Monday, April 6, 2009

Say Uncle!

Every summer, as far back as I can remember, he came to visit; flying into town in his zippy sports car like a breath of fresh air from a far-off land. My Uncle David was a handsome guy—tall and tan, with a head full of naturally curly hair and twinkling blue eyes. He arrived the same time each summer and about the same time of day so we kids would be watching for him when he drove up. We’d run out to greet him, suddenly shy at not having talked to him for a full year. He was single, and didn’t have kids for us to play with, but he was sufficient entertainment all by himself.

To a nine-year-old, he seemed pretty old, though he was only in his mid-twenties. He kept us laughing long and hard at his silly antics and the Pepsi flowed like wine—at least to the adults. We kids hung on the periphery, eyeing the pop bottles as they piled up, exchanging knowing glances. At a nickel apiece for the empties, we’d be rich when he left!

Most summers, David’s visits centered around the 4th of July and he always brought an arsenal of munitions with him. I wasn’t allowed to light fireworks, but I held the smoldering punk with a sense of duty and helpfulness. David and Dad did all kinds of interesting tricks with things called M-80s and cherry bombs. They launched tin cans from buckets of water like rockets. They exploded apples in mid-air; ducking and giggling like little boys as applesauce rained down on them from the sky. Once, they took the broken handle of our old Radio Flyer, dropped a firecracker inside, and the explosion peeled back the iron like a banana skin. Perched atop the safety of the picnic table, I looked on with envy. We kids were given little black tablets that turned into ashen snakes when they were lit, and sparklers. We loved writing our names in the dark sky with those flaming, sputtering torches. When they ran out, we spent hours on the sidewalk bent over rolls of red caps, smashing them with stones and pretending they were firecrackers. To this day I love the smell of burnt gunpowder!

One of Uncle David’s favorite destinations was Eagle Lake, with its crystal clear, spring-fed water. Sometimes we’d take supper there, or make a fire and cook hot dogs. David was fun because he’d get in the water and swim with us. He’d disappear and could hold his breath so long we thought he’d drown—then he’d grab our legs underwater and scare the daylights out of us. He and my dad would take turns throwing the older cousins into the deep water, but I was too afraid and kept close to shore, trying to act like I didn't care. Once, we saw a snake swimming in the water and Brave Uncle David caught it by the tail. He killed it by smacking it against the grassy bank and a half-digested frog went flying out of its mouth. That’s a sight you’ll not soon forget!

My mom always cooked up a storm before David’s visits. She knew he loved rhubarb pie and she made plenty, warning us not to touch—they were for David. Sometimes at night the adults would make a new food called “tacos” that we kids were not impressed with. Tacos were reserved as A Treat Adults Ate After Kids Went to Bed so, naturally, we learned to love them. We grilled a lot (I know this because it was my job to scour the grill) and when Uncle Buzz came from Spokane one year—we had fried fish and hush puppies. My Grandpa Swartz spent a lot of time at our house when David came. David was his baby and Grandpa was always so happy when he was around. My mom made Grandpa’s favorite spice cake and set out pickles that the two of them had canned for everyone to eat.

When David was in Minnesota, all the other relatives came around that I hadn’t seen all year. Some of the cousins lived nearby. But the Postons, our most prolific relatives, came all the way from Kansas in their jam-packed station wagon. I would reacquaint myself with cousins who had grown a lot during the year—some of them too cool to associate with me. But I felt really proud that David stayed at our house—like we had special dibs on him because of that. Sometimes I would just sit and stare at him. I thought he was the most handsome man ever—even cuter than Little Joe on Bonanza. I figured I’d marry him some day.

Imagine our surprise when, one summer, he came to Minnesota with his new bride! The younger set eyed her with suspicion, not even attempting to hide our jealousy. David didn’t have much time for us that summer because he was so distracted by Margaret. They were always snuggling together on the couch or at the lake. One day, we cousins were all piled in the back of the Poston’s station wagon on the way to the lake and David and Margaret were following in his little sports car. My cousin Carl yelled, “Look! They’re kissing AGAIN!” While they were driving! Eewww. We hid our faces and groaned.

My baby sister loved Uncle David. Kathleen would stare at him with her round, hazel eyes, waiting. He’d make silly faces one minute, or pretend to ignore her, then startle her by suddenly yelling, “HEY!” and slamming his hands down on the table. She’d jump, then grin at him with her shiny baby teeth. She never knew what to expect next and that was exciting.

The year I was nine, I had a pet chipmunk aptly named, “Chippy.” Renee and I had worked all summer to get him tame enough to take peanuts from our hands and he would even come when we called. One day, I looked and looked for him. I finally found him, bleeding and limp under the lilac bushes. I carried his broken little body downtown to Kenny Borg, the druggist. He was the closest thing Ashby had to a doctor at that time. I showed him the chipmunk and begged him to do something. He told me, “You need to take him to your dad, Dawn. It looks like he’s been shot.”

Shot! Who would do such a thing?

My dad had a car up on the hoist when I went into his shop. He came out from under the car and wiped his greasy hands on a rag. He brushed sweat from his brow with a dirty forearm and looked at what I was holding.

“We need to take Chippy to the vet, Dad. He’s dying!” I whimpered.

“There’s nothing we can do for him.” Dad answered with a frown. “He’s suffering.”

He took a rag from under his workbench, sprayed it with ether, and put it over Chippy’s face until he stopped breathing. Shedding torrents of tears, I carried the little animal home to plan his funeral. I later learned that my beloved uncle had been shooting sparrows with a BB gun and it was he who had shot my chipmunk. He didn’t know it was a pet.

Year after year Uncle David returned to Minnesota for his summer visits. Sometimes he brought Margaret; sometimes he came alone. Some years he was heavier, some years thinner. He got a different car. His hair grew grayer. Grandpa Swartz died, followed by Uncle Jerry, Aunt Sally, and Aunt Kay. The kids who used to hang on him grew up and left home. Some went to college. Some, like me, got married and had babies—a whole new generation of admirers for Uncle David. My kids were weaned on the spicy pico de gallo he made and grew up with the same corny jokes and bantering:

“Can you touch your tongue to your nose?”

“Can you spell antidisestablishmentarianism?”

I don’t give any explanation to them about why my uncle is so special to me, yet when he comes around each summer, they scramble to make time to see him. So I know he means a lot to them, too. This week, my granddaughter, Paisley, is in Texas (with her parents Amy and Ryan), enjoying the company of Uncle David and his sweet wife. And though so much has changed over the decades of his annual visits here, I am thankful for the one thing that has remained constant: The love of family.

Today, my uncle is 65 years old. I am so glad he was born. To him, I want to say:

You’ve been a huge part of my life, Uncle David, as far back as I can remember. Thanks for the laughter and the joy you’ve given as well as the more serious ponderings shared…I love you more than words can say.

Your adoring niece,



  1. Good Parking Dave!
    That was the best part of last summer! Going to visit them!

    Hahaha I like the part about the snake. I can just see it. Gross.

    Good post mom!

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  3. oh! Dawn, this was great. I loved how you explained your view of uncle David as a child. So good.

  4. I am thinking of all the memories that Tori will have of YOU, Ryan. The age difference between the two of you is about the same as between David and I. You are so fun for Tori and she LOVES you. Thanks for being such a big part of her life!

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