Relative Stranger Redux

{***This piece was originally posted on June 27th, 2010.  Since posting it, I've come into possession of a photo album of my uncle's, given to my father (little bro of my uncle) by my uncle's third wife who was with him when he died.  My Dad had most of the photos already, so he passed it on to me.  I'm glad he did.  I'd planned on sharing several photographs of my uncle; in fact, in preparing them to post here, I spent several hours picking the right pics out of hundreds to choose from -- scanning, cropping, figuring out where to insert them in the text -- but throughout the process, a disquieting sense of unease began pervading me, and I became uncomfortable and ultimately convinced that it would not be in keeping with my uncle's spirit or memory sharing what he preferred keeping private.  I'm confident he wouldn't mind my writing about him, warts and all, but sharing his photo album? ...  He'd be peeved by that -- a fact I'd of never known about him until perusing his album and considering carefully the implications of how precisely it was arranged.  I have added one photograph from his album, regardless, as it sums up the effect he had on me, the few times I was with him, perfectly.  I've also added a brief postscript, commenting on the enigma of his photo album in relation to his family. ***}

My uncle Jim died of cancer a few weeks ago. Hadn't seen him, or spoken to him, since his mother's funeral six years ago. At her funeral, Jim quipped with his usual sarcastic jabs how she was still bugging him about his drinking and his "cancer sticks," pestering him with her phone calls nearly to the day she died. He spoke as if her pestering had been obvious, that what she chided him about was absurd. Jim seemed to want a shrug of agreement, if not sympathy, but instead I said, "Hmmm," and barely nodded.

"See you around," he replied, but I didn't really agree with that comment either, knowing that we probably wouldn't be seeing each other around anytime soon again.

He sounded genuinely bitter toward his mother. It seemed more than just his usual sarcasm. No surprise. That was their relationship in a sentence: my grandmother nagging him about his drinking and "cancer sticks," and his automatic bitter reaction, masked with black humor. Even dead, she still bugged him, and that's what had bugged me.

What had he been so bitter about? What had she done to Jim for him to share something so personal with me; I hadn't seen him in years. Something so charged with an undercurrent of hostility? I didn't know why then, and now that my uncle is dead, I still don't know why now for sure, but I have a theory ...

Jim resisted coming home because of his mother -- that I know for sure. We rarely saw him, even at Christmas, and even then, when he was around, he kept his distance. It was no secret that he was tipsy in our company. No secret that he smoked more than just those "cancer sticks."

Margaret, the woman Jim lived with longer than any other, said he hadn't wanted a funeral or anything to do with a church memorial, though I doubt anybody from Jim’s family, except maybe my father—Uncle Jim's little brother—would've flown out. Not because there was bad blood or some horrible falling out between them, or between Jim and my aunt Lola, his older sister, but because ... How can I describe it?  Simply, there was absolutely nothing between Uncle Jim and his brother and sister. No sibling bonds, let alone rivalries. No connections. No deep affection.  Nada.

In fact, Jim’s sister hadn't even called Jim when my father told her he had cancer, that it was probably terminal, that even with chemotherapy his prognosis was poor. I would have considered that pretty cold of my aunt, but did Jim ever contact her when she battled (and won) her awful war against breast cancer? Was that, then, the reason she hadn't called him: because he hadn't called her?

Maybe, maybe not. There were no doubt other significant life events, good and bad, that mattered over the decades, when some sibling acknowledgment would have been appropriate—births, deaths, divorces, foreclosures, accidents, graduations—when Lola's phone never rang with a good word of condolence or congratulations from Jim. Perhaps there had been too much indifference for too long from Jim to expect that she would ever reach out to him again.

Even so, despite his startling disconnection from my dad and my aunt, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment or incident when the silent rift of apathy between them opened wide and kept yawning wider until it effectively separated them forever …

Except perhaps for the situation with Jim’s daughter, Tori; who, assuming she’s still alive, would have no way of knowing that my uncle, her biological father, had died. I suspect she might not have wanted to know. Perhaps she'd grieved the loss of her father decades ago.

Uncle Jim severed ties with Tori when she was twelve, when his first—and first ex-wife—remarried. She'd decided that their daughter would take her new stepfather's last name, and my uncle blamed his then twelve year old daughter for that decision. The few times the delicate topic ever came up in my company, I heard him say, "She's not my daughter" or "I don't have a daughter." I never met the girl who would have been my cousin, who in old Polaroids was pretty and had pigtails. I've wondered if at times she’d wished that my uncle wasn't her father. I wonder if she told people that Uncle Jim wasn't her father, or, simply, "I don't have a father. He's dead."

If anybody knew what Tori felt about my uncle Jim, her estranged father, it would've been my grandmother, who remained in contact with Tori, exchanging birthday and Christmas cards and graduation announcements and such … until, as happens as preteens become teens and teens become young adults with lives of their own, my grandmother no longer got a birthday card or Easter greeting from Tori, and they naturally drifted apart.

Knowing my grandmother, though, I don't think it’s far-fetched to assume she nagged her son about more than just his drinking and cancer sticks, especially when she no longer heard regularly from her abandoned granddaughter, Tori.

Coming home at Christmas, then, for Uncle Jim, probably meant facing, once again, his dubious decision to remain self-exiled, divorced from his daughter. Merry Christmas indeed.

I was always curious to hear Uncle Jim's side of the stories. He could spin an uproarious yarn himself, the few I heard, which were always side-splitting, at least when my disapproving grandmother wasn't in the room.

But over the years, my uncle never called me, and I never even once called him. We never became close, even at the end. I guess it just runs in my family. Not calling. Not caring. Not being close ...

I'm no closer today comprehending what Uncle Jim was communicating to me then, that Fall afternoon six years ago at Forest Lawn, when he spoke so bitterly about his Mom.


A Postscript

My uncle's photo album was revelatory.  Its well kept pages made clear how much he cared.  He saved birth and graduation announcements, wedding invitations to weddings he didn't attend.  He saved, I suspect, based on the volume of material in his bulky, overflowing, six-inch thick photo album, every family memento ever sent to him.  Perhaps in his self-exile, that's how he remained close to us, in our pictures and postcards and personal odds and ends passed on to him over half a century.   There's pictures of my kids in his photo album I don't even have, that my grandmother, apparently, forwarded him.

Most tellingly, there's dozens of pictures of his daughter.  Pictures chronicling her life long after my uncle was no longer part of it.  Pictures of a son-in-law and grandchild he never met.


  1. Sorry if this is double post.

    Sad. Without the album, you could have assumed he didn't care, but what you describe is a man isolated in his pain, in pain because he isolated, isolated because he is in pain.

    Makes me wonder about my weird uncle Gary, who's kinda the same way.

  2. Nah, not a double post that I'm aware.

    You succintly summed up his family life (or lact thereof) better than I could.

  3. Moving stuff Freeque. Family are always a mystery.

  4. Thanks Murr.

    Still a mysterious work in progress. There's some tone inconsistencies another friend pointed out, that I'm in the process of addressing, so stay tuned for The Redux (take 2)!


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