By Michael Meteyer
(From a Silly in Progress)
Uncle Chuck smoked five cigars a day, dressed like a tweed wastebasket, and was rumored to do unpalatable things with his hands.
A hug from Uncle Chuck was like a dive into a smoldering garbage bin, and would hang on you for days afterwards, like a miasma from a swamp of dead alligators, frog innards and spoiled wet tobacco and moldy latrines.
Uncle Chuck was a tenor with the voice of an angel. He sang songs from World War l.
His speaking voice was as plummy as a radio announcer from the 1940s. Everything about Uncle Chuck except for his odor was plummy, even his face color, even his body shape, which was round, with a crease in his forehead where you expected a stem to appear, as if he were a tomato.
There were rumors about Uncle Chuck. We were told as children, to never ask about Uncle Chucks history, which only made us more curious.
Was Uncle Chuck a murderer? Did he work for the government? Had he been a florist? Did he come back from the dead?
No matter: at every family gathering Uncle Chuck was central to a ritual that had evolved.
First there was the imbibing and storytelling, our paramount adult activities: and to this day I am so grateful I came from a clan of storytellers who cherished language as much as a Babylonian farmer cherished his hoe.
Then after the initial bonhomie, and then the giddiness, and then wild laughter, and then me and my brother Timmy would get in a fistfight, and the gathering would become sad and wistful… then it was time for Uncle Chuck to sing the mournful song “My Buddy”.
“My Buddy” was a song from the Great War about the death of a friend, which, although I didn’t know it then, was also about the death of youth, and the end of dreams, and the impermanence of… everything, especially precious family instances and crowded Christmas moments.
Uncle Chuck’s angelic voice- the voice of a plummy winged angel- brought tears to everyone’s eyes, even to those of us, adolescents, who had no knowledge yet of the preciousness of common things and tiring rituals.
I remember the thick snow falling outside, slow but insistent, illuminated by the multiple colors of lights on all the houses in the neighborhood. It seemed like each snowflake was a different color, but I realize now this was because of the Christmas lights on the houses behind them. Something like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
“Each snowflake”, Aunt Marla once confided to me in slurred tones, “Is not only a piece of time, which melts the moment you think about it; it is the secret kiss of an anonymish, ah, aninnymoosh angel who will protect you. And there are numberless angels… They shee everything you do. Except, we’ll, let’s just say they know when to look away. They know what it means to be alive. Most of them. They aren’t nosy, they just want to protect you. Did I tell you they were numberless? Like snowdrops? Like kisses from your Aunt Marla”?
Then she would giggle, and give me a kiss: wet, like a snowdrop, but much warmer, and then she would look deeply into my eyes, as if seeing all things past and future, but especially the present. And her eyes would fixate that moment into my consciousness like it was riveted by a laser beam.
But then her eyes would quiver and she’d burp or hiccup or something, and it rather changed the moment.
In Babylonian Times there were parties and rituals around the solstice, and lamps and torches set alight in the dark, and the presentation of gifts and the recitation of prayers to urge the Sun, the God that controlled the light, to come back, to return us to light and warmth again.
They acted as if light and warmth and illumination were as fragile and promising as a new born infant, as if everything, even the continuation of life, depended upon its growth and thriving.
Those Babylonians didn’t have snow. Or tinsel. They had their own form of crèches, and talked to the statuettes in them all year, as if they were alive, but that is a different thing, and I don’t want to get into it now.
Those Babylonians, they didn’t have snow, either.
They didn’t have, like I had, Gloria Matthews dressed up as the Virgin Mary in our fifth grade Christmas play.
They didn’t have, as we have, the Christ child.
And then as now, several thousands of years later, the prayers and the lights and the gifts and the love worked. The infant son, as good as God, began its way home us, bringing more light and longer days.
I’m sure the pagan Babylonians had their own version of doleful ballads and plummy Uncle Chucks.
And when Uncle Chuck finished singing, we were all as quiet as the stars in the night sky.
Then the adults would wipe away their tears, and begin to sober up for the journey home.
Michael Meteyer is a longtime friend of the blind, a newly retired orientation and mobility instructor. He studies creative writing at the University of Rochester with the poet Anthony Hecht and spent many afternoons riding horses with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He lives in San Rafael, California.