Uncle Charlie

 

While we were sitting around the table one night, Ma told us a story of when she was young. They found a dead bird in their backyard on Commercial Street. This presented Charlie with a great opportunity; after all, there were twelve kids in the family. In typical French-Canadian fashion, they were never allowed out of the yard and couldnít play with the neighborhood children.

"We're going to have a funeral." He announced. "Marie, Rose, Ethel, and Mabel will be the official mourners. Ted, Bill, Arthur, and Edward will be the pall-bearers. Joseph can be the choir director, and Eva and Florence can make believe theyíre altar boys. I'll be funeral director and priest."

The procession started and Charlie yelled, "Címon girls, youíre not crying loud enough." Joseph sang a Christmas carol (it was July), as the four boys carried their burden to its final resting place. Charlie delivered the eulogy in the style of the parish priest.

They all thought it was a grand affair as the sparrow in a shoebox was lowered into the hole in the ground. They dug it up every couple weeks to witness the stages of putrification and decay.

Charlie was drafted into World War II where he served with distinction in the army as a French interpreter. His brother Joseph didn't fare so well. Joe was a navigator on the only B-29 shot down on its maiden flight into Japan. The good seem to die young sometimes. Charlie, however, stayed in the army after the war, married Florence Cochon, and, retired a full bird colonel. Ma claims Charlie was a great cook who caught the eye of the general staff. Promotion upon promotion followed. An army does indeed travel on its stomach.

Charlie would visit home once a year when I was a kid. It was a great excuse for a family party not that we ever needed one. Charlie usually presided and was always the focal point of the party. We all admired him so.

Two years after I was married, Julianne was born. A year after that, we were invited to Uncle Charlieís summer place in East Machias, Maine near the Canadian border and a six-hour drive from home.

Charlie and Florence were childless. We had been told she couldn't have kids. When we asked why, we would be given the standard answer, "You'll understand when you're older."

I still donít understand. The older I get, the less I seem to understand.

Charlie and Florence had bought the old East Machias Post Office whose backyard was a small river. The building was about 50 feet by 50 feet and provided temporary lodging while they were having a house built over an ocean bluff. The post office itself was one huge room. The different areas were set apart by folding screens.

Since we had Julianne with us (she was still a baby), we decided to stay in a motel. Charlie and Florence wouldn't hear of it. I was apprehensive because I felt that in such close quarters, if Julianne were fussy, it might create tension. As things turned out, Julianne was a model of good behavior while Charlie and Florence were -- well -- fussy.

During the day things were great. Breakfasts were lavish and always started with what Charlie called Ďan eye openerí which was a shot glass the size of two thimbles into which were poured straight Brandy or Cognac. Lunch was usually sandwiches. The fun, however, began in the evening.

For example, one night, Charlie cooked braised short ribs which had been marinated then slow cooked in a cast-iron Dutch oven. Various vegetables and potatoes were roasted at the same time. We were allowed two drinks before we ate. Two drinks, and no more. That was a rule he even imposed on generals.

"Dammit, if I spend all this time and effort cooking a meal, I donít want a bunch of drunks slobbering over it." Thus spaketh Charlie.

Wines were served with the meal and thatís when the sniping began. Charlie belittled Florence every chance he got. She sniped back implying that he could never win because of her superior upbringing and education. By the end of each night, they were slurring the insults back and forth. During and after the meal, you were allowed to drink to your heartís content. The bickering continued without respite until we went to bed. We would not have been surprised to awaken in the morning with one of them murdered. How the hell they ever stayed together over 40 years never ceased to amaze us.

Fast forward to the present. Charlie has been dead about a year and the family gets together to celebrate Uncle Bill's 90th birthday.

Somebody starts telling Uncle Charlie stories until, at some point, Aunt Rose, in her 80s, and feeling no pain after a few cordials, blurts out "Hell, it was a marriage of convenience. Like Arthur, Charlie was gay!"

Now that was what I call a showstopper.

"Close your mouths, for Godís sake." Rose always had the last word.