© 1999 Robert M. (Bob) Leahy
2110 E. Crosby Road
Carrollton, TX 75006
(972) 416 - 6098
Approximate Word Count: 5,135
Uncle Bob's death came the day after I returned home after fall finals my senior year at St. Croix. Mom asked me to stay in Stillwater with her after the funeral to empty out his apartment. Gramma offered to help, but it was clear she was in no condition to go through his belongings. Neither was Mom.
It started to snow the afternoon of the funeral. Only a handful of people attended the service. Mom and I were there. So was Gramma and, of course, Dad and my three little sisters, Jeannie, Jody and Janet. Dad, Gramma and the girls returned to St. Paul after supper that night. Mom and I shared a room in the new Stillwater Inn on the edge of town.
Uncle Bob's boss, Mr. Halifax, came to the service. The receptionist, a secretary and a colleague from the accounting office sat near the rear of the room. There were a few neighbors and friends who stopped by and introduced themselves, offered condolences, and a woman in a navy overcoat who crept in mid-way through Reverend Keating's brief words and prayers and left without talking to Mom or any of the rest of us.
By the time I got up in the morning, a half-foot of snow blanketed the parking lot outside our door. I trudged through the snow to the office to fetch a paper and the free continental breakfast--some sad little sticky buns and watery coffee or juice.
"How's it look out there?" Mom asked me from the warmth of her bed when I returned to the room.
"Be glad you brought your boots," I told her. "Heard the high for today is only going to fifteen degrees."
She groaned and rolled over, pulling the covers tight across her neck.
"I brought you some coffee and a couple of rolls," I said, hoping she'd take the hint and get out of bed. I set them on the nightstand before slumping into a chair by the table. I did not want to spend any more of my vacation in Stillwater than I absolutely had to.
I thought of how lucky Jeannie, Jody and Janet were to be at home going to school. Then I smiled. The girls were probably thinking how lucky I was to be in Stillwater. "Jack gets to do everything," I could hear Jeannie whining to Dad on the ride back home. And Dad would calmly reply that I didn't have school today and she did. He would never say I was the oldest or I was the boy or I was somehow special. But that's what the girls thought. And I couldn't blame them.
I could tell them I didn't feel lucky if I thought they would believe me. I was stuck here with Mom. And we were about to go over to Uncle Bob's place, a place I had never been, to go through his things. "To put his affairs in order," Mom said. I hardly even knew him. And I certainly didn't know how to order his affairs.
Uncle Bob wasn't anything like Dad's brother, Phil. Phil and his family lived in Minneapolis, and we saw him all the time. We saw Uncle Bob for dinner maybe twice a year--always at a restaurant. He made no attempt to know us--could never remember Jeannie was the oldest…Janet the youngest…Jody's name at all. Always called me Jackson. Very formal. I don't think he said much else directly to me.
"Why did you name me Jackson after Uncle Bob if he didn't use that name?" I asked, hoping to keep Mom awake.
"It's my great grandmother's family's name" she replied, rolling over. "There were no boys in her family, so she named her first son Jackson to keep the name going, and I guess everyone else has done the same thing down the line." She sat up and uncapped her coffee. "Oh, this is awful," she said, making a face after swallowing some of the still steaming brew.
"There's some sugar and fake cream stuff on the tray," I said.
She doctored her coffee with both packets of sugar and one of the creams before tasting it again. She still made a face, but she left the other thimble of cream alone. "Why are you asking about your name now?"
"Just wondering," I replied. "I never did understand how Jackson went with Uncle Bob."
"His name was Jackson Robert Wyeth," Mom said. "We already had my Uncle Jack to worry about, and Dad hated Little Jack the first time he heard someone call Bob by that name, so we used his middle name almost all of his life."
I could feel her eyes on me all the time she was talking. I pretended to read the paper.
"Anything in the headlines I need to know about?" she asked.
"Nothin' that can't wait 'til after you've had a shower," I told her.
She gave me a funny look, but headed into the bathroom.
Thank God, I thought. Let's get the show on the road.
It was almost ten by the time we reached Uncle Bob's apartment. Mom opened the door and turned on the light. I stood behind her carrying cleaning supplies and large garbage bags.
It wasn't what I expected at all from my bachelor, actuary of an uncle. Newspapers and paper towels were strewn across the entryway and what could be seen of the living room. So much for what I just learned in my introductory psychology class. So much for my impressions of him from our occasional, brief visits.
"Uncle Bob lived here?" I asked, almost afraid to step into the interior of the apartment.
