“It would have been. . . horribly cruel, to practice on the susceptibility of a poor boy, and to torture me through all these years with a vain hope and an idle pursuit, if [he] had reflected on the gravity of what [he] did. But I think [he] did not. I think that in the endurance of [his] own trial, [he] forgot mine...”
—Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
“To have creatures who were part of himself, to whom he might transmit the money he saved, was at the root of his saving; and, at seventy-five, what was left that could give him pleasure, but—saving? The kernel of life was in this saving for his children.”
—John Galsworthy, The Man of Property
Uncle Donald always promised he could make us rich. In fact, these were some of the last words he ever said to me as we sat together conspiratorially on my mother-in-law’s navy jacquard living room sofa awaiting the final family meal we were to share. Ultimately and much to my dismay, he could have but did not, and I spent months torturing myself, seeing these words as an irrevocably lost opportunity, thinking if only I’d taken him seriously I’d have college tuitions for my boys, a new roof, and soapstone countertops. What had I said at the time? Did I just laugh politely? Why didn’t I say, “Yes, please!” or “Tell me what I need to do!”?
Instead of the vast sums of money my mother-in-law insisted he had —all appearances to the contrary—socked away in investments, what he did leave us were cigar boxes and grocery bags of papers and snapshots, yellowed college newspapers, a high school yearbook and more. Which my husband, his nephew, dutifully and without irony, felt compelled to bring home. Just what we needed: more papers, more crumbling books, more grocery bags. I resented the room these worthless bags and boxes occupied in our already maxed-out closet space. “Maybe if he had ‘made us rich,’” I snapped, “we’d buy a house with more storage space for his archive of. . . of. . . ephemera!” I think the insult was lost on my husband.
Uncle Donald was a reader, with particular interests in genealogy and very remote family history. He seemed to feel a genuine kinship with rugged Scottish clansmen, tenuous ancestors who were alive centuries ago. This was the Southerner in him, he informed me. He would find explanations for his own bad behaviors and outlaw predicaments—evidence of his Scots-Irish blood, he said—through exhaustive study of these moldering biographies and trips abroad. For birthdays, my husband and his siblings were given coffee table books picturing the ruined castles the family reputedly laid claim to in some dusty medieval year or other, or gift shop booklets about the heroics of petrified branches of the ancient family tree.
But rather than simply read and buy books, Uncle Donald really always wanted to write one. What he had in mind, we came to learn, was along the lines of the Penrod tales he grew up with. I didn’t know back then who Penrod was. (I found out eventually, when I picked up a frayed hardcover of Penrod and Sam at an estate sale years after. But by then it was too late.) Uncle Don wanted to write about his own boyhood with his sister and brother. The way they all grew up in small-town Georgia with a Virginia farmboy-turned-grocer father and then mill-town South Carolina with a widowed mother during the first half of the twentieth century. Figuring his academic nephew and his wife (me) were his best options for ghostwriters, there was a period when he sent illegible notes scrawled on brittle paper and envelope backs (written Lord knows when), recalling episodes of his young and idyllic Penrodian existence. In my favorite, he describes his mama bribing him to go to church by allowing him to take his dog, a rat terrier famous in family lore as “Geordie the Butcher.” Of course the dog, smuggled inside a croker sack, wouldn’t stay quiet during the service—howling to heaven during hymn time, according to the story—and little Uncle Don would inevitably and victoriously be required to take him out minutes after it began. Old Uncle Don envisioned holing up in some remote cabin for as long as it took to write the novel he had in mind. He’d take one of us or both of us; he didn’t care, he just wanted to write the damn thing. At the time, when he was most insistent about this project, we were getting married, then starting careers, having a baby, moving states, having another baby, and so on. Holing up to write Uncle Don’s Penrod novel was beyond impossible and exceeded our ideas of fealty. The thing is, as is wont to happen and as everyone in the family except he himself realized, Uncle Don was more a character belonging in a novel than the author of one. The novel never got written, many of his notes were probably mistaken for trash along the way, and he gave up on authorship eventually. But he continued to become more and more of a character.
