Uncle Joe from Brooklyn: A Mini-Memoir

Below find a delightful story with a great twist ending. Guest blogger Lanie Tankard, freelance writer and editor from Austin, TX,  is back again! Lanie took a Writing with Heart class from Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett, who presented an excellent workshop in Austin, Texas, on February 5, 2010, preceding the Story Circle Network national lifewriting conference. Butler & Bonnett’s website is a marvelous resource for memoir writers. The workshop Lanie took was the debut for Writing Alchemy, a technique they will detail in a forthcoming book. They are also offering a new course with the same title. Butler and Bonnett have just started to blog about Writing Alchemy on their website and currently are posting a series of five-minute audios, each with a writing tip from a well-known author. Check out their Women’s Memoirs Facebook page and their newly created Writing Alchemy Facebook page. In their workshop, Butler & Bonnett presented five easy steps to writing with emotion, energy, and color. Lanie arrived with only two words in her mind: “Uncle Joe.” The following memoir vignette is what emerged.

 Uncle Joe from Brooklyn

By Lanie Tankard

“I do know of these

that therefore only are reputed wise

for saying nothing.”

 —William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

 Uncle Joe was always smiling. I smiled, too, every time I saw him. He was so goofy looking that he brought out the glee in me. His ears sprang almost straight sideways from his head. His expression never seemed to change — that “glass half full” penetrating gaze was hurled out upon the world as if from his very core. A person felt almost naked as he looked at you.

I was just a little kid when he came to live with us in Cleveland. He seemed ageless to me then. When I think back upon that time now though, I can see that his demeanor probably bespoke a man in his 40s. Short of stature, hair of brown, he had no visible means of support, no wife or offspring, and no discernible activities of which to speak — except sitting on our front porch practically every day.

His was a life devoid of attachments. Uncle Joe had his quirks, and perhaps that was what had kept him a loner. His welcoming appearance was rendered odd when combined with his taciturn manner of interacting with people. And he never seemed to need much of the basics: water, food, or sleep. For all intents and purposes, he was a self-actualized individual who had, by some mysterious invisible means, moved beyond the hierarchy of basic needs.

“Hey, Uncle Joe!” I’d call to him on a summer’s day, as he’d sit in the chair by the peony bush at the far end of the porch. “Dad said the lawn needs watering. Wanna help?”

The strong silent type wouldn’t reply. I never expected him to. So I’d move the conversation along. If my friends were busy, I could always sit out there and talk to Uncle Joe. He was a great listener.

“I’ll just go ahead and get the hose out for us, okay?” I’d continue, marching down the red brick steps of our house on Selwyn Road. I’d uncoil the hose and bring it over so we could moisten a lawn that was the size of a postage stamp.

“Mom!” I’d call. “Would you please help Uncle Joe down the steps?”

I could usually hear the sounds of a baseball game on the new television set drifting through the open screen door. After all, this was the summer of 1954, when the Cleveland Indians were already well on their way to a record-breaking 111 wins, for which they’d capture the American League Pennant. And my mother was one of the Tribe’s biggest fans, unaware at that point that they’d lose every single game (only four!) to the New York Giants in the World Series later that fall.

Most of the team drove fancy cars, and my father worked as a service manager for both Cadillac and Pontiac during the years we lived in Cleveland. The ball players liked my easygoing Dad, and would often give him free game tickets when they’d leave their cars to be serviced. So our family practically lived at the baseball stadium.

All of this meant that my mother would be glued to the TV for a while longer though, while she ironed Dad’s shirts—and even his white handkerchiefs. She spent a lot of time at that ironing board. So did a large number of her contemporaries back in the Fifties, until their irons ran out of steam in the late Sixties and early Seventies. After Sears rolled out those Perma-Prest fabrics and Women’s Lib started to make a lot of sense, ironing boards began to vanish. But not quite yet. It was still 1954, and there she was, ironing my father’s shirts.

I’d look at Uncle Joe and sigh. I knew Mom wouldn’t be coming out until after Larry Doby had finished his turn at bat.

“C’mon, I’ll help you up from the chair,” I’d mutter, knowing my six-year-old arms couldn’t get him beyond standing upright. Hoo boy, was he ever heavy! And sometimes his knees would give out because they got stiff. That usually happened on rainy days.

When Mom finally emerged, she would help him down the steps so he could stand in the front yard with the hose in his hand. Then she and I would head inside to fix some cinnamon toast fingers for me to munch on.

Neighbors would often ask who that was they’d seen watering our grass, since he kept to himself most of the time. We’d just tell them it was Uncle Joe from Brooklyn. He never spoke of his past, so we figured that was a likely spot.

Dad used to give Uncle Joe some of his clothes. And sometimes I’d let him borrow my straw hat. He really liked to wear hats.

