Uncle Joe’s Goodbye
I had never been to a wake before Uncle Joe’s car accident. When Memere died two years earlier, Momma said I was too young to go to the funeral parlor, but now that I’m ten, they must figure that I’m grown up enough to handle it. Momma tried to prepare me by telling me that Uncle Joe would look like he was sleeping, like he was finally at peace. That seemed important to Momma, wanting to believe that Uncle Joe was at peace.
Back when I was too young to go to funerals, Daddy would take us to Uncle Joe’s house every other Sunday to visit Memere. Daddy told me that when Uncle Joe was in the war, he promised God that if he ever got back home, he’d take care of his mother for the rest of her life, and that’s what he did. Daddy was still in high school when Uncle Joe came home. He said those first few years were rough, but never said why. After Daddy left for college, Uncle Joe sold the big house and bought a small one for himself and Memere. Even though Memere lived to be eighty years old, Uncle Joe kept his promise and took care of her the whole time.
Memere spoke only French, so I never understood anything she and Momma and Daddy talked about during our visits. I didn’t say much, not knowing how to speak French. Uncle Joe spoke French, but he never contributed much to the conversation either. It was like he knew that Momma and Daddy weren’t there to see him and so he kept to his chair in the corner, smoking his pipe with Dolly, Memere’s Boston Terrier, warming his feet. I could tell that Momma would sometimes try to include Uncle Joe in the conversation, but neither Uncle Joe nor Daddy seemed to put much effort into helping her with that.
I wasn’t as good with my manners back then, and I would sometimes just sit and stare at Uncle Joe. He was a burly man, short and stout like the teapot. He didn’t have too much hair on the top of his head, but he had white, fluffy eyebrows, a few little white curls that poked out of the neck of his flannel shirt, and white stubble on his cheeks and chin. He didn’t seem to mind my eyes on him. We were the only two in the room not talking, so we were kind of sharing the silence between us. Every now and again he’d throw me a wink. Sometimes, when he was lighting his pipe and the flame from his match would burn close to his fingertips, the fear on my face would make him laugh out loud. And at the end of each visit, we’d close any gap between us with our goodbye game.
The game went like this: when Momma finally said it was time to go, Uncle Joe would lean forward in his chair, turn toward me, and open his arms wide. I’d stare him down as I inched inside his circle. I could feel the tension mounting, like when the roller coaster nears the top of the first drop. Dolly would turn her body in tight little circles, her claws clicking on the linoleum. Uncle Joe would wait until Dolly finally stopped moving and everything got so quiet that the ticking of the clock sounded loud. Then he’d swoop his arms around me and growl, crushing me gently against his chest. I’d giggle and Dolly would bark, jumping up against the backs of my legs, making me giggle all the more. There’d be growling and giggling and barking until Daddy put a stop to it, reminding us that Momma had said it was time to go. Uncle Joe would give me one last squeeze before sending me on my way. Even though Uncle Joe and I hadn’t been able to carry on a conversation, I felt like we understood one another pretty well.
We went to see Uncle Joe only once after Memere died. Momma and Daddy had argued about going, but when Momma heard that Dolly had stopped eating and died within a month of Memere’s funeral, she told Daddy that she was putting her foot down. She baked cookies to take with us and when we got there, she made a pot of coffee and even tidied up a bit, throwing a bunch of empty bottles in the trash. She was acting as if nothing had changed, but it was pretty obvious that everything had. Memere was gone, Dolly was gone, the kitchen was a mess and Uncle Joe was no longer quiet. We hadn’t been there ten minutes before he started telling a story that got him all worked up. He was speaking in French, so I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but it was easy to see that he was really excited. Daddy tried to calm him down, but Uncle Joe wouldn’t listen. Uncle Joe was talking faster and faster, his voice was getting louder and louder until he was just about shouting, and his hands were moving about, stirring up the air. Suddenly, he lunged forward and pushed everything off the table, the coffee cups, the silverware, even the plate of cookies. Momma had to jump to get out of the way of all the mess, but Uncle Joe didn’t even seem to notice. He stood with his feet planted wide apart, his right arm out straight, propped up by his left hand, and his index finger pointed forward as if his hand were a gun. “Putt!” he shouted, spit spraying from his lips. “Putt, putt, putt, putt, putt, putt, putt.” He moved his hand slowly from left to right, drew his arm back to the left and repeated it all over again. He started to repeat the action again, but stopped when Daddy jumped in front of him. Uncle Joe dropped his arms, stepped back from Daddy and fell into his chair. He looked lost, sitting there and staring at his hands, limp in his lap.
