I had an Uncle Bill. I didn’t really know him that well. I only knew that he scared the crap out of me.
My uncle lived in California. Los Angeles to be exact. Of all the relatives coming from my maternal grandmother’s family tree, Uncle Bill was the most glamourous to those of us back in southern Missouri, at least while I was growing up. In the 1960’s California was still that elusive, mystical place you only knew of from the movies and television. No one went there. It seemed that no one left here at all.
Oh, I guess my parents left for Kansas City. But that was still in the state. A few relatives went to join the Army or Navy, but they came back eventually, to farm or run the family store.
But Bill left. He did join a military branch, the Army. He was stationed in California. And he didn’t come back . Given, he did come back for the bi-yearly visits to see his mother and occasionally my mom and aunt. But he never stayed. He always went back. He had a wife and a daughter. That was home, for him.
He became a California Highway Patrolman. Then later, he achieved the position of a State Highway Patrol Inspector, one of four in the state. When he came back into town my mom, his sister, would always say, “the prodigal son is back.” “Billie.” That was his name to my grandma and to all that knew him back when. After he left for California, my grandma was the only one that still got away with calling him that.
He didn’t say much. But when he spoke he had a deep voice and it seemed as if his conversation was always in a certain tone. He wasn’t much of a talker. If he asked how you were doing you responded truthfully, not by just saying fine.
As a teenager, when we visited my grandma I would be the designated point person to pick up dinner from our favorite hamburger joint. If Uncle Bill was in town and involved in the order, I made sure I got it right. The funny thing now when I think about it is that I’m sure he would have just laughed if I forgot the onions or his burger had mustard not mayonnaise. But at the time I would have been devastated. Huh.
He died at the age of seventy-nine about ten years ago. After he lost both his wife and daughter within months of each other. My mom had passed away a couple of years earlier so I made the trip to the funeral with my husband, to the same small town that he left.
There were several people there and many accompanied us to the graveside ceremony. As an Army veteran, the family requested full military honors. The honor guard ceremonial folding of the flag, the sound of Taps playing as we sat, and the photo depicting him as a family man – wife and daughter in happier days on a small table, all these are deeply felt memories for me of that day. Memories involving a complicated, complex man that I never really did get to know.
I believe in not knowing him I made him into a mythical creature. Something we are all prone to do with those we don’t know but are somehow connected to. I suppose in some sense it brings us closer together.
I’m really sorry I only had the myth. I am pretty sure that if I knew the real Uncle Bill I would have really liked him.
Makes you wonder how many people are out there that we build myths around? How much better off would we be if we just got to know those people? I’m sure most of us, like me, can say we may never know.