Next week will be my uncle Chuck’s 80th birthday. He’s the oldest, with my dad being five years behind him at 75. To be perfectly honest I don’t know my uncle Chuck all that well. In fact, I’m not even sure I’ve ever had a full conversation with the man. He was never around when I was growing up, or after I’d grown up. At the age of 18 in 1959 he graduated high school and either joined the Air Force or went to DeVry Technical Institute, then joined the Air Force. Or maybe he never went to DeVry and I’m only imagining that because I’ve never really ever had the chance to talk to him about it.
Regardless, at 18 Chuck was out the door and left his mom, dad, and little brother behind.
I heard about Chuck through either my grandmother singing his praises or through whispered and non-whispered conversations between my parents as a kid. He was this being with a crazy story to him. He joined the Air Force, was stationed in Greece, met his future wife there named Effie, and then lived in Greece for years. After the Air Force Chuck worked for Litton working in the microwave division. I don’t think they were the microwaves that heated up my frozen burritos and leftover pizza in the early 80s, but ones used by the military. Chuck lived in Saudi Arabia where he worked for the company and lived in basically an army base.
Throughout most of my childhood this is where I knew my uncle to be. He lived an ocean away from both his families; the one he left behind in Nappannee, IN in 1959, as well as the one he left in Athens, Greece.
I remember three distinct times meeting him. The first was in the 1970s not long after we moved into our house. I was no older than four years old. I remember this man sitting on the couch, a little wider than my dad. Not fat by any means, but with a bigger head between his shoulders and bulkier torso. My dad was a stringbean for years, and even with his full-on 70s Serpico beard he still looked like a young kid under the facial fur. Chuck had five years of beer drinking on my dad being in the Air Force, so he was comfortable rooted in that plaid couch in the sparse living room with an endless supply of Strohs in his hand. I know I remember that visit, but old Polaroids in photo albums at my parents home verify this visit.
The second time meeting Chuck was in the early 80s when on a rare occasion he came for a visit with his wife Effie and son Christopher George. This was the first time my grandparents had met their grandson. I don’t remember much from this visit, other than meeting them all over at my grandparents house for a Sunday dinner(maybe KFC?) And also meeting the cousin I didn’t know existed. Christopher George was three years older than me, and three years younger than my older brother. He had olive-toned skin, in contrast to my brother and I’s Casper-like complexion. And he strangely reminded me of my Grandpa Hubner. He had the Hubner forehead, so I knew this kid was legitimate Hubner.
The last visit I remember with Chuck was sometime in the 90s. Him and Effie came for a visit to see my grandmother, as they never made the trip back to see her after my grandfather passed away in ’86. It was a weird visit, with my grandma hanging onto Chuck like he was a solider returning from war(in truth, it was my dad who took care of everything for grandma all those years after grandpa passed away.) My grandma was so thrilled to have her oldest in her company that she wanted to enjoy a Budweiser with him on Christmas day. That resulted in grandma having some kind of out-of-body experience in the living room. Her tender insides couldn’t handle the brew. Chuck and Effie gave grandma some nice jewelry and were on their way.
In all those visits I don’t recall any conversation with my uncle. No questions about school or interests or dreams or aspirations. Not that he was obliged to ask, but I guess if I’d been in his shoes I’d have some interest in my nephews. They were my younger brother’s kids after all.
Talking to my dad over the years I’ve come to realize that they didn’t have the kind of relationship that my brother and I had growing up. Chuck was quiet and kept with his friends and interests(like blowing up abandoned farmhouses with dynamite or throwing tomatoes at Amish buggies.) Yes, it seems my uncle was a bit of a troublemaker. Or, he hung out with troublemakers and just went along with whatever the alpha punk told him to do.
Either way, he wasn’t the loving older brother who would include his kid brother in activities. He’d sit back passively as older cousins would pick on my dad as a little kid, not intervening as cousins Tom and Jerry(yes, two brothers named after a cartoon cat and mouse) would be complete assholes to a little kid. By the time my dad was 13 his older brother was out the door. I don’t think there was much love lost.
Over the last several years my dad has talked to my uncle more than he had in the last 40 years. My aunt Effie had a stroke several years ago and was bedridden until her death. They’d relocated from Athens, Greece to a house they built near Tampa, Florida to be near their son Christopher George who lived in Florida after college. After Effie’s death Chuck seemed more open to conversations with his brother. First it was via email, but over the last two or three years there’s been phone chats. My dad has said that Chuck is more chatty than he’s been in a very long time. He said a lot of it is the wine Chuck drinks.
But I suspect the wine is only part of it.
I can only imagine sitting alone with just your memories, wine, and possibly some regrets, makes one more prone to wanting to connect. After all, there has to be more to Chuck than just the beer-drinking Air Force vet that worked on secret military project in Saudi Arabia in the 80s. He may have been a quiet person that preferred the company of no one, and enjoyed the life of being told what to do; when to get up, when to eat, when to shit, and when you can get drunk. But maybe after all those years he’s started to realize what he missed out on with his younger brother and the life he created for himself and his family.
My mom dropped off Chuck’s baby book, along with some old photos and a birthday card and asked if my wife would mail it to Chuck for his birthday from my dad. Before it made its way to the post I looked at the baby book. I’d never seen it before. My mom and dad got it when my grandma went into the nursing home. Along with the book and those random photos, there wasn’t much else. I’ve got a blown up black and white photo of my grandpa and dad when my dad was 7 or 8 on the shores in St. Joe Michigan. Their boxer Vickie was hiding in the shadows.
Looking at those ancient photos I was struck by how young my grandma looked. 25 years old and holding her first born in the living room as baby Chuck cried that newborn cry. Or the three of them; grandpa, grandma, and baby Chuck posing on a couch. For the first time I saw Chuck not as the absent uncle, or my grandma as the over-critical, never satisfied grandmother…I saw them fresh and new. I saw them as beings just starting out. I saw the joy and fear in the face of a young woman. I saw this cute little boy in fancy baby clothes with the whole world laid out before him. I saw a 30-year old man ready to provide for his wife and son, on his terms as a self-made man. None of the business failures and put-downs from in-laws and money struggles had begun to weigh on him yet.
They were just a small family. Just like mine was many years ago.
Our house has seen many changes over the summer and last few weeks. Only one kid left under the roof, and he’s out and about on his own now. Driving to school and band practice, the wife and I are now in the pre-empty nesters stage. It’s weird and kind of lonely, but also kind of freeing and exciting. We ordered an all plant-based falafel meal and shared it last night. It was nice, despite still being hungry afterwards. But we only had to worry about what we were eating and nobody else.
Being at this stage I wonder how it all went by so fast. Looking at those fading black and white photos in my uncle’s baby book I can only imagine what he’ll feel when he sees them. Probably for the first time in 70 years. At 80 years old looking at a baby, his young mother, and doting father inside a book that dons his name. I wonder if he’ll know them, or feel a connection after all these years? Maybe he’ll feel nothing. I know my dad’s feelings have changed regarding his older brother. Otherwise he wouldn’t have even bothered sending the pics. Even after all the years of not having a big brother to talk to, my dad wanted Chuck to have something of the family that he left behind. It says something to me for my dad to do that. I hope it says something to Chuck as well.
At the very least, it says “Happy Birthday, Chuck.”