Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Sunday Memory Drawer - One Final Scare From A Scary Uncle

Part 2 of my Scary Uncle Fritz story.  Here he dances at a New Year's Eve party held in my parents' basement.  And, no, that's not bubble gum coming out of his nose. 

I am guessing it's the last New Year's he saw.  But, then again, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself with today's tale.  

Last I told you, the man that forever creeped me out and scared the pellets out of me, my father's favorite brother, was on his way to Cross County Hospital.  I didn't even want to see him off like the rest of the family.  Mom had told me he had yellow jaundice.  And all I could think of was selected fruits in the bowl on the kitchen table.  Lemons, bananas, what have you.

Life went on that summer.  I was six years old and, despite this family drama, I was completely oblivious.  Paying more attention to Popeye cartoons and the Three Stooges with Officer Joe Bolton. I can remember people coming and going to visit Uncle Fritz at the hospital.  Thank God for age limits.  I was not allowed.  

My world was perfectly fine.

Years later, I would learn from my father, who was then finally able to discuss this all, that there were medical obstacles at every turn for his stricken brother.  My dad even went as far as to curse out the name of the doctor that operated on Uncle Fritz.  Apparently, in my family, this was a huge crisis of epic proportions.  The fact that I missed all of it is actually a testimony to my parents shielding me from life's grim realities as I entered into the first grade.  

I would discover that this protection would last only so long.

There were sounds on that Saturday of Labor Day weekend that I will never forget, even though I didn't really know what was going on.  

The phone ringing.  My mom dropping the receiver to the floor.  

Her faster-than-blazes footsteps downstairs.  

Grandma's plaintive wail in the middle of her Saturday morning baking.

Something was up.

Now, my dad was not home.  He and some cousins would, from time to time, rent a boat and go fishing on the Long Island Sound.   There would be days when he dragged me along, even though I was petrified of worms.  On this Saturday, I had stayed home.  But, as I pieced the words together that I could hear my mother telling my grandparents, one stood out.


Somebody was sinking.  Oh, no, my father's boat sunk?  When my mother came back upstairs, she had a look of distress on her face.  And I didn't help the situation with my questioning.  

I asked her if Dad's boat was sinking.  She looked at me with one of those looks you frequently get from a mother.  One that screams "oh, God, I hope the hospital gave me the wrong child."  After shaking her head, she clarified the situation.

"No, your Uncle Fritz is sinking."

You know where this is going.  I told her that I thought Uncle Fritz was in the hospital.  How could he be on the boat with Dad?

I think my mother then slapped her head in dismay as I simply couldn't get out of this Abbott and Costello routine.  Finally, she sat me down and explained that Uncle Fritz had taken a turn for the worse.  He might not make it through the day and she had to figure out how to get word to my father on the Long Island Sound.  Of course, I might have suggested that Lassie go get him just like on television, but I was in enough of a jam.  I shut my mouth.  

In the days long before cell phones, I have no idea how my mother got hold of my father.  But, then, she had another mission at hand.  She needed to find somebody to dump me on for the day while the adults in my family maintained a hospital vigil.  As was usually the case, I got palmed off on her best friend, Aunt Ronnie, who was the spitting image of actress Susan Hayward.  She, her husband, and two daughters were headed off to a barbecue.  Within the hour, so was I.

I remember being incredibly bored at this barbecue.  Most of the kids were girls.  And, even with the limited information I had, I felt a need to be with my family.  What was happening?  Could I help?  And is it possible that Uncle Fritz would never again give me a wedgie as I climbed stairs ahead of him?  

As much as all my memories of my dad's older brother were culled from a short period of two years and were pretty much all bad ones, I started to miss the man.  Right there in the Bronx backyard of some stranger.

As darkness fell, I was summoned to the front yard.  My dad had come to pick me up.

As we motored along in silence, I waited for my father to say something.  He did not.  He was likely waiting for me to ask.  I did not.  I looked around and noticed that we were not headed home.  Instead, we pulled onto the block where Uncle Fritz and Aunt Helen.  Dad parked the car in front.   He turned off the ignition.  He slowly pulled the key out.  And then turned to me.

