I’m traveling back to my home state of Indiana tomorrow for a funeral. It’s a trip I didn’t expect to make so soon. My uncle would have turned 70 in two weeks and I have a gift I was going to mail to him. It’s a three-book series by one of my author friends. I thought my uncle would really enjoy reading them. I’m not sure what to do with them now.
Uncles and aunts are special people. Like grandparents, they are the closest thing we have to our own parents but they don’t parent us. They simply love us unconditionally and are fun and part of our personal fan club.
My Uncle Ken was my mom’s younger brother. She was seven when he was born and after he arrived, my mom asked her parents to trade him in for a sister. She wanted a little sister, not a little brother.
He was 13 years older than me and just older enough to be the rock star uncle that I adored. As a little girl, I thought he was beyond handsome in his senior class picture and I used to think he looked like a prince.
He loved to tease me and my girl cousins. He would say, “I hate nieces to pieces but not you, you’re my favorite.” Of course, he said this to all of us. We all thought we were his favorite. When one of us heard him tell another niece that she was his favorite, he would wink and whisper, “But you are really my favorite.”
On my 7th birthday, the United States Army sent my Uncle Ken to Germany. I was so upset that he had to leave on my birthday that I told him I was going to call President Johnson and give him a piece of my mind. My uncle just chuckled and told me it would be “okay” and that he would send me a German doll.
For weeks, I waited for that doll to come in the mail. Every afternoon I ran off the yellow school bus and burst into the kitchen saying, “Did it come today?” And one day, there she was…the most beautiful doll I had ever seen. She had brown hair just like mine and she was wearing a traditional German dress. I treasured that doll for decades and just a few years ago, I took it to a family Christmas to show my uncle I had kept it all these years.
After he returned from the army, Uncle Ken taught me to play chess. I then taught my younger brother, Jeff, to play. Until my brother died 11 years ago, he and my uncle would play chess together regularly. I didn’t know until much later, that Uncle Ken was a rated chess player.
When I was a teenager, my uncle introduced me to the music of the Beatles and the Eagles and Jackson Browne and Neil Young. As we listened to his vinyl records together, he taught me to pay attention to the lyrics, the words, and to try and figure out what the artists were trying to say. Perhaps that was the beginning of my life-long love affair with words and the fun of stringing them together into many meanings.
Over the years, Uncle Ken always remembered my birthday. Some years, I would receive a note or a hand-written card from him. Those notes always included a picture of his original character, Safety Cat. Other years, he would call and remind me that it was a special day for us both because that was the day he had left home for the army and his grand adventure in Germany.
Three months ago, he called me on August 1st to tell me “happy birthday” and to say that this year was our 50th anniversary of the birthday he left for Germany. It was the last time we talked on the phone. I mailed him a letter and my latest book in September. He was a big fan of my books.
So, I will travel to Indiana tomorrow to say “goodbye” to my beloved uncle and to hug his son and his daughter. I take comfort in the fact that he isn’t suffering any longer and I wonder if he and my brother might be playing chess again together. Heavenly chess.
And, no matter what my girl cousins might think, I know that I was his favorite. Really.