"Anyone who buys a damn Jap car is a traitor."
So says Uncle Shirley. We're eating with him at Judy's restaurant in Columbia, just off I-20. My blackened flounder gets stuck in my throat, and I turn to see who else is listening.
My parents and I are returning from a weekend trip to Charleston. Strangely, my folks have seemed lighter on this trip, unworried about lawn care, bills, and time pressures.
Maybe it's because my grandmother died last year, and Dad didn't have to call her three times a day to hear her fears about communists, UFO's, or how our vegetable supply was being contaminated by the government. In fact, since she passed he's barely uttered her name.
But he has set up the dinner with Uncle Shirley, his only remaining sibling, and as we get closer to Columbia, all his relaxed energy tightens again. Five years older than Dad, Uncle Shirley is my only living natural uncle.
Uncle Shirley is a mystery to me, and it doesn't feel like we're related at all. The only trait we share, to my knowledge, is that we're both first-born sons.
And I wonder now: what traits do link the members of our family?
Some families hang their portraits over the living room mantle, proudly displaying their closeness and love. Our family never made such a portrait, and even if we had, I doubt that any one shot or sitting could have captured us, for we are like the disparate pieces of an abused jigsaw puzzle: frayed, bent and unmoored. Most recently I've wondered if the puzzle box holding us all was always missing something-five or six misshaped pieces that would make us whole.
I also wonder if some pieces of another puzzle found their way into our box.
But what if some of our pieces wandered off by themselves, of their own choice, seeking another framework where they would make a tighter fit?
What if one or two of us were forced into leaving, believing we had no choice but to leave, because we never realized that we could stay, that there might be another piece willing to hear our story: a piece that knew almost perfectly what we had seen or felt?
Uncle Shirley moved away from Birmingham when I was eight, taking my first-cousin, Ricky, with him. I liked Ricky. We played baseball together, collected baseball cards too. Once, he gave me some priceless 1962 Topps cards of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Sandy Koufax. To my knowledge, I gave him nothing.
I remember our last outing, before he was abruptly uprooted. When that day began, I didn't even know they were moving. And after giving me the bad news, my grandmother and Uncle Shirley took us to Eastwood Mall, at that time Birmingham's only mall.
At JC Penny's, my grandmother bought me a new shirt, and at Western Auto, she bought me a brand new baseball, though I wasn't sure where or what Taiwan was. I don't remember what she bought Ricky, or if she bought him anything, but when we went to JJ Newberry's, Ricky led us to the wig section, adorned himself with a black mophead, and chanted "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah," as he played air guitar. That cracked me up, but then Uncle Shirley appeared and grabbed the wig:
"What do you boys think you are?"
His growl demanded total silence and obedience. Neither of us dared speak the name of that forbidden group.
And when we returned to my grandmother's place, it took only one game of home run derby to tear the cover off my new ball.
Uncle Shirley's wife, and Ricky's Mom, Dexter, had been married before. She had a daughter, Becky, from that marriage, so technically I had a step-cousin. For some reason, even though my grandmother professed to love her, Becky never came to family gatherings, and I never thought to ask why.
Come to think of it, Uncle Shirley didn't attend most of these family gatherings either. We ate supper at my grandmother's every Sunday night, and to my memory, Uncle Shirley attended only two or three times during the several years he lived in town.
Naturally, none of us asked where he was or what he was doing instead-what secret grudge he and Dexter might be holding or hiding.
I wonder now: did Dad's parents sit Shiva for Uncle Shirley when he married Dexter, this gentile woman, as they did for Dad when he married my Christian mother? The ritual of declaring the death of a loved one, "sitting Shiva" in the Jewish world demands a week's worth of mourning, for those grieving to be veiled in black, to sit completely still, and to cover all mirrors, all signs of vanity and the material world.
I can see my grandmother sitting in her apartment, venting to any and all of my father's betrayal, a funny notion since by all accounts, she never darkened the Temple doors. Because she was always the star of her own domestic drama, I'm sure she let friends, neighbors, and casual acquaintances know of her shame, though when sitting Shiva, one is supposed to sit quietly, contemplating this eternal loss.