When I peeled my eyes off Uncle Joe and looked over at Momma, her skirt was wet with coffee and she was blinking back tears.
“Tommy?” she whispered in a feathery voice, but Daddy had his back to her, standing in front of Uncle Joe as if barricading him from Momma and me.
“Take Lucy to the car,” Daddy said over his shoulder, his voice loud and angry.
There was no goodbye game that day. Momma walked me out, sniffling as her hand on my shoulder steered me to the car. Daddy joined us a few minutes later, his face bright red. No one talked the whole ride home, and we never went to Uncle Joe’s house again, not until we got the call about the car accident and had to pack up his things and prepare for the funeral.
Being family, we were allowed inside the funeral parlor before anyone else arrived. The man who greeted us at the door directed us down the hall to a room on the right, where Uncle Joe was. Momma held me back at the doorway and allowed Daddy to go in by himself. When Daddy knelt in front of the coffin, I could see Uncle Joe’s body. I was relieved that my first glimpse of him was from a distance, but even from across the room I could tell that Uncle Joe wasn’t really there. The body in the coffin didn’t look like a sleeping Uncle Joe; it looked like an imposter. A suit jacket had replaced his flannel shirt, smooth-shaven cheeks had surfaced where there should have been stubble, and the smell of carnations overpowered any lingering hint of pipe tobacco. I was no longer afraid, only sad to realize that it was already too late to say goodbye to Uncle Joe.
When Daddy turned and motioned for me and Momma to come join him, I saw that he was crying. I ran to him and hugged him until I started crying, too. It made me wonder if maybe I wasn’t grown-up enough for this, after all. Momma must’ve thought the same thing, because that’s when she said there was no need for me to stay in the main parlor. She told me I could go sit in the side room, where there were couches and a table displaying some photographs of Uncle Joe. That seemed like a good idea to me.
The table in the side room was draped with a heavy white cloth and covered with about a dozen loose photographs. Most of the pictures were of Uncle Joe when he was young, and many of them included either Memere or Daddy. Other than those, there was one photograph of Uncle Joe in his Army uniform, and another one that Momma had taken years ago of me with Uncle Joe and Dolly. I checked to make sure I was all by myself before swiping that photograph. I had just tucked it under my shirt and in the waistband of my skirt when I heard people in the next room. I wasn’t feeling all that sociable, so I lifted up the tablecloth and slipped under the table.
Only a minute later, I heard footsteps approaching the table, then voices.
“I feel bad for Tommy,” a woman said. “So many unresolved emotions, I’m sure.”
“It’s too bad he never got over what happened,” said a man’s voice. “So much time had passed, and Joe really straightened out afterward, taking care of their mother all those years.”
“Yeah, but it’s got to be hard to forgive the man who took a baseball bat to you, especially when it’s your big brother who did the swinging. Tommy lost his baseball scholarship and his shoulder is still held together with pins.”
“Well, that’s what finally led to Joe giving up the sauce, right?”
“Yes, but that was only after the damage was done, and at such a cost for Tommy.”
I watched their feet step back from the table, and they were gone. Other feet moved in right behind them.
at this picture of Joe
in his Army uniform,” a woman said. “Didn’t you tell me he was a war
“People are saying that he was drinking again, since his mother passed.”
“People always talk,” the man said, as his feet turned away and the voices were carried out of the room. New feet arrived, and this time, I recognized the shoes.
“Thanks again for coming, Margaret,” Momma said. “You’re a good friend.”
“He’d been sad for so many years. Like you said, at least he’s at peace now.”
“Yeah, but this has been real hard on Tommy. He can’t help but wish he’d stepped in, before things got to this point.”
“What are you talking about? I thought it was a car accident.”
“Well, yes, it was. But the police said there were no skid marks or any other evidence of braking before the car crashed into the tree.”
“Maybe Joe just fell asleep at the wheel.”
“Yeah, maybe, but it would’ve been sleep induced by a point-two-eight blood alcohol level. We’re trying to keep it quiet, but we have the medical report.”
