The year was 1988. It was Tuesday, November 29, five days after Thanksgiving, a gray but unseasonably warm day, when, early in the morning, I got the call from my sister....
Mom was always a very active, energetic woman, who would rather take charge to get something done than wait for others to do it. Authoritative and demanding, she was also kind and generous and helpful.
When my father got sick, she took over the breadwinners role as well. She got a job and, in typical fashion for her, was in a management position within the year. When my father died too young at age 58, she didn’t collapse under an overload of grief, but took charge and moved on. Within a couple years she had found a new husband and had started on the next phase of her life.
Resourceful and creative, she could throw a meal together whenever any of us stopped by unexpectedly, and do so without fanfare or complaint. She loved having her kids, my two sisters and me, and grandkids around, and, I’m sure, wished we would be there more often. But, as kids tend to do, we took her for granted most of the time, assuming that she would always be there for us to take advantage of her.
When her second husband died, she found herself more and more involved with a group of friends, widows all, who shared her love of fun and adventure. She, and they, took advantage of their new freedom to travel and party as only a group of Golden Girls, as they liked to call themselves, could do. It was on a Golden Girls field trip to New England in the Fall to see the colors nature bestows on us each year, that she first complained of a persistent pain in her abdomen.
She was a consistently religious person throughout her life, spiritual in a practical way. Her Catholicism was a lifestyle that she lived without reservation. Throughout her life, whenever troubles invaded her and her family’s life, she would insist that God would not give her anything she couldn’t handle. And so she handled all the crises that came along, secure in the knowledge that, though she was being tested, she would eventually take care of the problem and move on. But colon cancer was the one crisis she was unable to overcome. Still, she handled it, convinced that it was just one more test she had to go through to prove to God that she was worthy of His attention.
Colon cancer is an insidious, virolent tyrant that shows no mercy to its victims. After two years of radiation and chemotherapy, the tyrant left my once robust, active mother a mere shell of the person she once was physically. Her spirit never diminished, though. She was right when she claimed that God knew she could handle it, because she did, uncomplaining throughout the whole ordeal.
Thanksgiving in 1988 was on November 24th. For every Thanksgiving I can remember, the whole family, including aunts and uncles, inlaws, and other extended family, would gather at Mom’s house for the usual celebration. But that year, the hostess duties were assumed by my sister, Carol. Mom was there, of course. but she was not at the table. She was bedridden, mostly comotose from morphine, in an upstairs bedroom at my sister’s house. Carol had insisted that Mom stay at her house under her care, rather than languishing alone in a hospital or hospice, for what we all knew would be the last few months of her life. Carol cared for her as only a daughter can.
That Thanksgiving Day we each took a turn sitting with Mom, talking to her, trying to keep her comfortable, and just letting her know we were there. Though Mom seemed unaware due to the morphine induced coma, we all knew she could hear us and would know she was still part of the holiday.
Included at that Thanksgiving dinner were Uncle Eddie and Aunt Franny, my father’s brother and his wife. Uncle Eddie was considered somthing of an eccentric and Aunt Frannie was close behind. Uncle Eddie’s given name was Edward. His brother, my father, was named Edmund. Their mother obviously liked the name Eddie. Maybe that’s where some of the eccentricity came from.
They had no children of their own, but doted on all their nieces and nephews. Always included in family gatherings, they would be there, except at those times when they were hunting or fishing, which was an almost constant activity for them. They were the owners and operators of a metal salvage company called Eddie’s Jalopy Jungle. They were junk dealers. And it made them rich. Not that you would ever know that by looking at them or talking to them.
Uncle Eddie was known throughout the area, being seen most often in his truck hauling a wrecked car to his junkyard, accompanied by at least one of his dogs. There were two things that Uncle Eddie was usually seen with: his dog and his fedora. I remember seeing him many times without his dog. After all, he usually wouldn’t bring Bowser (all his dogs through the years were named Bowser, sometimes two at a time) to all the family gatherings. But I never, ever, saw him without his hat on his head. To this day I don’t know if he had a full head of hair or was bald. The only concession he would make to good manners when inside with his hat on would be to push it back on his head, exposing more of his brow. That’s as close as he got to ever taking it off. There were family rumors that he even slept with it on, though that was never actually substantiated.
That fedora would change colors depending on what he was wearing below his head. At family get-togethers on the formal holidays of the year, he would always show up in a suit, either brown or gray, with a plaid flannel shirt buttoned at the neck. No tie. Buttoning his shirt at the neck was as dressy as he was capable of being. The hat would match the suit. The suit jacket was never buttoned, always open, to allow his substantial pot belly the freedom it needed.
Uncle Eddie’s fedora was as much a part of his personality as his twinkling eyes and ready laugh and raspy voice. When he was telling a story the hat would slide rakishly to one side, or tilt down over his eyes, or sit squarely on his head, all depending on the nature of his narrative or mood.
His dog or dogs (they came and went with regularity) were his constant companions as he wandered around his junk yard or drove around town in his truck. No one knows where his dogs came from. Whether he found them or they found him doesn’t really matter. The one constant among all his dogs was their mongrel ancestry. After all, what purebred dog would want to be a junkyard dog? He was known for stopping at the local diners for lunch, bringing Bowser into the diner with him, and ordering a steak sandwich for himself and one for the dog, who obediently would sit at his side while they both went about enjoying their lunch. That the operators of the diners would allow that was testimony to Uncle Eddie’s popularity in town and how people genuinely liked him.
Aunt Frannie (she preferred Frances) was a throwback to the forties and fifties. She never seemed quite comfortable with change, and so she wore the same tightly curled hairdo all her life, wore the same fashions she wore as a school girl, and always appeared with the tightly controlled, well-mannered demeanor of a proper lady. That ladylike appearance might be dfficult to see when you encountered her in the junkyard working alongside her husband. Then she would be dressed in heavy woolen pants, hightop work boots, and a ratty sweater or two under a coarse canvas man’s work jacket, and as often as not, a grease stained baseball cap of indeterminate origin hiding those tight curls. But even then, she was a lady underneath the disguise.
Uncle Eddie and Aunt Frannie were inseparable throughout theirs lives and it is nearly impossible to think of one without thinking of the other. Still now, 18 years after that Thanksgiving of 1988, for the most awful reason, we especially think of them together.