On June 6th, I posted this photo of my great Uncle Gene, not only to commemorate D-Day but because it was also his 93rd birthday. The youngest of 11 children (my "Memaw" was the oldest) he played the role of eternal bachelor. I always wondered if that was because there were all girls in the family until the birth of the last two: Joe and Gene. The only one to move away from his native North Carolina, he live in S. Miami, where his country sisters worried that some bathing beauty would turn his head and steal his money. Truth was, he'd been engaged, she broke it off and his new hometown became his haven. With a sense of humor somewhere between witty and wicked....those of us who share it refer to it as the "Uncle Gene gene".
Yesterday, June 9th, he flew into the great beyond. Okay, in my head, I envisioned his passing as Uncle Gene jumping into this plane and roaring into the wild blue yonder. That's the way the Uncle Gene gene works.
All my life we lived a state or two apart. I probably only saw him once or twice as a child because he didn't relish returning to North Carolina and his sisters didn't want to visit his residential Sin City. Every time we went to visit Memaw in N.C., anywhere from 2-3 of her sisters would drop by. When I was 16 and answering their obligatory questions about school, I mentioned my foray into Spanish 101. One of the sisters brightened and said, "Gene is taking Spanish too! After all these years living in that place. You should write to him. Maybe you could practice together."
Little did I know I was about to enter a carnival ride that wouldn't end until he did.
Armed with his address, I wrote (yes children, back then we used paper, pen and cursive writing), explaining which of the myriad of grand nieces and nephews I was by referring to my Mom as his point of reference. He wrote back, claiming to be delighted and set down the ground rules: the first paragraph of each letter HAD to be in Spanish, no matter how hard or how many times we had to use a dictionary. I agreed. About three letters in, I asked why he was just now learning a language which had been swirling around his ears for years. He replied that a lovely Cuban woman had moved into the apartment next door and she didn't speak English.
A month later I received a letter which began, "Stop Spanish. Woman wasn't worth it."
But that didn't mean we stopped corresponding. In fact, the most recent note I sent him was last week, just before his birthday. (I never could persuade him to switch to a computer). Uncle Gene was a Charlie Brown fan (Peanuts cartoon character for you non U.S. folks). He'd sign his letters, "Love Charlie Brown and Gene T.". I would address his letters to "Mr. Charles Brown, c/o Gene Davis." When I graduated from high school, he sent me $50, which sensible me spent on every day stainless steel silverware. Yes, Hubby wouldn't propose for another 3 years but I had a hope chest...and hope. We used that silverware until 2 years ago.
As life progressed so did the addresses on the envelopes. When Hubby worked at a donut place, I'd get letters to "Mrs. X. and the Donut King". When he became manager of a pest control outfit, I got "Mrs. X. and Bug Man". Oh, did I mention that Uncle Gene wrote my address in brightly colored magic marker? Sometimes a different color per line? I'm sure both of our mailmen thought we were crazy.
But it was good crazy. Well, if you asked his nieces and nephews: his sisters believed him somewhere between eccentric and plain nuts. My favorite "embarrass the sisters" moment came during a visit to see Memaw. It was customary to go out to lunch and one of the sisters came with us. So there we sat: Memaw, her son, one of the sisters, my Mom, and myself in a N.C. Cracker Barrel. I name the restaurant because it fits with the country theme. A very young waitress came to get our order. Uncle Gene, who to me often sounded like Garrison Keillor, asked very cordially,"Is the possum fresh?"
As the waitress looked perplexed, in my head I thought, "And we're off!"
Uncle Gene repeated his request with a warm smile as those of us who have the Gene gene bit our lips and tried not to laugh. The waitress said she was unsure and scampered away.
Head held high, she came back to inform him that they did not. To which Uncle Gene replied, "Surely someone scrapped one off the road on the way in this morning. They're everywhere."
The flustered waitress scampered away and Uncle Gene was admonished by his sisters to behave. He acted surprised that they would think he was being otherwise. Out the corner of my eye I saw movement. Through the kitchen door, the waitress was talking to the cook and pointing in our direction. The cook had a gleam in his eye. The waitress returned and firmly stated, "I'm sorry we're out. But the cook says it tastes just like chicken and we have plenty of that."
Uncle Gene sighed and deadpanned, "I was born here. And on my visit I was looking forward to some home cooking. I don't suppose you have any rattlesnake?" Before the poor girl could RUN back to the kitchen, one of the sisters snapped, "Gene!" in that maternal tone which leaves no doubt that trouble is about to rear it's head. "Fine," Uncle Gene had replied. "It tastes like chicken too. Guess I'll have the chicken." The waitress disappeared and an older waitress appeared at our table. She took one look at Uncle Gene, recognized our family, then admonished, "Behave yourself. Today is that poor girl's first day!"
If nothing else, Uncle Gene was compassionate. He left her a large tip.
As I worked on the family tree (still am) he'd send any nuggets of information he found. We shared a genetic need-to-know about life and reading was how we discovered. He answered my questions, offered a few stories I'd never heard and busted a family myth...his sisters proudly declared for years he was once a writer for "LIFE" magazine. He laughed and said he'd once written a Letter to the Editor to LIFE, but that was the extent of his literary career with them. He always teased me with, "One day, I'll let you in on my secret project. I've been working on it for years. It's not ready to see the light of day yet, but when it is, I'll let you know." I heard that speech for years. The family rumors and theories about what that might be were amusing, hysterical and sometimes fearful...I think his sisters feared he'd write a book calling them country bumpkins.
Nope, he never came clean about his project. But I finally figured it out. His secret was that every day was an adventure. You just kept going...even if it meant moving on to a higher plane for the next adventure.
So lift a glass
(as Uncle Gene, pictured on his 91st birthday, did daily)
and help me celebrate the gift of the Uncle Gene gene,
which lives on in me.