My grandmother was the second-to-the-last child in a huge Irish family. When her parents died, she and her husband, Doc, the optometrist, inherited the three story house with the bay windows and wrap around porches. The house, and the bachelor uncles, the youngest of whom, Uncle Bernie, lived there still when I was a child.
On Sundays when we got to Grandma’s, we’d run into the parlor where Uncle Bernie stood waiting for us, hands in his pockets. He shuffled his slippery shoes on the carpet. Do you see one? Is it there? With pantlegs flapping to the clumsy footwork, he flicked Necco wafers out of his pockets, and sticks of Beeman’s gum. Pennies occasionally. One for each of us. No matter how much we danced around him and begged for more, laughing up at the dome of his Santa Claus tummy.
Uncle Bernie was different before The Depression, they said. He was in real estate and would sometimes rush away, saying, “I have to go show a house.” He lost all his apartments, everything, in the crash of ’29. He wore a suit every day and always drove a Cadillac. My grandmother’s albums have picures of him during the War. That would be World War I, when she knit socks for the men in the trenches. In every photo, Uncle Bernie stands in uniform, beside the elephantine haunches of an automobile. Uncle Bernie drove the general’s Cadillac.
Uncle Bernie didn’t read to us or play games of cards like my grandfather did. But he let us sit on the toilet seat or the edge of the bathtub in his bathroom and watch him shave. He sudsed up a brush in a cup the way our dad did and the lather all over his face made him really look like Santa Claus. We’d kick and bounce, call for him to dab us on the nose, expecting the taste of whipped cream and not soap. The aftershave was Old Spice and he made burbly sounds and smacked his jiggley cheeks. He smeared some white goo from a tall bottle onto his palms and into his hair and the comb left tracks front to back through his white widow’s peak. He was getting ready to go across the street to 12 o’clock Mass.
No way we could go to 12 o’clock Mass. We went at 7:15 or 9:30. 12 o’clock Mass was for people who were lazy. And Uncle Bernie. You didn’t ever get to do something justs because Uncle Bernie did it. At dinner, he ate his dessert–a bowl of custard–first. My grandmother made his plate up special in the kitchen. The meat had to be extra well-done black. He wouldn’t tolerate spaghetti, because it looked like worms, nor could he bear the sight of a green bean because there could be a worm hidden inside. Uncle Bernie’s cure for any ailment was bicarbonate of soda. Sometimes my mother and the aunts would exchange murmurs and glances because of him in the bathroom after dinner.
There’s a famous family photo of me in a skinny wet bathing suit, cringing in black and white beside the rear bumber of Uncle Bernie’s Cadillac, wailing straight into the lens, “I caaaaan’t.” He’s bowed to the box camera at his belly, telling me to stand up straight, stand still and smile. Uncle Bernie wouldn’t think of bare feet and hot asphalt, only that one of those kids in the wading pool by the driveway should and get over here next to his green and white Cadillac for a picture.
Uncle Bernie spent his weekday evenings at a funeral parlor. It was just one more oddball thing Uncle Bernie did. Hanging out with his friends in the back of a funeral home.
Uncle Bernie. He drove the general’s Cadillac.