Last Thursday would have been my Uncle John’s 86th birthday had he still been with us. He’d be about twice my age. I don’t remember him young. It is as if he sprang into being in middle age. My earliest memories of him are vague, but it seems that he was someone I’d always known. Tall, quiet, and serious, with crazy hair, I found him intimidating when I was a child. I didn’t really get to know him until I was teenager. In my late teens and early twenties, I was a regular visitor in his house, often several times a week, to play one table top game or another with my cousin and our friends and in my later twenties working out routinely with my cousin lifting weights or running. Uncle John never made us feel the least unwelcome, though he did sometimes interrupt our play to have my cousin help with one thing or another. By then, though still very tall, he was stoop shouldered and slower moving. He usually had a slightly abstracted expression on his face, as if his thoughts were far away. I have a lot of memories of him watching the television, viewing a western or a WWII documentary. Very often though, he was working.
A plumber by trade and extremely handy in most areas, Uncle John exuded competency. When he worked, his hands were steady, sure, and unhurried. He was very exact and careful. Things he fixed stayed that way. He believed in doing it right the first time. I remember seeing him cutting a pipe just so once and marveled at how quickly, skillfully, and cleanly he cut it. Measure twice and cut once he told me. We’ve all heard it, and some of us have said it, but he demonstrated it perfectly. I don’t know if there was anything he couldn’t fix if he put his mind to it. And what a mind it was. While he seemed abstracted and far away, perhaps an impression I got from how tall he was (it was very easy for him to seem to be looking off over my head), I expect his mind was often on some technical problem associated with his work or a project around the house or concerning one of the vehicles.
He was an avid reader, his tastes ranging from the newspaper to Guns and Ammo to the Johnstone and Grainger Catalogues to History and Biography. I’m sure he read Reader’s Digest. He was into technical manuals, of course, since he was always on some project or another. One of my cousins tells me that he also read Westerns, though most of them only remember his nonfiction tastes. I know his fiction reading did, at least, include the comics section of the newspaper.
Our interests didn’t often cross. I appreciated WWII History, but my own area of expertise, if such it is or once was, is Ancient History. I write fiction, but the only western I’ve written is a Steampunk short story. I don’t know that it would have interested Uncle John. I’m working on a web comic, again something that he probably wouldn’t have read, but who knows. I can’t tell you what sort of music he liked or what sport he followed.
For all of our differences, I loved to be around him. Even as an intimidated child, I was sure of Uncle John. He was trustworthy. We didn’t have much to talk about, even when I reached adulthood, but I liked to listen to him, though he was not a man of many words. I’m glad he tolerated my presence. It seemed I was usually in his way. The main spot to hang out in Uncle John and Aunt Katherine’s house when visiting was the dining room. If we were playing games, we were upstairs or in my cousin’s room, but other wise we were in the dining room. There was a little room right between the kitchen and dining room, something between a pantry and a hallway. The T.V. would be on in the dining room. Usually there was one on in the living room as well. There was a Nintendo set up at another T.V. in the dining room. One of my cousins would be sitting at the table. Aunt Katherine would be in the kitchen cooking. Another cousin would be at the Nintendo, beeping away at Mario Bros. I’d be standing in the doorway in that little room in between, half watching the T.V. or video game, half talking to Aunt Katherine. Suddenly, quietly, Uncle John would appear. I hadn’t seen him come up, but there he’d be, standing there looking and smiling. I’d say, “Hi, Uncle John.”
I’d smile back.
He’d say, “Don’t let me rush you, but hurry every little chance you get.” He wasn’t sarcastic about it, but patiently humorous.
That would be the moment I’d realize that he wasn’t just standing there, he was trying to get through, and I was blocking the way. He had a few sayings that I recall. The other one that sticks out the most is one I often use, “Never stop a working man.” That one applies almost daily.
I had a few moments observing him when he didn’t know I was there. I recall walking from their house over the cathedral, just a half a black away, and seeing him crossing the parking lot. He suddenly stopped, looked down a discovery, brightened up as if something had made his day, and stooped to pick up a coin, just a bit of loose change. It was a moment of childlike delight at something small. It was an unguarded glimpse of him that I treasure.
He and Aunt Katherine had seven children, just as my parents did. He always said he had three store bought and four home made, meaning that the first three were adopted. How he loved his wife and children and took care of them, setting an example of how man should live. I admire him.
He could get short tempered of course, be irritable, but he wasn’t bad even then. He was a fair man. He also habitually drove several miles under the speed limit, but who’s perfect?
Along with my father, my Uncle Hal, and Father Guthrie, our parish priest growing up, Uncle John is my model of manly virtue. He was intelligent, keenly curious, competent, serious, kind, humorous, hard-working, smart-working, faithfully dedicated to his family and his church, and generous to his fellow man.
He is part of the standard for me for how to be a husband and father, and if I’m half the writer that he was a plumber I’ll be satisfied.