Great Uncle John De Coven Berry was a long, lean, ancient old man when he came to join our household. He was my father’s favorite uncle. Dad had spent many weekends and summer vacation days as a boy, camping, hunting and helping out in the Mere Point vegetable gardens. Dad found his uncle almost frozen to death in his camp one winter day and brought him home to thaw out. My mother never forgave Dad for not asking her – he didn’t have time to bargain and cajole his uncle into our home – he wanted to save his dear uncle’s life. For his part, Uncle John wasn’t exactly happy to leave his camp and freedom to live in a school teacher’s house, let alone get used to my mother’s rules and conditions.
Susan and I were overjoyed to welcome Uncle John into our lives for two reasons, first, we thought that it would be a good diversion for our high-strung well mannered mother, and second, Uncle John told the best stories. He told ones that couldn’t be found in our bedtime story books, in language that our mother would refuse to read aloud. Plus, Uncle John could pretend with us and didn’t mind being dressed up. Uncle John was a colorful character and we aspired to be colorful, too. His preferred rocking chair became many vessels to take us sailing to different ports around the world. Susan and I didn’t lack for imaginations – we had a complete set of World Book encyclopedias at our disposal, shelves of books to draw from and relatives enough to populate our plots whenever we needed material. We wanted color to spice up our stories and Uncle was just the ingredient we needed.
Relying on Uncle John as a built-in babysitter became a liability for our mother since he didn’t appear to be a suitable example for our young and impressionable minds. However, when Mom couldn’t find one of her typing and shorthand girls to watch us on short notice, Uncle John would have to do in the pinch. Uncle John’s word choices were rough around the edges, he mixed his cuss words and crude idioms with unchristian epitaphs definitely not approved by late 1950s child-rearing standards. Susan and I added his phrasing and sentence structure to our own vernacular, we created our stories and sang our songs most melodiously around the house, to the horror of our mother’s sensibilities.
Uncle John smoked like a chimney, to name another of his many vices, and his clothes bore burn-hole constellations around his chest, lap and sleeve area, which was pretty much the whole front of his green old man sweaters. The carpet around his rocking chair was also scarred in black pock marks. Uncle John smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes in the dining room and basement, sitting in an old sea captain’s chair close to the bulkhead door. My mother called it a filthy habit and decreed a smoking ban after Uncle John nearly burned down the house for the second time. Uncle John went from smoking a couple of packs a week to chewing Juicy Fruit gum apparently with little adverse reactions for a man who had been smoking since he was a young boy some 70 or so years by the time he quit cold turkey. His smoking sestation did not dampen his colorful character one bit.
To keep his hands busy Uncle John developed the habit of reading Hardy Boy mystery books by the bushel load. Mom got him a library card and he read through all of the local library’s titles; yard sales, flea markets and church swaps flushed out the complete Hardy Boy series. Susan and I wondered what would happen when Uncle John closed the cover of the last book. “Start over,” he replied to our query. “I might find something new, something I missed. You never know how a story can change and grow on you.” We thought that was a unique way of looking at reading chapter books, of course we read and reread our beloved Bobbsey Twins, and Susan reread her Flicker books, but I hadn’t considered rereading the Wizard of Oz – some books were just one-read experiences, while others demanded more than two reads to occupy the brain and put in deep roots.
Uncle John’s favorite soup was green split pea soup seasoned with a meaty ham bone and chunks of fatty ham, the fattier the better! This soup sent shivers through and through me; it was the bane of my existence because fat made me gag, which I did rather grossly to prove my no-fat point. (Susan ate whatever was put in front of her and was always hungry for more.) Mom learned to examine every piece of ham for hidden fat and gristle before adding it to the soup pot. To keep Uncle John happy she left fat on the ham bone and baked up cornbread to round out our dinner. Uncle John taught us girls to sing “Pease soup and Johnny cake makes a Frenchman’s belly ache!” at the top of our lungs which caused our mother to turn down her hearing-aide for peace and quiet. Uncle John was our favorite relative by far and Susan and I treated him like our best kept treasure, all buffed up and shiny.
June 6, 2010 KBP
I loved the Uncle John story. Everyone should have an Uncle John. Thank goodness he didn’t freeze to death.
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My mother use to tell me about the time her father almost froze to death. His name was Frank or “Frankie” as my grandmother called him fondly. Now Frank was was gambler and drunk. He couldn’t put the food on the table in any consistent manner as they use to say. Because of this my grandmother had to eventually turn him out for the well being of her children’s sake and the roomers she took in. She would not divorce him though and allowed him back in the house every Sunday afternoon like clockwork to get a hot bath, have his clothes washed, and eat a good meal. After this together they would sit on the back porch and talk for hours. It was clear she still loved him. This is not true as far as my mother went. She viewed him in a dim light as the cause for all her woes. So when later she would tell the story of Frank almost freezing to death why she always added that he deserved it and more.