"I have something to tell you...."

I knew.

And, for the first time of what would be only two instances that I can remember in my life, my father cried.

He told me that everybody in the family was inside and that I should come in.  I looked at the lights in the front windows.  They were ablaze, yet I knew that, beyond them, there was sadness.

I asked my father if I could sit in the car.  Oddly enough, he understood.  He probably didn't want to be in that house either.

My family immediately went into standard funeral mode.  Three days sitting around a funeral parlor.  Then, a service run by the family pastor.  Off to the cemetery.  Even at the age of six, I knew how the drill worked.

You see, for some reason totally alien to me, my family chose to include youngsters in these rites which, to this day, completely confounds me.  

Strangely enough, I was already an old hand at this wake business.  Two years previously, Uncle Fritz' father-in-law had kicked off and there was a big gala send-off in the same funeral parlor where my dad's own 45-year-old brother would be laid out.  I was brought along to the old codger's casket and, from what I was later told, climbed up on it and even played with the guy's eyelids.

Hello, Mom and Dad, what the hell are you thinking??

Now I would be making a repeat appearance before the dead.  And didn't want to.  I kept asking anybody who would entertain the question.  Why was I being dragged along?  I got a myriad of reasons.

"Because he was your father's closest brother."

"Because Aunt Helen would be hurt if you didn't say goodbye."

"Because Grandma and Grandpa are so upset."

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but still....

So, on the last day of the wake, I was suited up by my father's favorite cousin, Aunt Ollie, who was often the lone voice of reason and logic in our tribe.  As she fitted with a pair of cuff links, no less, I asked the same question.  

"Because there are always going to be things in life that you don't want to do but have to."

Okay, that was the Ward Cleaver approach.  I was going to have to suck this one up and go.  How do you argue that when you're six???

I lingered in the waiting room of the funeral parlor for what was probably an eternity. I was asked repeatedly when I was going to go up and see my Uncle Fritz. 

The dead Uncle Fritz.  The man who scared me repeatedly in life had one last trick up his embalmed sleeve.

For Pete's sake, doesn't being in the same building get me off the hook?? No, they all wanted me to go up and kneel and say my respects. And, of course, the eyelid trick was going to be completely retired.

To make this pilgrimage to the casket, I would have to walk a straight line from the door. So, as I would amble up, I would see nothing but the dead uncle "just sleeping." If I closed my eyes during the walk, I would most certainly fall over a folding chair. And, worse, a quickly folding older relative. That would not work.

I hit on a solution with Aunt Helen's nephew, Arthur from Maryland, who was about my age. He had already been up to Uncle Fritz several times and even discussed the Baltimore Orioles' weekend series with him.  Arthur suggested he would walk in front of me all the way up to the casket, blocking my view. As soon as we arrived at our destination, he would step aside and...ta da. Len is at the casket.

Well, the scheme worked, but the end result was still horrible. In front of me was a young man, only slightly older than my dad. Dead. There were constant sobs behind me. The vision has stayed me for all these years. I even dream about it to this day. And it all effectively swore me off funerals and wakes for life.

Suddenly on that September afternoon, I realized that, of all the shocks Uncle Fritz had given me in life, I would subject myself to his countless wedgies if I could remove this one lasting image from my memory bank.  His cold dead body lying in front of me.

So, when it comes to wakes, I go if I have to. But, I'm always in the same place in that funeral parlor. 

Way in the back. 

Looking anyway but at the front of the room. 

And, as a result, I never held any wakes for my own parents. I rationalized by saying they hated them. But, the real reason is...I hate them. And always will.
Thanks to a lasting impression of an uncle I barely knew.

Dinner last night:  Sausage and peppers at Carlo's in Yonkers.


Anonymous said...

What caused your uncle's jaundice? Were you ever told?

Len said...

Nope. One of those questions you didn't ask. Answers now buried in Woodlawn and Ferncliff Cemeteries.

Anonymous said...

I was spared my grandmother's funeral because I was ten, an unusually sensitive choice by my parents.

I was not spared my sister-in-law's funeral. Sitting ten feet from a corpse for hours is barbaric and should not be your final memory of someone.