The Two Sams – memoir

This is the fourth of the five Bookbinders sketches that orginally appeared in Fall/Winter 1997 issue of WordWrights. Those previously posted are found in the “Musings” category: “Butterfly Dress,” “Grandpa Jake,” and “Frieda.”

Like many of you, I had two Uncle Sams. One was my father’s older brother. This Uncle Sam lived in Brooklyn with his wife Minette and adopted daughter, Edlee. We didn’t see them very often. Uncle Sam was so much older than my father that they had each grown up as only children and didn’t have much in common. Even now, though I can see his face in my mind’s eye very clearly, I can’t tell you very much about what he was like. I think he was tall and kind of gentle. I can’t be sure. I don’t even remember how he made his living, nor can I recall anything he ever said. There was a stiffness to his gait, back trouble perhaps, and a way he had of looking sorrowful about some endured failure.

The other Uncle Sam was my mother’s younger brother. Swarthily handsome, slim, thin of hair but not really balding, and slightly bug-eyed, he carried himself with confidence and had a congenial, knowing air. When I first became aware of him, he was the family’s war hero. Actually, he’d had jobs in uniform that connected him to the entertainment industry and U.S.O. activities. He worked in Armed Forces radio, managed clubs for servicemen, and spent time in places like Paris.

There were rumors of his gorgeous Belgian girlfriend, a singer or actress, whom he gave up because he knew she could never be comfortable in his unstylish, lower class Jewish Bronx milieu. Or maybe it was she who ditched him. But he was already beyond that milieu anyway: an articulate, artsy guy who’d seen the world and charmed fantastic women.

Nevertheless, she had been the love of his life and as I grew up and go to spend more and more time with him, it became clear that his dalliances with other women were only that.

He was a great son to Grandma Ida, helping her financially and in almost every other way as she struggled into old age. He was the talented one who seemed to sacrifice a brilliant future to shoulder family responsibilities.

New York fed his interests. He saw all the shows, learned to play the flute, went to gallery openings, shopped at Barney’s long before everyone else caught on. A wholesale liquor salesman whose route took him to stores and bars all over the city, he played golf whenever he could and knew show biz folks from Times Square to The Hamptons. Familiar with the jazz scene (he’d probably known it in Paris), his speech was spiced with hipster argot. An engagement was a “gig”; an assent was “yeah, man.”

He remained a young sport as middle age drew near, and when I moved to New York to finish college and work on my relationship with my lady fair, he was open to us as if we were generational peers. During my first half-year in the city (late 1960), I lived with Grandma Ida and usually slept in what had been Uncle Sam’s bedroom. Sleeping, reading, and imagining in his old bed gave me a worldly feeling that helped my comfort level in Greenwich Village and other exotic haunts.

Sometimes Uncle Sam would leave his suave bachelor pad in the West Twenties and stay over at Grandma’s for a night. During and around dinner and breakfast, he’d give her some quality time. Then I’d switch over to Aunt Emma’s old room.

Sam (by now I’d dropped the “Uncle” in addressing him) was the natural choice for best man at my wedding, though some mistook him for the groom.

Years later, something happened to his circulatory system. His hands, in particular, were affected, and he had to seek a warmer climate to improve his condition and to find congenial work. He didn’t go to Florida, Southern California, or Mexico. No, Uncle Sam went to Spain and settled in the Costa del Sol area. He ran a photo shop, wrote for golf magazines, and settled into an international community that must have held some of the buzz he’d enjoyed as part of the allied establishment in France at war’s end – but without the danger or damage.

My wife and I lost direct contact with Sam, but news filtered through. At some point, we heard that he’d sired a daughter with a Swedish expatriate, and then later we discovered that he was living with a British countess, or ex-countess. Romance dogged him. From a distance, he seemed so glamorous. His letters to my mother, which she would read to me over the phone from her retirement home in Arizona, were filled with references to luminaries like Sean Connery.

After twenty of more years of this, he became seriously ill. Medical treatment in Spain proved inadequate, so he returned to New York and with Aunt Emma’s help tried out the Veterans’ Administration doctors as well as those at New York University Hospital. He brought with him the countess, whom he had married shortly before leaving Spain. Her accent cut through the family’s sludgy New Yawk patois like a gin and tonic heavy on the twist. Operations and strokes followed that left him helpless, inarticulate, that fine cultured mind buried in frustrated silence.

In the end, then, he resembled the older Uncle Sam: stiff and sorrowful, quietly bearing a burden. Looking at him, it was hard to remember all he had been, all the color he’d lent to our humdrum lives.

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