He never complains. I call him between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. every night and he is always upbeat.
“Hi Beverly,” he says and I hear a smile in his voice.
“Hi LeRoy,” I answer, and because he’s smiling, I smile, too.
LeRoy is my father’s youngest brother, the last of the Curtin clan, my grandmother’s baby, my only living uncle. He was born 94 years ago this Sunday, on Oct. 17, in Cambridge when Cambridge had more factories than universities.
He lives in Florida now. He and his wife, Janice, moved there to get away from the cold when he retired decades ago. They rode bikes back then, to the beach every day, to parks, to nowhere, to anywhere, simply to explore. They loved Florida. He loves it still, though his wife died in March and he lives alone and spends his days alone.
He has a helper, Trish, who takes him to the bank and the supermarket and to the doctor’s and to get his hair cut. But she does more than these necessary things. She cares about him, too. She stops by with a hamburger and french fries because he loves hamburgers and french fries. She checks on him when she’s on her way to somewhere else. She sorts his pills. She makes sure he’s using his walker. She cares about him though she met him only six months ago.
He is easy to care about.
“How was your day?” I ask every night when I call. The first time was just days after his wife died, his wife of 56 years who was 12 years his junior, whom he always expected would outlive him.
I was certain he would be overwhelmed that day, confused and angry. I expected him to tell me that he didn’t know what to do all by himself.
But that’s not what happened. Not then. Not now.
LeRoy is the youngest of three brothers raised in a tiny, one-bedroom house, their mother entertaining them with stories she made up, no money for books, their father gone for greener pastures before LeRoy was 1.
He tells me that my father was the fun brother, that nothing bothered him. But that the war and four years of combat changed him.
“Why aren’t you talking to LeRoy?” I asked my father many times over the years. My parents stopped talking to relatives or relatives stopped talking to them so often that I thought this was normal adult behavior. I don’t remember a single argument engendering any of these epic breaks. There was just sudden silence, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years.
My uncle was invited to my eighth-grade graduation but not to my wedding. “Why, Dad? Why?”
All this rolls off LeRoy. He doesn’t blame my father for his silences. He doesn’t hold a grudge. He talks about Larry who gave him a nickel for the movies, Larry who played ball with him, Larry who made sure he had part of the blanket on cold, winter nights.
On the phone, my conversations with LeRoy are brief. He has a phone that translates speech into text because his hearing is bad. But I shout anyway. We talk about The Red Sox, the cheeseburger Trish bought for him, and his wife’s cat Ike (named for General Eisenhower), who, when he’s not out on the town, is in my uncle’s lap purring.
Every night I tell him I love him and every night he tells me he loves me. “Talk to you tomorrow,” I say.
“Promise?” he asks.
And I promise.
For years before he died, my father had a desk calendar and every day that I called him, he would paste a foil star on that day’s square. He promised me a gold seal if ever I got a month full of stars.
I never got that seal.
I think about that calendar every time I call his brother. I think about family and connections and love given and love taken away and about three little boys in an unheated bedroom snuggling close to keep warm.
And I think about my father, free now from whatever made him angry or fed up or disappointed, glad that I talk to his brother, not resentful that I am doing the very thing for LeRoy that he wanted me to do for him.
“Hi Beverly,” LeRoy says.
“Hi LeRoy,” I shout back.
And every day between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. I hear my uncle’s smile. And every day, I believe a little bit more, that somewhere my father is smiling, too.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at email@example.com.