I'm betting that my grandmother's mirrors never saw such darkness, that she never felt any real loss except for a moment when she feared losing control over her second son. My mother, however, felt something: the shame of being the cause of such a dark ritual, of the barrier between mother and son. She's held onto this memory-a memory my father never shared with me, much less bothered to explain. I don't know if he ever got over it, or if it impacted him at all.
My mother also told me that Dad's mother refused to attend their engagement party. Only his sister Carole, out of his entire family, honored him on that night, for that ritual.
So maybe Uncle Shirley was dead to my grandmother too, at least as far as family gatherings and rituals were concerned. Because even on holidays, when Dad's family drove out to Bessemer to eat Thanksgiving or Christmas lunch with us, Uncle Shirley was missing. I'm not sure that anyone felt his absence, for as usual, no one uttered his name.
Just as we had no portrait over our mantle, in my family we didn't speak of such things as religious ritual, divorce, money, why Uncle Shirley didn't come around so much, or why he was moving his family away. We just observed and learned to hold our tongues.
To keep secrets that we barely knew existed. Our own form of sitting Shiva.
As I reflected on all that I didn't know about Uncle Shirley, I confronted the reality that my family's silence wasn't a natural reticence. It was an intentional struggle to control certain relationships and keep them superficially intact. And this struggle, I realize now, was between my entire family and that singular source of power-that one who had to be obeyed and revered above all: my grandmother.
However, she didn't have enough power to prevent Uncle Shirley from moving to South Carolina, or even to compel him to stay in touch.
"Why won't he call at least, or come down for a few days." she complained for decades in her nightly calls to Dad. Apparently, sitting Shiva is one thing; being fawned over by your wayward son quite another.
"You know better than I do what my darling brother is up to," I once heard Dad answer.
I can still hear the sarcasm tincturing the word "darling" today.
I guess Dad knew more about the situation than he let on. On another occasion, I heard him tell Mom that "It's only a loan. He'll pay it back."
Somehow, I don't think it was the only loan, and I don't think Uncle Shirley ever paid back it back either. But that's just the feeling I have based on the conversations that I think I heard, and the bitter tone Dad always used when he oh-so-infrequently mentioned his brother's name.
And I have another feeling now, a much more disquieting one. When Dad suggested to his mother that she might know better why Uncle Shirley stayed so far away, maybe that was the tip of something-the secret to why Uncle Shirley left. The reason my Dad stayed so silent about his brother.
The summer I turned ten, we decided to vary our annual Florida vacation and travel to South Carolina to visit Uncle Shirley. Or at least Dad decided this. To placate Mom, who saw no joy or rest in such a trip, Dad agreed that we could also visit Charleston for two days. The other caveat for the trip-maybe even the entire purpose of the trip-was that my grandmother would be accompanying us. No one seemed especially thrilled by this prospect except for Dad and me. I saw nothing wrong in having my grandmother with us for an entire week. After all, I loved her then. Still, convincing her to go was another matter:
"Oh, I couldn't take riding in that hot car all day-it would just kill me."
"It'll be OK MaMa, you'll see! We'll keep the windows down so that the air will blow on us."
"Oh no, that will blow my hair, and it's hot air anyway!"
In the end, I suppose she couldn't pass up this chance to invade her oldest son's world, especially since he had taken such pains to keep her out of it.
But why did Uncle Shirley agree to our invasion? Did he actually miss us? Or was it the prospect of Dad's bringing more money?
My mother kept her mouth shut during these negotiations, except once, when my Dad's fatigue with trying to convince MaMa to come with us left him sagging in his favorite den chair. Fearlessly, Mom suggested that "Maybe you should just leave her here."
"Are you kidding," he exploded. "She'll worry about us the whole time we're gone!"
Today, I understand that he really meant she would "worry him" the whole time we were gone.
So, after resolving all superficial issues, there we were: me, my little brother Mike, and MaMa crammed together in the back seat of our old blue 1956 Chevy special. And in one sense, MaMa was right: the air back there did blow hot and strong.
