Thursday, December 21, 2006

Remembering My Uncle Al...

Albert Cliff, was my dad's elder brother, I knew him as Uncle Al.

Al was kind of funny, a caricature of the Cliff family somato type. Round shoulders tend to run in the family you see, and many of us cannot stretch the elbow joint out to a complete 180 degree angle. This gave me some static when I was in the army because, when you stand at attention, you are supposed to have your arms straight down, thumbs on the seams of your uniform trousers:
"Straighten your arms soldier!"

"Sir, they're as straight as they will go, Sir!"
Al walked bent over with his elbows at forty-five degree angle and hands hanging at an opposite forty-five degree angle. You might think he was imitating some goofy R. Crumb character.

I loved Al with all my heart, he had a funny laugh and a smile that could light up your day for a week.

Gerry-mum hated my uncle Al with something more than a purple passion.

Her reasons were many and she enumerated them often during my childhood years. Actually, she hated most of dad's and especially my mother's family.

I suppose she was afraid of my showing affection or bonding with them, but in Al's case I think she hated him mostly because she could not manipulate him. He was always his dum-dee-dum self, and the world, let alone his brother's wife, had little chance of changing him.

I was quite sick as a child and, so I've been told, close to death more than once. What I remember most is having to eat raw spinach and have wheat germ sprinkled on my breakfast cereal.

Because they were chronically infected, the doctors decided I needed to have my tonsils removed. However, whenever I was well enough that they could set a date for the operation, I got sick and it had to be postponed.

We went south for a while, where some of our extended family was already living. In less than six weeks, the tonsils were out, and I have had the good fortune of general good health ever since. The climate and the economic possibilities in the south appealed to dad and Gerry-mum, so the household moved to Poosah City.

After about a year they bought a house on the South Side where I lived the rest of my childhood. I was about nine, maybe ten years old and this was the first time in my life I lived continuously at one address for more than six months, except for the year I spent with Aunt Helen after my mother died when I was two.

I remember one time Gerry-mum and I for some reason had to wait for Al.

It seems to me we had to wait maybe a whole fifteen minutes. We had gone shopping, and the groceries were in the car and "the meat will spoil if Al doesn't come -- damn him!"

Finally, along comes Al without a trouble in the world. I realize now that he just might have been to a bar and had him a couple of beers. Jerry was sooo mad, but her tirade just bounced off him like water of off a duck's back. He just smiled and said, "I'm sorry, Jerry".

In later years, I tried to tell my dad why Al was my hero, but he would just get serious and say, "Your uncle Al, did a lot with the little he had..."

One story I heard was that Al had had polio. Another story was that he had been taken with forceps when he was birthed.

Young folks today don't know about polio, and forceps, thank God, or much about things like rheumatic fever and the other disabling and death dealing diseases of youth and birth. It's a blessing that they don't, but it's a shame that many seem not to appreciate what we can now take for granted.

It would be good if people in general -- in our culture anyway -- took life a bit more seriously. I figure we'd be better off.

There was a time when the nitty-gritty facts-of-life were more obvious and in-your-face than they are now. Today, if all you knew was what you saw on the media, you'd get the idea that everything can be fixed: by the doctors, the government, the police, the schools, the preacher, the President...

We are like kings and the media message to us is: "Whatever the problem -- it can be fixed, O Great One!" -- at least as long as Mighty Consumer pays his taxes and insurance premiums...

Al had a business in partnership with a friend of his. With plain hard work and good humor, he and his partner built their restaurant-bar up and had something good.

Then there came this woman into his life. She fulfilled whatever curses Jerry may later have heaped on him. She picked him for every dollar and penny he had scraped together. His partner refused to remain in business and Al had to buy him out. It took less than a year before the restaurant had to close and this woman left him. I don't think Al even bothered to get a divorce. She may well have been the only woman Al ever knew.

Over the years, Al had saved silver dollars. He had several jars full -- thousands of dollars. In desperation, he took the jars over to my cousin and begged him to take them. Not understanding what the problem was, Keith refused. It seems Al couldn't bring himself to tell him just what the problem was. Keith really regretted that he didn't hear what Al was trying to say between the lines of his plea -- because, she took the silver dollars also...

Al never talked about this experience and, as far as I know, nobody ever asked.

Al ended his days, still the chuckle-head, living with his youngest sister, in a small room he rented from her. And like I said, he never talked about his marriage -- at least not with anyone in or close to the family.