Around this same time, during the Penrod phase, his sister died and he began drinking cheap, boxed wine out of tall plastic cups day and night. At least, that’s what he said he was doing. Wine was, in Uncle Don’s mind, the healthiest option with which to fall off the wagon. He had heard it was “good for the heart.” And no one could question that Uncle Don was all heart; he had even suffered a couple major heart attacks, what killed his father when Donald was ten, by the time he was sixty. In any case, whiskey—the most suitable drink of a self-respecting Scots-Irish Southern gentleman such as himself—just made him sad. In truth, he seemed sad enough already. We began commonly (and somewhat unkindly) referring to him privately as Drunken Uncle Don.
That’s when the phone calls started. Uncle Don was definitely drunken and the calls (mostly to me) became nothing short of obscene. He growled on the other end like some gouty old Dickensian benefactor, detailing for me his past erotic exploits—at the lake house dock, overseas in the service, in Florida after Korea (the only time he lived away from his hometown or his mama). Without fail, sometime during these pornographic marathon monologues, he’d mention the riches he intended to bestow on us. How else was I supposed to interpret his multiple comparisons between his beloved mother and me? His appreciation for the petty injustices I suffered at the hands of my mother-in-law? His lavish praise of my husband’s talents and embellishments to the family name? Why else was I putting up with his ribald tales? He was lonely. He was old. He was drinking cheap, boxed wine. Still. We didn’t yet have caller ID and, after he told me the real reason he favored sweatpants, I let all daytime phone calls go directly to voicemail. Over the course of a year, the calls gradually petered out, and I gradually started answering the phone again. When there was no will, I couldn’t help but feel sexually harassed. For nothing.
Phone calls aside, my own relationship with Uncle Donald was, for the most part, mediated by my in-laws, and in particular by his brother’s wife, my mother-in-law. The two of them had suffered through forty years of a fraught relationship by the time I entered the scene. The most recent crux of their mutual animosity stemmed from a simple fact: Once he retired as a successful stockbroker (his financial success always sticking in my mother-in-law’s craw), Uncle Donald vowed never to wear a suit again. My mother-in-law could not abide his attendance at family dinners in the worn-out sweats he favored instead. I’m certain he showed up in these unlaundered and ill-fitting getups specifically to terrorize her. Her only recourse was to mention how awful he looked repeatedly throughout the meal or afternoon or evening, which she did unflinchingly and with spirited malice. So it’s not surprising that during the fifteen years our lives overlapped, most of what I heard about Uncle Don was intensely negative: his inexplicable status as favorite child of his mama, my mother-in-law’s widowed mother-in-law; his drinking; his carousing (on which I was perhaps a greater authority than she could imagine); his failed marriage; his bipolar disorder (diagnosed solely by my mother-in-law and in much less correct language); his unsightly clothing. She also fretted over a more literal and genetic inheritance, something transmitted in the blood to her own children. So she would hope aloud that my husband wasn’t “turning into Uncle Donald” when he showed the evidence: a messy car, a Scots-Irish moody temperament, his blue eyes and dark hair. Uncle Donald was, she insisted over the years and without mincing words, a blight on the family name in town and a drag on our collective reputation no matter where we lived. We needed to be vigilant.
For all his eccentricities and unsavoriness, Uncle Don was nice to me. Probably to spite my mother-in-law and because he was an incorrigible old flirt, he loudly and elaborately made virtues of the two facts about me most regrettable to her. A Yankee? He’d hold forth on the Union generals he particularly admired in The War or about the attractive women he met during a work trip to Hartford in the sixties (who all wore black all the time). A Catholic? He’d remind me his closest friend was an Episcopal minister, which was really almost the same thing as a Catholic priest, after all. “You’re the first of the first!” he’d proclaim when I walked in the room. He must have read that in one of his Scottish history books or something, and, even though I would then have to submit to being crushed against his stale and greasy t-shirt or kissed lasciviously on the cheek, I still felt like he was on my side. Hanging out with Uncle Don was a surefire way to escape my mother-in-law’s passive aggressive jabs as we waited for brunch or finished up dessert. All I had to do was to sit and smile, occasionally roll my eyes coyly at his mischievous digressions and inappropriate suggestions.