We made it to Columbia by seven that night, though Uncle Shirley didn't arrive from work until almost nine. Dexter's enthusiasm on our arrival seemed, well, Shiva-like. She fed us something unmemorable, and somehow I guess I ate it. Even worse, I felt shy around Ricky. He seemed like the same boy, just quieter, but he was twelve by then and had other friends including his Little League teammates. Unsure of my place in his world, I cautiously watched him that night as he carefully doctored his short hair after showering-hair cut like the good son of a military man. He barely acknowledged me as I hovered in the doorway.
Also there to greet us was the family dog, a boxer named Rebel, who perhaps summed up everyone's feelings that first night when he tried to bite MaMa.
"We better keep him in the backyard pen," Dexter decreed, which seemed a wise choice at the time. "Just don't leave his gate open" she added.
As I was standing in the kitchen that night after dinner, Dexter looked down on me and asked,
"Buddy, what are you going to call me?"
Maybe I had never called her anything before. If I had, I had forgotten what.
"Uhhh, I don't know," I stammered.
"What about Aunt Dexter?"
Is it me, or do Aunt Dexter and Uncle Shirley sound like characters on "The Munsters" or "The Addams Family?"
"OK," I responded.
But I continued to avoid saying her name.
My only other personal encounter with her was the moment I walked in from a game of catch with my brother and asked if I could wash my hands in the kitchen.
".bathroom sink, back there" she pointed. I turned quickly because Dexter had the kind of face that, when intent on something, kind of puckered into what I imagined I looked like on the day that I sampled a persimmon from our neighbor's tree. I got the feeling that you never wanted to cross her, and I learned to stay out of her way.
Which in such a small house would prove impossible.
And finally on that first night, Uncle Shirley came home, just when Mike and I were ready for bed. Even though I did see him before falling asleep, I don't remember now how he greeted us, or whether he was glad to see us at all.
During the week we stayed with him in Columbia, Uncle Shirley left for work every morning before anyone else was up, and he never came home before 8:00 at night. It didn't occur to me then that he was avoiding his family, like he always had. I didn't realize that avoiding family was an option, and though the secret of why he might have been doing so didn't occur to me then, I wonder now if I might have learned more from him than I've realized.
For lately I've been thinking about my own brother. About the distance we've kept from each other. He, too, moved far away from home, much farther than I did. If I'm lucky, I see him once a year. Our phone calls, maybe once every six weeks, are superficial maneuverings through "How's the family? Is work going OK?" We stay away from deeper stuff. Apparently, just as my father and Uncle Shirley did. Oddly enough, however, both my brother and I married women whose culture is far removed from ours.
I'm sure our parents did not sit Shiva for us. Though that doesn't mean that they were overjoyed, initially, at our choices. But then, my brother and I haven't spoken of such matters.
At least not yet.
For I'm growing tired of puzzles I can't finish, ones that seem to defy solving as if you see the end coming but can't figure out how the few remaining pieces could possibly be sufficient to complete things, to answer the questions and satisfy the need for fulfillment. I've begun asking questions now, drawing my brother into our story.
And it's he who remembers this episode of our visit to Uncle Shirley and helps me make at least this much sense of these seemingly unfitted family parts:
Mike and I are playing catch in the backyard, and when Dexter calls us in to lunch, we come running. Except one of us forgets to close Rebel's gate. Given that Mike is only six, Dexter blames him for this carelessness.
Rebel doesn't play well with others, and that afternoon he corners several little kids in their own yard until Dexter and Ricky retrieve him. Both Rebel and Mike live in the dog house for the rest of the day, and Mom and Dad are not far out of it either. I believe throughout that someone will eventually hold me responsible given that I am the older brother. For the rest of the day, whenever I pass her, Dexter's slit eyes follow me closely, watching my every move.
While I do remember this scene, it's scarred deep inside my brother.
"God, I was so little, and you'd think I had just stolen from someone's grave the way they carried on."
