Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Uncle Bill

William Edward Lewis as a toddler, circa 1916.
He was named for both his grandfathers: William Lewis who died shortly before his birth and for his maternal grandfather Edward [Eddie] Ross.
A handsome little boy, dressed for a visit to relatives in Hague, NY.
He was very ill as a child, probably spinal meningitis.  His mother, herself unwell by that time, fretted over his frailty.  My mother said of him later that he had inherited the "Davis strain" of reclusive tendancies.

Uncle Bill, July, 1954, standing with the farmhouse in the background.

We always knew my uncle was a little odd.  After all, he talked to himself, a sure enough sign, muttering on, arguing with some unseen companion as he shook out dusters, swabbed the kitchen floor, carried out ashes. On occasion he would suddenly, perhaps thinking himself alone, sing at the top of his tenor voice [the Ross tenor] his versions of arias from Strauss and or Handel.

The door to his room was usually closed upon his treasures: books and curios, stacks of National Geographics.  We didn't go in there unless, rarely, we were invited.  Then we touched with care, stroking the bearskin laprug with tentative fingers, tracing the convolutions of the shells on the dresser.

As he aged his eccentricities deepened. His hoard finally overflowed his bedroom.  How he came to have some of these things we didn't know.  Perhaps he went through the home he tended salvaging an overlooked tidbit here, rescuing some endangered object there. His dark colored jerseys frayed at neck and wrists, the faded Carhatt work pants sported tipsy patches anchored with white yarn. Still yearly in the spring, he aired his good clothes.  Handsome tweed jackets, worsted trousers, jiggled briefly on the lines in the drying yard before, pockets plumped with mothballs, they were rushed back to hang in dark closets redolent of cedar and camphor.  He owned a raccoon coat, full length.  It had obviously been fashioned for a far bigger man, one with both height and breadth.  Where he acquired this impressive garment he never said.

Once we actually saw him wear it on a cold winter evening, undertaking a short outing with a friend.  He appeared in the front hallway, already enveloped in fur nearly to his heels, his meager neck swathed in a heavy silk muffler, smoothing leather gloves over his lean, small hands.  Even then I sensed that though he should have seemed at least faintly ridiculous in his finery, something about his dignity was immense and unbreachable.

He had once learned to drive, but never got a license, and would sometimes regally commandeer the services of my mother or the hired man or a neighbor to convey him to the dentist or the optometrist or even to the barbershop.  He carried cash or a check signed by my grandfather.  When he made a purchase he offered no explanation, but asked the shop clerk to make out the check [a foible which immensely irritated my mother!]
He never married, though sometimes in a mellow mood he would speak of a woman he once admired.  His social contacts were limited to the visits from relatives, at which times he brought out white table cloths stiffly pressed, aired fine wool blankets for the guest beds.

Once a year, on Palm Sunday, magnificently arrayed in tweeds and starched white shirt he rode to church with us to stand at the choir loft rail and sing the solo verses of "The Palms."

Over the decades he took on various household duties, presiding over the old Maytag wringer washer every Monday, filling the kitchen with the sharply clean odor of bleach and Oxydol soap powder, followed on Tuesday by the scent of crisply pressed linens which he ironed with a "mangle."  He picked currants from the ancient bushes at the bottom of the garden, put up jars of jelly sealed with paraffin caps. He beat up gallons of sourdough for endless morning pancakes, perked strong coffee in a shining dented pot.  He made light yeast rolls and abominable macaroni and cheese.

He tended his flock of hens, his grey and white Toulouse geese.  He fussed over the peonies and his dahlias.  In summer he cut the grass with the old reel mower, muttering and singing as he clattered back and forth across the lawn.  He scoured the milk dishes, clanging about with brushes and disinfectants, his songs echoing eerily in the small dim space of the milk house.  He met the bread truck in the dooryard twice a week, choosing bread, cupcakes for us children, donuts for the breakfast table.  He ate by choice alone at the pulled out shelf of the Hoosier cabinet, bowls of cereal mushy with milk, crackers, endless cups of coffee, canned soup.

When we children were small and always under foot, he bandaged bruised knees, extracted splinters, applied iodine vigorously to our wounds.  If we quarreled or "talked back" he threatened our bottoms with a wooden clothes brush or suggested that we might have to go home [next door] until we could behave.  When we came in cold from winter sledding he bundled us onto kitchen chairs, draped us in wool blankets and propped our nearly lifeless feet on the open oven door of the black range.  He taught us to play Rummey.

