all of the selves we Have ever been
They called each other “Brother.”
I loved that about them. Brother was not a mere casual greeting;
clearly, it meant something.
I called each of them “Uncle.”
They were different from one another in so many ways. Uncle T was taller than Uncle John. Each had a different build and a different carriage. Their voices were distinct and unmistakable, and each had a unique temperament. One had seen the horrors of war, the other the ravages of polio.
But both married their young sweethearts, and they stayed married until death did them part. Both had large families to whom they were devoted. They started a business together and worked side-by-side for a lifetime.
Uncle John was the back door uncle. Every evening at 5:00 PM, the door slammed shut at the family grocery store next door. Soon the jingle of his impressively full key chain could be heard as Uncle John walked the short path between the store and my grandmother’s house. Next, the top of his hat would appear just above the kitchen windowsill, and then there he stood inside the kitchen door. Uncle John would scan the counter top for samples of the delicious food that could often be found there. He would sample just a pinch—what he could scoop up between his thumb and index finger. Uncle John would chat for a few moments then slap his thigh with the rolled-up newspaper he carried with him from the store. This motion signaled his impending departure. He was heading out the door to his own home.
Uncle T was the front door uncle. Every night about 11:00 PM, the door to the long front porch would squeak. Uncle T’s footsteps fell heavy against the old wooden floorboards as he made his way to the front door. Uncle T would check in and say goodnight and then return to his own home a block away.
Every evening and every night, as long as our grandmother’s house stood occupied, there they were. We lived surrounded by and secure in their love for us. It was like the sun coming up and going down. We counted on it, and took it for granted.
During the week, they were never too busy to take a restless brood of children swimming on a hot summer day or for an evening ride to the custard stand. As we got older, they slipped twenty dollar bills into our palms whenever we reached out to hug them farewell. Sitting in church they might slide into the pew next to one of us and slip a silver bracelet into our pocket. They appeared at all of the important events in our lives and carried the weight of every disaster. They took separate flights when traveling long distances-just in case--one of them would be there to take care of things, of us. They made the tough decisions when the time came to close the family grocery store, to tear it down, to sell our grandmother’s house…They were the bookends that supported the stories that became our lives.
Through the years the brothers spoke on the phone each night. Uncle T would call Uncle John, to say, “Goodnight, Brother.” My cousin, Marcia, had moved back to her family home to care for her parents. She became familiar with this nighttime ritual and had fallen into step. She told me of that first night when the phone did not ring. It was like a silent air raid siren screaming over the house. There was the waiting. The checking of the clock. The feelings of unreality. The call never came. The unspoken words, “Goodnight, brother,” swirled around in the dark night air like a lost, confused bird with no place to land. Alzheimer’s disease had blocked the call. If only they had known that the night before would be the last “Goodnight, brother”…
It had all been so certain when we were young. We never imagined the time would come when their steps would no longer cross the porch, when the phone would cease to ring. The magnitude of small acts is not always apparent, especially to children.
They made it seem so easy, the way they loved us and each other. It was not a mushy kind of love. It was solid, stable, and real. That’s the way it was for men of that generation-the Greatest Generation. Love was an action word, and trust was the fuel.
I don’t think that I ever thanked them enough. And to my aunts and cousins, thank you for sharing. I now understand that everything the uncles gave to us was a gift from their wives and children, too.
Perhaps uncles should always come in pairs, one for the front door and one for the back.