When I was younger, probably until I was about 15, my dad and I went down the shore for a week every summer, where my uncle Bill had been living for the summer. Back then, my family had a house in west Wildwood, and my uncle Bill would take my Grandmom (Nanny, or Nan) down and live there with her from about Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Uncle Bill, my dad and I would go fishing, to the beach, or just hang around the house.
This was when I learned how to play card games: solitaire, blackjack, poker. Hanging with my uncle, I watched him with the cards always playing solitaire and killing time. At some point he showed me blackjack, and I really enjoyed it. We used to bet money too, and he always let me win.
My dad got mad at him, saying to stop giving me money, and me, saying to stop taking his money. We started hiding the ‘pot’ under one of Bill’s hats on top of the China closet in the dining room. One time it got up to like 50$ and I won and he gave it all to me.
I didn’t know or understand at that time that my uncle Bill didn’t have much money to begin with, so shouldn’t have been just giving it to me. As an 8 year old, all I knew was that he never seemed to want for anything, and that as an adult, he probably had more money than I did and everything was just fine.
These summers were great; I have many memories of them. Just the three of us hanging out and talking shit. I learned a lot at that time.
Sometimes he was absent minded though. Maybe that’s not the best way to put it. Sometimes he did things without thinking? Anyway. Once I had a cast on my arm, as a kid who skateboarded this wasn’t uncommon for me, and I was showing him the things people had written on it, and he, trying to see the underside of it, twisted my arm around, obviously not thinking about how much that would hurt.
When I was about 19 I worked at the ACME in Media, which is a town a bit farther west from where I grew up (Collingdale) and where uncle Bill still lived (Collingdale). The time clock at the store was right in front of the self-checkout machines, against the front wall of the store, in plain view of the machines. We weren’t allowed to clock in more than 7 minutes early, and I was usually early for work. I was standing there eyeing up this dude waiting in line at the self-checkouts and he me. He was holding a hoagie and wearing an Eagles cap, shorts covered with paint, a ragged t shirt, and high white socks under his moccasins. I kept staring thinking, “this dude looks so familiar,” and he probably the same at me. After a minute or so we recognized each other. It was uncle Bill. I don’t know why, but I hadn’t seen him since I was about 16 or 17 probably. When my Nanny died, her funeral.
Life had happened, and we fell out of touch, for no reason other than that. I was in school and he was doing his thing. I’m not much for talking on the phone and he was an early riser who was usually asleep by about 6 or 7p.
A couple years later, I bought a house, a triplex in West Philly. My dad was really excited for me, as was uncle Bill. My cousins who had been living with uncle Bill, or rather, he’d been living with them, had just started a roofing business. Over the summer of 2012, all of us worked on my first floor apartment. Bill and I spent the most time there together.
I finished work at about noon, I was working 4a-12p, off Wednesdays and Saturdays, and I’d head down to his place to pick him up. We’d work on the house till 5p or 6p, depending on the size of the job, there were times when we were there as late as 8p. Then we’d go to Burger King or McDonald’s or something and I’d drop him back off.
This summer was probably the best one I’ve had in recent memory. I started liking The Rolling Stones, because they reminded me of working with Bill. He taught me a lot of stuff about construction, showed me how to do plumbing, electrical work, laying tile, removing walls, running vents, laying carpet, you name it. He was a talented man, and I remember him showing me how to do things and I’d pick it up quick; I was so happy when I would hear him telling people how quickly I’d learned to do whatever, installing lights, laying tile, whatever
I also learned a lot about him that summer. I’d always know uncle Bill, but everyone’s got those things about them that only some people know. One time, for example, we were putting carpet down in one of the bedrooms, and I’d hurt my knee–comes with the territory of laying carpet, you basically slam down a big metal rod with angled nails in it and then, with your knee you drive the carpet towards the wall, flattened to the floor. Anyway, I’d hurt my knee, so uncle Bill took over for the last couple feet of the carpet. As he was taking the tool from me, I realized:
“Wait, don’t you have bad knees?”
“Eh. It doesn’t matter. You think I give a fuck about this body?” he said. “The only thing that matters is family.”
A lot of people have personal philosophies, some more difficult to adhere to than others; none more difficult than this one. And if I ever knew anyone, who truly felt this way, it was my uncle Bill.
But his caring for other people didn’t limit itself to only family. My dad has told me stories about them walking down Market street or South street in Philly, as young teenagers, and Bill would take the money that he had worked for and buy food for groups of homeless people. He’d go order a pizza and give it to them. I’ve never seen him be hostile with anyone, unprovoked. Bill would give you whatever he could to help you out; if he only had ten dollars and you asked for nine, he’d give. He was genuine.
In the summer of 2015, I moved to Minneapolis. The same thing that had happened before happened again. We would talk on the phone every once in a while, maybe once every two or three months, and when I came back I would see him, sometimes. But we weren’t ever as close as we had been in the summer of 2012 or the summers of my youth.
The last time I saw uncle Bill was when he, my dad and I went out fishing in the November of ’16. It was exactly the wrong temperature for striper fishing, unseasonably warm; so the head boat we’d planned to go out on wasn’t launching. Not enough people had shown up and not enough luck had been had that week. We ended up driving all around Wildwood and Cape May trying to find a decent spot to fish off the jetties or docks. We hung for a while at a public dock and dropped the lines in, even though I think we all knew we weren’t going to catch anything. And so we didn’t. We called it quits and headed home.
Since then, I’ve spoken on the phone with him, I think, maybe once. For the past couple months, I’ve been thinking, “I really have to call uncle Bill.” His birthday is coming up, and that was when I was planning to call him; I’m not sure why I put it off, though, and I regret it, because his 60th birthday is a day that I’ll see but he won’t.
And that sucks.
But I’m glad for those summers, the fishing trips, the family gatherings, and all the time I did get to spend with him, because not everyone is as lucky as I am to have had that.