Hello from my study on a Sunday night,
It has been a busy, hectic, productive, with too much yet to do, weekend. While I have met with a covey of students through Zoom, there is more to do. While I have gotten more things packed and staged, there is still more to do. While I have gotten most of a chapter revised for publication, there is still more to do. While I have gotten some of the paperwork for selling the house completed, there is still more to do. While I have both fertilized the yard and managed some other yard things, there is probably more to do. Do you see a pattern? When I feel overwhelmed or need to allow my brain a chance to regroup, as you who read here know, I write. It actually lowers my stress level, and it provides me an opportunity to consider things that need to be pondered.
As I changed the calendar this morning, I realized it is the birthday of my adopted father’s eldest brother-in-law, a man known to the entire neighborhood and beyond as Uncle Clare. If you ever met him, you would remember. He was colorful, opinionated, knowledgeable of all things our natural world, owned an arsenal, swore beyond what any service person should be able, and was the kindest curmudgeon you might ever met. Experiencing him as a child growing up, which occurred regularly because he both lived only about 8 houses down the street and he was our perpetual Sunday dinner guest, he taught me things, many which would cause my mother to cringe. Possibly the best example that is appropriate to share in this venue was the last time I saw him alive. To make a long story short, he had gotten into some fisticuffs with his roommate in the nursing home and he had injured his wrist and hand. As a 90 year old (yes, 90), his skin as frail and his wrist watch had caused some cuts because of his shenanigans. My father was his POA, and as such he was called. I happened to be visiting, so my father asked if I might go check on him.
As I arrived at the facility, I heard his voice before I had ever approached the door. His normal four-letter vocabulary was on 78 rpm speed. As I stood in the door watching for a moment, he turned to see me, asking “What the F&$* are you doing here?” To which I responded, “That is a good question.” Then I said, “You got in a fight with your roommate?” He nodded, while still swearing at the poor CNA there trying to help him, and retorted, “I knocked the c*&^!#!@er out!” Not good . . . I asked him to behave so the woman attending him could finish her work. He told me, “The bitch is trying to kill me.” And so it went until I convinced him to settle down. This was typical Uncle Clare. He had quit school in first grade and yet taught himself to read. He was a bugler in WWI, and in spite of being supposedly legally blind, there were regularly dead starlings around his Martin birdhouse, which he picked off with the pellet gun. Almost every family has that colorful character who has more stories than you can find in the Bible, well Clare was ours. Any yet, in spite of all his bluster, when you did something for him, he was genuinely grateful. He had a bottle of Ol’ Grandad on the top of his refrigerator and a 38 snub-nose pistol under his pillow, which was used one night when people tried to rob him in his late 80s. Indeed, he was like no other person. He had worked on an armored car in the 1920s, when Sioux City was known as little Chicago, and that Thompson sub-machine gun was still in his basement. I remember him one time telling me that Chester Gould, the cartoonist who created Dick Tracy, must have drank squirrel whiskey. I did not really know what that meant, but I never asked either.
What a remember most about him was his insatiable interest in plants, animals, flowers, and yes, guns. He could identify tracks, feathers, as well as name off almost any flora you would find in our state park. He had the most incredible asparagus and rhubarb garden in the world. He spent his days puttering in his yard, driving up to the grocery store, or listening to the television, which sat at the front end of his living room. It was on so loudly, you could hear it outside. There were elements of his house he never changed from 1960 until he moved out of that house in the late 1980s. His wife, Gladys, my father’s eldest sister had passed away tragically in the hospital in 1960. I do not remember her, though I was told I met her as a small child. She was quite eloquent from what I know, but as many in those days, she smoked, and that habit would lead to her death. Uncle Clare often said she was the best thing that ever happened to him. As someone who taught himself to read, he read voraciously, and he listened to the news. He was generally up on all things important and he had an opinion about most of it.
In his latter years, my cousins and my father, as well as myself, did what he needed to have done to make him as comfortable as possible. He loved to sit by the kitchen window and look at this flower garden and the asparagus and rhubarb patch, which he always gave away. It is also the same window from where he would assassinate unsuspecting starlings or any other varmint that got into his yard. He loved to read Field and Stream and National Geographic and when we came to visit he would tell us about his newest facts from whatever he had recently read. He was as pleased as anything as he relayed his handy facts. He was a rather short, stocky person, around 5’6″, and probably 180 pounds. He was bald, clean shaven, with small eyes covered by his horn-rimmed glasses and a noticeably large nose. He looked the same the thirty years I knew him and he never seemed to age. He remained by in large the same. He ate his breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the same table. He played solitaire daily, and he drank his coffee out of the same cup. He was a creature of habit to be sure.
As he aged he worried less about appearance or cleanliness and both my cousin, Joanne and I would go to his house and clean and throw away food that would have killed him or washed linens and clothes so he would not seem homeless. This was not done with ease because he did not want people fussing over him, so we would sneak things out. At one point we had to buy a new coffee cup, but one that looked the same because the old one was simply too nasty. He had something to say about anything and everything, and on this day of his 125th birthday, it seems appropriate to imagine what he would say about our present day world. Much like I have noted about Lydia, I cannot even begin to imagine getting him to mask-up. Doubtful at best, and with much kicking, swearing, and gnashing of teeth. I think he was a Democrat, but I am not sure. However, I am pretty sure going through the Great Depression made many middle class people Democrats. I wonder what he thought of Germany in WWII as he was a German himself. Things we never spoke of, but I have no doubt he would have little patience for the gridlock and the bickering that characterizes Washington today. I think he would have more than strong words for our national politicians.
I have tried to think how I would describe his philosophy, but he was a someone self-made person. I think he worked the railroad for a number of years. He asked for nothing and he expected nothing from others. He did have a philanthropic bent to him because he was 32nd Degree Mason and a Shriner. The more I think about him, the more amazing he is to me. He was always willing to give and he was generous and appreciative at Christmas times. There have been moments when I have noted I might be more like him than I ever realized. He understood so much more than I believe most gave him credit for knowing. He was loyal and loved his family, but he stayed to himself. I remember a couple of times when I was struggling as I grew and he would offer encouragement to me. He always accepted me, regardless what I did. He was a conduit for me at times when I was distant because of my struggles with my mother. What I know as I write this about him this evening is I admired him more than I was ever conscious of. I know when my Grandmother struggled, I think he was there to help her. When we struggled with issues of simply growing up, he was always there to be supportive in whatever way possible. I once compared him to a penny that when one took the time to shine it would see his luster. I think he might be more valuable. He might be worth a bitcoin into today’s world. I would love to hear what he might say about today’s world on his 125th birthday.
Love you Uncle Clare. Thank you for all the things you taught me in a sort of osmotic manner. If you have that story-telling curmudgeon win your family. Let them know how much they mean.
Thank you to the rest of you for reading.