A Life Lived

Over the years, I've formed a certain opinion about my Uncle Jerry. My mom has two older brothers and while Ciro, the eldest, married, had a son, and led a long career, Uncle Jerry was a recovering alcoholic who lost his job and spent the rest of his working years living in his mother's old house relying on the stock market for income. There was an unspoken aura of laziness when I heard the other adults talk about him. I always liked Uncle Jerry, but there was always a lack of credibility to his stories, whether he was telling me about how he used to be an acrobat, or how he was a painter, or about his trips to European destinations such as Sicily and how I should travel while I was still young. It always came off as rambling a la Cliff Clavin, and I never took much of it seriously.

I know my Uncles had been in World War II, and that Uncle Ciro was able to get a house for his parents and siblings and move them from Brooklyn to Long Island, the house my grandmother lived in until she passed away and my Uncle Jerry lived in until they sold the house and moved him into an assisted living apartment a few years ago. We have portraits of them in uniform, and Uncle Jerry spoke often of his commander and his buddies, all of whom he stayed in touch with. At various parades and military holidays he'd appear in uniform with other veterans, and once had a full-color spread photo and write-up in the newspaper. But, just as I didn't have the full picture on his painting past until I actually saw his paintings, neither did I have a sense of his life until I saw his photographs.

He's now settled in to a nursing home with dementia, perhaps not fully aware of his new permanent situation. He told one visiting relative he'd been there for 10 years, when in reality it's been maybe two months. As of last week, my parents and my other Uncle finished clearing out the old apartment, and many things that we couldn't sell ended up here, along with things my mom wouldn't sell. Over the long weekend, I had some time to look at some of the loose photographs she rescued, which she's been organizing in to albums and trying to figure out the chronology. It's a remarkable portrait of the man's life that has me seeing him in a whole new light.

I found old black-and-white photos from when he was a kid in Brooklyn. The famous handstand he'd occasionally try to demonstrate when I was a child never lasted more than a few seconds before he toppled back over. I found plenty of photos showing how he and his friends really did have remarkable balance, standing on their hands on the ground, off tree stumps, off benches, and more. It was funny to see him as a kid before he grew the thick mustache I always knew him to have, and before his eyebrows fused into one entity. At some point, the Brooklyn photos gave way to Germany, and I saw him in uniform with his friends. There were definitely light moments in there, evidence that they all joked around and kept their spirits up. Though I'm sure it was no vacation, he got some breathtaking shots of Europe. At some point, he must have gone on leave or finished his tour and spent time in Sicily before returning home. There were pictures of him in orchards, with Italian girls, by piers, drinking fresh wine, and more.

Eventually, color photos came into play. He began to have salt and pepper hair and look more like the Uncle I knew. There were a bunch of photos of parties and weddings and dances with people I didn't recognize, his friends and his life. When we cleaned out his house a few years ago, we found a white bucket from his fishing days, with his name and his friends' names written on it along with the word “keepers”. It reminded me of a road trip I took with my friends in college, how we wrote “the pot” in orange marker on an envelope and pooled all our money in there. I still have that somewhere, and I can imagine my mom thinking it was for something very different than gas or tolls. I found the photos of my uncle on a boat with his friends, holding up a huge fish. I saw seagulls swarming them as they threw meat up in the air to them. There was more than one shot of guys just lying back or passed out with a beer, including my uncle. It looked like a fun trip.

I'm not sure how long my Uncle was a drinker or when he stopped. I don't think he drank in my lifetime, as I always remember the adults talking about his “meetings”, which I later learned were Alcoholics Anonymous. My mom would tell me how she and my grandmother would sometimes have to go looking for him when he didn't come home, and how he'd often forget where he'd parked his car the night before. I guess it was a habit he picked up in the war that got worse in his 20s, but he got a handle on it pretty quickly and stayed sober for the next 60 years. After that one photo of him with a beer bottle on the boat, I started seeing pictures of me. There was a shot of him holding me as a baby, and various pictures of myself with my folks and my uncle at the beach as I got older. Some were duplicates of shots my mom must have given him, while others were ones he must have taken with his camera. There were concerts and graduations and family events in there, all from a slightly different perspective than I'd seen before. I was reliving my own life through the eyes of my uncle.

I remember when I was little, he lived with us for about a week as he recovered from surgery. He survived intestinal cancer as a result, at the expense of several feet of intestine. He never married, although there were a few serious girlfriends along the way. There was one he proposed to, who broke it off but kept his ring. My mom's voice always dripped venom when she spoke of that one. There was one widow he dated for a long time, and she was at various graduation parties and family functions. I found photos of her amid the albums. For whatever reason, things didn't work out and she eventually married someone else, though they stayed friends. I always assumed he was just too passive and maybe she wanted more than a companion for events, but who knows. As I continued through the photos I realized we can never make assumptions about the people around us, because we never have a complete picture.

There were photos of him at various museums, attractions, and gatherings with my folks, things they did as I became tied up in my career. It was good to see them all out having fun and living their lives, something I can look forward to when I finally retire in just 30-35 short years. He went on plenty of trips with his friends as well, breathtaking shots out airplane windows or in front of mountains or amid the lights of Vegas.

I always liked my Uncle Jerry, but I always thought he was a little full of it. I wasn't going to be lazy. I was going to work hard, like my parents. His talk of traveling was frivolous, wasn't it? The guy didn't even have a job for most of the time I knew him. In cleaning out his stuff these past few weeks, my fear has been ending up like him, alone, with no wife and kids, leaving the distribution or disposal of my possessions to whatever friends or relatives might still be around or alive. But that was only part of the picture, and I realized that by my age, he had seen more and lived more than I ever will. I've never been off the East coast of the United States. I've never gone further West than Pennsylvania, further North than Massachusetts, or further South than North Carolina. I'm not saying I'm going to do anything crazy like run off; responsibility is too big a part of who I am. I'm responsible to my day job, to getting my assignments done well and on time. I'm responsible to various bands, keeping weekends free and occasionally taking days off to cover gigs. I'm responsible to my parents, from mowing the lawn here to the one at my dad's lot, as well as maintaining hedges, cleaning gutters, and more and more automobile work as it becomes harder for my dad. I'd feel guilty running away from all that, tempting though it sometimes is. Maybe I can't change, but I can take a lesson from all of this, and rethink the way I've judged my Uncle, the way others may have as well. I always thought he was all talk, he was someone who did nothing with his life. Now I look at 80 years worth of photos, and see nothing short of a life lived, and to the fullest. I shouldn’t fear ending up like him; I should fear not living the way he has.


Blogger cube said...

I'm not in the position of having to take care of my parents yet, but I predict I'm not far from it. I hope it is very far from now.

It's really hard to deal with someone who's always taken care of you suddenly being thrust into the position of the child role.

9/09/2009 6:09 PM  

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