“Oh, honey. I’m sorry.”
“I know. We all are. See you at the restaurant later, okay? I want to get back to Tommy.”
Not long after that, I heard Momma calling my name, and I ran back into the main parlor.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“Right here,” I said, truthfully.
“It’s time to go to the church. Let’s not keep the priest waiting.”
Throughout the funeral mass, my thoughts kept returning to the conversations I’d heard while under the table, so I didn’t do much praying. After mass, we went to the cemetery, and we all stood around Uncle Joe’s coffin. The priest said a few more prayers, a man in an army uniform played the trumpet, and another soldier fired a rifle into the air. The shots were so loud that I covered my ears and shut my eyes. Putt, putt, putt, I remembered, and wished we could go home. But when it was finally time to leave the gravesite, Daddy didn’t want to go.
“We should be at the restaurant before the buffet starts,” Momma said.
“Would you mind going ahead without me?” Daddy asked.
“Are you okay?”
“I just need a minute.”
“Do you want me to stay with you?”
“No, you’re right. Someone needs to be at the restaurant.”
“Okay, then. Come soon. Let’s go, Lucy.”
“I want to stay with Daddy,” I said, surprised to hear a tremble in my voice.
“Now’s not the time, Lucy,” Momma said.
“But Momma--,” I started to complain, but my voice croaked.
“It’s okay,” Daddy said, squeezing my hand and not letting go. “She can stay with me.”
Momma hesitated, but she left.
Finally alone with Daddy, I couldn’t hold back. “Daddy, did Uncle Joe hit you with a baseball bat?”
Daddy looked at me for some time. “You heard some stories today?”
“Is it true? Did he really hit you?” The heavy ache in my chest spread throughout my body as I waited for Daddy’s answer, already wishing that I hadn’t asked the question.
“It was a long, long time ago,” Daddy said.
“Why would Uncle Joe do that to you?” My question came with fresh tears. “It makes me hate him.”
Daddy knelt down in front of me and wiped the tears from my cheeks. “No, sweetie. Don’t hate him. It was just a big mistake. He’d been drinking. He wasn’t in his right mind.”
“It was a mistake?”
“Yes. A mistake.”
But it must’ve hurt.”
“Yeah, it hurt.”
“Is that why you and Uncle Joe didn’t get along?”
Daddy looked at me in a funny way, then said, “We got along fine.” I knew different, but I could tell by the way he said it that he wasn’t looking for me to argue with him.
“Did Uncle Joe ever say he was sorry?” I asked.
“Of course he did, yes.”
“I told him I did.” Dad’s eyes wandered over to the casket balanced on rods over the grave. “Sometimes it’s hard to get past what hurts you.” He looked back at me. “But Uncle Joe was good to Memere, and that’s the kind of thing that we need to remember about Uncle Joe, the good things.”
As Daddy was standing up, a gray-haired stranger came over to us. His clothes were dirty and carried a sharp smell. The man carried a paper bag. He nodded at Daddy and asked, “Are you the brother?”
“Yes,” my dad said, extending his hand. “Tom Bonneville, and this is my daughter, Lucy.”
“Eugene Rouleau,” the man said, shaking my dad’s hand then nodding to me. “I saw the obituary and wanted to come pay my respects. Your brother and I served together in the Third Infantry Division, Volens et Potens, Seventh Infantry Regiment.”
“Nice to meet you, Eugene. Sorry, but I don’t recall my brother mentioning your name.”
“That’s all right. I’m not surprised.”
I could tell by the way Daddy looked at the man that he didn’t understand, but the man didn’t offer a further explanation. We all stood there for a time, but my dad was never good with silences. “I never knew what to make of Joe’s war stories,” Daddy said. “The only time he ever talked about what happened overseas was the first few years, when he was drinking, and it was hard to know what was true.”
“Probably all of it. I don’t think he could’ve made up a story that was worse than our truth. But he saved my life. Mine, and several others.”
“Yeah. He’s the only reason I made it home,” the man said. “Most of me, anyway.”
When my dad looked at him, the man lifted one of his pant legs to reveal a metal bar where there should have been an ankle.
“I’m sorry,” my dad said.
“No, no. It’s okay. Like I said, your brother saved my life.”
