Uncle Pete's Mustache

WHEN I was eight, Mama sent me to live with her sister in Seattle. The hours Mama had to work, the low wages she earned, made it impossible for her to care for me the way she wanted to. For a time, I was placed in an institution, but neither one of us liked that. Aunt Kate was a better answer - not the best answer, but better than an institution. So I traveled 2,000 miles by train, with my name and destination written on a tag and hung around my neck. And found out that Mama was right - living with Aunt Kate and Uncle Pete was better - much, much better.

Uncle Pete's hair was gray, but he had a white, white mustache. A thick-brush mustache that he trimmed with scissors. His skin was a wonderful pink tan and clear as could be. He used a straight razor and let me watch while he stropped the blade - in beautiful, slow, looping strokes. The blade would glitter in the bathroom light. And when he lathered his face with a brush, I would catch my breath, and I could see his eyes sort of looking at me in the mirror, over the mask of white soap. I couldn't see the smile, but I could feel it.

He was wondrously slow and deliberate as he pulled the skin down a little before the blade stroked his face ever so gently, carrying lather and whiskers before it. With never a nick and never a start. All in slow motion and I loved every moment of it.

I remember the time I tasted my very first cup of coffee - at 5:30 in the morning - because I was going to a place called work with Uncle Pete. The coffee was reinforced with lots of milk and sugar. I have preferred coffee with cream and sugar ever since. But more, 5:30 on a dark morning was a mysterious time for a kid, and going to work with Uncle Pete was even more marvelous.

It turned out that work was boring. There was little to do but watch, and much of the time I was left alone because Uncle Pete had to be someplace else. It was big and cold and windy because work was a huge covered wharf on the Seattle waterfront. Uncle Pete was a sailor who had beached himself when he married Aunt Kate. He was a longshoreman.

I threw nails and bits of wood into the water, but didn't go too near the edge. Not only because Uncle Pete cautioned me; but because the water looked gray and cold and was so far away from where I stood, and the rainbows floating on the surface looked strange and scary - not at all like the ones that floated in the sky.

My Uncle Pete could build anything. He could have built a whole city if he had wanted to. I helped him build the woodshed in our back yard - a beautiful box which stood on stone feet. There were two steps up to the door, and the door never squeaked.

I couldn't understand how he made rafters, especially ones that fitted so well and were strong enough to hold the roof away from the floor. I asked him how he knew and my Uncle Pete smiled and showed me how to lay the metal square across the rafter board at whatever slope you wanted the roof to have and mark it with a pencil and that was all there was to it - a 2 by 4 with a pencil mark across it at an odd angle? But I knew there had to be more. It was too much like magic and magic is never that simple and I would never be a magician.

Building the chicken coop wasn't nearly as grand, but it was more fun. Except when I got to hammer some of the chicken-wire mesh in place. Uncle Pete pressed the mesh into place, while holding the staple for me. I had tried to hold it, but kept hitting my fingers instead of the staple. So Uncle Pete held it for me. But as I swung the hammer, it sort of twisted in my hand and I couldn't tell whose gasp was louder.

I could see Uncle Pete's face turn red. Then a deeper red. He walked into the house, and all I could do was stare at his retreating back and hug the hammer. After what seemed forever, he came out, finger bandaged, carrying a mug of coffee in one hand and a glass of milk capped with a cookie in the other. He sat on the porch steps and held out the milk and cookie. So I felt that it would be all right if I started breathing again.

I have learned to use hand tools, but never with the same certainty and grace that Uncle Pete displayed. My work is never quite square or straight or fits correctly. But then neither is my checking account. But I loved hammering and sawing and building with my Uncle Pete.

So much so, that he bought me a junior carpenter's set for my birthday. Aunt Kate was never as patient or understanding as Uncle Pete. And when I tried out the saw on one of the legs of the living room couch, she was so angry that she would not talk to me. I understood that I had to wait until Uncle Pete came home from work. Which proved to be one of the longest, most terrifying afternoons of my life.

Aunt Kate didn't say anything to him while he washed for dinner. We sat down to eat. She still did not say anything. He wondered why I was not eating. I couldn't talk so he let it go. It was before dessert that she told him what I had done and made me show him how I had nearly sawed the leg off the couch before she had come in and stopped me.

Uncle Pete sort of shook his head. To this day I'm not sure whether he was hiding a smile or not, but I was too full of shame and regret and fear. He left the table and I knew I was to follow.

He went to the back porch where my toys were stored. He picked up the box of junior carpenter tools and carried them outside, to the woodshed. He laid them down on the chopping block, where he cut kindling for the stove. He put the box down, then he turned to me and said, ``Not in the house.'' Then he took my hand and led me back to the kitchen table.

The shame and regret and fear melted and I could eat my dessert - baked apple with brown sugar on top and sweet cream poured over all of it.

It wasn't long ago that I realized the mustache I am so proud of is an exact copy of my Uncle Pete's. I shave with an electric razor, but I am aware, now, that I pull my skin in front of the razor exactly as Uncle Pete did. I'm not sure, but every once in a while I think I see his eyes in the mirror, twinkling at me as they once did.

I did not know it then - that this man who had taken me to his heart as if I was his own - with whom I had lived for two short years - was the father I had longed for. But I did know, then, how much I loved him. `HAMMERING MAN'

Artist Jonathan Borofsky often treats his exhibition space as a three-dimensional painting, making full use of floors, ceilings, and walls. Space filled with numbers, scribbles, and moveable characters like the ``Hammering Man'' frequently characterize his work. Borofsky has created singing paintings, projected drawings onto walls, and invited gallery-goers to play ping-pong.

The ``Hammering Man'' shown right, located at the University Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley, is close to 16 feet tall. It is constructed of wood, painted steel, aluminum, foam Bondo. The painted-steel arm pounds constantly, driven by a motor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Uncle Pete's Mustache
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today