to die. Their faces would grow cloudy to him. Soon thereafter, they’d keel over from a blood clot or stroke or whatever showstopper the Reaper had devised. Uncle Dean never knew what exactly it would be, but that it would be was something he kept to himself, figuring when your number is up there’s no getting around it. We suspected his own face grew cloudy to him in the mirror the last time he came by to check on a repair, before he dropped dead of a heart attack behind the wheel of his car in a casino parking lot. He wasn’t quite himself that day. And as he was leaving he reached behind himself for my wife’s hand, squeezing it hard. Then he walked off to his Lincoln without looking back. Dean’s sister, Aunt Natalie, suffered childhood convulsions which left her mentally impaired. But she’d put on a show at every Christmas gathering by sneaking copious amounts of vino from a coffee cup and popping her dentures out like a cash-register drawer. At some point in the evening she’d disappear with a Food Lion shopping bag into the bathroom to change into her Christmas costume. One year, she was “Ms. Wreath,” her body encircled head-to-toe in homemade wreaths. But her crowning glory came when she transformed herself into “the Living Christmas Tree.” Natalie hung ornaments and tinsel off herself, then strung herself in lights and plugged into an electrical outlet. Having forgotten an extension cord, she dutifully stood by the outlet, illuminated for the rest of the night. One Christmas, she admitted to us that it had been a hard, lonely year. “I’m praying for God to take me,” she said, with hope, rather than
Sometimes, Christmas with family is just about making things work, brutishly and gracelessly.
it with naked cartoon ladies, their breasts inflated like birthday balloons. He once ate a whole handful of decorative scented chips from a dish on our coffee table, being none the wiser but confiding to me on the side, “That is some awful candy.” He played George Jones cheatin’ songs and smoked Kools like he was trying to break his lungs, which he eventually did. My wife’s Uncle Dean could fix anything. He’d come by the house, make a repair, then sit down for a beer. You’d tell him a story, he’d nod, then say, “That ain’t nuttin’.” Then he’d tell you his stories, which all began with the same dateline, “Oakmont, P.A., 1943,” and he’d be off to the races telling you a tale you’d heard ten times before. But it didn’t matter. Because all was calm and bright and Uncle Dean was here, fixing things. Once, he almost fixed me for good when he hit me, full force, in the forehead with the backswing of his ball-peen hammer while trying to bang out my dented lawnmower deck. As I stood there, stars swirling, Tweety birds singing, trying not to go down like a sack of wet cement, he didn’t apologize but said something I’ll never forget: “Ahhh, it happens.” A lukewarm Catholic, Uncle Dean nevertheless had a supernatural sixth sense. He could often tell when people were going
76 | December 2017
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