Saturday, September 14, 2013

Uncle Christmas

I was at my dad’s house when the call came in.

Uncle Harold had passed away in northern New Hampshire, a mere two weeks after being moved to a hospice care facility a few blocks from his home.

It was just around Thanksgiving, and while many would say that his death was something to be thankful for because it meant he could stop suffering, it was hard to feel anything except sadness.  

It was my understanding that Harold was the baby of the family, and that he was protected by his older siblings during the cold, hard days of the Great Depression in northern Vermont.  

For me, Uncle Harold symbolized the coming of Christmas. The weekend after Thanksgiving the doorbell would ring, and we would receive a huge box with neatly wrapped presents from Uncle Harold. Each magical package would be placed under the Christmas tree, later to be squeezed and shaken and sniffed until finally the sheer impossibility of guessing what he might have sent made us leave them in peace.

Still, I liked to creep out of bed in the middle of the night, turn on the Christmas tree lights, and gaze upon the shiny bows, wrapping paper, and ornaments that festooned both tree and presents.

When I was growing up, it seemed to me that Uncle Harold had the most exciting life of anyone I knew. He was constantly sending letters posted from exotic parts of the world – from ports in hot, heady climes where people wore long draping robes through which air hot, dry air could flow, and where they might sit quietly and reflect upon one’s life while large ceiling fans slowly whirred overhead.

Uncle Harold was in the Merchant Marines, and he traveled by merchant ship to all the important ports of the world.

Technically, Uncle Harold was a Vermont resident. But, that is not how I envisioned him. He traveled all around the world, and I imagined him face-to-face with elephants, rhesus monkeys in the employ of dockside organ grinders, fortune-tellers, and mysterious strangers.

I wasn’t quite sure what his job was in the Merchant Marines, but I think I remember my dad saying was that he was a cook. Being a cook in the Merchant Marines seemed very interesting to me as well, and I wondered if they ever incorporated local specialties – mainly sweets and breads – into the dinner. Envisioned empanadas filled with chicken or spicy ground beef, or sweet, nutty baklava, prepared with honey, pistachio nuts, and saffron, the Azerbaijani way and not the Turkish way.

In the days before the Internet, but fully within a time of global communication (albeit slow and expensive), each country and even each city had its own culture, with unique language, religion, dress, cuisine, holiday celebrations, work and family customs, cuisine, were overtly unique, unlike today, where cities are, at least superficially, similar.

I could imagine Uncle Harold in Casablanca, inhabiting the same “noir” space as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  I could easily see him in Alexandria, Egypt, wearing a fez, and eating a breakfast of dates, flatbread, and feta cheese.

What I remember most about Uncle Harold of those years, besides the exotic persona, was his generosity. He never failed to send birthday cards, which always delighted and surprised me. Why me? What did I do to deserve a card? The truth was, nothing. But, Uncle Harold felt a bond and a serious commitment to family, which I think was quite remarkable, given the times we lived in. These were, after all, a time when all the eternal verities were questioned.

Each year, sometime after Thanksgiving, the magic would happen, and mysterious packages would start to arrive. They were elaborately wrapped, each with cards, intended to be deposited under the Christmas tree, with absolutely no opportunity for opening until Christmas Day.  Uncle Harold always sent me a gift, as well as a gift for my brother, sister, and parents. Sometimes he sent food packages for the entire family. They were invariably from the high-end gourmet catalogues that fascinated me with their glossy pages and descriptions of petit-fours.  He would also send a wreath of spruce branches, tiny pine cones, and wild cranberries which we would hang on the front door where it would cast an aromatic spell on those who entered. 

My sense of Uncle Harold as a world traveler, raconteur, and lover of nature and delicious food was reinforced every Christmas. Vermont has charming architecture and an interesting history, with surprising residents. They were world travelers among the catamounts and white-tail deer.

When I learned that Uncle Harold had passed away, I felt a sharp pang of sadness. I felt sad for his loss, but perhaps a sharper pang because I realized that he suffered in his his last decade of life. It was antithetical to the life he lived when he was always on the high seas, moving from port to port, alive, alert, and eager to share his encounters and experiences with his young niece, and later, when he shared his love of nature with his daughter.

As I consider Uncle Harold, his life, and his impact on me, I realize that the letters from faraway lands and the presents arriving at the door were pure magic for a lively-minded grade schoolgirl who dreamed of some day going on missions, traveling, learning languages, and living in exotic lands.

Did that actually happen?  Yes, in its way, I suppose. But that’s another story for another day.

Today, though, I’d like to think of Uncle Harold beholding those amazing lands and seas.