This searing blame, which he clearly still feels, might explain why he doesn't burn with my questions. Yet remembering brings us closer, and when he recounts his exact memories, I feel like I'm listening to myself tell these stories.
It's like he and I are one piece.
When I first brought up this trip and told him that I had a question about the experience, his immediate response was: "You want to know the dog's name, right?"
He knew what I wanted without my telling him. And if he reads me that well, what else might he tell me?
What else might he and I contain?
By the time we went to Ricky's Little League game that evening, all seemed calm. But Uncle Shirley, though he promised Ricky he'd try to make it, went missing again. Ricky played well; his team won, and afterward, he presented me with a prize collection of baseball cards he had gathered from his teammates who had grabbed the pink bubble gum and discarded those precious cards on the red dirt floor of the dugout.
It was a long ride back to the house, and when we got there, Dexter fried some burgers for us and boiled twenty ears of corn. I thought that was a lot, given that in my family, we usually ate one ear apiece. Maybe an hour after we finished eating, Uncle Shirley drove up looking more weathered than any of the rest of us. I remember watching him head straight for the kitchen sink where he proceeded to wash his face and hands as Dexter stood by observing all that she couldn't control.
When he sat down to his dinner, she put a burger on his plate and the rest of the corn in a big bowl by it. Maybe he ate the burger, but what I recall is that he took some butter and salt, applied them generously, and proceeded to gnaw through eight ears of corn without stopping.
Dad took a picture of him then; a picture I've kept. There he sits at the kitchen table, legs crossed beneath him, his shoeless white socks prominent. He is eating, but one eye and half a smile greet the camera. He knows something we don't, and whatever it is, he keeps it and the corn to himself.
When I want to see him now, it's that picture I turn to.
Just what did you know, Uncle Shirley?
Through the era of his Columbia exile, Uncle Shirley would occasionally take overnight trips to Birmingham. He'd visit MaMa for a little while, bed down at our house, and be up by five the next morning and off, usually before anyone else awakened. I don't know what he got from these hasty and rushed visits other than to buy off guilt and secure more funds. And I don't know if he was successful in achieving either.
My grandmother lived alone then, and it's strange to me that Uncle Shirley wouldn't stay with her, keep her company through the only night he had to spend with her, until I remember this story, a story I heard from my mother:
"Your MaMa used to say that your Daddy lied. He might have been completely under her thumb, but he never lied. One night we were playing bridge over there, and for some reason she got mad at him and called him a liar. She said, 'Alvin, you know you lie, like that time when you were a little boy and said you woke up one night and saw a strange man in our house, a man standing in the living room wearing nothing but his underwear. You know you were lying!'"
"Wow, what did Dad say?"
"Nothing. Nothing. He just laughed and went on shuffling the cards."
I could interpret this story; I knew it was neither a dream nor a lie. My grandmother had affairs. My grandfather died before I was born, and from my childhood, I remember her always claiming to have boyfriends. Once, when I was ten and spending the day with her, she got increasingly agitated by Dad's being late to get me.
"Doesn't he remember that I have a date?"
She was past seventy then, and maybe it was okay for her to date, but I didn't want to know about it. When I finally saw Midnight Cowboy and the flashbacks of "Joe Buck" as a boy being left alone by his grandmother because she had to keep her date-or being in bed with both grandmother and her date--I thought of this moment and how unsettled I was then.
In this same era, she started writing songs, even had two recorded on 45 rpm by a local band with a woman named Abby Lee singing in the style of Dad's favorite female vocalist, Julie London. One of those songs was titled "I Want Your Lovin.'" It kind of embarrassed me when I first heard it, and I didn't know what to say when she asked if I liked it.
"Yeah, MaMa, it's really good."
Even though I knew it wasn't.
Another experience, another picture: the two of us are sitting on the arm of an overstuffed chair in her apartment. My Dad has asked us to pose, and before we do, MaMa suggests that we sit as if we are boy and girlfriend. I'm twelve years old, wearing Beatle-Bangs, a gold and blue horizontally-striped shirt with matching blue shorts. She puts her arms around my waist and chest and leans in to me as we sit, and I do the same. Our smiles indicate that we're happy together.