"Well, of course he did," Mom said. "I just used his key to open the door." But she hesitated after stepping into the small entryway.
I came into the tight square behind her and turned to follow her gaze across the littered living room to the dining alcove. "Did you know he painted?"
"No," she said in a hush of utter surprise.
I couldn't help but stare at three nudes lining the small dining alcove directly in front of us. They were larger than life. They were beautiful. They were the woman of my dreams: long, black hair falling in gentle ringlets across delicate white shoulders to the small of her back; pear-shaped breasts; full, dark lips; blue eyes that drew me closer.
"Don't touch those," Mom said from behind me.
I had crossed over to the other side of the room. I turned to look back at her. She still stood in the entryway. I turned back to the nudes, now just an arm's length away. "Isn't she beautiful?" I nearly choked. I was in such awe.
"Yes," Mom agreed, coming across the room.
And we both stood and stared.
If the roll of garbage bags hadn't fallen to the floor, the loud thud breaking the trance, I might have died there, staring at those paintings.
"Come on, Jack," Mom said, stepping toward the kitchen. "Let's get to work."
I followed her into the kitchen and set my bucket of cleaning supplies on the counter. Mom took her coat off and laid it across the back of one of the kitchen chairs. She started to make coffee. I took my jacket off, too. I edged back toward the other room.
"Stay in here for a while," Mom ordered. "You'll get plenty of chances to look at those painting again."
"I just can't believe they are out there," I told her, easing into a chair to keep myself from edging back into the other room. "Did he paint when he was a kid?"
"Never," she said, finishing the coffee. "But maybe in college...." Her voice trailed off. "He never did talk much about what he did after he went away to school. Of course, if he were doing that," she said with a wave toward the other room, "Mom would have died, and Dad would have pulled him out of school."
"But they are good paintings," I said.
"Good or not, Mom would have thought they were trash."
I hesitated before asking, "And what do you think?"
"I think they're the most beautiful paintings I've ever seen," she told me. But she seemed to be saying something else. Something like I'm wondering who my brother really was.
After pouring each of us some coffee, Mom sent me into the other room to start sorting through the mess. She told me that we would have to go to the store on our way back from lunch to buy brown paper and masking tape to wrap the paintings. I spent over an hour tossing the used and ruined supplies, salvaging what I could. I stacked smaller paintings on the dining table and chairs. The larger ones I leaned again the first of the nudes along the wall, the one holding a single, pink rose against her breasts. The blossom's delicate color was picked up in the pink of model's cheeks. Although I wasn't trying to catalog the artwork, there were at least three dozen nudes, less than a score of them of different models, the rest of the same woman in the floor-to-ceiling panels behind the dining table.
By the time I pitched all the rags and paper along with dried tubes of paint and ruined brushes, I had three large garbage bags to take to the dumpsters behind the apartments. I returned to the kitchen to refill my coffee mug and to check on Mom. She had emptied out the refrigerator, filling the kitchen wastebasket and a couple smaller trash bags. She told me to double bag what she had thrown out before I tried taking anything outside.
My next assignment was to check out the bedrooms. One bedroom served as an office, and it looked like an accountant's area. Everything was in its designated place. There was an accordion file on the desk. Multicolored file folders organized in groups alphabetically: accounts payable and accounts receivable in yellow; correspondence business, correspondence personal, correspondence urgent in blue; credit report in green; miscellaneous in red; travel in orange. A ceramic Viking mug held four pens of different colors, two number two pencils and a pen marked Liquid Erasertm. The top drawer on the left side of the desk held boxes of additional pens and other supplies, all neatly arranged. The bottom drawer held various paper supplies.
As I stood in front of the desk, my curiosity got the better of me. I reached into the personal correspondence and pulled out a single letter. It was dated about a week before my uncle died.
I started to read, knowing I shouldn't. The handwriting was delicate, with light flourishes.
I could almost see the picture, too. I wondered how much a picture like that would bring at the auction. I wondered if the same model that stood behind the dining table also suckled that lucky child.
- First things first: I can't tell you how much I appreciate your donation to the celebrity auction. The school will profit in more ways than you'll ever know. If things go as well as last year, dozens of students will be helped with the money your painting brings. Even if things go half as well, dozens of students will benefit.
- The painting has captivated me. I can't stop staring at the Mother's eyes as she gazes down at her suckling babe. I can almost feel the young boy's grip on his Mother's little finger. The play of light from the fireplace gives it a magical touch. I wish I could afford to buy this one for my own home.
