Friday, March 08, 2002

a tribute -- my uncle hy passed away; and though i call him uncle i think technically he was a great-great uncle, my father's great uncle, living out by himself in a house in albuquerque, new mexico with pictures of his late wife smiling down off of the walls. she was supposed to have been the most wonderful of women but i never knew her. i couldn't imagine uncle hy with a wife; i always saw him so self-sufficient. it was years before i realized a person could be both cheerful and lonely. he grew tomatoes with noses in his backyard. my little brother would squeal when he saw them. twilights, he sat with me on his backporch and introduced me to hummingbirds, loyal frequenters of his feeder even while, he whispered to me, they no longer appeared anywhere else. patiently he showed me how to wind the magnificently carved coo-coo clock. he whittled too and he always told me whatever animal i wanted he'd whittle for me. only i never could think of one. when i was 11, i had a poem published in an anthology -- the whole thing was a scam, of course, a vanity press, but i was vain, or young, enough to be thrilled; and he sent me a little wooden stand instead with a place for a "fountain pen" (a white pen with a trailing purple feather) and a little brozne plaque that read, "ester _____, published poet, 1994." i couldn't have been prouder.

uncle hy was one of the few people i knew whose eye never stopped twinkling and who showed no signs of being intimidated by my father. hy even beat him at the word game once (or as dad would say, "i let him win one.") my father stays one-week-a-month in new mexico: so he's spent at least a few days every month chuckling with hy, buying books from his private rare-book business, and dining out in the same restaurants where the head waiters know their names and usher them to the same tables. this awed me. the process, from the first step in, the effusive greetings, the inside jokes, the stories recounted, to the haggling over the check, which heroic battles ended only when one of them would capitulate with rolled eyes and extravagant sighs. sometimes not even then. one favorite story had them fighting with the pitch and stubbornness of generals. finally hy threw down his napkin in disgust, announced his defeat and left for the bathroom. after a moment or two to catch his breath and revel in his victory, my father signalled for the check. the waiter only shook his head and smiled. hy had ambushed the counter and paid it himself.

it's been years since i last saw him. the birthday cards kept coming, usually signed "uncil hy" in reference to an old spelling mistake my little brother made on hy's 80th birthday banner. my father repeated "hy sends his love" each month, his sincerity never in doubt. but nothing drew us as a family to new mexico. now i regret it of course. of course, there's nothing to be done. i didn't even know he had cancer. it attacked swiftly, taking him by the lungs. my mother writes with tears in her eyes to let me know that he died nobly rather than become a burden on any member of his family. people are mourning in chicago, in san francisco. people will gravitate to albuquerque from d.c., from boston. some of a generation that remembers the wars, some with children barely one-year-old. and maybe the hummingbirds will attend as well, as tribute to a man with a soul so light it hovered.

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