That there's nothing wrong with this picture.
Years later, after I'm married, I bring my wife to meet MaMa who then pronounces to both of us the proper way to produce a male heir:
"The wife should do nothing, just lie on her back, eating a banana while the husband does all the work."
We say nothing. But we never forget. Within five years we produce two children. Two daughters.
And then, on the day of her funeral, I discover that MaMa has recorded her life story.
Dad and I listen to the cassette on the way home from the cemetery. I hear her voice--that mix of Southern-Jewish charm--as she proudly attests to having men around her all the time, even after she married. They come over many nights and sometimes escort her to gambling dens.
"They just loved dancing with me," she says, "especially so they could get right next to my bosom."
I can't look at Dad, can't express one word of what I feel. And again, he just laughs:
"She was some woman!"
We continue driving as the tape mercifully runs out.
As I blend these images with the knowledge that Uncle Shirley was five years older than Dad, I begin wondering this: What did this woman, his mother, show Uncle Shirley? What silences did he see?
I hear now these other silences. The silences of his absence from any of Dad's childhood stories. Neither do I recall seeing Uncle Shirley in Dad's old photos. No stories of two brothers playing together; no photos to mark the ritual of their days and years. No birthday parties, Bar Mitzvahs. We have plenty of shots of Dad alone, or with his sister. Uncle Shirley, apparently, was missing even when he was there.
We visited Uncle Shirley twice more in my adult years. The first time, we were returning from a trip to Washington DC, and Dad insisted we detour to see his brother. Uncle Shirley had divorced Dexter and was now keeping company with a woman named Doris. They treated us to dinner at a place that I thought was closed when we first pulled into the parking lot.
I was twenty by then, and so Uncle Shirley offered me a cocktail. Neither of my parents touched alcohol, but I wanted to show somebody something, so I promptly ordered a Wild Turkey on the rocks.
"We don't stock Wild Turkey," the waitress/co-owner apologized.
"OK, what about Jack Black?"
"Now you're talking," Uncle Shirley said as he clapped me on the back, leaving my Dad looking like some rite had just passed him by.
Afterward, Uncle Shirley drove us by his construction office. We saw his warehouse, his garage, his drafting table. It all looked so ordinary, so.alien to all that I knew. When we left that night, I thanked him for the drink, the meal.
It's funny to me now, but none of us mentioned my grandmother, who was till alive then, or Ricky.
And then came the night at Judy's restaurant-the last time I ever saw my uncle-- where I'm trying to swallow blackened flounder and the bitter truth of at least some of what my family believes.
I'm sure my face wondered why Jap cars were so forbidden. Dad looked at me and offered:
"You know your Uncle Shirley fought in the Battle of Midway, right?"
I didn't know. How would I have known since no one ever talked about this part of the past? I barely knew that Dad fought in Patton's army as an eighteen-year old draftee. Other than the German Luger he brought home, the story about telling a German POW that heavyweight boxer Joe Louis knocked out the German champ Max Schmeling in their title-fight rematch, and that after he returned and enrolled at the University of Alabama, the various fraternities wouldn't rush him because he was a Jew, I knew nothing of my own father's wartime experience.
So no, I didn't know about Uncle Shirley. I didn't now about Mitsubishi's war financing, its armaments.
"Those sons of bitches!"
But I did know how thankful I was that we had driven my Dad's Buick Regal and not my Honda Accord.
Uncle Shirley calmed down enough to shake my hand as we left. He didn't ask me to visit again, though he knew that I lived only 100 miles away.
Of course, I never asked if I could come back either.
Uncle Shirley's last trip to Birmingham occurred somewhere in the Desert Storm era. When I happened to call home that Friday night, Mom told me that the two brothers were ensconced in the den, watching General Schwarzkopf address the nation.
"They're so focused, "Mom said. "They seem happy to be together."
