When I was a little girl, one of my best friends was my "Uncle Johnny." When I was little he was probably in his late sixties or maybe early seventies, but seemed older to me then. He lived in the house next door to mine with his father, Uncle Ira, until Ira passed away. Then he continued living there alone and still lives there now. He isn't truly my "Uncle", although we are related in some obscure way that I couldn't begin to explain, since I don't really know myself. He has his quirks just like everyone, but for the most part he is as sweet as they come. He loved my family dearly, and had lived next door to my mom as she grew up as well. He proudly displayed her High School graduation picture long after she graduated, and probably still has it on display today.
In Elementary school I rode the bus home from school, and let myself in my house with the key that hung around my neck on a piece of yarn. Well, that's how it was supposed to work. But I was forever misplacing my fashionable yarn/key necklace. I was the most unorganized latch-key kid on the planet. I would randomly take off the key and leave it in my desk at school, or just never put it on in the first place when I left the house in the mornings. So more times that not, I would get home and not have my key and be locked out of the house. But that was okay, because Uncle Johnny was right next door and more than willing to let me hang out with him for a couple hours.
He always had Neapolitan ice cream. He would let me mess up the even distribution of vanilla/strawberry/chocolate that he preferred, so I could scoop out just the chocolate flavor I wanted.
He had an old fashion treadmill with no motor. Just a piece of canvas stretched over rollers.
He had no air conditioner and lots of fans.
He washed his clothes with an old fashion hand-cranked washer, and put them through a hand-cranked wringer to wring out the water. He hung his clothes on a clothes line to dry. (If you are getting the idea that I grew up in a modest older neighborhood, you would be correct.)
He didn't really have anything a kid would want to play with, so one day he dreamed up the idea of a "sock ball". We took one of his socks, wadded it up and wrapped it with duct tape, and played catch with it in his front yard. I bet we played with that sock ball for literally hundreds of hours over the course of a few years. When it got a little bit ragged he just added another layer of duct tape.
He had a couple of big black dogs. They weren't mean, but I was scared of them. So instead of just walking up to his house, I would stand at his front gate and scream "UNCLE JOHNNY! I'M HERE!" until he came out to shoo the dogs away and open the gate.
I told Uncle Johnny about everything happening in my little world. I told him if I was mad at my mom. I told him if I was mad at my brother. I told him if I liked a boy at school. I told him if a friend at school was mean to me. I told him everything about me, me, me....
And he listened with interest as we threw the sock ball back and forth every day after school.
As I started to near Jr. High, Uncle Johnny said, "You're growing up. Pretty soon you'll have lots of friends and have lots of places to be, and you won't want to come visit me as much anymore. When you start getting boyfriends, don't you forget about visiting me!"
"I won't Uncle Johnny! I'll still visit you. Even when I'm sixteen and have my very own car, I'll still visit you. I promise."
But alas...Uncle Johnny was a prophet. I was barely into Jr. High when talking to boys on the phone became far more fun than playing sock ball with Uncle Johnny. I started visiting him less and less. Once a week turned into once a month, and by they time I got my driver's license once a month turned into never at all.
I'm sad that I didn't make the time to visit him. Now I live 8 hours away, and he's pressing ninety and too hard-of-hearing to reunite with via phonecalls.
I'm sad because I wish I would have been less selfish with my time, and not so self-involved. I didn't think about it at the time, but now I know that he enjoyed my company just like I enjoyed his. He was the self-appointed neighborhood watchdog, and I wonder if he got a little upset with me, breaking my promise about visiting him in favor of running off every night with my big group of friends.
I wish that in those younger days when I did spend time with him, I would have stopped talking about myself and the misadventures of elementary school for a little while, and taken some time to ask about his life. My grandma reminded me just the other day that Johnny was on a warship in WWII that was sunk by enemy fire. Uncle Johnny along with several other men drifted for days on scraps of wood. Many survived, but many lost their lives to sharks or drowning or dehydration. I wish I would have stopped talking about myself and at least have give him the opportunity to share stories like that, even though he might have chosen not to.
In a glassed in cabinet in his living room, he had a framed black and white picture of himself in his Naval Uniform. I asked him the story of the picture one day. He told me that he was walking down a city street in uniform, and the shopkeeper of a photography studio came running over to him to ask if they could take his picture, and put it in their storefront display. He agreed, and they gave him a copy of the print to thank him for his time. I could tell that was a proud moment for him, and I envisioned the scene with such clarity as he told me about it. I wish I would have asked him to tell me more stories like that.
*a few tears*
I'm sure your Uncle understands. You can't have lived his life and not gained some understanding and wisdom along the way. He knew you'd move on and I'm sure he treasures the memories as much as you do and has no negative feelings towards you.
What precious memories. I hope you pass them down to your children, too. Thank you for sharing such intimate and touching stories with us.
It seemed like he was old when Craig and I were kids too. We played in his yard after school too, when we were elementary age.
I don't make the time to see him every trip back to Oklahoma, but when I have it makes me feel good that I did.