Measure of a Man
My Uncle Fred was born in 1925, so most of his youth was spent during the Great Depression. Because catching a rare insect was much more appealing to him than receiving a new baseball glove, I'm not sure how much of an impact the Depression had on him. In fact, he might have had his own little depression going anyway, since his father adored both baseball and his beautiful daughter (who would one day become my mother) and had no interest whatsoever in bug collecting or, apparently, his son.
Nevertheless, between the insects, the Depression and the over-arching influence of his idol, Henry David Thoreau, my Uncle has always been perceived as "eccentric." His eccentricities ranged from covering his food with a layer of salt so dense that everything on his plate turned white, to his lifelong frugality. The acquisition of material things was simply unimportant to him. A couch was a couch. If you could sit on it, it didn't matter that it was old. If you could zip up the pants, it didn't matter if they were in style. He believed, like Thoreau, that "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone." (Since everyone else in my family was positive that they were rich in direct proportion to the number of things they could acquire, Fred's eccentricity was never questioned.)
He led a life many would consider mundane. Married to the same woman for forty years, fathered a son and a daughter. He lives today in the same house they bought when they first moved to California in the early sixties. He's retired now, but for as long as I can remember he was an English professor. Taught at Long Beach State College. There may have been a time when he aspired to something more prestigious, the Ivy League perhaps, but I don't think so. Maybe he wanted to publish more, but I doubt it. He seemed content, and not at all cut out for the pressures of a more competitive environment. He liked the magic of reaching a student. When I was a child, he taught me a poem he was teaching to his Freshman English class:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends
It gives a lovely light!
He asked if I could tell him what I thought it meant, and I said I thought it was about someone dying, after a life well-lived. I remember he complimented me on my interpretation. I have always loved that poem.
He and his wife, Leona, liked to travel. When their two children were young, they took road trip vacations, stopping at every out-of-the-way museum along the blue highways, really seeing America. Once they were on their own, they saw more of the world than most could ever dream of, including Russia, China, India, Egypt. In keeping with his style, however, their traveling was not what one could call luxurious. Often they stayed in discount hotels, and traveled with elder hostel groups. Nonetheless, he was an eager and highly observant traveler, and after each trip, he composed, in his trademark green ink, a lengthy and quite detailed account of all that they had seen and done. Many complained about having to wade through these twenty-page, tightly spaced letters. I found them fascinating, filled with geography, history, and philosophy.
He and Leona had one great tragedy in their lives. In fact, it is the greatest of all tragedies. While their son Charles was away at college, he got sick. Although it didn't appear to be anything serious, they decided to fly out to visit him. He died, suddenly, inexplicably, while they were on the plane to St. Louis. I have never known how they dealt with this great sadness between themselves. All I know is what my Uncle did. He wrote about Charles. Paid tribute to his life. No hyperbole, no sentimentality; he just shared with us all who Charles had been. He never expressed bitterness or anger. That was how I learned that bad things happen to good people. He taught me that.
When I moved from New York to California, he was my only relative out here for a long time, so I found myself driving down to Long Beach for an occasional visit. I loved those visits, probably more than he ever realized. While Leona stayed somewhat in the background, generally cooking and serving us dinner, my Uncle and I remained engrossed in conversation. The topics ranged from the personal to the political. He had strong, well-formed opinions about almost everything, but always demonstrated such a keen interest in everything I said; he asked probing questions, listened intently to my answers, and laughed at my jokes. I drove home basking in the glow of his undivided attention.
Leona was a nurse. She had a good heart and a good soul, but she was also, for lack of a better word, a nag. She kept a fastidious home, worked hard at her job and her life, all the while badgering him relentlessly. "Fred, do this. Don't do that. Fred, eat this. Don't eat that. Pick that up. Put that away. Get rid of that junk!" It was a running commentary, but it never seemed to bother him. It's not that he ignored her; a part of him just "left." He had a place he went to in his mind; I could tell. Maybe it was Walden's Pond.
There was another side to Leona, though, that I learned to revere. At some point in her life she got cancer: the agonizing, debilitating, long-lasting kind. It went on for months and months, maybe years. I have never known for sure, because she was courageous beyond belief. She endured pain that no person should be forced to endure. She did it quietly; denying it the power to humiliate her. And my Uncle was by her side through it all. He was loyal, protective, kind. He respected her need to maintain her dignity; he gave her that gift with love.
After she died, however, Fred stopped picking things up. In fact, he never picked up another magazine, letter, flyer, brochure, or newspaper again. He lives amidst his paper-strewn clutter in total serenity. He adopted two cats. He became a health nut, and is addicted to working out. At seventy-five he is in better shape than most forty-year olds. And he decided he'd traveled enough.
When we moved my mother out to California ten years ago, she kind of "reclaimed" her brother, speaking to him often on the phone and visiting with him and Leona. In reality, brother and sister had very little in common and, needless to say, in Leona's eyes my mother was simply an extremely spoiled woman, having been both a pampered daughter and a pampered wife. Yet, after Leona died, it was my Uncle who supplemented my mother's monthly fixed income. I never knew how much he gave her until much later, right before she died, and when I found out I was astonished. This man, to whom frugality was a religion, gave my mother, who found joy in acquiring things, enough money so that she could buy herself those "things." Extraneous things he himself would have scorned, but that he knew would bring added pleasure to her life.
I remember he had once told me that he always earmarked the first 10% of his earnings for charity and the second 10% for savings. Might have been the other way around, but at the time I was so intrigued by the concept that the order didn't much matter. But the practice obviously mattered a great deal, because my Uncle is now a wealthy man. What is more incredible, however, is that he is also an extremely generous man. And, as demonstrated with my mother, his generosity is both overwhelming and non-judgmental.
There came a time when I experienced that generosity myself. There have only
been two occasions in my life that I seriously considered asking someone for
financial help. The first time it did not occur to me to turn to my Uncle;
it would have been too presumptuous. He wasn't my parent; he owed me nothing.
When I finally did ask him, as a sort of crazy, last ditch effort, he said
yes, without hesitation, like some sort of miracle. At least, it felt like
a miracle to me.
The second time I needed money I was too embarrassed to ask him again. But I
never had to; he offered. Salvation, in the form of Uncle Fred.
When I asked him how he could possibly be so generous, he answered, "because if I knew I could help, and didn't, I couldn't live with myself". I'm sure he knows how eternally grateful I am. I'm sure he knows how much I love him. But I'm not sure if he knows that his magnificently generous spirit blows my breath away.
And if I could tell him that, and didn't, I couldn't live with myself.
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