The smoke from my Saturday-evening cigar blurs the view of his picture that hangs over the fireplace in our basement, and I look down at the wad of burning leaves pressed between my fingers and realize that it’s because of men like him, my uncle whom I never met and after whom I am named, that I can enjoy such a little pleasure. In the picture, he sits before a brick wall, his peaked cap pushed back to show a hint of his hairline, his forearms on his knees, fingers almost fidgeting, with an expression of tired sadness. I really have no idea when the picture was taken. Perhaps he was home from Vietnam on leave; maybe he hadn’t even shipped out yet. In a way, it’s not as important as the simple fact that the expression on his face mirrors my own when I really think about him, when I remember the odd bits and pieces I heard about him growing up, when I think of the simple but profound fact that, after my parents adopted me and decided that the name my short-term foster mother had been using for me fit me perfectly, they decided his name would make the perfect middle name. The uncle who, my mother more than once laughed, hated baths as much as I love them. The uncle I never met.
As a child, I remember seeing this picture hanging in my grandparents’ home, smudged brown with the nicotine of thousands or even tens of thousands of cigarettes. It was the house in which they both died tragically, though ironically neither passed as a result of the stains that seemed to cover so many of their possessions of their house. Like so many in my family, they died not from what everyone in the family thought would kill them — like my uncle. The picture — one of only two I know of him as an adult, of only three I know of him in his short life — is framed in a gold-painted rectangle that, after all these years, seems brighter than the picture itself. The mortar and the bricks behind him have faded into an almost indistinguishable hue that seems only a darker shade of his uniform, and the triangle of his white undershirt seems only a lighter shade still.
The other picture of him as an adult seems likely to have been taken at the same time, though perhaps earlier. The same brick wall seems to be over his left shoulder, but he hadn’t yet pushed back his cap, and its brim hides his eyes in shadow. I think he would have liked it that way. Perhaps the tired expression in the second picture comes from being asked, badgered, to push his cap back a bit, “so we can see your eyes.” Over his right shoulder is a tree, and in the triangle of his right arm he stands with his hands on his hips is is a dumpster with white letters stenciled in to instruct someone about something that must at all costs be “down.” Or “town”?
He died on Thanksgiving, a fact that seems so fought with irony that it almost seems like it must be one of those made-up details that our memory seems sometimes to invent in order to add almost unconsciously to the most significant events. I heard this week that there are only two truly significant American holidays: Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. My uncle embodies them both.
I am much older than he, the baby boy of the family, was in the picture, and I have been blessed with what he likely dreamed of: a beautiful, loving wife, the mother of my two incredible children. A house with a room downstairs where I can smoke my cigars with offending my wife’s nose, harming my children, or leaving a stain over picture frames that hold images of their lives. Two cars parked on a pad of concrete. A few tomato vines and zucchini plants in the backyard. All of which I have because of people like my uncle.