I nearly dropped the letter. Uncle Bob had a son? Does Mom know? Probably not, I thought. Why isn't his son, this Jimmy, living with him?
- I hope you make it up for the auction. But, if not, I understand. I'll look for you on Christmas Eve if I don't see you on Thursday.
- Jimmy is pestering me to remind you he wants that ZOID-MELT CD-ROM he showed you. I just showed him I wrote it down. He said the two of us ought to use E-mail. But I still like writing letters rather than typing, don't you? --And now that Jimmy's left the room, don't feel you have to spend that kind of money on our son.
"Jack?" Mom asked.
"Jack?" she repeated.
I handed her the note without a word.
When she slumped into the chair, I knew she finished the paragraph about Jimmy. She looked at me and I shrugged. I didn't know what to say. She read the rest of the letter, refolded it and held it in her lap. There was a look on her face I couldn't read: pursed lips, unfocused and tearing eyes.
"Are you okay?" I asked in a hoarse whisper.
She closed her eyes when she nodded. "I was just thinking about how far we had grown apart."
- Mama asked about you the other day. You know how she does. She says you need to call her. Don't forget. So few people pay any attention to her down there at that retirement home. I tell her she can move. But she has all of her things, and it's where she and Daddy spent some really happy time. What are you going to do?
- Well, Dearest, I must bring this note to a close. I have work to do.
- Love, Mary
After lunch and a trip to the store, Mom sent me to empty out Uncle Bob's mailbox. Several envelopes fell to the floor of the mail shelter as I tugged to loosen the tightly packed box. By the time I retrieved everything, I had an armload of magazines, a week of junk mail, monthly bills and odd letters. And I still had to pick up the half dozen items on the floor--two more bills, junk mail and a letter from Mary Haskins, whose gold foil, heart-shaped return address label caught my eye.
I stuck that letter in my coat pocket.
When I dumped the mail on the kitchen table, Mom gasped, "My word."
"It won't be so bad once we dump the magazines and junk mail," I said.
"We need to go down to the post office and put in a change of address this afternoon," she said, picking up a few envelopes and staring at them.
I dragged over the plastic wastebasket and set it next to her. "Toss the junk in here," I told her as I picked up a handful of the mail, quickly picking through and finding two items worth keeping and pitching the rest. Between the two of us, we spent less than five minutes getting rid of three-quarters of his mail.
We wrapped paintings until we ran out of brown paper. By then, it was nearly four. "Why don't we go to the post office and get Bob's address changed," Mom said. "And then we can get some more supplies to start boxing things up. We'll get an early start in the morning."
"Fine with me," I replied. "I think all the paint fumes are starting to get to me."
"They're not that bad," Mom said, getting up from the table. She reached down and steadied herself. "Well, maybe they are a bit much."
While Mom took a long soak in the tub after dinner, I pulled the letter out of my coat pocket. The gold foil glinted as I turned the envelope around and looked at the address.
"Mary Haskins," I whispered. I ran my fingers over that same delicate script I had seen in her other letter. And I pictured Mary as the model for those three nudes in Uncle Bob's apartment. "Duluth," I said. And a plan to go visit the woman after I returned to St. Croix for college in the spring began to form in my mind. And, as I started to open the letter, I saw her open her door. She carried a single pink rose in her right hand. She swung it in a gentle arc toward her living room as she invited me in. When she offered to take my coat, I noticed she was as nude as the paintings. And I laughed at my own strange imaginings. I couldn't picture my Mary Haskins wearing any clothes. But I doubted she would greet me at the door so unclad.
The sound of the water draining out of the tub intruded on my thoughts. I folded the letter and stuffed it back into my coat pocket just moments before Mom came back into the room wearing her robe.
She sat down at the edge of the bed and started brushing her hair. "I'm surprised you're not watching TV," she said.
"I didn't think there was anything much on," I said.
"What are we going to do with all those paintings?"
"I don't know. Let's wait and see what the lawyer says next week before we worry about what we'll do with any of Bob's things, Honey. We don't have to rush into anything."
"It's just that there are so many?"
"Well, let's not worry about any of it until tomorrow morning, anyway," she said. "I'm tired--too tired to think about what to do about anything."
- I'm at the hospital having a rotten day and I just have to tell somebody about it!
- Mama's sick. She was rushed to the emergency room this afternoon and I was out with a client and didn't know anything about it until after four. The doctor thinks she had a bad reaction to a new pain medication he gave her. He thinks she'll be fine in a few days, but she looks so frail in bed. I wish you were here right now. I really need someone's shoulder to lean on.