Despite the fact that they fought a war on two separate theaters of action, they were united by their love for and defense of a country that, perhaps more than anything else-even family-gave them an identity, a portrait of themselves that was not disturbing or even puzzling. Even now it's a comforting scene to picture, this final memory of them.
Like an old family album stored in a remote attic room, our family secrets have always hovered nearby, just waiting for someone to remember where they've been stacked. One of these secrets was that while we knew that Uncle Shirley was sick, we didn't know how advanced his geriatric leukemia was. That is until my parents got the call from Doris telling us that he had passed away the night before.
My parents then called me from Birmingham as they prepared to drive up that day.
"I don't know exactly what's going on," Dad said. "But we'll see you sometime tonight."
They drove 300 miles straight to the funeral home, and then on to my house. "The funeral is tomorrow at two," Dad said. And with that, he and Mom retired to their hotel, none of us certain what tomorrow would hold.
The next day, I accompanied them to the funeral.
At a Baptist church.
And there I learned from the preacher who conducted the service that Uncle Shirley was:
"A fine man, and a good preacher too. He was devoted to the Lord and served Him in any way he could."
I had known that Uncle Shirley liked to hunt wild game, that he had a boar's head mounted on his den wall. But I hadn't known the other kinds of hunting he engaged in: seeking a safe and acceptable framed setting for his family in a nondescript South Carolina suburban subdivision and a country Baptist church.
And also in the pulpit.
My folks and I looked at each other as the eulogy concluded.
A Baptist preacher? Thank God MaMa was dead.
Maybe that's why toward the end of her life she began insisting that Dad go to Temple regularly. Maybe that's why she was so glad that I started going with him.
She herself wouldn't go anywhere. A self-professed agoraphobic, she claimed that she couldn't leave her apartment. When my Aunt Carole died of multiple sclerosis-a disease that also ravaged her mind-we had to go to MaMa's apartment afterward and describe the service for her. Still wearing the ritual torn ribbons on our lapels that signified the rift in our hearts, we watched this woman, clothed in an ordinary housedress, pretend to cry. Her tears welled and dried so often that I knew for certain then that I no longer trusted anything she said or did.
I wondered why I ever had.
Her next false move was to pull out a copy of Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People . She began talking about the book, and though I zoned out for the first few minutes wondering what this book had to do with my poor aunt's death, I finally caught on somewhere between MaMa's lament of how my aunt had abandoned her when she married my Uncle Leo, and her bemoaning of how lonely she was because no one ever came to see her.
MaMa actually believed that she was the "good person" that all these "bad things" happened to in our invisible family portrait.
Which made the rest of us.?
Like Uncle Shirley? He chose not to attend the services either. No explanation.
No word at all.
Neither was there any word from him a few years later when MaMa died. But then, I for one didn't expect there to be. I'm not sure what my Dad expected.
And then, there's this. Dad is telling the story of his own father's death back in the early 1950's, how on the night he died, my grandfather lay in a hospital bed with only my Dad there to comfort him:
"I was so tired, and when he asked me to stay with him that night, I couldn't. I told him I had to go home to bed because I had work in the morning. I didn't know he was going to die just a few hours later."
Where was my grandmother? And where was Uncle Shirley, I wondered, even though I knew by then that he was a man who missed all birthdays, all special occasions. Rituals just didn't matter to him as I thought they did in my family.
And it finally hit me: this missing piece: the one biological trait that my Uncle Shirley and I shared-being first-born sons-had no meaning for us. It wasn't a connection at all, given that I believe that first-borns tend to be more closely tied to family, maybe to the point of overly-sentimentalizing family connections. I can't imagine ever abandoning my family. And when my father was dying, I held his hand and whispered to him that it was OK to go, that he had done everything he could and that I would take care of my mother, the rest of our family from here on out. I know he heard me, and he slipped away soon after.
I also know that in my married family, my wife and daughters and I have established our own rituals from Chanukah to Christmas and even to Halloween. And if you look around our house, you'll see the full portrait of our family amidst all the individual and collective pictures that we've taken through the years of our life together.
But then, we haven't suffered any significant, abnormal trauma. Nothing has shocked our family system, and certainly my daughters have never seen images of strange men in underwear lurking through their house.
