"What was the best day of your life, Uncle Joe?" I lean forward in my chair and push the tape recorder across the small table toward him. I'm recording the memories of my oldest living relative, while at a family reunion in my cousin's home. He won't let me use a camera.
"No pictures," he says, "I'd be too self-conscious!" He smiles. "I'm not so good-looking any more."
My uncle is 103 years old. "You look great, Uncle. Perfect!" And indeed he does. A certain rosiness underlies his finely lined fair skin, freshly shaved and lightly talced for the occasion. His iron-gray hair is neatly parted on one side and slicked back - a style he has worn all his life. His brown eyes glow with excitement. He is outfitted, as usual, in a navy-blue suit, the jacket now open, revealing a neatly buttoned vest, white shirt, and red tie.
He has two styles of dress: formal, and more formal. The latter he reserves for special occasions: weddings, dinners at the club (with Aunt Helen, his "much younger" second wife), and parties. He sits up straight in his chair across from me. He is a proud, handsome man, always known as "our dandy."
Joe Kraemer is my uncle by marriage only. However, in the family of my birth, a Southern family, not much distinction is made between blood relatives and those by marriage. All are Family. On the day I was born he became my Uncle Joe.
He came to the United States from Alsace when he was an adolescent, escaping from conscription into the Kaiser's army. He arrived on these shores speaking both French and German. He got a job, grew up some, learned English, grew up some more, got a better job, and met and married my Aunt Jenny, all before the Great War broke out. Their long and happy marriage produced two beautiful daughters, both with his luminous dark eyes.
When he was a widower in his 70s, he married a woman much his junior. My cousin Mary described her at the time, in a letter, as "a young thing of only 57," and then added, "I wonder how that will work out?" It is working out just fine. They're devoted to each other. Now that he is a centenarian-plus, and she in her 80s, she is still his love. He often refers to her as "my girl."
Uncle Joe doesn't answer my question immediately. His eyes roam around the room, taking in the crowd. So many people! Four and five generations! They stand or sit in little groups, chatting and waiting to be called to the buffet. Some are meeting relatives for the first time. Others are getting reacquainted. Two infants are being passed around and admired. A small crowd is gathered around Uncle Joe and me.
He turns back to me, "I declare, Bets, you surely did turn out well." He speaks as though it were only yesterday that I had been a child. "But then, your mama was a beautiful woman, and...." He pauses, searching for something else he wants to say about my mother, something he feels is important. "And she made the best beaten biscuits I ever tasted!"
My uncle goes to work five days a week. He has a small paper-products distributing business, which he and a friend manage. His friend picks him up every morning, drives him to their office, and brings him home by midafternoon. Helen whispers to me, "His 'business associate' is 85, and they mostly just sit and chew the fat all day."
"I like to keep on the go," he'd said earlier. "Time enough to take it easy, later." I wonder how much "later" this man will wait to take it easy.
He invites me to come to his office the next day, where he will fix me up a carton each of paper napkins, towels, and toilet paper to take home. I decline with regret. "Thanks, darling, but now that I live in an apartment I don't have much room for cartons of anything."
COUSIN Mary rings a small bell and calls us all to help ourselves to supper from the buffet. "Except you, Uncle Joe. I'm bringing plates of everything over there, for you and Helen and Bets."
"Hurry, Uncle Joe," I urge. "I need you to answer that last question I asked you. Then we can eat and party with the rest of this bunch."
"I've already forgotten what it was that you asked, honey."
"What was the very best day of your life?"
Joe looks around the room, at his daughters (now handsome tinted-haired matrons), at their children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren holding his two "great-greats," at all the in-laws and other members of his vast interrelated family.
"Why it's today, Bets. Today is the very best day. So far."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society