Uncle Joe

THE first time I saw him coming down the street I ran. He looked like something out of my ``Grimm's Fairy Tales'' -- unruly gray hair and beard blowing in the wind, shoulders hunched under the weight of a dirty burlap bag. Looking out the window one day I saw mother actually talking to him. Now I realize how perfectly natural it was for her to do so. She was a lover of all living things -- birds, animals, plants, and people. Her face lit up with joy as he handed her a lumpy object as dirty as he was. Bulbs for the garden.

This was the depression, the '30s, when we, like so many families, doubled up with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents in one house, making ends meet by pooling meager wages. I overheard mother telling my father about her new friend.

He was living in a shed at a local nursery in exchange for gardening skills. She wanted to do something for him, but what? He wasn't asking for anything and pride must be considered. From my safe viewing spot on the porch on his next pass-by I saw her slip several cans of fruit into his burlap bag. Not charity. Payment for gardening tips.

One day she asked if I'd come with her; he wanted to meet me. I was terrified but finally agreed. Clinging to her skirt, heart pounding in my throat, I stood before him. He didn't smell very good. I wished I was back on the porch.

Mother gently placed my small hand in his big rough one. A surprisingly tender voice said, ``I'm very glad to meet you, Carolyn. Why don't you call me Uncle Joe?'' He wasn't really smiling, yet he was. I don't think he'd smiled for a long time. His eyes looked so blue against a dirty, weatherbeaten face.

From that day there was always a flower just for me. Waxy tulips in brilliant red or yellow stand out most sharply in memory.

In retrospect I wonder, with some lingering sadness, how many times Uncle Joe went by unnoticed. It never would have occurred to him to come to the door.

I'd like to think, in some small way, we'd been family to him for at least a short period. In total honesty I can't say I ever overcame my fear of Uncle Joe, but in spite of it he became a golden thread in the tapestry of my life to be appreciated in the years to come.

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