Friday, November 05, 2010

My Uncle Jack

My Uncle Jack died yesterday. He had been increasingly ill for many years with Parkinson’s disease. At age 77, he was my mother’s youngest sibling.

Although terrible suffering and debilitation scarred his final years, I remember a very different man. As my youngest uncle (he was still in his teens when I was born), Jack was a fascinating figure during my childhood.

Jack had majored in science in college and chose chemistry as his career. Before he got married, he lived at home with my grandparents, as was the custom in the mid-20th century. Whenever I stayed at my grandparent’s home during school vacations, and while he was at work, I spent considerable time in Uncle Jack’s upstairs bedroom, exploring the captivating evidence of his hobbies and interests.

I marveled at ship models he had built inside huge glass bottles. I fiddled with the buttons and dials of his ham radio set (and got scolded for that, rightly so). Uncle Jack’s portable record player also was too great a temptation for a pre-teen. I combed through his collection of 45s and LPs and played as many as I could manage while my grandparents were outside in the yard.

Uncle Jack’s personal library was a source of endless entertainment. His bookshelves were crammed full of science, philosophy, theology, science fiction, and modern popular fiction books. I read the nuclear thriller Fail Safe straight through one rainy afternoon and gained my introduction to such masterful science fiction authors as Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, and Richard Matheson. My first acquaintance with Thomas Aquinas was one of Uncle Jack’s books entitled God Exists. It contained the great saint’s five proofs of God from Summa Theologica. Heavy reading for a twelve-year-old, but read it I did, sitting at my uncle’s desk by the sun-filled gable window.

My uncle often took me with him on his errands around town, and I felt quite important sitting in the front passenger seat of his Buick. He would take me outside on starlit nights to point out the constellations, and he could do quite a scary Frankenstein monster impersonation. He always bought me books, sometimes for no reason, often as birthday gifts—dozens of Nancy Drew mysteries, ghost stories, histories for young readers, and my personal all-time favorite, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. No child in my life has escaped receiving a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth. Just a few months ago, I had my tattered original hardcover rebound; it was a gift from Uncle Jack when I turned eleven. I still reread it occasionally, when life gets to be just too much.

Now might be such a time. As we advance along the crowded pathways of our years, we lose many of our heart’s treasures. I remind myself to be grateful that his suffering is over, and I pause to wonder--how much better would the world be if every child could experience such a loving example of family as my Uncle Jack?

Enjoy heaven, my dear uncle. I shall cherish your memory always.