In many ways, Uncle Don showed me what it meant to be part of an old Southern family, one with Revolutionary War heroes and not just newcomer nineteenth-century immigrants like mine. He diligently confirmed and played into all my Yankee stereotypes about Southern gentlemen of a certain generation. He was preoccupied with family and the past. His talk, his memories, his thoughts were crowded by the ghosts of old times. Indeed, Uncle Don was more connected to the dead-and-gone past than to the flesh-and-blood present. In the living room, above the sofa and framed in gilt, in oils and full Confederate dress uniform, glared his namesake. On the side table, there was the same grandfather at the turn of the twentieth century in daguerreotype, the picture of a cross-hatched and grizzled Appalachian hillsman, a long white beard bristling across his chest. Tucked away in an ancient steamer trunk, he had a quilt pieced from remnants of this soldier’s uniforms by maiden aunts, the red silk officer’s sash woven throughout the pattern. The very bed he slept in—spindly walnut—had been in the family for over two hundred years. Anchoring the dining room was a massive sideboard Yankees had shot the locks out of (my mother-in-law would look pointedly at me here), looking for silver to steal from the family homestead in south Virginia, near to nowhere. With Uncle Don, the past was important and alive in a Faulknerian, even a Gatsby-ian way. He, like Gatsby, fully believed you can repeat the past. He was haunted by it and determined to relive it. This is what it was to be Southern, I would think.
After years—a lifetime for my husband and his siblings—of being promised his riches and threatened with their loss (always being reminded that he could make us rich, or not), when Uncle Donald finally died last year there was no will to be found. Having altered it so many times for so many finicky reasons (this niece not dancing attendance or that nephew refusing to name a child after him again), the fabled document somehow simply failed to materialize at the crucial moment and all of Uncle Donald’s promises and riches automatically reverted to his estranged widow (who was herself already a millionairess, my mother-in-law asserted, and therefore not deserving of sympathy in this regard). I thought again of college tuitions and needing a new roof and wanting soapstone countertops. Hadn’t these people read Dickens? (My husband doubted it.) Well then, Galsworthy? (Who? he asked.) This does not happen. (My husband suggested that apparently, in real life, it does.) I raved. I cursed him. I hoped Episcopalians had purgatory—or worse.
Needless to say, I did not welcome his bags of papers and boxes—this inheritance of useless scraps and junk—into the house. Two ugly leather sofas came by default, too, which, with perverse satisfaction, I allowed our dog to chew to shreds. I shoved the bags of ephemera into closet corners and slammed the doors on Uncle Don until some future date— when I’d take my revenge and toss it wholesale.
Some months after the ephemeral inheritance was brought home, I started scavenging around antique malls and curiosity shops with a friend, looking for a chest of drawers for one of my boys and a 1930s china cabinet. One day, poking and picking through booths filled with artifacts, objects, and stuff, I realized an irony. I was mulling over the contents of other people’s Uncle Donald’s cigar boxes and shopping bags and, sometimes, entire homes. This suddenly felt not only like a waste of time, but traitorous too. Maybe the time had come to make peace with the ephemera. Back in the guest room closet, Uncle Don’s bequest confronted me in its ragtag bags and boxes. Time had not worked any therapeutic magic; the collection was still wholly insufficient, disappointing, and maddening. I dragged out the bags and boxes of papers and brought them to the kitchen table. There was one last chance. Thinking back if not to my Victorian novels then to internet stories, I figured if there was any justice in the universe, there might possibly be some priceless artifact—a signature or medal, a final note and check—stashed among the piles, making our fortunes, buying my forgiveness, and ransoming Uncle Donald from Episcopalian Limbo.
