U is for Uncle Len
Every family has its Uncles. And in every family of Uncles there's usually at least one funny one.
In my family it was Uncle Len, brother to my Grandfather (I know, it makes him a Great-Uncle), Uncle Wally and Aunt Ivy. The following is a short tale in which I remember Uncle Len and the tales he told.
"Goodnight, Uncle Len"
In the dark of the night . . . I lie awake and remember the time of uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters of parents and grandparents, whom I'd see again at Christmas and summer family picnics. These strange beings would come into my world twice a year, bringing their stories, their laughter, blowing smoke rings, pulling nickels out of my ears, cackling and hacking, cooing and wooing.
Uncle Len, youngest of three brothers - my Grandpa, Uncle Wally and him - ruled over by an older sister, Aunt Ivy. All of them from England, still wearing an aura of music halls and foggy streets.
Uncle Len, standing over us, slightly stooped, ruffling our hair, taking the stage . . . . "Kids," he'd smile, "did I ever tell you about the time we came over on the Titanic? or was it the Lusitania?"
"Now Len," Aunt Ivy warn, "Don't be telling those children your stories."
"How about the time I sold shoes? Have I told you kids this one before?"
He had--lots of times--but we'd pretend we hadn't.
"Don't encourage him," Aunt Betty said, raising her eyebrows and peering over her cat's eyes sunglasses.
Uncle Len has sold shoes in a small town store. He enjoyed it and had developed good relationships with his customers. Many had been coming to him for years. . . like Mrs Smith.
Mrs Smith was one of Uncle Len's regular customers. She was elderly so her visits were rare, but she always received a courteous welcome from Uncle Len. On this particular morning, she had come in looking for a pair of new shoes. In fact, she had a cutting from a magazine illustrating the very pair she was looking for - a pair of high heels in black shiny leather.
Uncle Len's shop didn't have this particular pair in stock. He could, he explained, order them and have them in in about a week or so; or--and here he'd pause for dramatic effect and lean in close to us just as he would have with Mrs Smith and whispered that he could tell her where she could find that the very pair of shoes. They were, he said, in the window of a rival store on the opposite side of the street.
"What do you think I did?" Uncle Len asks us. Even though we know, none of us is sure because we've heard the story told in different ways over several summers. Besides, before we can answer, Uncle Len tells us of his fateful decision.
Uncle Len always pauses at this juncture in the story, letting the suspense build until he can stand it no longer. Within minutes, he smiles, there's a screech of brakes and a sickening scream and an awful thud. Uncle Len runs out to see what has happened and lo and behold, the woman he's just been speaking to has been hit by a car crossing the street to buy the shoes in the rival shop, the very shop where Uncle Len had sent her.
"I felt terrible," he moans, wincing and hamming it up for us kids with occasional winks and nods to the sniggering adults who've all stopped talking to listen.
Although we've all heard this story before, it never fails to leave me anxious, wondering about the moral implications of the story. My quandary is augmented by Uncle Len's hangdog expression as if guilty of some heinous crime, as if he'd been the one to push the old woman into the path of the oncoming vehicle (this year it's a car, but last year it was a bus). And although the story is never resolved and maybe for that reason, we will continue to encourage him to tell us it again and again every summer thereafter, always denying that we've heard it before.
The years pass. We children have become uncles ourselves and parents. Aunt Ivy, Grandpa and Uncle Wally have all passed away. Family picnics fad into memory, as does Uncle Len.
One night the phone rings. Long distance. It's my younger brother Mark. "Remember Uncle Len?" he says, "Did you know he's not well? in the hospital . . . he's dying."
"I didn't even know he was still alive," I reply. "How old is he?"
Mark explains that Uncle Len is 93 and that Aunt Betty is with him. He's spoken to her and asked it it would be ok to visit. "Sure," she says, "But don't expect much, we're not sure how much he's aware anyone's around." Mark tells me he's going up to the hospital the following evening.
|Uncle Len and Aunt Betty (far left) with family|
A few days later, Mark calls again. Uncle Len was in a coma. Despite her advanced age, Aunt Betty had been keeping vigil nearly every night. "I don't know if he'll know you, Mark," she told him when he arrived, "but if you'd like to sit with him, you're welcome."
Mark sits down beside Uncle Len's bed and gently holds his hand. Uncle Len rests quietly, eyes closed, breathing shallowly, seemingly unaware of Mark's or anyone's presence. Nevertheless, my brother explains who he is and offers greetings from his nieces and nephews. After a prolonged silence, Mark then asks Uncle Len if he remembers a story he used to tell us at the family picnics. Mark retells the story as far as it goes, leaving Uncle Len's dilemma hanging in the air. Then, suddenly, in the silence, Mark feels a distinct squeeze of the hand and sees on Uncle Len's cheek a single tear. Aunt Betty smiles and wipes her eye.
A few days later, Uncle Len died. But before his spirit left this world, a story had fluttered up from the dark and distant past to alight on two hands joined in love. An almost unperceptible pulse of the heart across an ocean of time and space. A story remembered and returned with love.