My older sister, Roberta, would screech every time she came home from a date because she never knew where Uncle Joe would be hiding. I personally think my parents assigned that watch to him because they just didn’t want to stay up late. Nevertheless, he seemed to relish his post. Sometimes he’d be standing at the front screen door. Other times you could see his eyes peeping out the front window, the Venetian blinds propped open by his bulbous nose. Once he was even sitting in a wicker chair right out on the porch at midnight.

Roberta never knew where he’d be. If she’d been out with a guy she liked, she’d come in all upset at our parents for Uncle Joe being there. But if she’d been on a blind date with a guy she didn’t want to hang around with afterward, then she’d be really grateful Uncle Joe was there. She could say to her date, “Uh oh, I better get in. My uncle’s watching us.”

We moved to Alabama two years later. Uncle Joe came with us. Guess he didn’t have any other place to go. He’d definitely worked his way into our family by then. And if you ask me, he could always spot a free ride. So there we were, headed across the Mason-Dixon Line together. Uncle Joe followed us in the moving truck.  Dad drove our car and Mom routed us on the map. Of course, we had to keep stopping for new maps, as I had a tendency toward motion sickness and Mom usually had one in her hand when I’d lean over the seat with that funny look on my face.

Roberta had just graduated from college and she accompanied us on the drive to L.A. — Lower Alabama. Then she was headed West to live in a different L.A. — Los Angeles. She did her best to keep the new set of brown Samsonite luggage she’d gotten for graduation over on her side of the back seat — well out of range of my waves of nausea. I tried to tune out the whole lot of them with some guy singing about a hound dog on my little transistor radio.

My father had recently retired from working on cars. In fact, Pontiac Motors was where he’d first encountered Uncle Joe. Dad noticed him sitting right there in the showroom cars, just as big as you please — day after day after day — like he owned the place. Uncle Joe didn’t want to buy a car, or even go for a test drive. He just wanted to sit there. The dealership manager was ready to kick him out because Uncle Joe really looked like a seedy character back then. But Dad spoke up and offered to give him a home. The manager was so glad to get him out of the place that he readily agreed. By the time we headed South, Dad and Uncle Joe had bonded.

Uncle Joe got into some of his shenanigans again in Alabama, but nothing like the ones in Cleveland. Maybe all of us were getting older and losing our sense of humor. Roberta was in California. Mom had put away her ironing board and found her True Self, creating a thriving business making artistic sand bottles with all the colors Baldwin County had waiting for her to dig up. Dad kept busy puttering at his workbench, making and repairing everything in sight. And when I wasn’t in school, I was usually down at Wolf Bay or Gulf Shores with my pals.

Maybe Uncle Joe felt neglected. He was certainly looking weaker and weaker. I remember the last time we were together, when I had come home from college during a break. I kind of avoided him then. You know how teenagers are. When I saw him sitting on a trunk in the carport almost doubled over, I made a beeline back inside. I think he finally just plain wore out from neglect.

I miss him. He was like a member of our family in a peripheral way, and a big part of my growing up years. My mother played out her impish sense of humor in all his escapades. Roberta and I would join in until the three of us were laughing so hard we’d have tears coming. My father would just shake his head, chuckling when he’d come home and find Uncle Joe standing there in the driveway wearing an apron and holding a tray of cookies. He liked Uncle Joe a lot.

Uncle Joe represents a time and a place long gone except in my memory — a carefree Cleveland childhood on a street where all the kids on the block played together. He remains an icon for me still, symbolizing a shared family joke that united us all together. I’m so grateful that Dad rescued Uncle Joe. My youth simply wouldn’t have been the same without that ol’ wooden showroom dummy.

©2010 by Elaine F. Tankard.

All Rights Reserved.

May not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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5 Responses to Uncle Joe from Brooklyn: A Mini-Memoir

  1. Elaine, This is a wonderful story. You had me hooked. I started thinking, wow, Uncle Joe did so many crazy things but Elaine doesn't share any of them…maybe she's saving the escapades for the book! HaHa, they joke's on me. I love it.I'm delighted that our Writing Alchemy: Writing with Heart started you on the path to creating this story. And if I might…I notice that there is something wrong with the initial link in this story. So may I suggest a link? Matilda and I are teaching an online class through Story Circle Network. It's called Writing Alchemy: Quick-Start Method, and it begins April 1st. The course will be a series of three phone calls, writing exercises and sharing with the class by phone and posting of stories in a private section of our website.If any of your readers are interested, they can find more information and sign up here: http://www.storycircleonlineclasses.org/classes…Thanks again for sharing Uncle Joe with us.

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Uncle Joe completely took me in also. I took away the faulty link in the text and encourage everyone to check out Kendra's link and consider taking the course online.

  3. Great story. I loved it.

  4. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks for your comments, Mary Lynn. Come back again.

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