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, and perhaps a bit of resignation, mixed with pain upon remembering one’s childhood and how a keen sense of the Gothic keeps most people from flinging open the cellar door to the horrors of first-awareness – the first time you were aware of death (and attendant rot), of religion (and the lake of fire that awaited you), of parental love (and the betrayal, forgetfulness, and simple asymmetry of the fact that the prodigal is always the pet, the beloved, the favored, and ultimately the doomed.)

It was my understanding that Harold was always the coddled, favored baby. I paid little attention to that when I was young. I had my own sibling rivalry narratives to attend to.

For me, Uncle Harold symbolized the coming of Christmas, and it was usually the weekend after Thanksgiving when the doorbell started to ring with packages and other special deliveries: neatly wrapped presents from Uncle Harold, placed under the Christmas tree, and duteously squeezed and shaken and sniffed until finally the sheer impossibility of guessing what he might have sent made me 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, exotic climes where people wore long draping outfits through which air hot, dry air could flow, and where the custom of the landlubbers was to sleep through the heat of the day in siestas or to 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 (and exotic) 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 and other very exclusive, “haute monde” items.

My sense of Uncle Harold as a world traveler, raconteur, and gourmand was reinforced every Christmas. The fact that Vermont was the playground of the Rockefellers, and then, later, aggressively environmentalist, was cemented. Vermont might be quaint, but the residents were discriminating world travelers – more than you might expect in a place that prided itself on its 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 his last decade of life was so 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.

It seems unfair – very unfair – that Uncle Harold had to suffer so long, and for people to have memories of Uncle Harold, the frail man who rarely traveled more than 10 miles from his home.  How ironic is that?  He used to stay at least 1000 miles from home in his passages in the commercial vessels.

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 school girl who dreamed of some day going on missions 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.