By Brian Panowich
“Your Uncle Walter died today. Just two weeks shy of his 99th birthday. He led a full life. No funeral.”
That was the entirety of the text message I received from my mother in June to let me know about the death of my uncle. Ninety-nine years of surviving on planet Earth condensed down into a perfect blue bubble, prepackaged and ready to be tapped, copied, and passed on, to everyone on your current friend list. If you think about it, it’s not unlike the telegraph messages sent back in the old days of the frontier west.
“Uncle Walter has died…stop. Two weeks shy of his birthday…stop. He led a full life…stop. No funeral…stop.”
We have almost come full circle in the communication arena. And it’s heartbreaking.
My uncle wasn’t blood kin. He was married to my father’s older sister, a wonderful woman who is one of my favorite people and an early inspiration to become a writer. My father had other siblings, and I’m sure I had other uncles, but none that I can remember or any that warranted the title. My Uncle Walter was a Long Island New Yorker who could be heard over everyone else in a crowded room and laughed just as loud — but only if whatever tickled him was legitimately funny. He didn’t fake it.
Unlike my grandfather, who was never seen wearing anything other than work pants and flannel, Uncle Walter always wore a tie to dinner and slicked his pomade to impress. Now, maybe I only think of him that way from my childhood because my core family was military and I only saw him on holidays, but something tells me otherwise. He carried mischief in his eyes, and I’d always understood, even as a child, why my aunt adored him. We all did. He shared an almost outlaw-like kinship with my father, and I remember always hoping to one day be in that club. I’m sure at the time that I was mostly just a chubby, annoying kid to him, but unlike a lot of my other family, he never made me feel that way.
He was the adult in the room that wasn’t concerned about the children climbing on the plastic-covered furniture or who had fallen asleep from a wine buzz before dinner on a pile of coats in the guest room. He was aloof that way. And I can still see the silhouette of him pulling out a smoke on the back porch, perfectly at ease with himself. And for a little kid like me, who never felt comfortable around anyone, he was as solid as they came.
I’d like to tell you that during my uncle’s tenure as a human being, that he lived an adventurous life. That he engineered freight trains and traveled the world, or that he hunted big game on safari or something equally as huge, but the truth is, I don’t know. Like I said, my family was always in transit. We never really knew the luxury of extended family. We only had brief encounters that never lasted long enough — like trying to capture smoke. I will say that he was always kind to me and never in a rush to be done with my company.
Sometime while I was a know-it-all teenager, my aunt and uncle had relocated to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The last time I was there, my father had to drive from New York to Georgia to get his idiot son of the latest mess he’d made of his life, and we stopped there on our way back north. I remember their home was like nothing I’d seen before and that sky way up there seemed massive. I hadn’t seen my uncle in a while, and he wasn’t quite the confidant huckster I remembered as a kid. He’d gone completely silver grey and seemed fragile, but not fragile like fine china. He was more like a glacier losing huge sheets of ice into the sea. He’d become stoic but still carried himself with that same ease of self that I used to admire. He also mostly resigned himself to his workshop adjacent to the main house where my father and my aunt spoke with hushed voices about what to do with me.
Walter tinkered with whatever he happened to be tinkering with that afternoon and I remember rolling my eyes when he waved me over to help. I handed him tools and nodded about things I knew nothing about until nightfall. And wow, the stars up there were magnificent. We stood out there looking up at those stars for a long time until he finally spoke to me. He pointed up at the thin sliver of moon and said it was a “nickel moon.” I shrugged. He said, “A nickel, just shy of a quarter.” I laughed at the joke, and he put a hand on my shoulder and told me it was going to be okay.
And he was right. It was.
It’s funny how I don’t remember what kind of contraption we’d been working on that day, but I remember the smell of the oil under my fingernails and that old man’s joke. I don’t remember what kind of nonsense had even led me there, but I remember the weight of my uncle’s hand and the ever-present mischief in his crooked smile. Maybe he remembered something about himself looking at me. I’d like to think so.
I’ll be fifty this year and more times than I’d like to admit, that notion has made me feel old, but today I realized that my uncle lived two of my lifetimes before he finally said goodbye to this place.
In the mountains. Under those stars. Next to the love of his life. We should all be so lucky.
And how’s this for a bonus?
It’s 1:01 a.m. in Augusta as I write this, and I just stepped out onto my own porch for a smoke. And I’ll be damned if that nickel moon isn’t up there just a grinnin’.
Here’s to you, Uncle Walter. I reckon I’ll see you when I’m done with my next fifty years.
Dusk photo by NO NAME from Pexels
Appears in the June/July 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.