“You two didn’t stay in touch?”
“No.” The man shook his head slowly, pausing time in a way that made you think he had no other place he needed to be for the entire day. “He was a miserable sonofabitch those years when he drank, and I was too much of a threat when he was sober.”
“Why were you a threat?”
“Because I never stopped drinking.”
I saw my dad’s eyes drop to the brown paper bag, then look away.
As if my dad’s glance had reminded him, the man held the bag out to my dad. “This was his. He sent it to me when he stopped drinking. I guess he didn’t want the memories. But this, well, it should stay with his family.”
My dad took the bag and pulled a black box from it. He opened the box and his jaw went slack in a way that scared me.
“What is it, Daddy?” I asked, pulling on his sleeve.
My dad didn’t answer me. He looked up to the sky and blinked his eyes several times. I kept pulling on his arm until he wordlessly lowered the box to me. Inside was a gold, five-pointed star, with a little silver star in its center, attached to a red, white and blue ribbon. I turned the star over and read aloud the inscribed words: “For Gallantry in Action.”
A weak voice came from my father’s chest. “A Silver Star?”
“A Silver Star,” the man repeated.
“Can you tell me what happened?” asked my dad.
The man sighed, as if he were so exhausted that even talking was hard. “After Morocco, we were part of the Italian Campaign at Anzio. We’d been fighting in the marshes for days. We were trying to hold our ground, but we were outnumbered by a German squadron, and most of us, myself included, had already been hit. Your brother was our last man standing, and he answered the call. He somehow found a way behind the German line, wading through chest-high water, and surprised the whole lot of them with his 1918 Browning. They all went down, one after the other, like dominos. When the dust settled, we’d lost only five men. But it took a toll on Joe, what he had to do for our sake.”
Daddy had been watching the man’s face as he listened, but when the man stopped talking, Daddy turned away.
After a minute or so, the man spoke again. “He talked a lot about you.”
“We were close growing up. But things just weren’t the same after the war.”
“I should’ve done more for him,” Daddy said.
“We do what we can. Sometimes it just isn’t enough. Doesn’t mean it’s your fault.”
My dad looked up to the sky again.
“And so you are Lucy,” the man said, turning his attention to me and putting one knee on the ground.
I studied the man’s brown and wrinkled face. Underneath graying brows and heavy eyelids, his eyes were dark and soft. The fact that he had known Uncle Joe made me feel connected to him, and I didn’t care that he smelled bad.
“Uncle Joe saved your life?” I asked him.
“Yes, he did.”
“I’m glad. I’m trying to remember the good things about Uncle Joe.”
“Well, then, here’s another one for you to remember: He loved you very much.”
“I know, but I hadn’t seen him in a long time. We had a special goodbye hug, and I didn’t have a chance to give him one before --” My throat closed up, but we all knew how the sentence ended.
“That’s how it happens sometimes,” the man said, and he looked away from me for what seemed a long while. He scratched behind his right ear, then dragged his hand over his jaw to his mouth, tapped his fingertips against his lips a couple times, and added, “But you know something?” He pointed his finger at me, but I could tell he wasn’t really expecting an answer, so I waited for him to continue. “He told me all about you, and he asked me to step in and give you that goodbye hug for him. If you’d allow that, that is.”
I looked at my dad. He wasn’t looking at the sky anymore, but he wasn’t really looking at us either. I was on my own with this one.
“Okay,” I said.
“All right, then,” the man said. “Let’s see. He told me what I needed to do, but help me remember.”
“You open your arms like this, really wide,” I said, showing him, and he copied me. “And I walk into them, really slowly, like this.” I inched forward. “And then you squeeze me and growl!”
He did as I said. There was no Dolly, and he wasn’t Uncle Joe, but the hug made me giggle all the same.
When he released me, my dad looked more like himself. There might have even been a slight smile on his face. He shook the man’s hand. “Thank you for your service,” he said. “And thank you for coming today, and helping us both say goodbye to Joe.”
The man nodded. “We do what we can,” he said, and walked back to his truck. When he got inside, I saw he had another brown paper bag. This one, he brought to his lips and tipped its bottom up before he drove away.
A graduate of Dartmouth College and Columbia Law School, Denise Cloutier lives in Goshen, Connecticut.
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