An Uncle Lost by Betty Naegele Gundred

Nothing was ever the same after Uncle Frank got out of the Army.

My Uncle Frank was one of my father’s younger brothers, out of a total of eight siblings. Attention was hard to get with so many children, though his mother did what she could to attend to his needs. His father worked overtime to support the growing family, but when he was home his temper could be vile and his patience little. Frank was often the butt of his belittling tirades.

Uncle Frank was a talented artist and drew funny cartoon characters during his high school years. Six-feet-tall and a great athlete, he played baseball and football. His gymnastic skills amazed us. He could hold on to a vertical pole and turn his body sideways in the air. 

We loved Uncle Frank’s sense of humor and how he teased us. He enjoyed playing magic tricks –  

“Got your nose,” he’d say to me. Then show me his wiggling finger.

Or he would tease my brother – 

“Look, Johnny, I can take off part of my thumb!”

He would bend his thumb down on one hand and slide the tip of his other thumb over it, moving it up and down so it looked like it was coming apart. We all looked dumbfounded.

“How did you do that?” we chanted, and he’d do it again and again, but always faster than we could figure it out.

Uncle Frank also did card and coin tricks. He was adept at these sleights of hand. We could never imitate his moves as well. He could contort his face into silly and goofy expressions, like Popeye and Red Skelton. He made us laugh, and we loved his attention. When my sister Patty had to get glasses when she was seven, he kidded her, “Patty, now we’ll have to call you “Four Eyes.” Though, I’m not sure she appreciated that . . .

When we were quite small and my mother was stuck in a tiny apartment with three young children, Uncle Frank would often stop by after his high school classes to visit or watch us while Mom ran a few errands. My mom, who was fifteen years his senior, treated him to snacks and home-made cookies, and they spent a lot of time talking. Mom grew up in Tennessee and after marrying my dad, moved north to New Jersey. Far from her parents and with no siblings, she was a bit lonely and craved social interaction.  Mom told me later that Frank often confided in her. He was very religious, a devout Catholic, and secretly held aspirations for the priesthood, but lacked the confidence. He thought his grades weren’t good enough to get into the seminary. My mom and dad and his other siblings complimented him on his artwork and encouraged him to go to art school, be a graphic artist, a teacher . . . but he shied away from these pursuits. It didn’t help that his father continually berated him on his lack of motivation.

Just before Christmas, Uncle Frank would drop off a large, wrapped box to put under the tree.

“Mom, please let’s open it now!” we begged, but she held fast. 

“No, you have to wait for Christmas morning when you open Santa’s gifts.” We could hardly contain our excitement.

After he graduated from high school, Uncle Frank bought a red Austin Healy which thrilled his young nieces and nephews.

“Uncle Frank, can we have a ride in your car?” we’d ask.

 At first, he resisted, thinking our parents would not approve, but after we pleaded with Mom and Dad, they finally agreed – and we took turns going for a ride in his sporty convertible, our hair flying in the wind! Each time we saw his red car drive up and park in front of our house, we’d yell, “Uncle Frank’s here!” We knew he would have some new toy and entertain us with his jokes and games. He always took us outside to play ball in the backyard or do gymnastic tricks – like flips through the air.

Uncle Frank held odd jobs over the following year but did not earn enough to move out of his parents’ house and rent his own place. My grandfather began to lose patience with Frank’s lack of ambition. It wasn’t long before he joined the Army and went overseas to serve in the Korean War. When he was transferred stateside, he finished his tour of duty in Alaska. 

On one of his leaves, Uncle Frank showed my siblings and me how to do the Russian Cossack dance where you squat and throw out one leg at a time dancing across the floor.

”Will you teach us how to do that?” we asked. 

“Sure,” he said as he patiently demonstrated every move. He told stories about how he learned to ski in Alaska, and how much fun it was.

A year or two later, after his discharge from the Army, Uncle Frank returned home, but something had changed. When we went to visit my grandparents, he was nowhere to be seen.

“Grandma, where’s Uncle Frank?” I asked. 

