My Uncle Merle passed away last Friday. He’s been on my mind much of the weekend.
What will follow will not be a eulogy for him, because I didn’t know him well enough for that, nor do I want to do that sort of thing. Nor am I qualified to do so. Instead, I wanted to get down my impressions of Merle. A last remembrance, if you will.
To me, Merle always was, and always will be, that white-haired man with the kindly face and slight smirk lifting one side of his mouth. A smirk that said various things. At times, the smirk said he had a joke, likely a dirty one, that he knew was going to make you laugh in spite of yourself. A smirk that said he was anticipating something funny to happen. A smirk that said he found amusement in many things in life. A smirk that told you he was always in on the joke.
It never was a smirk of condescension. It was always pleasant. A pleasant smile on a pleasant face.
He also had a voice in the deeper registers. When I was a young child, I found it intimidating, but as I grew older, it was a welcome, comforting voice. And though deep, it always carried a lilt of laughter.
It was the perfect voice for my next memory of Merle. He had a side business for years as a DJ – Merle’s Music. I still remember his business cards. But more than that, I remember all the family events that he hosted. You could always find him behind the turntables, a drink nearby, lit from the small lamps. I remember that deep voice coming on between songs to make an announcement, crack a joke, or announce the next song. There’s certain songs that have been incorporated into me, right into my DNA because of Merle.
The song that everyone did “The Slosh” to…Daniel Boone’s Beautiful Sunday. Remember the song?
Hi <boom> hi <boom> hi <boom> beautiful Suuuuun-day
This is my <boom> my <boom> my <boom> beautiful da-a-ay!
Then there was Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Knock Three Times.
And Ringo Starr’s You’re Sixteen
And about a hundred other mid-70s hits that we’ve all forgotten. But Merle played them all. And there I was, a scrawny little kid, not yet in his teens, trying to act unimpressed at how uncool it all was, but secretly having a blast, my Uncle spinning all these great tunes. I can’t hear one of them today without seeing his face. And smiling.
The other memories I have of Uncle Merle was going over to his house. It was never the most spotless house you ever saw, but that never bugged me. He and Aunt Betty had a mess of girls to raise. I remember weekend afternoons in the main floor living room in the house. There always seemed to be a big pot of soup on in the kitchen that I always resisted eating, for some forgotten reason, but always loved once they’d plunked a bowl in front of me. That living room was where I read one of my first horror novels, THE RATS by James Herbert. I remember asking one of my cousins to explain the concept of “prologue” and “epilogue” to me. That room gave me my first glimpse into Mary Shelly’s original version of FRANKENSTEIN. The image of the monster on an ice floe still resonates almost forty years later.
It seemed like, in Merle’s house, there was always something to eat, something to laugh at, something to provoke your mind. That, to me, is a good house. That’s a home.
Downstairs in their rec room, funny enough, the thing that sticks out the most for me was that, though the basement was finished, there was this crazy metal support beam in the middle of the room that always seemed so incongruous to me.
Later on, Uncle Merle and Aunt Betty divorced and Merle moved into a different relationship with Nina. Around this time, we’d moved to Barry’s Bay, so I wasn’t seeing any of my aunts or uncles as regularly, and I was getting older. And everyone knows the world revolves around you when you’re seventeen. So I didn’t have much time for others.
Sadly, that’s where a lot of my memories of Merle end, as we fell out of touch after that.
But, around the time I was first married and my wife and I were looking for our first home, one of the houses we toured was the house Uncle Merle actually used to own. That same house of the soup and Frankenstein and the support beam. As I walked through the house, I could remember all the things I experienced there, but it wasn’t the same house anymore. Cleaned up for showing, no sign of all the girls and no pot of soup brewing in the kitchen, it just wasn’t the same place anymore. A house is just a house. It’s the people in it that make it a home.
And, a few years back, I attended a birthday celebration for one of my aunts, Hannah, sister to my mother and to Merle. And it was at this event that I was finally able to reconnect with my uncle. We sat and talked for quite a while, and it was good. It was really the first time I’d talked with him as an adult, and, though the deep, warm voice was softer now, the face more lined, the posture more stooped, I found him engaging, warm and just as funny as I remembered him when I was a kid.
And now he’s gone. This is the hard time, the time when those who knew and loved Merle will suffer his loss. His pain is ended, ours is here to be dealt with.
It’s easy, at times like this, when faced with the passing of a loved one, to wonder about the worth of it all. We put so much effort in, for so little reward at times. We’re trained to look for those big rewards: that promotion or raise at work, that big vacation, those big events like births or weddings…and yes, all those things can feel like justification for all the work you put in…but there’s precious few big rewards in life.
Instead, at least I believe, life is made up of very small, very subtle moments that can be life changing.
I think about those dances I attended as a kid, and I realize that Merle gave me an indelible sense of what good dance music is. I look at those memories of his home and I realize that a home with a pot of soup on, a home where there’s something there to provoke deeper thoughts, that’s a good home, a successful home.
Maybe these things are life altering, but for me, they are strong enough reminders that they tend to serve as course corrections for my life. I look at them as small trail guides along the way. So, not life altering, but maybe life adjusting is more the proper term.
And I think back to that crazy, unadorned incongruous metal support beam in the rec room of Uncle Merle’s old house. And, looking back, to me, that was Merle. In a house full of women, he was the only man, he was the one thing that was different in that house, and he supported it all.
Thanks for the small lessons, Uncle Merle. Thanks for the trail guides that I still use to this day.