Friday, December 17, 2010

My Three Uncles

I grew a small white farm house. Every day, at lunch time, my parents and I were joined by my bachelor uncles who lived nearby in the same termite infested farm house where they had grown up.

My Uncle Harold was the oldest brother. He was a big man with a gap toothed smile. He always wore Oshkosh bib overalls and a bill cap to protect his bald head from the sun. Harold had quit school after my grandfather’s suicide. His whole life was spent on tractors, plowing, planting, harvesting and baling hay. When Harold came in from the fields for lunch, dirt and dust covered his face and clothes. He let me hold his callused hands and walk up his vast stomach, turning somersaults until my arms grew weary of the game.

Uncle Howard was the second oldest. He was a quiet, delicate man. He was the only blond. His front teeth bent backwards, the result of a run in with a milk can when he was a boy. Howard did the irrigating for the farm. At lunch time he kicked off his rubber boots by the front door and sat stocking footed on the high stool near the telephone. Howard’s shovel was never far from his side and he wore a pith helmet to protect his fair skin from the sun, a habit he took up during a brief tour of duty in North Africa. He spent most of the war eating cabbage soup and sawdust bread in a German POW camp. When he was released he returned home and took over the household duties for my mentally ill grandmother.

My dad’s younger brother, Uncle Dale, didn’t work the farm. He didn’t have to wear a hat so he lacked the pale bald head of his brothers. His dark fringe of hair was always neatly trimmed. Dale wore horn rimmed glasses and, except that he was taller and thinner, he and my father could have been twins. Dale was first person in the family to graduate college. He worked as an accountant at the local grain elevator and ate meals with us only on the weekends. Dale and I shared a love of books and education. He supported my desire to go to college.

When I was in high school, my family began to change. Uncle Harold suddenly married, produced two sons, and just as suddenly divorced. After that my childhood playmate experienced a long decline of mental and physical illness. Remembering their own parent’s battles with mental illness, the family turned away. I rarely saw him again.

I graduated college and got married. My father died eighteen months later. One night after the funeral, Uncle Dale called to say he had married his long time girlfriend and moved into her house. I would see him when I went home for visits. He seemed diminished by his wife’s hypochondria and the shadows of her former husband. Our visits were brief, punctuated by gaping silences. He now resides in a nursing home. I haven’t seen him in a decade.

Two years after my father’s death, my mother declared the farming over. My Uncle Howard was alone in the old farm house down the road. He had nowhere to go when the farm sale was over, so my mother moved him into the basement of her new home. Howard never abandoned his boots, shovel and pith helmet. He helped my mother with her garden and kept gas in her car. Howard took over the role of grandfather to my girls who called him “Unk”. He spent the remainder of his days silently perched on the high stool in the corner near the phone.

When I think of my uncles, I remember those happier times; turning somersaults on Harold’s stomach, driving tractor while Howard burned weeds, and playing pinochle with Dale and my parents. They provided love, companionship, and extended family to a lonely child. Somewhere within me Harold’s fun-loving spirit, Howard’s quiet perseverance, and Dale’s love of learning carry on, a living testament to my three bachelor uncles.

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