We were laughing in the snow. Tossing snowballs at each other in front of our house in Canarsie. Sliding around on the snow-covered walkway and driveway, enjoying the horseplay. The way I remember it, my brothers, Uncle Mike and maybe my cousins, Laurie and Ira were there. But, I may be remembering a photograph of us in the snow from a different time. This is clear: I felt a cold snowball smushed into my nose and mouth. Uncle Mike suddenly had me in a headlock and had a mound of snow that he was pushing into my face. I twisted and squirmed to get away. Just as suddenly he let me go. I was shocked. I didn’t know where that came from. It would be some years later, but I would come to understand.
It seems to me that a significant part of life is luck. The family you are born into, the time and place, the particular constellation of genes that you inherit are all out of your control. That isn’t to say a person can’t overcome a bad hand or those disadvantages mean a life won’t have joy and accomplishment. But some people seem to be blessed with a life of mostly sunny skies, and others not so much. Uncle Mike, my mother’s younger brother, fell into the latter category.
From the get go Uncle Mike couldn’t catch a break. He was born with a digestive problem that required that he go to the pediatrician’s office regularly for an injection. According to the story my mom told me, she would take Mike in his carriage to the doctor’s office. When he realized where they were going he would start to cry. Mom, not knowing what to do, would mislead him into thinking they were going somewhere else. She felt guilty about this and carries the weight of that to this day.
Despite the health issues, Uncle Mike grew to be a big man, around 6’3”. He struggled mightily with his weight. Obesity runs in our family and at various points Uncle Mike was morbidly obese. Some big men have a toughness about them, or are a presence in a room. That was not Uncle Mike. He was good-natured and he had a softness that wasn’t just physical. He had many friends, but was also the target of bullies. He carried the scars of low self-esteem.
Uncle Mike was 13 years younger than my mother, 13 years older than me. He lived upstairs with my grandparents while I was growing up. He graduated from high school but didn’t get a college degree. He was smart, but he didn’t pursue higher education. In contrast, each of his three siblings earned graduate degrees. For a number of years he drove a truck delivering bakery goods in the city (for the same commercial bakery where my grandfather worked). He frequently worked nights and slept during the day. I was careful not to wake him.
Uncle Mike was fastidious and had no tolerance for anyone who was ill-mannered. Chewing with your mouth open was a favorite target of a zinger. If he heard me chewing gum, he let me know about it. “What are you, Elsie?” his voice dripping with sarcasm, referring of course to the cow, followed immediately by the reminder, “Chew with your mouth closed!” Actually, it was a good lesson – perhaps it could have been delivered more kindly.
An important part of our family life was sports and Uncle Mike was no exception. He was a fan and he participated, playing football and softball with his friends. Uncle Mike was a Jets and Mets fan. My mother and her two brothers had season tickets to the Jet games at Shea Stadium. One more piece of evidence that my family was a little unusual – my father didn’t go to the games, my mother did!
My brothers and I relished watching Met games with him in his bedroom. He would have the air conditioner cranked to meat locker temperature – it felt great since the rest of the house was usually stifling. He provided funny commentary about the lovable losers. He always identified with the underdog. He hated the Yankees, which was the team I favored, though I did it quietly. He loved the movie “Rocky.”
He had a loyal group of friends who visited the house often. I grew up knowing his buddies: Alfred, Philly, Walter and Barry. I was the official scorer at their softball games. I went with Uncle Mike to Staten Island where they played and kept the scorebook for them. While I would have preferred to play, it was fun being there and I learned some colorful language, too.
During my later teen years, Uncle Mike made a concerted, successful effort to lose weight. He moved into his own apartment. I remember going with him to shop for new jeans. He was looking forward to going out on a date and we picked out some sharp clothes.
Uncle Mike was trying to turn his life around. Though in that day and age, it wasn’t spoken of, I believe he sought help through therapy. I remember my dad saying that if emotional issues got in the way of your day-to-day life, and you weren’t able to be happy, it was time to seek help. I think he said that in the context of Uncle Mike, but I’m a little fuzzy on that. Either way, I took that message to heart.
It was around that time that Uncle Mike apologized to me. The way I remember it, we were riding in his car to Aunt Simma’s for dinner. He said he was sorry for teasing me so much when I was younger and for giving me such a hard time. I didn’t know what to say, I was so surprised. He went on to explain that he resented my relationship with Nana, his mom, and took it out on me. I accepted his apology and told him it was okay.
I didn’t fully appreciate his gesture until I became an adult. The courage it took to be that honest with me. In so many ways life wasn’t kind to him. His marriage didn’t work out and as a result he was separated from his son, various business ventures fell apart, his health deteriorated, diabetes ravaged him.
Uncle Mike was living in Zada’s apartment in Century Village West Palm Beach when Gary, my husband, and I went to visit him somewhere around 2002 or 2003. At this point his eyesight had deteriorated so that he couldn’t drive and he had parts of his toes amputated because of diabetes. We chatted in his apartment before going to lunch. Uncle Mike wanted to give us a gift. He looked around the apartment, knowing Gary was a huge Met fan. He picked up his mousepad with a giant Met logo in the middle. He insisted Gary take it. Gary was reluctant, but understanding that Mike wanted to make the gesture, he took it.
Through it all he remained good-natured, he enjoyed a good meal, loved movies and telling stories, rooting for the Mets, seeing family and friends. Uncle Mike died of complications of diabetes when he was 58 years old in 2005.