Let him be healed, I prayed, if only so he can watch his daughter grow up.

But it was not to be.

He’d sit in the red velvet rocker placed by one of the windows in the kitchen – his favorite place at Mother’s house – and watch life go by. How incredible frustrating to be young and strong and not be able to participate. So he’d get mad and ignore his condition. Stacked a cord of wood today, by tha’ Jesum, he’d say. Only he called it “hood” and laughed like it was the funniest thing ever. Then he’d end up in the hospital.

Served in World War II as a cook on a ship. Not sure, but was told it was at Pearl Harbor. It didn’t need to be anything so dramatic, he still came back scarred. I saw the tatoo on the top of his hand and had to ask, What was it like, the war? Clarence simply stared at me, blinked and looked away. Rough, was his sole reply.

I never asked again.

One beautiful fall day, the kind where it starts out cool and ends up warm, I was walking home from school and saw her, my cousin, Marcia. I didn’t need to be close to read her expression, didn’t need her to explain the tears. I knew before she even said the words.

“Daddy’s dead.”

They echo in my heart even today.

She was barely 15. It was my sixteenth birthday. Clarence was just 53 years old.

Sometimes, life just sucks.

The Uncles

the Uncles

Dear Rosa,

Eight children – six boys your daughter, my grammy, had. What a brood. But then, Irish Catholic families had lots of children. My best friend in Northfield was but one of 11!

You lived just across the street from Grammy and I can only imagine you were a help. Such shenanigans they must have engaged in…  I wonder, Rosa, look at how you’ve aged in this photo – see what thirty hard years have done. Sad to think, you would soon be buried. That’s you with Clarence. He wouldn’t live even as long as you did.

They grew into strong men, my uncles, all that served with pride in World War II. Each one has a story to tell and later I’ll share some of them with you. For now, I thought I’d share how they impacted my life.

Vibrant, loud, crass, my grammy’s house would be transformed when they converged from all parts of the country. Roger from Georgia, Hiram from New Hampshire, Earle from Burlington and Everett and Clarence from just nearby. What an event it would be when all gathered and how grumpy Grammy would become.  I spent the better part of my childhood there, only to be kicked out when she cooked dinner for them. Strange and harsh how us grandkids were never welcome, but we weren’t her children, we weren’t her “boys.”

You raised her to be fierce, and loyal. Sad, that you wouldn’t know, Rosa, that her grave marker simply says “Mother.”

Grammy would fire up the special kerosene stove in the side pantry and cook up a storm. The dining room table would be pulled out, cleaned of all her beloved knick-knacks and set with the fine china. And then they would arrive.

Such an event that I could only watch from a distance. My cousin, Marcia, and I would wander Northfield and grumble. We didn’t need her, we’d find our own source of fun.

But we never did. The uncles got Grammy for the weekend and we were told to stay away.

They’d leave my father a long list of chores. Fix the roof, Henry and paint the living room. It always pissed my mom off when they’d go and dad was left to do the work. He did it without complaint, though, she was his mother. And he was the baby of the family.

You would’ve been proud of them, Rosa, and pained to know how many died young and how many were taken by the alcohol.