Monday, April 15, 2013

The wild one

I always thought of my Uncle Jimmy as the “wild one” in my mom’s family. The youngest brother of four siblings, he was the kind of guy who hung out at VFW bars, smoked too much, shot and cleaned his own dinner and once had a raccoon for a pet.
Seeing as he lived in St. Louis and I grew up in California, many of my Uncle Jimmy stories are secondhand. I never knew how many of them were true and which were just part of the Uncle Jimmy legend.
He joined the Navy and said he went to Vietnam. I heard he brought back a large quantity of marijuana, which he hid in Grandma’s basement, and a 4-foot-tall bomb shell casing, which he stashed in her attic. Supposedly, one time he and Grandpa had a fight and he punched Uncle Jimmy so hard he flew through the back door out onto the porch.
He had a reputation in the neighborhood, said my aunt. Once when she was riding her purple Schwinn with the banana seat, three kids tried to steal the bike from her. Wielding his name like her own personal talisman, she yelled at them: “Don’t you know who my big brother is?” It worked. They turned and ran, she said.
My grandpa refused to let my aunt wear jeans because “jeans are for hippies,” she was told. But Uncle Jimmy gave her her first pair of bell bottoms, which she can describe in detail to this day. Grandpa wouldn’t let her drive until she was 18, but Jimmy secretly taught her how to drive a stick shift when she was 16.
Uncle Jimmy took me to my first bar when I was about 13. I drank a soda and wondered if my mom knew we were hanging out in a south St. Louis dive. Don’t worry about your mom, he said. Earlier that day he had been mightily offended when she told him she did not feed her children processed cheese. There’s nothing wrong with processed cheese, he sputtered indignantly.
During another visit, my brother and I spent the night at his house. Uncle Jimmy built us a fort out of blankets and we all played Monopoly under the tent for what seemed like hours. We slept under the blanket tent that night.
When my grandpa was sick, we flew out to St. Louis to see him. He was in a hospital bed in the dining room of their brick house on Vermont Street. That afternoon, when it became obvious that Grandpa was about to pass away, Uncle Jimmy hustled me and my brother out of the house and into the back of his pickup. We went to get ice cream and he gently told us that Grandpa had died.
Then there was the time Uncle Jimmy met my husband for the first time. Arriving around dinner time, Jimmy shook his hand.
“Want to come with me to get a pack of cigarettes?” he said.
Sure, my husband said.
Eight hours later my husband returned.
“We went to one VFW bar, and then another one,” he said, slightly dazed from his Uncle Jimmy escapade. “He introduced me to everybody as his nephew.”
Grandma was pissed at him, but not for long.
The next day we went to Jimmy’s house and found him sitting at his kitchen table, hands covered in blood from cleaning the birds he’d caught hunting. He gave us a tour of the ruins of the old carriage house in his backyard. Take whatever you like, he said, gesturing at the dusty old dime-store candy dispensers and leftovers from my great aunt and uncle’s former gift shop.
Our girls knew Uncle Jimmy as the zany uncle who’d send them boxes of Dollar Store trinkets for Christmas. That and the fruitcake. He started a Christmas tradition of passing an old fruitcake from brother to sister and back again.
Years of drinking and smoking caught up with Uncle Jimmy. A few months ago, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Later I heard he had stomach cancer and pancreatic cancer too. It was serious but he was stable. He was in the VA hospital. I thought I’d go see him this summer, but I didn’t get the chance. He died on Holy Thursday. He was just 62.
I asked my aunt about the fruitcake. We agreed we should keep the tradition going, for sure.

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