The last time I saw Uncle Fred, Grandma had been dead for a while. Mom and Dad had stuffed us into their Subaru hatchback—the shape and color of a lopsided dinner roll—and drove from our Appalachian home to Idaho. Five days later, we arrived, but we didn’t pull up to the orchard home, the place where Uncle Fred had once hung a swing for me during a previous visit. Instead, we turned into a bland suburban neighborhood and stopped at a bland house.
The way I see it, Grandma had been the primary source of nourishment for her family, so once she’d gone, some things turned to rot. I could be wrong, though.
During that visit to Idaho, I swore I picked up warm, honeyed hints of Grandma kept in a room off the den, the chestnut door closed, locked. Somehow, I got inside but don’t recall how. What I do recall are the old hutches lining the walls, hunched in shadows, shelves filled with Grandma’s teacups. The bone-white china, dotted with delicate flowers, glowed in the charcoal light filtering through the single window. To me, the room hummed, just like Grandma had.
By contrast, the den brooded, cast in hues of used coffee grounds and stale wheat bread. Granddad sprawled in a recliner, Uncle Fred standing at his side, friendly smile gone and a bizarre clacking emanating from his mouth when he spoke.
“Why do you make that noise?” I’d snapped. Once an adoring niece, I’d turned into an annoyed tween.
Gently, Uncle Fred told me about his ill-fitting dentures, how they slipped, raking and inflaming his gums, agonizing him anytime he talked.
As an adult, I work to understand how the uncle I remember, the smiling, laughing one, got remade (pounded) into a silent lump of a man. In my recollections, Granddad appears indifferent to his son’s agony. Decades later, Mom gives me the element I’ve been searching for; she tells me that her father had always thought of Fred as “lesser.”
The fragments are coming together, allowing me to better understand the making of my uncle, and how he wound up getting stored away like Grandma’s teacups after her death.