Thursday, May 21, 2015

Uncle Jack

I want to talk about my Uncle Jack. He was my father's older brother and my godfather. They looked alike, more and more as the years went by, he and my father, with the same distinctive nose and smile. Uncle Jack always slicked back his hair with some sort of old-school hair grease, maybe a bit aggressively applied. He always made me feel that he was happy to see me. I adored him.

Uncle Jack worked nights. He drove a truck that delivered newspapers, and the depot was pretty close to our house, so on weekend mornings, he would often stop by with The Sunday New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and a bag of fresh kaiser rolls. I would ask, "Which do you want, tea or coffee?" He would make a choice, and I would promptly forget and fix him the opposite. He thought this was hilarious. He would sit and have a roll and tea/coffee,  and talk to my dad about I don't know what, but it pleased me to see them together. They really got along well.

A couple of times, he had me climb into the cab of his truck so he could "teach me how to drive." I would start it up and travel a couple of feet. "That's enough," he would say, laughing. Then he would go home to my Aunt Cathleen, who is from Ireland, and his three kids, Johnny, Patrick and Cathy. I would pore through the newspapers and get all kinds of ideas of things to do, like teen sleepaway camp in Mexico, which my parents would not allow. I also believe that these weekly deliveries are what got me interested in becoming a journalist.

Uncle Jack worked hard. I never saw him complain. Sometimes, at a family gathering at his house in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, he would emerge in his work clothes and announce that it was time for him to go to work. "Nature of the beast," he would say, smiling.

When my father died in 1991, Uncle Jack said: "Anything you need, you ask. Anything." I knew he meant it. I saw him less frequently after my father died, mainly at weddings and funerals. His son Johnny, his eldest, died of esophagus cancer in his 40s. My brother drove Uncle Jack and Aunt Cathleen from the funeral mass to the lunch, and I was in the car with them. He cried bitterly. "The son is not supposed to die before the father," he said. "That's not the way it is supposed to be."

In recent years, both Uncle Jack and Aunt Cathleen had been sick. I had plans to visit them this winter, but there was an ice storm that kept us from traveling. I feared at the time that it was my last chance to see him.

It was. Uncle Jack died yesterday.