My uncle Elmer came from a farm in Missouri. His face and hands were big, square and red. Before entering the army, he married my mother’s twin – Muriel Lorene, my aunt who was opposite to my mother and who feared Mexicans, African-Americans and people with too much money. Immediately after they married, they took a train from their tiny hamlet in northern Missouri to Santa Monica where my mother and father had come their own individual ways, danced every Friday evening at the Santa Monica Pier for 8 weeks, and also married.
As a child I remember that my uncle was silent most of the time, while my father bit his pipe and spoke his opinions loudly about the government, especially the President, and his unwavering support of the UCLA Bruins basketball team. Before I was old enough to go to school, my uncle would call me over as he sat on our long sofa with its design of leaves and begonias in orange and gold, and lean his can of beer towards me, a Schlitz tall, offering a sip. I always took it even if I didn’t like the bitter taste but I relished in the white foam. It pleased him so much, and he would chuckle and smile.
Later this good uncle, I would learn, killed neighborhood cats. I only guessed at how he did it – strangling them with his big hands, or covering their heads with plastic bags and tying them tight, or hitting them senseless with a rock or hammer, or maybe using poison from the garden shop. I don’t know why he did this. He seemed so settled and calm, and he was most often kind to me.
My aunt Lorene was terrified of cats, not with dislike or disdain or because she favored dogs, but because they did terrify her. At the sight of one, her round blue eyes would get rounder and she would start to shake. She wasn’t afraid of anything else I know, except Mexicans, African-Americans and people with too much money, though maybe she was afraid of my uncle too. She would come to our house sometimes alone, and fiercely whisper with my mother in the kitchen, dabbing at the blue bruise beneath her eye or on her cheek. Perhaps the cat killings were a way my reticent, silent uncle showed he loved her in between the beatings.
For a long time I never thought much about my Aunt Lorene or my Uncle Elmer except that they were always present every Sunday and at holiday dinners. I wondered why they didn’t have children of their own, why they lived in an apartment and not a house, and why my aunt worked at a job in the aerospace industry while my mother didn’t. On Christmas my two older brothers and I moved greedily through the gifts under the fragrant, bright tree to finally come to the small gift they gave each of us every year. Though we pretended not to look between the pair of new socks, or along the sides of the cardboard box containing a small bottle of child’s perfume, we eventually found the single $20 bill hidden there. Such generosity shone brilliantly in our modest, tense home.
Many years later when I lived in New York, my aunt was diagnosed with uterine cancer. I went to visit and was surprised by her translucent skin and a quietness so unlike her. We sat next to each other the whole visit not saying much, glancing at each other at the same time with a smile or a touch on the arm. When she died, my uncle fell apart. I went to see him often from West Torrance where I’d come to live for a time. I drove along the intersecting freeways, overpasses and underpasses to their home in Hemet, two hours away. I drove past the golf courses and sandy colored buildings, the convenience stores and the shining asphalt parking lots, the retirement homes with congenial names like Sunrise Homes, Diamond Valley and Panorama Village. They had chosen to live at the Seven Hills Golf Community. I knew I was half way there when I passed the local market with the plaster Holstein cow perched on top of its roof.
My uncle wept openly with me about his loneliness at Lorene’s dying. As we made our way to a local restaurant for lunch, he would grip the wheel of his big luxury Pontiac and his face would turn shades of red as tears fell down his face onto his shirt. His eyes looked wildly from side to side, lost in a new world.
Within a year he met a new woman, Virginia from Tennessee, during a social at their community center. Though they never married because she felt she couldn’t in deference to Lorene, they lived together in his big, tidy house along with her Yorkshire Terrier. My uncle came to adore this dog. As I sat on another comfortable, flowered couch, now in a living room with high ceilings and windows overlooking a golf course and letting in the bright desert light, he would toss a small toy or ball again and again for the terrier to retrieve in between sips of his beer. Then gently picking up the tiny dog, he would kiss her and lovingly fuss with the tiny bow which kept a tussle of her golden hair in a ponytail on the top of her head.