The moment I pulled the card from the pink envelope bearing Uncle Bill’s distinct scrawl, a crisp twenty slipped onto my lap. Suddenly my mind wandered back to fourth grade, when he’d started giving me and my sister each a dollar when we visited. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to become a thing. But decades have passed and I don’t exactly remember the details. On one visit, he simply gave us each $1 and said something like, “Here’s a buck for being good.” My sister, who was in preschool, thought this was fabulous. As I recall, the next time we saw him she asked if we were going to get another “buckie” — thus launching the tradition.
That was big money for us. I’d stash my “buckies” in a bureau drawer and save to buy MAD magazine or Tiger Beat (so I could plaster my side of the bedroom with posters of Shaun Cassidy and Andy Gibb). My sister didn’t hold onto hers for long, often spending it on candy on the ride home from our aunt and uncle’s house.
As we grew older, the buckies morphed into bigger bills on special occasions only. Uncle Bill and Auntie Peggy would stick $10 or $20 in our birthday cards, just like they did with each of their four kids. Graduations, weddings, and other milestones merited slightly more. Once we became adults with jobs, my sister, cousins, and I felt weird accepting the money; my aunt and uncle weren’t rich, and we wanted them to be a little less giving. But they insisted, hoping we’d splurge on a small treat or that it’d come in handy for gas or another necessity.
My uncle’s generosity had little to do with money, though. For my sister and me, what mattered was that he always remembered us. We were his brother-in-law’s daughters, and we had a dysfunctional home life that sometimes brought chaos to his doorstep. He never showed any signs of irritation around us; he just seemed to get steadier, providing a much-needed father figure. My jovial uncle helped teach us to play Wiffle ball in backyard games, inspected our report cards, entertained us with goofy jokes, and took us to see the planes take off at Logan Airport, where he once worked. When we learned to drive, he made sure we knew how to check the oil and lectured us about always having at least a half tank of gas. At my college graduation, I heard him cheer as my name was called. When my sister got married, he walked her down the aisle, and later when she had daughters of her own, he read them Sandra Boynton board books, using funny voices and sound effects, just like he did with his other grandchildren.
Auntie Peg long held the role of greeting card chief. But in 2019, knowing she was terminally ill, Peg gave Uncle Bill a book in which she’d documented the addresses, phone numbers, birthdays, and anniversaries for pretty much everyone in their universe and instructed him to carry on. After 60 years of marriage, it was a long list, but I suspect that was the plan. She wanted him to stay busy, to have purpose, to remain connected.
A big man with an even bigger heart, he embraced his assignment. Without fail, we received cards for St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and, of course, birthdays. He dutifully addressed the envelopes and wrote a note in each card. He’d tuck in a little cash for certain occasions and maybe a cartoon he’d cut out from a newspaper, then had his daughter Cheryl or his sister-in-law Nancy mail it.
This year he handed me my card the day before my birthday. At the time, he was sitting in his bedroom, next to the hospital bed that had been delivered the week before by a hospice agency. When I opened the card at home later, it literally hit me as the twenty fell out: This is my last buckie. I let the tears flow. Then I carefully slipped the money and card back into the envelope and placed them in a bureau drawer, like I did when I was a kid. Uncle Bill died two months later. No magazine or trinket will ever be enticing enough to get me to part with that twenty. It will remain in the drawer, to remind me of the man who never forgot his family.