Hopes dwindling, I sifted through square black-and-white photographs of young women in 1950s-style bathing suits with coy notes penned on the back: “Please, no derogatory remarks concerning my legs;” the first issue of The Virginia Highway Historical Markers, copyright 1930; military buttons; a note penciled in the awkward script of a third-grade boy inviting his aunt to Christmas in 1941: “I want soldiers for Christmas. Daddy has got a big turkey. Can’t you come? Love, Donald”; Confederate currency; and packets of “male sheaths” that must have expired decades before I was even born. This is what it comes down to, I thought. Of all he might have done for the youngest generation of the family he was so proud of and spent a lifetime researching and discussing. What a legacy to leave instead. Nothing valuable. Mere souvenirs and mementos of a young boy who didn’t know his father would die two years later of a heart attack in his mid-forties; a young sailor describing the Suez Canal in a letter to his widowed mama; a long courtship with a woman who created a four-page birthday card out of construction paper for him but which did not develop into marriage. What Uncle Don saved seems to represent his Penrod era, what he considered his bestselling years. There are no baby photos of nieces and nephews; no handmade birthday cards or signed photographs from the woman who did become his wife; no evidence of, essentially, the second half of his life. In these boxes, Uncle Don remains young, virile, handsome, well groomed. Seeing the world, building his career, seducing young women, writing—always—home to his mama.
To be completely honest, we did inherit one solid thing. Sort of.
For someone with such storied wealth, Uncle Donald didn’t have much to dispose of in the end. None of the really fine family furniture or anything, which had all been dispersed over several decades. He had lived like a hermit for years upon years in a few closed-off rooms of his maiden aunt’s house that he shared almost to the end with his estranged wife. His living quarters resembled a college kid’s dorm of stained and makeshift furnishings that were well past their prime, with the single exception of his bed, which was my husband’s grand inheritance. I’d heard about Uncle Don’s bed from the beginning; my husband had been hearing about it since he was a kid. Some eighteenth-century English family heirloom that was bequeathed (for some antique reason) to his youngest nephew, my husband. Other nieces and nephews had already claimed other pieces leftover from the ancestral Virginia homeplace—dining chairs, a secretary that once belonged to a minor Jefferson—but since Uncle Don still used the bed, my husband wouldn’t come into his inheritance until Uncle Don no longer needed it. In anticipation of this event, my mother-in-law had been stating flatly for all the time I’d known her that we would absolutely need a new mattress. Eighteenth-century mattress sizes being hard to come by these days, it would require a handmade custom job. The bed, when I finally beheld it, was not what I expected. Small and plain, it’s an odd size for a guest room and it can’t accommodate a couple. How Uncle Don, certainly not a small man, slept in it comfortably for most of his life is beyond me. Therefore, the least ephemeral of our inheritance is substantially more inconvenient than the boxes pushed into closet corners, not to mention totally useless without an expensive custom mattress. Something else, I muttered, I might’ve bought with his phantom riches. It’s in storage—somewhere—at my mother-in-law’s.
Besides the money that did us no good, Uncle Donald saved souvenirs; he studied the family genealogy; he read history. He was a man who believed in the past and exuded nostalgia. He was always recalling, retelling, renaming—stories, places, people. Not only did he surround himself with the artifacts of his ancestors—the oil portrait and sideboard—but he relived the past as much as he could. He didn’t just live in his hometown; he lived in the very house his widowed mother shared with the maiden aunt he wrote the Christmas letter to. He married his high school sweetheart in middle life when she was a divorcée with a handful of children. He owned only rat terriers. He was serious about preserving the past and the family history. Childless himself, he offered $10,000 to nieces and nephews who named a son after him, he who was named after the Confederate grandfather. He wanted to write the autobiography of the boy he had been. There were no takers, not for the $10,000 nor for the autobiography. The marriage was not a success. The house went on the market. And Uncle Donald actively went about killing himself for the decade between the deaths of his older sister and older brother. He fell off the wagon, drank cheap wine, repeatedly ran his Cadillac into neighbors’ porches after drinking it, and courted obesity. As though the gods understood that he had no context without his mama or his sister or his brother, he survived the brother he idolized, my father-in-law, for a mere seven months. In the hospital, after suffering the last of a series of self-induced heart attacks, he squeezed my husband’s hand and pleaded, “Take me back to the mountains. Take me back to the hills.” He meant the small town in south Virginia where he had never lived but planned to be buried in the old family plot, bisected now by a state highway. In its own peculiar way, nostalgia finally killed Uncle Don. He had outlived himself. Even Penrod, the literary framework of his boyhood, the template of his past, was quaint and out of date, itself ephemeral and forgotten. There was only one way to stop the passage of any more time, to close once and for all the ever-expanding chasm between the past and the present. Nostalgia was what he lived for, and for this Uncle Donald was prepared to die. It was only fitting that his weakened heart should do him in as it had done in his father before him.