- I talked to her yesterday, and she was fine. We were supposed to have dinner out tomorrow and then she was going to come and stay with me for the holidays.
- I know if you were here that you would tell me everything is going to be all right. You would say that as soon as Mama is released from the hospital that I can take her back to my place and the holiday will go as planned. And I know it's probably true. But I've never seen Mama like this. And for the first time, I find myself wondering what I'll do when she's gone.
- I'm so glad that I can count on you.
- Sorry you missed the auction. I'll write you a long letter with all the details soon.
- Love, Mary
I collected the mail from our mailbox at the end of the block, and stood by the metal warren idly sorting through it. The sun sparkled off the gold return address label from Mary. The same delicate swirls that spelled out my Uncle's name, Jackson R. Wyeth, now spelled out my mother's name, Mrs. Edwin D. Broward.
I was tempted to stuff the letter into my pocket. Mom hadn't mentioned the first letter, and I didn't show her the second. As I stood there debating what to do, Janet came out of no where and pulled the letters out of my hands.
"Can't you walk and sort at the same time," she teased.
"Guess not," I said, grabbing for the mail.
She ducked out of reach and ran laughing back toward the house. I would have given chase, except that I still had to close and lock our mail slot. By the time I got back into the house, Mom already had her mail, as did everyone else. She was sitting at the dining room table. She was saying something to Janet about her going out for the night. Her left hand pressed down on Mary's letter. Her thumb ran back and forth across the hand-written name and address.
I went into the kitchen and got myself some coffee. "Anybody want coffee?" I yelled toward the doorway into the dining room. "Mom?"
"Yes, Honey," she called back. "I'll take some. But just a half-a-cup."
I mixed in some milk and sugar and brought her coffee to her.
I sat across from her at the table, sipping my black coffee, pretending to read the front page of the paper, and keeping my eyes on her. It was odd to watch her open up first one piece of mail and then another, all the while holding Mary's letter in place with her left hand. She slid each item under the thumb of her left hand, and then used the handle from the spoon of her coffee to slide under the flap and unseal it. A few late Christmas cards went into one stack. A few bills went into another. Several circulars and other unwanted items went into a third, larger pile.
Soon there was nothing left to open. There was nothing left to sort through. Except Mary's letter.
Mom sipped her coffee. She restacked the three piles of mail.
"More coffee?" I asked when I couldn't sit and watch and wait a moment longer.
Mom fumbled with her cup, sloshing a little coffee onto the tablecloth.
"Maybe you don't need any more coffee," I said, and I tried to laugh. But it was too forced. And Mom gave me an odd look.
"Are you ever going to open it?" I asked after another long moment of inactivity.
"You do it," she said thirty-one heart beats later. "I don't think I can."
When I finished the letter, I folded it up and put it back in the envelope. I didn't say anything for a long time. But mother was more patient than I had been. She waited for me to collect my thoughts.
"I wish I had gotten to know him," I finally told Mom.
"I wish we hadn't grown so far apart," she replied, her voice husky. She coughed. "Anything I need to know?"
"She gave us the name and number for his lawyer."
Mom waited. I debated about what else to say. "Not much else that can't wait until you feel like reading it yourself," I said, chickening out.
"But it was a four page letter," Mom said.
"I know…." I let the statement hang between us like a wall. When Mom looked away, I got up from the table, leaving the letter behind.
Dear Mrs. Broward,
- I want to offer my sincere condolences. Your brother was a very special person. And I know there is nothing I can say that can make your pain go away.
- I want to apologize for not talking to you on the day of the funeral. I don't know why I was so afraid to walk up to you. But I was. And so I didn't. I told myself I didn't want to intrude. But that was just a rationalization. As would any other excuse I could offer.
- I spoke with Jack's lawyer, Randolph Caniglia, the other day. I didn't know if you even knew who his lawyer was. He said he would contact you after the holidays about Jack's will. He also said he would be happy to handle the probate if you wanted him to, but he would understand if you wanted to use someone else's services. If you want to talk to him, he said you could call him at home. He lives in Stillwater. His number is 555-8793.
- This letter is harder to write than I thought. I have so many things I want to say, and I don't know where to start. And I don't even know why I am putting these sentences into this letter. I just hope it will all make sense when I am finished with it. Please bear with me and forgive me, Mrs. Broward.
- Let me start by saying I know that Jack was a very private person. So, there are likely to be things about him that you will be learning for the first time as you work your way through his affairs. Jack never really explained why he did the things he did to me, except to say, "No one would understand." I tried to get more out of him once or twice, but he just stopped talking altogether.
