Thursday, July 30, 2009

Uncle Tom

Uncle Tom wasted enough charisma to kill him early. He died in a car 'accident' in Mexico about 28 years ago or so. We never really knew how it happened and getting his body home was a challenge for his siblings, indebted forever from the kindness of helpful strangers.

My earliest memory is of him calling mom telling her over and over again how much he loved her and his family and all of us. It took a long time. Mom in her innocence, unaware of his drunken state kept cajoling, assuring him and trying to comfort him. He was driving through California and wanted to come visit, but needed clear directions for his fuzzy thinking. We lived in a very small cabin in the mountains. Our place was in the hills off the beaten track with a long dirt driveway and very few amenities. We had something in common with the driveway - dirt. As in dirt poor. However, Glenwood never gets defined in my mind as being the place where we were poor. As far as memories go, this is where the rich ones get mined.

Uncle Tom came roaring up the driveway in a billowing cloud of dust. When it cleared, a beautiful very long shiny (was it bright yellow?) car with very large wings appeared. When the hugs were over, he couldn't wait to take us for a spin. He was proud of his wheels, as mom and her siblings grew up without ever owning a car. Having a car was amazing, having a spiffy new one beyond any one's imagination.

Here was this dashing, handsome and charming uncle intriguing us, wooing us and inviting us into his life......and car! With all of us packed inside, breathing ecstatically, the windows started to fog up. I was squished in between some adults in the front seat. It was easy to reach the window from the lap I was sitting on and wanting to be helpful, used my little hand to clear the moisture away from the inside. Not only did I want a view, but thought everyone else would like it, so very thoroughly started working my way to his side. Tom definitely didn't like it! He harshly told me to never do that again, letting me know it was marking and messing up the window. The way he spoke I thought the damage was permanent - the window forever scarred. The rest of the ride was torture, lacking joy, for I was unable to notice anything - holding back tears. It is the first time I remember feeling ashamed.

The next afternoon, perhaps in penance, he asked me to take him hiking up my hill. I packed us a little lunch and a jar of water. A lunch made by a 5 or 6 year old isn't gourmet at best, but after trudging through hot grass uphill all the way, it was dilapidated. I didn't know then, but seeing the lunch I offered him now, in my adult mind's eye, I cringe, then laugh. The peanut butter and jam sandwiches were pressed almost flat with jam oozing out the sides. The water very warm which made the familiar rotten egg smell that our water had even worse. Tom ate the sandwich like it was a fine delicacy, then offered me (and my probably grimy mouth and sweaty hands) a drink first. This was also my first experience of true chivalry. I recognized it and revelled in feeling like a princess. I believed him when he said it was the best lunch he'd ever had.

Tom had a smile that could melt your mad. He was generous and hospitable. His sensuality never crossed the line when I was a child or teenager. He was a little dangerous, but always exciting to be around. I loved staying with him and which ever wife he was with at the time. He lived extravagantly, loved passionately, dreamed big and shared it.

But the last time I was with him alive, he and his best friend alcohol both crossed over. Hurt, but no lasting harm was done. I forgave's why. If it wasn't so sad, it could be chaotically funny.

I think I was around 20, living in Anchorage. He was with a new woman, again. I was visiting a friend in Spokane, where he lived. He invited me over for dinner, where we planned a trip, as he needed my help to drive a pickup he was selling to his brother to Idaho. Since I was heading there next, it worked for both of us. We were both heading 'home'.

We started out each in our own vehicle a couple of days later. A liquor store was our first stop; I stayed in the car while Tom went in, returning with a brown paper bag under each arm. Growing up very unworldly, naive and somewhat unexposed to alcohol, I didn't know to worry. By the time we crossed the Columbia his truck was weaving all over both lanes. As I followed him, it was terrible to watch in horror as the truck went up on 2 wheels, the other 2 riding the concrete divider. Must have jolted him, as he pulled into a rest stop, climbed in back under the shell and fell asleep for hours. I couldn't wake him. We still had half the trip ahead of us and home sounded wonderful! And the rest stop was hot and boring.

Enter Michael.....possibly a hitchhiking hippy angel. Michael was the only man I had ever seen with hair as long as mine-down to our butts. He was friendly, without crowding me. As soon as he casually mentioned that he was heading our way, I impulsively asked him if he would come with me as I was sort of afraid. He agreed, we woke Tom, stuck him behind the wheel (in his drunken stupor?) and headed for home. About 10 miles along, Tom pulled into the median, stopped confusedly, then slowly started getting ready to get on the freeway in the opposite direction. His window was open, so I pulled over and started honking and hollering at him to please stop. Miraculously he did, parallel to the freeway, his driver's side to the ditch. As I ran over and opened the door, he spilled out all over me and the hot crunchy grass growing in the gravel. I sat and cried not knowing what to do - then remembered Michael.

Giving a hitchhiker a ride (for courage) was one thing. Trusting him to drive a valuable truck was quite another. He cheerfully agreed to help me get Tom in the passenger seat of my truck and drive the other one as far as we needed him, assuring me he was already heading that direction.

This is where Tom crossed the line. He was only partly passed out laying his head against my thigh for a pillow. Once in a while he would thrash around and try to grab the wheel from me, yelling and cursing. I slapped him on the head, then petted his head trying to sooth him and calm him down. About an hour from home he started getting roving hands along my legs. I had a skirt on, so keeping it down while trying to stay on the road and slapping his hands away was quite traumatic. I was in tears and completely exhausted when we pulled up safely. Mom and grandma and the other brothers greeted us, then hauled Tom home to sleep it off.

The house we lived in at the time had a 5 foot long deep and wide old claw foot tub. No shower. The first thing mom did after being introduced to Michael was offer to run him a hot bath. Guess she thought he needed it - I hadn't noticed - gratefulness colored him clean. She fed us, made up a bed for Michael on the couch, then watched intently as he showed her how to plait my hair with 6 strands. It was a work of art. We then practiced on his amazing tresses.

The next day, Tom asked me with tears in his eyes and chagrin in his voice if he had done anything bad to hurt me. I couldn't answer, but saw his shame. It was a different kind than mine had been so many years before.

I remembered in a flash those squashed peanut butter and jam sandwiches and all the fun he had provided over the years. Struggling to find words, I could only hug him. Silently, without any words I said, "I'm OK, we made it home safe.......that wasn't really you".

I hope he heard. It was the last time I saw him, as his casket remained closed.

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