My Dad tells a story of going flying with my Uncle Bill, who may, or may not, actually have had a pilot’s license.
In his colourful version Uncle Bill is decked out like the Red Barron, leather cap and goggles, red silk scarf flying in the wind and they rise like heat into the Indiana summer’s sky. Dad white knuckled it above the corn fields, peering out the side windows and was just beginning to relax a little when Bill threw back his head, shouted, “BANZAI” and dipped the stick, dropping the tiny plane into a death defying dive. To hear my Dad tell it the corn tassels were slapping the bottom of the plane before Bill, flattened their trajectory and aimed for the house, and the women and children dove for the ground just as he pulled up, narrowly missing their roof, laughing with his mischievous cackle as he broke back into the blue.
I only flew with Uncle Bill once, and I was too young to remember.
He flew to Canada to collect my Mom and I and fly us home for an impromptu visit with her family in Indiana. Apparently the extra weight of my small self and whatever gear I required magically shortened the runway and again, my Dad tells of watching with his heart in his throat as the precious cargo of his only two girls bumped off through the gap in the forest and barely lifted off, wheels brushing the tops of evergreens. We made it, of course. Uncle Bill always made it. I made it too, but not before I vomited pureed green beans all over the interior of his plane while we circled, and circled, and circled the airport in the USA where we needed to check in. Oddly enough, I was never invited to get in his plane again.
Visits with Uncle Bill were a highlight of our pilgrimages to Indiana.
Mom and her sister would talk a mile a minute in the kitchen while we children were beckoned into Bill’s chamber of secrets. It was a bit like Mr. Magorium’s Magic Emporium to my young eyes, where wonders were tucked into every crevice and treasures were sure to be found. He showed my brother his gun collection, carefully, reverently. They discussed calibre, ammo and arsenal. He showed me gemstones. He’d lay out emeralds, rubies and the bluest sapphires on pieces of black velvet. He passed me opals in tiny clear cases set on circles of blue foam and an ocular lens to peer through to watch the fires dance. I thought of him, week before last, when we were in Coober-Pedy, where 80% of the world’s opals are mined. I wished with all my heart for his company as we wandered through shop after shop loaded with every possible cut and quality of the soft stones. He would have known the good from the bad. He would have been able to help me find just the right one. He would have loved touring the mines and going on the hunt for uncut gemstones with my boys on the slag heaps. He would not have loved the flies.
Uncle Bill was a font of wisdom and took it upon himself to fill in the obvious gaps that my parents were leaving in my education:
- He taught me to pull the very bottom piece of corn on the cob from the enormous, Indiana style stack and watch the others roll across Aunt Rosy’s lace tablecloth.
- He taught me how to pretend to snort a booger from way down deep and then wipe it down the length of my arm and snap it off the end of my finger with panache.
- He taught me the importance of eating dessert first (although the mothers never actually let us get away with it!)
- He reinforced, “What not to do,” when smuggling a little contraband across international borders. A very practical lesson. The story, well told, makes him a legend in my book. Even if the reality was somewhat less glamorous.
- He held a high standard in telling a long yarn, and fostered the fine art of spinning a tale. When Bill told a story, you could almost believe it was true.
Uncle Bill loved God, but not in the sour mouthed, judgmental, holier-than-thou, let me point out all of your faults, fire and brimstone sort of way. He loved God in a way that made you believe that God loved you like your faults didn’t matter, and like you were welcome at the church picnic with bare feet, dreadlocks and a little lunch still stuck on your face. He loved the Lord in a way that reflected his belief in God’s sense of humor, his delight in small things, his sense of adventure and the essential doctrines of laughter and lightheartedness.
The engine has purred a soothingly lullaby all night and I awoke, after a restless night, to the gentle rocking of building swells. My body is floating, far from shore, over the Great Barrier Reef, off of northern Queensland, Australia, but my mind and heart are in Indiana.
This is one of the times when the world seems very big indeed, and we feel the massive distance between “here,” and “home.” These are the moments when I feel very acutely the paradox of the urgency of living this one life we have fully, my way… and at the same time the deep sense that I’m missing it, in some capacity, as I cannot be in two (or three, or four) places at one time. My Dad and I talk about that with some regularity; the great wish we share to be able to split ourselves between people, places, eras.
I marked my uncle’s passing in the quiet darkness of a night dive this evening. A green glow lit the liquid darkness, shadowy shapes weaved in and out of the gloaming. The ocean is a cathedral of sorts, where one can be alone with only the sound of her heartbeat and the wonderful ghosts of a favourite uncle in celebration of a life well lived.
Aunt Rosy, Janet, Jill, Debbie and families, I want you to know that I love you all very much and my heart and my thoughts are with you from afar.