Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Where have all the uncles gone?

Oh, no. They just keep aging. The parents, the aunts, the uncles – that generation ahead of us. Yes, we’re in our Third Thirds, but they’re in their Ninth Ninths or Eighth Eighths. And now Uncle Howie has just died.

Let me tell you about Uncle Howie, who came attached with Aunt Selma. They were the city part of the family when we moved out to the country, but then they upped and moved to Florida. There was an old joke that the Brown boys never traveled further than a block in Brooklyn to find a wife, so Aunt Selma was part of the family before she was actually family.

Uncle Howie was the youngest, talkative brother so he was the window into my dad, too. I still remember his telling me the story of my father and the German field telephones he brought back from World War II. Dad was in the Signal Corps, and the telephones include the printed alphabet: A is for Anton, F is for Friedrich, G is for Gustav, all the way to Z is for Zeppelin. There are two of them, and my dad strung them across the street to my mother’s window when he was courting her. My father?!? Courted my mother? Private phone calls? “Well,” Uncle Howie said, “until ConEd made him take the wires down from their poles and lines.”

Years later, my brother and sisters strung the wires between our bedrooms to “secretly” talk. (Except that they caused static on the TV and my father would yell, “Go to sleep!”) Many years later, I wanted the telephones so we could string them between our house and Sophie’s playhouse in the backyard. They were too heavy for my mother to dig out of the garage, and she didn’t know if they still worked. Uncle Howie to the rescue again: the phones came to us complete with miles and miles of brand new wire.

Eventually, Uncle Howie and Aunt Selma came to visit us in Alaska, and Sophie and I were visiting with them at their room in the Capt. Cook Hotel. Sophie, barely a preschooler, was taking a very long time in the bathroom, so I got up to check. Turned out, she was enthralled with the tiny bottles of shampoo, conditioner and lotion and had stuck her head in the sink to try them out.

Now this is why I love the two of them: ever after, whenever Uncle Howie and Aunt Selma traveled, Sophie would get a giant box of little shampoos, conditioners, and lotions from all the hotels they’d visited. That’s Uncle Howie and Aunt Selma.

This wasn’t the first appearance of little bottles in Uncle Howie’s life. When I was little, he was a Fuller Brush salesman. (If you remember Fuller Brush, you’re in your Third Third!) He gave us little bottles of cologne. Later, when I threw a suitcase on top of the thermos of milk in the family Volkswagen and the resulting sour milk smell lasted forever, we used to hold those tiny bottles of cologne up to our nose so we could stand to be in the car.

 We visited them and stayed with them in Florida during the National Waterpark Tour. Although my poor cousin nearly got a concussion after I dragged her to Rapids Water Park, what I still picture is Sophie sitting on the kitchen counter as Uncle Howie taught her how to make matzoh brei his way. Then, because she had an incredible knack for finding money on the ground, they gave her a metal detector. She hunted for money the rest of the trip. It’s still in the closet here. (It has nostalgia resistance to de-cluttering.)

I don’t know how to tell people who are far away that I love them. I’m far away, I don’t really call. We lose touch. I’m not there to help. But they hover in my heart and the pictures in my memory are vivid and warm. All I can do is write and try to say, “You figured in my life and the life of my family. You opened windows, showed love. You mattered to me.”

And as I searched the kitchen cabinets for the recipe for Uncle Howie’s matzoh brei, and I couldn’t find it, I thought, “Oh, no! Is it gone?” How much will be gone with this generation, and then who are we going to ask? What stories will we miss?


  1. I love this post!

  2. Made me cry. All my uncles, aunts and parents are gone, and I have so many questions to ask now! Wish I had asked them when they were around.

  3. Thank you for your comments. On a positive note, Sophie told me she has Uncle Howie's matzoh brei recipe. Somehow, things live on....

  4. What a wonderful memorial to your uncle.

  5. Lovely. I think everyone our age has similar stories. Thanks for sharing. I will dream of my aunt and uncle tonight.


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