Thursday, December 20, 2012
My Uncle Hank...
Growing up in a very large family created special holiday experiences. I always thought that would be the way Christmas would be every year for the rest of my life. What we think when we are growing up doesn’t always turn out to be the reality when we reach adulthood and seems to fall farther from reality as we reach our senior years.
I didn’t grow up in an alcoholic home. I can only remember one family member that may have had alcohol issues. Uncle Hank was the husband of my father’s sister – so my aunt’s husband. He was a handsome guy with dark wavy hair and blue eyes. He had a wiry build and rumor had it that he had been so injured during World War II that most of his body was held together with wire and screws. He seemed to be in pain most of the time, but was never daunted by physical labor. He fit in well with the other hard-working family members.
My aunt was head over heels in love with Uncle Hank. You could see it in her eyes. Everyone knew that nothing would ever come between them. But, he had a darker side to him as well. He was a firm believer that sparing the rod, boot, belt or fist would definitely spoil the child. He would demand silence and when his demand was not met; his children would cower in fear. Even so, his wife and kids were the world to him.
I cannot talk about the dark stuff without mentioning that he was also a very funny fellow. He could always tell a good joke and get everyone laughing. He knew when to keep it clean for the kids and a bit raunchy for the adults. Things were always light-hearted when their family came to visit ours. Christmas visits were always extra special.
One year my aunt wanted Santa to bring her a Hammond Organ. It was all she wanted, but she believed that it was not within their budget, so she never pushed Uncle Hank to deliver. That was the year that all the families converged upon my parent’s house to celebrate Christmas together. All total there were 23 kids in the house under the age of 18. My mother cleared out the office and one of the bedrooms and turned the rooms into a wall-to-wall mattress where the kids could fall asleep at will.
It was getting late and those of us who were not asleep were talking softly so as not to wake the other kids. The laundry room was just on the other side of the door. We could hear bits and pieces of conversation from the kitchen where the adults were gathered around the table telling stories of the past and happily cajoling each other. Uncle Hank was in the laundry room. He was crumpling up paper every few minutes he would let out a howl of laughter but said nothing. Occasionally, he would ask my mother to fix him another high-ball and bring it to him. My mother did as he asked. We counted how many times the request was made and granted – nine times. Nine high-balls in the space of two hours which really meant nothing to us children because what did we know after all?
Christmas morning we woke up to find Santa had, in fact, found his way to our house. We had to step over presents to get to our individual treasures. We were in Christmas heaven. Kathy went to Uncle Hank and gave him a big hug. His hands were shaking and he had an awful smell to him. His wife came into the room with a shot of whiskey and a cup of hot black coffee. He seemed to be in a much better mood after downing the little glass of golden liquid.
When it came time for the gifts to be handed out, the fathers each took turns pulling a gift out from under the tree and handing it over to the designated recipient. The system continued until there was only one box left. It was a box the size of a refrigerator and was wrapped in a patchwork of bits and pieces of left-over holiday paper. The box was to my aunt from Uncle Hank. This was the box that had provided so much laughter from him in the laundry room the night before.
My aunt started out by being careful, but that idea quickly fell by the wayside. She tore open the box and it was filled with newspaper. She looked at Uncle Hank and he told her to keep searching. Taped to the very bottom of the box was a Christmas card with a note that said her Hammond Organ would be delivered when they returned to their home. She hugged him and planted a sloppy romantic kiss on his lips. The kids giggled and laughed. My aunt cried. And the best part of Christmas morning was over.
There was breakfast and then food flowed freely from the kitchen for the entire rest of the day. We always had a sit-down Christmas dinner and that was no different this year. The whiskey also flowed into my uncle’s glass continuously. I had never noticed anyone’s drinking habits before, but that year I was acutely aware of how many times Uncle Hank refilled his glass. I lost track because it seemed his glass was never empty.
For me and the other kids, it wasn’t a big deal. Uncle Hank was happy and there was no strict punishment dealt during their visit. There were no angry arguments – as sometimes happen when the entire family convenes. It was just a good day creating good memories.
Uncle Hank died just a few years later. They lived in the mountains and his commute to town was over the winding highway. He missed a turn and his van ran over a cliff. My aunt and the two children were devastated. We were all told that he had fallen asleep and that’s what caused him to miss the curve in the road.
As an adult, I once asked my mother if Uncle Hank had been driving drunk. She responded “Why NO! Why would you think such a thing?” I said I was just wondering because he was such a good driver. I never told her that I remembered him drinking constantly during that Christmas holiday. After all, I was just a child. Maybe I remembered it all wrong. But, I don’t think so.
at 8:12 AM