My Uncle Jerry was never really my uncle. He was one of many individuals — like Uncle Vaughn and Aunt Patsy, Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Nigel — upon whom my brother and I bestowed that deferential title.
Growing up in the Caribbean, it was customary to refer to our parents’ friends as kin, if only out of respect for our elders.
So when we moved to the U.S., we gained more aunts and uncles through the alliances my parents forged. Uncle Jerry was one of them. He and his wife, Beverly, were among the first friends they made when we settled in Delaware County, and I can remember many afternoons spent at their house in Glen Mills, sitting outside on the deck or in the cozy living room, while Uncle Jerry, ever the gourmand, whipped up a feast in the kitchen.
He was a teacher and one of the most well-read, intelligent men I knew. But while his wealth of knowledge was staggering, more memorable to me was his inherent politeness and dignity.
Uncle Jerry always had a story, whether it was about one of his many trips to Canada, the kids at school, his passion for jazz or the old Porsche 914 he was forever tinkering with in his garage. At the open houses he held every year around Christmas, after he got divorced, he would practically rhapsodize about the variety of quiches he’d create — alongside his famous cranberry bread — and, as he became more of a wine connoisseur, eagerly tout his newest and favorite discoveries.
During my adolescent and teen years, he was very much a part of our lives, there not only at holidays and family get-togethers but school events, too. He was proud of my brother and me and was always eager to talk journalism once I graduated from college.
But in the years since, as I got older and busier with my life, Uncle Jerry was not someone I often thought about. I saw him sometimes, perhaps once a year, and he and my mom always exchanged Christmas cards. But I no longer made the effort to attend his holiday open house and didn’t miss them when he stopped holding them a few years ago. My last news of Uncle Jerry came in 2012 when my brother visited him after my dad died, since my father had stayed with Uncle Jerry for a time after my parents separated before moving back to St. Lucia.
My brother reported he’d been visibly stunned to learn of his passing but they’d been happy to see each other and had a good conversation that day. I thought, at some point, I will visit him, too. But I never did, which made my mom’s phone call a few weeks ago even more crushing.
Uncle Jerry died in January. He was only 70. His parents, whom we also knew and visited several times in the days when my family was learning to navigate our life on these shores, both survived him. My mom only found out through a casual comment made by another friend, and when she called to tell me, her voice was laced with all the shock, confusion and regret I would also feel.
Was he sick? Had he been keeping an illness to himself? Was it sudden? Did he die alone?
We are still without answers to any of these questions, as we have no way of reaching his parents (save a card my mom sent to them via the funeral home), and the friends we have in common — those who embraced him because of his presence in our lives — are just as bewildered.
The news of Uncle Jerry’s death has disturbed me more than I care to admit. Of course, I wish I’d gone to see him, that I’d invested in his life as he once did in mine, that my growing up had not meant growing so very far apart. The circumstances, I know, aren’t that unusual. As children, there can be many who enter our lives, often through our parents, whose impact feels more significant, and sometimes even vital, at that age. Then as our own social sphere expands and we begin to make our way independently in the world, it can be easy to forget they were part of the village that helped us get where we are.
Over the years, I’ve often thought of Mrs. Jones, the adviser of my middle school newspaper club, without whose enthusiasm and influence I may never have become a journalist. She got me, and two friends, interested in the club in sixth grade. While they both went on to other endeavors, I kept writing through high school and college, where I majored in journalism. Yet though Mrs. Jones lived for many years a few houses down from one of my dearest friends, I never took the chance to visit her, to tell her how much I appreciated the way she nurtured my gift for writing at such an early age. I’ve always regretted not keeping her apprised of my career, as I know she would have rejoiced in witnessing my progress.
Last year, around the holidays, I called Uncle Ed and Aunt Mercedes, beloved friends in our early American tribe, who were there for everything from dinners at our house to my high school graduation. Uncle Ed had remained one of my dad’s closest friends over the years, and the warmth and gratitude in their voices to hear from me when I called to share his passing was balm for my aching heart. Uncle Ed wanted to know everything about my career and my writing and Aunt Mercedes regaled me with stories of the choirs with which we sang. We promised we’d get together after the holidays, with my mom and brother, too.
A year later, we still haven’t seen each other, but with Uncle Jerry gone so unexpectedly, visiting them is a priority. I don’t want any more regrets, and I don’t want to miss another chance to express my appreciation for how they buoyed and built me up at my most impressionable — generous lights and role models on a path that’s been shaped by their gifts.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times