The first time I saw him it was in a photograph by my mother’s desk; a grumpy looking old man with a smile on his face, puttering around in a back garden. The picture just appeared there one day, my mother never telling us about it, who it was. I can remember looking at that 5 x 7 photograph, holding the frame in my hands, and wondering what it would be like if this man was still alive. Would he love and accept me for who I was? Or would I be having the same battle with them that I was having with my father’s parents? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I did actually find out if the man in the photograph would.
It was about 10 years ago; I was over visiting my mom when she told me the Brits, our family from England, were coming over. Whenever this happened my mother would wax nostalgic and tell stories about her and Janet, things they did in their youth, when my mom was over there with her own mother in her youth. This time though her stories expanded, and she told us all about Uncle Ernie, a man I had never met before. When I asked who Ernie was, she looked at me strangely and told me he was the man in the photograph that I had been looking at for years.
For about four years I had looked at this photograph, thinking he was my lost granddad, a man I would never know. A man I was trying to have a connection with in my own way, but couldn’t. That is of course, I could know. To be fair the man kind of looked like my granddad, or at least how I remembered him, a grumpy looking, weathered old bald man, with a smile on his face. I know it sounds odd to say grumpy looking with a smile, but I think the description is apt. I honestly think all the best old guys look grumpy, because I find they’re the most honest. So even though they can be a bit grumpy, as men their age have every right to be, he had a warm and inviting smile.
At this time in my life I really didn’t know a lot about family, as I had lost most of my own, after they heaped judgement on me for being gay. As well, a lot of my mother’s family were not in my life as there was some estrangement there that I can only attach to the fact that everyone hated my step-father. So I didn’t know much about family, and I was worried that they were all going to hate me as well. A fear that stayed with me for a very long time.
This fear was misplaced, because having all that family there, in that house I grew up in, people who I was related to, people who loved my mother fiercely, and were just meeting me for the first time. To have my mother’s sisters and cousins all in that house, was little overwhelming for me. It was honestly one of the first times that that house felt like a home to me. This was only further compounded when I had two women, that I didn’t know very well, stand up to my step father for me. Telling him to shut up so I could finish talking when he kept interrupting me, I nearly lost a hold of my emotions when this happened.
This was also when I got to meet the man in that photograph, a quiet spoken man, who I had trouble understanding a lot of the time, his accent being quite thick and my hearing being a bit damaged from years of playing the Trumpet. But I got to know him, and my aunt Lil, and although I didn’t hide the fact that I was gay, it was no secret either. Eventually they asked me if there was a special young man in my life, and I can’t tell you how much that simple question, a question I had never been asked before, meant to me.
I have come to understand that a lot of people don’t like being asked that question from their extended family, it’s awkward and embarrassing. But when it becomes so obviously a question that’s not being asked, when people ask your brother that question, but not you, it’s missed. But they asked, and so did my other family from over there. They actually cared and made a difference.
For such a long time I looked at that picture of Ernie, thinking he was my granddad, that part of me couldn’t help but feel that attachment to him. With the fact that he actually seemed to care about me, without conditions, well I was just so used to there always being strings attached that I forgot what it was like to be without them. This is especially true from father and grandfather like figures.
Today, June 19th, 2013, the world says good bye to this great man. He is being laid to rest that one final time today. In fact that funeral is probably happening around the same time that I am writing this. I have felt a wash of emotions about his passing, sadness that he’s gone; anger at myself for not knowing him better, at not making the effort to write; joy over the great memories I have of him, and guilt and shame over the feelings of anger and joy.
But it is the joy I want to hold onto. To remember this man and how he made me smile, and how he took me as I was, instead of some expectations of what I should be. I hold onto the fact that he seemed to actually want me to be happy, and I will take that with me on my road to recovery, knowing that he is in my corner. I want to hold onto that, knowing he’d want me to get better, even if he didn’t know everything that is going on in my life. He actually gave a shit, and so often we focus on the people who didn’t, that we forget that we have some pretty great people in our lives.
Today I am going to go have a pint for him, I was thinking of buying a second pint and not drink it, as a symbolic gesture for a man who can’t drink it that I’m saying good bye to. But if I’m going to be honest, he’d probably get pissed off at the waste of a perfectly good pint. But I will buy myself one, and toast the life of this great man and say goodbye in my own way. Even if I couldn’t make it across the pond to say goodbye, I will still do it in my own way.
I will also make an effort to remember all those people I have in my corner, instead of always remembering the ones that were in the ring with me, trying to beat me down. And do my best to get better, to live life to the fullest, and be happy, because he would have wanted that for me.
Rest in Peace Uncle Ernie. We will not meet again in this life, but I can’t wait to sit and have a pint with you in the next.