When I had learned to play the piano reasonably well he appeared with a stack of old sheet music and several well worn hymnbooks which had belonged to his mother, my grandmother who had died when her children were young. Sometimes as I labored at some piece popular years ago he would come to stand at my elbow and sing a verse in that ringing tenor which was now sharpening with age.

He survived my grandfather's death by only two or three years, reveling in his lonesome occupation of the big old house he had tended for so much of his life.  He phoned us at odd hours demanding brusquely that we turn off our radios; he phoned the local banker asking for the balance on accounts which didn't exist.  He was fine, he insisted, needing nothing from any of us except a ride into town for groceries.  Asserting himself at last he ordered partitions torn down in the farmhouse, doorways boarded shut.

My sister found him on the floor one summer morning when she made her daily visit.  The autopsy confirmed Alzheimers disease and suggested that he had at some time in his twenties or thirties suffered a stroke.  We buried him in the family plot in final white-shirted dignity.

When we opened his bedroom door a few days after his passing, we found that part of the floor had sunk with the weight of his assorted treasures.  We delved through trunks and boxes, bringing to light bedding--woolen blankets preserved in moth balls, a pristine crazy quilt of silk and velvet, china, old pictures in ornate frames.  Tucked in the corner of one trunk were the long-missing letters sent home from the first World War by my great uncle.  We turned the crisp, yellowed pages with reverent fingers reading this long ago chronicle of a life cut off by the Second Battle of the Marne.

We sorted and listed for days; an antique dealer arrived.  We parceled, bundled, saved and discarded, sometimes marveling, sometimes fuming.  The house was sold, remodeled.  Then one windy March day it burned to the ground.

Memories survive like the red peonies on the front lawn.  Memories of a small man who clattered and cleaned with mops and buckets, bleach and Oxydol; who killed snakes by the stone wall, who came back from his rambles into the pasture with blackberries in a pail. The memories linger of a man who once a year donned  his best to sing at church, who cherished his mother's music and his uncle's wartime letters.
He was, my mother said, a "blighted being."

He was a man who cleaned up after cats and children, kept a supply of cupcakes in the pantry; a man who read his books late at night in the stillness of my grandfather's house.

Sharon D. Whitehurst
Wentworth, New Hampshire
Writer's Retreat


  1. This is a sad story and yet I have the feeling that he was happy in his own way and obviously lived in his own little world. He was so attractive as a toddler and a young man, he looks the kind of man who would have had girls queuing up to go out with him but may be he was just one of those people who are happier on their own.

  2. A fine man I'd say, rather than a blighted being - and father to you in his own inimitable way. What a wonderful piece of writing in your wonderful writing style. You made Uncle Bill come alive just as if he were in the room with me. Thankyou.

  3. Stunning.....

    You have captured him so well here I feel I know him. I would have liked him too.


  4. Uncle Bill had the musical gifts and the high-strung disposition handed down through his mother. My grandfather was made of sterner stuff and I suspect that he unwittingly demanded more in the way of stalwart manliness than Bill could produce.
    He was ill for a long time as a child; I've found reference in the local paper's news notes of the weeks that a "trained nurse" had to stay at the house to care for him. The illness left him slightly deaf; he missed so much school with the long convalesence that I doubt he was made to attend regularly after that. He was about 12 or 13 and my mother barely 9 when their mother died after years of undiagnosed poor health. She was the 3rd generation of women in her family to die leaving young children. I suspect it all added into the person Bill became.

  5. Thank you that was a fascinating picture you drew.
    Good luck with the move and have a safe journey.

  6. What a brilliant read ... I too felt I had known him ....wish I'd met him as I think he would have been interesting to talk to ..and listen to ...even though he was in his own world.

  7. A wonderful piece of writing MM.You paint Uncle Bill as an interesting and eccentric man, but one with his own gifts and a strong sense of family and the importance of the home that he loved.

  8. Beautiful biography. He must have been such an interesting man. You write so well, I love your writing as well as your photographs.
    Hang in there with all the moving. I don't envy you, but you seem to have the right amount of energy.