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