My Uncle Ed died this week. He was about 75.
It came out of nowhere but not really. My mom’s older brother was always something of a mystery to me. Growing up he lived with his little family an hour or more from us. He lived on a stretch of farmland that I don’t think he farmed. He lived in a trailer and he had a mynah bird and a layabout dog named Max. It’s strange what I remember from those years. I remember getting carsick on our way there to visit him after his daughter was born. I remember the little store near his place was owned by a man named Ed Morton. He had a lot of beef jerky and soda pop in there. I remember when he and my dad and Mr Morton opened a paint manufacturing business together out there in the middle of nowhere and I remember when they closed it, amid unanswered questions and quirky circumstances.
I remember the day he had packed up everything, following an argument with my grandmother and moved his family away from all of us. We did not know where they’d gone. I never overheard my parents talk about it with our extended family or with each other. I suppose as kids we did ask about him, where he’d gone but I can’t recall asking, I can’t recall hearing an answer.
He was tall and always tanned in my memory of him. He was an imposing figure with a deep, booming voice and loose-fitting clothes. He always seemed to be pondering something heavy, even when he joked he appeared to me to be carrying the weight of the world. He may have scared me when I was growing up but I liked him a lot. I missed him when he left Cincinnati under that shroud of secrecy.
After a number of years my mom found him and his family. I think she’d been searching a long time for her big brother. I think she missed him more than she let on during those years. She found him because like his father, his namesake, he didn’t have a middle name, just an initial, “B.” She found him before the internet and without a private investigator. To be honest it’s a mystery to me how she came across his phone number listing in Brandon, Florida but she did and then suddenly he was found.
We visited him in Florida not long after this. They were family but unfamiliar. Uncle Ed had lost something vital, something strong. He seemed broken to me as I saw him through my teenager lens.
I had seen him maybe a handful of times over the last 20 years. The dates and the occasions escape me. My mom kept in touch. She’d visit him, talk with him on the phone. I saw him after his son, my cousin, Scott, died of complications from his congenital heart condition. I remember Uncle Ed had lost a lot of weight. I remember him shuffling around the house, uncertain. After his wife died suddenly several years later of an aneurysm it was if more of his soul chipped away. He soldiered on though and I lost track of him again. I was steeped in my own life by then, my own family, my own struggles and joys.
I like to remember him best by the stories my mom tells. I like to think most of my mom staying with him while my dad was in Vietnam. My brother was young and my mom was pregnant with me. I like to think of him driving my mom to the hospital at Wright Patt Air Force Base when she went into labor with me. I like to remember that he worked at Wright Patt, that he was a rocket scientist, that he worked on projects for the government and that he quit, for moral reasons, I thought. I don’t know if that’s true but I like to think it’s true.
I like to remember that he started a strange, entertaining tradition of sending the turkey neck from a Thanksgiving previous, to one of his siblings and that the siblings would freeze it and send it back to him some time later. I like to remember that he told great stories, that he smelled like scotch and cigarettes and that as a kid it didn’t occur to me that this combination was unhealthy.
When my mom called me to say he’d died of a massive heart attack, we think (we hope) peacefully, in his sleep, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel sad or empty or at a loss. Uncle Ed had always been something of a nowhere man, a story we told, a memory we had, a ghost of sorts. In truth, he was lost to me long ago. Writing this, at this moment, I do have a sense of the grief. Writing this today is a way of filling up that space I’d been holding for him all these years and in so doing I see how important his story has been to mine. In writing this I can see the space between the stories we tell, the pain we hold, the time we wish we had and things we wish we’d said, the people we didn’t know we’d miss.
Goodbye, Uncle Ed. I pray peace and comfort to you after a strange, disquieted life. I pray peace for all of our family in the wake of our loss. We will miss you. We always have missed you.
Edward B. Thompson