It happened one bitterly cold winter night when Lake Champlain was thickly frozen over. A few
fishing shanties dotted the breakwater. A few had sooty lanterns burning within in order to give just enough light to check the bait lines. The men inside sat on buffalo hide covered barrels and drank heavily. Naturally one of these men was Frank.
At some point Frank had to use the rest facilities and ventured outside soon to be forgotten by his drinking buddies. I guess Frank couldn’t find a perfect spot so he wandered quite a ways, in fact almost back to the pier. Near the pier is where blocks of ice were cut during the day to be used to for peoples ice boxes and to be stored for future summer use in saw dust bins. Of course you can see where this is going and indeed Frank fell into an empty block hole coat, hat, cigar and all. It was a night police officer that noticed him while driving by in his truck on his way home. He saw the lit end of the cigar burning and stopped to investigate. Sure enough he recognized Frank, shook his head and pulled him out. Then he did did what he always did when Frank got in trouble and brought him home to my grandmothers. This wasn’t so easy. Frank was frozen stiff like a log and no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t bend in half in order to get him in the cab. The only thing left to do was to slid him in the open back. Ten minute later the officer was knocking at my grandmother’s door. Everyone woke up at this point and with great commotion carried Frank in and laid him down on the living room floor in front of the fire. The first task was to get the frozen cigar out of his Frankie’s mouth and defrost his lips with warmed up whiskey on a dish rag. If anything was going to bring him around this was. And it did. He wasn’t himself the following day or the day after. But by the third day he was good to go. Only one person went directly back to bed when Frank was brought in that night and that was my mother. She took one look at him and felt disgust.
Personally I must say I adored my grandfather. My mother dropped me off at my grandmother’s house every Sunday afternoon. I would sit with Frank on the porch in silence then usually take a short walk with him around the church next door while dragging a stick along the iron fence all the way. Clinkity-clinkity, clinkity, clink. At the end he always gave me 1/2 a piece of gum. He’d eat the other half. My entire childhood I had no idea that Frank didn’t live with my grandmother. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
Dear Spinner’s Mom,
I love your stories. They have a real bygone era feeling, mostly because your mother was older than my parents so she would have been a part of Uncle John’s time – as a girl growing up, tagging along, big bow in her hair. Susan and I only interacted with uncle John at the end of his life, his stories entertained us much like old Mae West talkies did. I think that when we were allowed to listen to the old stories it changed us, changed our patterns of thinking and playing, it gave us an old sensibility, wisdom, if you will, to understand things beyond our years. Things were matter of fact back then, consequences for actions were accepted – perhaps people were more fatalistic back then. I think that dirt was dirtier back then, it had a rich dark smell and lingered on clothes and under ones fingernails when played in – dirt is dusty now, it flys away. Its not even worthy of planting or being buried in – God rest our old relatives.
Frank lived his life, vices and all, and accepted your grandmother’s limitations. He came Home when he was allowed and stepped back into his Home persona. What kind of stories do our “modern” children have that can compare to ours?
I wonder too Kat what kinds of stories our children will have to pass down. I took Maya and her friend to Shelburne Museum yesterday and saw the 1950 house on display. Stepping into the house brought a flood of memories. Television didn’t even come to VT until 1954. For me going to my grandmother’s huge 3 story house was a fabulous place to explore endless nooks and crannies full of surprises. I still can close my eyes and picture every room, staircase, hall, bathroom, basement, and attic. My great grandfather was a chemist and inventor who made Hull’s Extracts down in the basement. Though he passed away before I was born no one bothered to tear down his lab. There it stood behind a creaky door- Beakers, vats, huge glass bottles, labels, and shipping containers. In the corner there was a coal bin. I spent hours exploring that house top to bottom trying to open various locked doors with skeleton keys I found in a box in the pantry. To this day I dream about this house off and on and can call up the smells and sights: dust, dirt, soot, cedar wood closets, extracts, cigar smoke, starched whites hanging on a line, wood floor varnish, whale bone buttons, old furs, rabbit skins, boxed soap flakes… etc.
What type of memories will our kids have?
Maya who is 12 I think will remember our fridg. It’s a 1930 GE with a humming round motor on the top. Once a year in the summer I drag it out on the porch to defrost. Sometimes I have to smile when I see Maya’s forgot her DSI and it’s laying on top of the old fridg. It’s a span of 80 years right there.
Well anyway, I love reading your blog entries, and just wish my spelling and such was better. I’m always writing to you at midnight so that might be why. Probably not. OH well.