A year ago today my uncle died. Although he was in his eighties, and had a few medical issues, he continued to drive himself back and forth for errands that on occasion meant return trips of several hundred kilometres. We had spoken on the phone a few days prior, and had rekindled our old ‘hobby’ of writing letters back and forth in the past year. And then…
He fell and hurt his back. He was taken to hospital in an ambulance, given some medication for the pain, and then… simply died in his sleep.
We never know where or when or by what means, only that it will come. Death happens. Such is life.
I was asked by my cousins – his children and grandchildren – to write about my reminiscences, a eulogy of sorts, that would be read aloud at his memorial in Southern Ontario. What do you say after all these years about someone who was more than merely an ‘uncle’, about someone who was really more of a father figure? It took me no time at all to find those words.
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You knew him as dad, or grandpa, or poppa, or Mr. Neil, or simply, Lawrence. I knew him as Larry.
I never bothered with the more traditional ‘Uncle’ Larry anymore than I did ‘Aunt’ Lillian, it was always just Larry and Lillian. I don’t know why, exactly. No one seemed to mind. And I was always just… ‘Randy’. Well, unless I was in trouble – a not uncommon occurrence. In which case, I answered to any number of ‘alternate’ versions of my name depending on what infraction I had supposedly been the cause of.
My relationship with Larry was unique. Although he was my uncle, and we all exchanged periodic London-to-Sarnia, Sarnia-to-London family visits over the years, I was lucky to have lived with Larry, and Lillian, and Virginia, and Barbara and John for several years in the 1960s. I was about nine-years-old.
I not only look back fondly at those years, I relish the memories of that time on Kim Street. Mostly, I remember him. Vividly. Doing… stuff.
- Fixing the glass block in the foyer of the house…
- Stringing antenna wire around the attic for my shortwave radio so I could listen to ‘The Beatles At The Beeb’ (BBC) live on Saturday mornings…
- Cooking on the back patio, and summers filled with barbecues and homemade lemonade popsicles…
- Travelling to hockey games at the old Detroit Olympia, and baseball double-headers at Tiger Stadium…
- Hiding behind wisps of Amphora pipe tobacco as he read yet another book by Winston Churchill…
- Towing a trailer as we all went camping at Bon Echo Lake near Ottawa…
- Waking me in the middle of the night, telling me to get dressed, and then wandering together outside, bundled up against the icy cold, where I saw the Northern Lights for the first time…
- Watching him eat breakfast that always consisted – always! – of oatmeal and The Globe and Mail. And then, dressed in a suit, departing for Chemical Valley in an old green sedan…
I remember that car well.
One day, Larry took Virginia and me on a trip downtown in that car. Neither of us wanted to go – we were convinced it was a wild goose chase of some kind, some ‘errand’ that required ONE person to accomplish. One adult – not three people, and certainly not two kids who had far more important things to do on a sunny Saturday morning.
We pulled into an auto mechanic’s garage on Exmouth Street. About ten minutes later, we watched transfixed as the mechanic installed the latest hi-tech car gadget – they were all the rage at the time. Later, we stopped for ice cream, and then drove home, this time securely in place courtesy of our newly fastened… seat belts.
Once every few weeks the bookmobile would come. It always parked right in front of our house. It was a big, lumbering turquoise mobile home containing floor-to-ceiling stacks of hardcover books on every subject imaginable. I thought this was the coolest thing in the world. But one day I was stuck. I still couldn’t find an idea for my school assignment.
I had to do a history project on a famous person of some kind, and I was having trouble getting motivated – I didn’t know where to start. Larry looked around the bookmobile with me, and then told me to follow him back inside the house. There were two sets of encyclopedias in the den – the Britannica and the Americana. He told me to go to the shelves and close my eyes. He said,
“Run your fingers along the spines – back and forth… then stop. Pick a volume and open it. Flip the pages back and forth… then stop. Point. Then… open your eyes.”
That’s how I met the ‘other’ Larry – Lawrence of Arabia. It was the first “A” I ever got.
When I was five years old I became the caretaker of a typewriter. A battleship-beige metal Smith-Corona portable in its own carrying case. A friend of my mother’s would come and visit occasionally from Toronto, and she would work on this thing for hours at our dining room table clacking away at who-knows-what. I took an interest, and she decided to leave it behind in my care. I could use it, she said, but I couldn’t abuse it. “It’s not a toy,” she said.
Best. Toy. Ever!
But we had no paper. Certainly not enough for my prolific output. I complained.
One weekend, Larry paid a visit with the family and brought me a present. A box filled with paper! Not just any paper, mind you – top secret documents from the covert files of The Corporation (hey – I was five!) He said I could use the blank flip side to practice my typing, that way I wouldn’t waste any paper. Recycling. He was ahead of his time.
One of my ‘practices’ was a letter to my uncle, thanking him for the box of paper. He responded. And then I replied. And then he responded. And so it went.
Until relatively recently his letters were always handwritten – mine, typed. Later, he would write his correspondence on a computer and print the letters out – on both sides so as not to waste any paper.
A few years ago during a move and a reorganization of my storage, I opened a large box and discovered those letters. Not all of them, certainly, but still, more than a hundred. The earliest dated letter was more than forty-five years old. It was a response to a letter I had sent to him from Expo 67 in Montreal. It seems I was very keen on the Soviet pavilion, poutine and a certain French Canadian girl.
I remember his moral compass, his ability to steer you – never force you – in the right direction. I remember advice sought and given. Places, sights, smells, tastes… experiences all made real because it was he who introduced me to them. I also remember the dialogue, the seemingly endless engaging dialogue – like the books, on every subject imaginable. He was the most amazing man.
I know I will always remember. Because I have never forgotten.