It hangs in my mind like a Norman Rockwell illustration for the cover of an old issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

A boy of seven lies in bed, the narrow room softly lit by the amber glow spilling from a frayed lampshade, the bed sheet pulled tight to the boy’s chin, his eyes heavy.  Alongside the boy, in an over-stuffed armchair, sits a bear of a man. The crown of his head is bald, bordered by fluffy tufts of snowy white. His eyebrows, great bushy things careening wildly in many directions, frame eyes that say weariness but comfort, and stand out from a face that is pleasantly bountiful.  The body is broad, centered on a belly rounded by age and hops, strong arms bulging from a sleeveless T-shirt. Two meaty paws rest on the man’s lap. The fingers of one work the beads of a rosary; the other wraps a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

My Uncle Carroll was a gentle man, filled with kindness and patience. He loved his faith and he lived it. But his final days were filled with great pain; the pain of a son lost to suicide and a body crippled by stroke. It breaks my heart to remember him that way. Rather, I choose to recall the week I spent with him and my Aunt Delores one summer many years ago.

It was a summer of firsts—my first “girlfriend;” my first time getting dumped by a girlfriend; the first time I saw two adult ladies have an actual physical fight; my first tuna fish sandwich made with Miracle Whip; and, my first realization that there were grapes in the grape jelly.

Aunt Delores was my mother’s older sister, about ten years older. She and my Uncle Carroll lived on the opposite side of town from us, so we didn’t see them a lot, but when we did, it was usually a Saturday night. I remember that clearly because we would all watch The Honeymooners together in their club basement. As those knotty pine symbols of ‘50s home improvement went, my aunt and uncle’s club basement was special—a “man cave” way ahead of its time. Meticulously constructed by my uncle, whose talent for finishing touches was particularly apparent in the workmanship of the bar where he and my dad would perch, drinking beer and solving the world’s problems, the beautiful built-in cabinets filled with personal mementos, and the long bench seat/daybed where I would invariably fall asleep, often before Ralph Kramden delivered his signature line, “You’re goin’ to the moon, Alice!”

The basement’s furnishings were centered on comfort, dominated by two huge soft-leather recliners, complete with the wooden gearshift on the side to order up the footrests and find that just right head tilt.  They offered front row, VIP seating for my mom and Aunt Delores to enjoy this new thing called television; which my aunt invariably did while chain-smoking Chesterfields and nursing a simple glass filled with bourbon, neat.

One summer, I suppose to give my mom and dad some alone time, and because their own son was off in the Army, I was invited to spend a week with my aunt and uncle. That was the summer I met Linda Feeny, a girl my age whose family lived two doors up the row house block. Linda and I got on famously for most of the week, until the church carnival that weekend. I think I won a plastic toy for her in some game of chance. I know she smashed it to bits in the alley behind the house later that night. I don’t remember what I did to piss her off, but it was definitely my first bumpy ride on the roller coaster of the male/female relationship. At least, Linda and I didn’t get into a real fight over it. I’d already seen one of those that week.

My Uncle Carroll worked as a floor manager at a can factory not far from his house. One day, he took me along with him. Around lunchtime, two of the female workers—one with huge fleshy arms; both with big hair—got into a physical tussle just outside the glass-walled office where I had been parked. Before anyone knew what was happening, they took it outside and wrestled each other to the ground, screaming words that were not yet part of my grammar school vocabulary. Perched in the office with its clear sightlines in to the factory and out to the front entrance, mine was truly a bird’s eye view. The two ladies were sent home for the day and I had a memory that not even The Fabulous Moolah, who would become the Women’s World Wrestling Champion several years later, could overshadow.

Aside from big ladies fighting and little girls smashing my hard-won gifts that week, things were pretty routine. I particularly enjoyed my uncle and my daily walks with their dog, Medi—a large Boxer who was devoted to my aunt and uncle and seemed to really enjoy running around with the kid (me). There was a large field across the street from my aunt and uncle’s house, at the back of which stood one of the city’s major hospitals. All that frontal land would obviously be put to use over the years but, in those days, it was a mogul field—a bumpy, unkempt terrain perfect for hide-and-seek with the big jowly mutt.

Then there was the food.  Tuna fish made with Miracle Whip…wow! Seven-layer rainbow cake…yowza! Grape jelly that actually had bits of grapes in it…huh? “Hey,” I said at breakfast one morning, “there’s grapes in this grape jelly.” To which, my uncle, laughing and perhaps wincing at the same time, immediately responded, “Whaddya think was gonna be in grape jelly? Turnips?” I would see my Uncle Carroll many times over the next dozen or so years before his death, and he never let me forget that moment when I made such a blindingly dopey statement of the obvious. (And yes, I still prefer my grape jelly sans the actual fruity bits.)

*  *  *

The last time I recall seeing my Uncle Carroll was at a family wedding in the mid ‘60s. He was a shell of his former self then—the suicide and the stroke having drained him of his vitality. I’d like to say that he responded when I whispered something about grapes in his ear, but he just stared out into space.

Funny, isn’t it? How such small moments hang in our memories. Fortunately, the picture gallery in my mind also includes a seven-year old being put to bed by a special man holding a rosary and a can of beer.


T H E   E N D

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