My Uncle Shirley saw something in his biological family, experienced some horror with or near or through his mother, and while I'll always believe this, I'll never know exactly what he saw.
I'll never know what piece of his life turned up missing one day when he was five, or eight, or maybe when he was going through that troubling but natural teenage rite of puberty. I used to think that he was the piece that didn't fit the family puzzle.
But I know differently now.
I know that none of us wanted to look behind the ritual screen of our family connections. Or maybe we were simply incapable of standing back at a healthy distance-a distance that would allow us to see the larger perspective of the family puzzle we actually were. Maybe there was no distance great enough for such a completed view.
Which brings me back to viewing Ricky, whose rites of passage, to my knowledge, were never honored either. There he was at his father's funeral, sitting on the other side of the church with his wife and two little boys. I saw him and knew him, but he only stared straight ahead, never at me.
As I gazed at him, I grew less and less certain that he was the boy who collected baseball cards with me. That we were ever related at all.
But he finally had that Beatle cut he longed for all those decades ago.
After the funeral ended, the other revelation, from Doris came swiftly:
"Ricky was caught growing marijuana behind his trailer. It was his own little boy who turned him in after a DARE officer spoke to his second grade class. I don't know what's going to happen, but can you imagine what that little boy will have to live with now?"
No I couldn't; I didn't even try to.
Doris also said that Ricky and his wife thought Dad was after all Uncle Shirley's belongings, after "their" inheritance.
Dad kind of laughed then and shook his head. I wondered if those were tears in his eyes. I wondered about my own eyes too. We left the funeral home then and definitely did not go to the cemetery, Uncle Shirley's final stop. Even Dad had had enough by then. I hoped that wherever this place was, it might be next to a cornfield. A beautiful setting for this final picture of my uncle.
We drove back to Greenville that night, and Dad and I watched the Alabama-Mississippi State football game. We are Bama fans to the core, and as the game came on, Dad confessed two things:
"I'm always so nervous before a game starts." This one I knew. But the other:
"Did you know that your Uncle Shirley used to pull for Alabama, but after he came back from the Marines, he switched to Auburn?'
I didn't know. Somehow it didn't surprise me to learn it. It made a kind of sense that I'll probably never be able to explain.
Bama lost that night, upset in Starkville, which also made some sense given everything else that happened that day.
"Who would have believed it," Dad asked as I drove him back to his and Mom's hotel. I wasn't sure what part of the day he was referring to, though it was likely just the game.
Nor was I ever sure exactly why my grandmother named my uncle "Shirley." It was actually his middle name. My father got "Alvin Ray," and my grandmother's maiden name was Williams. She had eight brothers and sisters, too, no Shirley among them.
My uncle's first name was Richard, and I still don't know what he left behind. But I'm beginning to uncover the secrets that he and the rest of the family kept.
I'm beginning to understand what their keeping has done to me.
And I'm working very hard to see the larger perspective of the puzzle before me, to fit these pieces into the whole. Last week, as I sifted through the old photos of our family that until recently had been stored under a table at my mother's house-secreted away or simply forgotten with time-I found a shot of Mike, Ricky, and me from that summer in Columbia. The three of us seem like friends there, though we stand with too much space between us, as boys are prone to do. I showed this picture to another friend recently and told him the story of Uncle Shirley.
"Why don't you contact Ricky," my friend suggested. "Maybe he knows something that would help."
I thought about this advice, considered calling Ricky for a moment. In the end, I decided not to, for after all, he is just a stranger to me, this first cousin of mine. And I'm not sure I would trust any memory he might have of his Dad.
Of our family.
So I look to the other boy standing there. I know now that I will call him.
For there are still so many puzzle pieces missing in our past, and I am striving now for completion. I need someone to walk with me as I search, for I refuse to follow the family footprints that Dad and Uncle Shirley, lost as they were to each other for all that time, imprinted on us. After all, I have nothing against modern Japanese cars or old German boxers.
It's the secrets that are my enemy.