As far as I can tell, the boxes don’t contain our fortune. And what strikes me as most valuable among the tattered collection of our inheritance is Uncle Don’s short note in his most careful penmanship, inviting his maiden aunt (whose house he will one day own and grow old in himself) to Christmas dinner. It’s difficult to reconcile the roguish and unkempt Uncle Don I knew with the boy who wrote the note when he was the age of his grand-nephew, my son. Looking through the boxes, touching the aged paper I had been ready to recycle, I remembered about his Penrod story for the first time in years. All at once, in the midst of all my bitterness and disappointment, I felt bad he never got to write it. I felt bad that all he had was me—this Yankee Catholic niece by marriage—to paw through these slips and envelopes at the kitchen table, imagining what he might have done and cursing him for not doing it. I felt bad that there was only me to go through his ephemera, to make sense of it, to see the narrative (such as it is) in the collection of letters and photographs. . . and sheaths. Here he is, ensconced in his family, surrounded by his loved ones, living out a childhood he will grow up to idealize and long for and want to write about. Here he is as a Southern boy with a dog and his whole life and almost three quarters of the twentieth century ahead of him.
Unpacking these things and looking into the faces of nameless relatives and past girlfriends when they were in the midst of living and working and loving, I see all the things we leave behind for someone else to sort out, to try to find treasure in or make meaning out of. Uncle Don wrote names, dates, and places on the backs of his photos. He held onto them, preserved those moments and versions of himself, inscribed them with meaning. They’re all dead, or nearly so, now. And despite the pains he took to catalog them, I have no idea who they are or where they were anyway. They mean nothing to me. “You can’t repeat the past!” I want to shout at him. To restore my peace of mind, I must lay the college tuitions and roof and countertops to rest. I have to accept that all Uncle Donald really left us—except for the small, useless bed—was the opportunity to make if not money, then some meaning out of the archive.
All that is left of each life passage is the ephemera we save as souvenirs. Ephemera is ephemera. (And ultimately life is most ephemeral of all.) “But money,” I can hear Uncle Don say, “now you’re talkin’: money lasts. Money you can do something with.” If only Uncle Donald realized how much I subscribed to his philosophy. In his desperation, in the ache of nostalgia and tug of griefs that became too much to bear, he had lost the kernel of life. In looking backward so much, in retreating into the safe and predictable world of his memories, he stopped recognizing the potential in the present or the promise of the future. He who himself valued inheritance so deeply in all its forms—names, temperaments, houses—passed on nothing when the time came. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, he guaranteed that which he felt the lack of most: he had no heirs.
Toward the end, his talk at the dinner table was meaningless nonsense, odd bits from here and there—history books, memories, college football scores, William Wallace (his most recent but still long-gone rat terrier), the price of smoked salmon. His discourses met with awkward silence, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t talking to any of us, anyway. His mind was distracted, my mother-in-law said when she was feeling charitable. He was drunk, if she wasn’t. Either way, sitting in his usual chair in the dining room, one foot was already firmly planted in another world. It was eerie.
My husband, his disinherited nephew, did ultimately write about Uncle Donald. Not a eulogy; there was, after all, no memorial service, his estranged widow probably figuring it had been a long time since most people could remember many good things to say about him. But it did fall abruptly upon his nephew’s talents to compose Uncle Donald’s obituary as best he could. Feelings were raw. My mother-in-law’s vindication (she was right about him all along: of course he did nothing for any of us!) chafed. The nephew who did not (but still might?) write a literary homage to Uncle Don’s boyhood stretched to fill the local newspaper’s word count with as many positive, respectable facts as he could think of befitting an old rascal like Uncle Donald. The official obituary, appropriately enough, features a vintage photo of Uncle Don in his Navy uniform. It highlights his military service and his love of family history and reading and his lifelong residence in town. There’s no Penrod or Geordie the Butcher in a croker sack. This tame obituary falls far short, I know, of Uncle Donald’s great novelistic expectations. And now that’s a feeling I’ve inherited.