“Up in his room,” she said. “Don’t know what’s wrong with him, but he just mopes around.”

He never came down to say hello. 

On future visits to my grandparents, we would see him briefly, traipsing through the kitchen. He looked glum, not himself – not the uncle we remembered. His red sports car still sat out in the driveway, abandoned, and I don’t believe he ever used it again. He was reluctant to look for a job – seemed to have given up on life. My grandparents gave him an ultimatum, and he was forced to find some menial work, which paid for a rented room. Sometime later, one of my uncles helped him secure a job at the same factory where he worked. Uncle Frank held that position for more than 20 years until his retirement.

After he left home and got an apartment, we rarely saw him. He did not stop by his parents’ house or visit us anymore, even after repeated entreaties from my mom and dad. We offered to pick him up, as he had sold his car. Was it the Army that changed him? Perhaps PTSD, although we never heard about his being in combat. Or was this behavior a result of a brewing discontent in his teens, an inability to cope with his perceived inadequacies.

Over time, we learned he spent many evenings at a nearby bar where he entertained the locals with Celtic music. He had inherited his mother’s singing voice and could belt out Danny Boy as well as any, in addition to his repertoire of Scottish songs. They loved him there, and the bar friends became his family. 

As I got older, my parents admitted he had become an alcoholic, though his nighttime addiction did not seem to influence his day job. 

After he retired, at about age 62, for some medical reason I never knew, he had to stop drinking – which he was able to do. Unfortunately, depression followed, which required him to take medication. He lived by himself but had a friend or two who often visited and tried to keep him on schedule taking the drugs.

A few years after this, Frank started to suffer from bouts of paranoia – he thought “bad guys” were after him. He loved the outdoors and often went for long walks, but always wore a “hoodie” to hide his identity from them. He ended up in a corner store near his apartment, cowering under a counter. After the authorities were called, my dad had to retrieve him. At another time, someone found him in a garbage chute, thankfully before he went into the crusher, though he didn’t remember how he got there. Evidently, he had forgotten to take his meds. Although these were isolated episodes, he was reclusive and found it difficult to visit with family. 

We only saw Uncle Frank in his later years once or twice. It took much cajoling by his siblings to get him to agree to attend the two reunions we had, the last about 12 years ago. Someone would pick him up, and he would agree to stay for an hour or two. He looked haggard and drawn and smoked one cigarette after another. With much prodding he sang a few Scottish ballads to a clapping audience of old and young. Soon, he wanted to return home – not comfortable in his own skin, or around any of us, though I know he wanted to be.

Although I often sent him cards and my annual Christmas letter, he never acknowledged them – yet my dad told me that once when he had stopped by Frank’s apartment, he saw the letter and photos of my children out on his kitchen table, well after the holidays.

 Social services checked up on him during this time, and eventually he found a roommate who became a close friend and attended to him in his final years, especially after he was diagnosed with cancer.

Besides depression and paranoia, I wondered if Frank developed agoraphobia . . . schizophrenia? I asked my dad, but he said he didn’t know his actual diagnosis. If my dad knew, he didn’t tell me. . .

When my Uncle Frank passed away in 2014, at the age of 78, a gentle but tortured soul had come to rest. My dad and aunt went through Frank’s apartment after he passed and were surprised to find boxes of the letters my siblings and I had sent him as children, birthday cards, Christmas letters I sent after I got married, and photos of his siblings, nieces and nephews and their children over the years – he had saved them all.

I couldn’t help thinking of the lines “Starry, starry night . . . with eyes that know the darkness in my soul . . .” from Don McLean’s haunting song about Vincent van Gogh, who also wrestled with his sanity.

 Betty Naegele Gundred has enjoyed writing since high school when she was editor of her school’s literary magazine, though she taught middle school science for twenty years. Her work has appeared or will soon appear in publications such as Current, The Heron’s Nest, Frogpond, Last Leaves, Months to Years, Orchards Poetry Journal, and Open Door Magazine. She is currently writing a series of memoir stories. Betty lives with her husband in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California and enjoys Zumba, hiking and photography.