I Remember Uncle Bob

          When I was very young, I thought that Uncle Bob was one of those magical beings who lived chiefly in stories, but put in an appearance once in a while, just to keep up the credibility factor, like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, God, and Peter Pan. The genesis of this belief resided in the circumstances surrounding my earliest memory of him and his family in Mt. Olive. It must have been around Christmas time; Big Daddy was putting up pine boughs on the living room mantel. There were a heap of them on the floor, wet and smelling of North Carolina in the rainy wintertime. Mabel was cleaning out ashes from a fireplace, I guess, but all I remember is the coal bucket, galvanized with a wide lip, like a giant gravy boat, standing by, filling up with magenta and black “clinkers,” our word for “cinders.” I cannot remember how old I was, but I wasn’t in school yet because I was spending the morning “next door,” with specific instructions to mind because people would be busy.

          It wasn’t just the pine smell that signaled special activity. All the doors from the kitchen, living room, and dining room that normally closed off the upstairs were open, and later I got to go up and drop down pillows and carry up sheets, directed from the kitchen by Nana Cox. She was making a pound cake for “Bob.” Even then, as young as I was, I knew those wonderful pound cakes. I waited the entire day for the appearance of the person who was going to get a whole pound cake, all for himself. The cake was ready, sitting on the stand, the beds were made, and the pine needles swept up, Mother came to get me, and still this person had not appeared.

          However, I was used to waiting, for at home, next door, the Christmas board was up on the fireplace with its row of stockings, and the tree, wired by Dad, with the few real glass ornaments placed high on the tree by Mother, and generously decorated by us with wads of tinsel and hand made items of various and dubious provenance. There was the growing pile of gifts whose life span under the tree could be gauged by state of their dilapidation. The earliest arrivals had been sorted, re-arranged, and squished by every child in the house. I viewed every day, with anticipation, a pile that was said to be mine. I was dependent on my eldest sister for this information because she could already read. I was waiting for that day, called “Christmas.” I knew the signs. It would be Christmas when the stockings would be filled by Santa who lived in the chimney. We would get to open the pile of gifts under the tree, my brother would stop re-arranging the ceramic letters on the bookshelf to spell “LEON” instead of “NOEL,” and, finally, “Bob” would arrive at my Grandparents’ house.

          The actual sequence of events of Uncle Bob’s arrival is lost in the mists of antiquity. At fifty-one I am suffering from CRS syndrome and by the time I am Uncle Bob’s age, I won’t remember anything. However, as revisionist, reconstructed history, I offer the following narrative. One morning, shortly after the pound cake day, I woke up and saw, next door in the driveway, a strange, pale blue car. I thought some one had decorated the rear bumper with cotton, like we had done for our portraits of Santa, made from cotton and paper plates, but when I touched it, it was cold and wet. It was snow! I knew “Bob” had arrived. I went in, and sure enough, there he was, sitting at the breakfast table. And, unlike a lot of people and events which promise more than they actually deliver, Uncle Bob was just as amazing as I had expected.

          First, he had red, curly hair. I must have seen red hair before, but his was the first I remembered seeing. I touched it, and it was soft, just like the cotton Santa beards. He had blue eyes and wore glasses, like my grandfather, his father, but he was young. There were other surprises as well. He had big box sitting on the table that, when I looked down into it, everything was turned upside down. And, he gave me a piece of the pound cake at breakfast! I don’t remember anything else about that Christmas after the taste of the pound cake and the sight of that amazing hair, but Uncle Bob has never quite lost that exotic aura for me.

          He continued to arrive in the middle of the night on subsequent visits, but the next time, I remember his family. They also partook of his foreignness. His children spoke with “Yankee” accents from Baltimore, MD, and engaged in glamorous activities like ballet and playing the violin. Aunt Geri, his wife, painted real pictures, could play the piano and sing like an angel, and always gave us popsicles in summer, even if we were wicked. Uncle Bob, however, still was the most unusual one. He was the first Republican I ever met, and the first man I ever saw using a movie camera. He argued politics with my Dad and took wonderful pictures and movies of us eating watermelon in the summer and singing “Jingle Bells” at Christmas. He worked on “space rockets” and was said to be able to fly an airplane.

          Uncle Bob, your red hair is white now, really like our cotton Santas from so long ago, so now I have the absolute confirmation that you really are like those other magical beings, with your gift for appearing out of nowhere, and bringing a sense of other worlds and family unity. I have a stack of Christmas cards of you and Aunt Geri, on Swedish red horses, or other even more exotic places like the great wall of China as proof of your flights round the world. And your gift is yourself as family. The most wonderful visit you made was to my wedding in Brooklyn. Thank you for being my uncle.

Laviece Eugenia Cox Ward