- One of the things I do know is that my son, Jimmy, is mentioned in Jack's will. Jack told me about it a couple of months back. I told him he didn't need to do that. He said it was something he wanted to do. Now, Jack and I called Jimmy our son, but he wasn't Jack's child.
- Maybe I need to back up a little further. Jack and I met at St. Croix College. He was taking some art classes, and I was modeling for the students. I was modeling to make a little extra cash. But my real goal was to run an art gallery. And, from what I saw of Jack's paintings, he had real talent. So, I struck up a conversation with him after class one night, told him what I wanted to do and what I thought of his paintings. We became friends. But I don't think Jack believed I would ever have an art gallery, much less that I would be selling his paintings in it one day.
- To make a long story short, after the class was over, I moved to Duluth and I didn't see Jack for several years. I got married and a few years later gave birth to Jimmy. Shortly after Jimmy was born, my husband was called back into active duty by the Marines and headed over to the Gulf. He was one of the soldiers killed in that barracks accident.
- A day after the accident, I found myself in front of TV cameras talking about how I felt about my husband's death. I remember not wanting to be there. I don't remember feeling anything at the time. Even now, it's hard to believe that he's dead and harder to accept the way he died. But back then about all I did was cry. And that image of me was broadcast everywhere.
- The only good thing to come of it was that Jack saw me on TV and tracked me down. With his help, I was able to get my gallery open. For a while, I really only had his paintings to sell. And, as times were tough, most of the paintings were of me.
- Not only did Jack help me get on my feet, but he has also been wonderful for Jimmy. He's filled in as "dad" on a number of occasions. He was probably closer to Jimmy than he was to anyone else in the world.
- I'm really not sure I should be telling you any of this. I don't know whether it will help you or not. I probably won't even mail the letter. If I do mail it, please understand I am not trying to hurt you. I am only trying to help you understand who Jack really was.
- When my mother had her stroke just over a year ago, Jack was the person I turned to for help. Jack helped her find a really nice place. (She didn't want to live with me, and she didn’t want to live in Duluth, either, although I tried to insist. Jack listened to my mother and ignored me and the two of them agreed that St. Paul was the best place for her.) Jack helped me sell mother's home and the furniture she couldn't use. And he helped me accept mother's need for independence. I don't think I could have made it through that transition without Jack's help. I don't know what I'll do when I hit my next crisis and I have to go it alone.
- Please feel free to call on me anytime. The gallery has an 800 number, which is answered by a service. So, if you need me, I will call you right back.
- Love, Mary
That night, I dreamt of meeting Mary once again. It was a sunny day. I walked up to her door and knocked. And waited. I could hear the television inside. It sounded like the "Bald Mountain" section of Fantasia. When the door opened, the nude carrying the single rose was replaced by a woman in a navy overcoat.
"Jack," she said. "I've been waiting for you."
I didn't reply. What should I say?
"Your uncle thought you would be the one to come to me. He knew your mother would never understand."
I followed her into the house. The entire back, windowless wall of the living room was painted with nude cherubs frolicking among the clouds. Across the room, Jimmy watched TV.
"This is Jack's nephew," she told her son. "His name is Jack, too."
"Did you bring me the ZOID-MELT CD-ROM? Jack promised to get it for me."
I stared at Mary.
Mary smiled at her son. Then she turned back to me. "Are you ready to start?" she asked. Then she sensed that I was confused. "Follow me," she said. "I have everything set up in the bedroom." As I trailed behind her, I noticed her fumbling with the buttons of her coat. And, as soon as she stepped into the room, she threw the coat aside. She was naked.
And then I woke up. Again, I had to laugh to myself. What a fantasy. I resolved that I would not go to see her when I got back to school. How could the meeting go but badly--at least a disappointment in comparison to my fantasy.
I asked Mom if she were going to call Mary or at least write her.
I was stunned when she told me she already had talked to Mary. And that Mary and Jimmy were coming here after she brought her mother back to the nursing home tomorrow.
"When…?" I stammered.
"I read the letter a little while after you left the dining room. And I called Mary a little after that."
"What wow?" Mom asked.
"I just didn't expect it to happen so fast, I guess." Then, after a moment, I added, "I guess I never really expected you to meet her."
Mom gave me another of her famous off looks.
"I just…. I don't know…. It's…." I started to say something several different ways, but I couldn't get anything organized enough to come out.
"You didn't think I would want to know?"
"I understand," she said a moment later. "At least I think I understand why you might think that." She paused, brushed a stray curl off her forehead. "But I have to know."