About six months before he died, he wrote a letter to me, his "little nephew", in which he told me about how he had been sick and in the hospital.

I quote from memory: he felt like he had "...fallen into a well and was trying to talk to the people up there, but they couldn't hear him..." Sort of a negative out of body experience, or something from Tolstoy.

I don't remember what I wrote him. I just answered him from the heart, with no "it's-gonna-be-ok-Al crap".

I told him: "It's gonna happen, Al, sooner or later, and I love you!" He wrote me a short letter of appreciation and six months later they wrote me that Al was dead. They sent me a picture of the bouquet of flowers at his memorial service.

Dear hearts, what else is there to say? When somebody asks for help, just listen and open your heart -- it won't tear you apart, although, at the start it may scare you.




There came a knock at my Mother’s door . It was in the summer of 1973 and there stood my Uncle Al. The look in his eyes and the suitcase in hand , was all one needed to see. Uncle Al, come in, come in…. Mom… Mom, Uncle Al is here.. Mom came running in from the back yard and she took his hand, as I took his suitcase and we walked into the living room. He was bent over and sadden, by the events that were going on in his life. A man broken by the weight of losing those things he had worked so hard to build up.
I remembered that as we were growing up, having a father who was schizoid and abusive to his wife and children, a man who also left us high and dry on more than one occasion. Uncle Al would send Mom money for food and clothes, rent, and we were his church that was his place of tithing. When Grandmom Watson died in the summer of 57, it was then we were able to pack up and move to our new home on the Westside of Poosah City, from the cold and intrepid main street of Epworth Iowa. Even then Uncle Al sent what he could to help us make ends meet. When he showed up at the door, Mom was not really surprised, she just knew her home was now her big brother’s home, for as long as it needed to be.
In time Aunt Ruth, Uncle Troy, all worked together and found Uncle Al a place of his own in the Riverside Area of Poosah City. He would join in on family get-togethers for Thanksgiving , Birthdays, Christmas , just whenever the occasions would allow.
I had been dodging the draft through the help of the Army National Guard from 1966 to 1972 and was working to find work where ever I could in Poosah City. My wife at the time pregnant with my first daughter Parrish, didn’t let me spend the time around the family as much as I should have. That war of the 60’s took its toll even here, with disrupting lives and watching kids die at Kent State, did not help the war effort,or myself either.
The one thing I could do was imitate his wonderful laugh. With having perfect pitch, imitations of singers and show biz personalities, always kept the family amused at the dinner table. Uncle Al’s laugh was easy for me… part of the Cliff gene made it a chinch to do. I still do it today and the current generation still remembers Al and his wonderful laugh.
Uncle Al died in 1976. Aunt Ruth had stopped by to visit Al. “Ruth my neck is bothering me, would you mind giving it a rub”, he asked. According to Aunt Ruth, she massaged his shoulders and the back of his neck and that’s when Uncle Al left this life. Ruth did what she could for her brother, but he was gone and what had happened was a blood clot left his neck and went to his brain.
When I walked into the funeral parlor where Uncle Al was laid out, he had on a nice brown suit, with a shirt and tie. Martha, my new wife saw Al and started to cry. I thought it strange as she did not know him that well, but had an instant liking for him. The service was the same that was used for my mother 9 years later and the song that was sung was, I Come To The Garden Alone. Al was buried on the Westside of the city. I guess its time to stop by and sit awhile and have a laugh or two with Al. Its also time for the kids to know who their great Uncle Al was.

Chuck Cliff said...

Gee, Remie, thanks a godzillion for this!!!

I can hardly see the keyboard to type my thanks. So many things, so many details I never knew.

I've been mulling over what I would post on Christmas Eve as counterpoint to the very sad post I have planned for tomorrow.

With your permission, I'd like to use your comment here -- I won't edit it except to put spaces between the paragraphs, if you don't mind

Anonymous said...

That is a great comment. One sentence in particular meant so much to me so I posted about it.
And passing down family stories like this is a family tradition more poignant this time of year. I want to hear more stories about your Uncle Al. Wish there were an Uncle Al in my family.

Chuck Cliff said...

Technobabe, there is, I suppose, an Uncle (or aunt) Al in every family.

Our evolvement into human beings is more than genetic, it is also a cultural thing, a spirit, so to speak, passed from one generation to another.

Hmmn, that was poorly put, I suppose, but it's the best I can do right now.