Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Drink on Uncle Lushwell

I have the best aunts and uncles in the world. It’s just that I have so many of them that a few of them are bound to be noteworthy. My parents each had seven or eight siblings. One of my faves was my mom’s brother Bill, who used to tell us to call him “Uncle Lushwell.”

How to describe Uncle Bill? Kind of a lovable, hapless guy that you couldn’t help but like. Probably never hurt a flea in his life. Often had a unique way of looking at things and was always ready to tell you about it over a beer. At one point, he was governor of the local Moose Lodge. He was fond of such sayings as, “Gull-dang,” “squeeze the sponge,” and “Jeepers Cripes O Fridy!”

When we still lived in Pennsylvania, Uncle Bill would take us kids to the candy store every week. My mom used to blame him for my brothers’ bad teeth. We moved away when I was three, so my teeth were spared for the most part.

I have a vague, early memory of riding in Uncle Bill’s car with my three brothers. I think I was standing on the front seat of the car in the middle (before seat belt and child seat laws), when my eight-year-old brother Pete’s door fell open and he rolled out into the ditch. Fortunately, Uncle Bill wasn’t driving very fast because there was snow on the ground, and Pete just rolled into a nice fluffy pile of snow. He just got up and started running after the car, afraid we were going to leave him behind!

Like I said, we moved to North Carolina when I was three, which was 500 miles away. Every few years, Uncle Bill would come and visit us. Sometimes he’d get his buddy Abbie to drive him down to NC in his “Winnebango” – so he could drink all he wanted without having to make pit stops.

When he visited, he usually brought my parents two gifts: a paper grocery bag full of light bulbs and a case of Straub beer. The light bulbs were functional but rejected products of the Sylvania factory where he worked (57 watts instead of 60, for example). The beer was also a product of St. Marys that you couldn’t find outside a 50-mile radius.

Straub has been brewed in St. Marys since 1872, always without added sugar -- important, as Uncle Bill was diabetic. It initially came in green bottles, but as it was also made without preservatives, they began to sell it in brown bottles, to keep out the damaging light. You would think brown bottles would therefore be preferred, but Uncle Bill had to have his “Greenies.” He felt that since green-bottled Straub had a shorter shelf life, it would taste fresher.

The first time Uncle Bill came to visit, my parents weren’t yet very familiar with the Raleigh area, as we had just moved. In the early 1970s, Raleigh didn’t have a lot going on, but it had more going on than St. Marys. My dad thought he would take Uncle Bill and Uncle Tom, who was also visiting on this trip, downtown to find a nice watering hole and show them a good time. He found what looked to be a suitable place near Five Points, and the three of them went in.

A guy at the door told them he wasn’t sure if this was their kind of bar, but they all agreed they just wanted to have a beer, so they continued inside. Half-way into their drinks, Dad realized there weren’t any women in the bar and that he had just brought his two brothers-in-law from Catholic, smalltown Pennsylvania into a gay bar! They quietly finished their drinks and left before Dad let on to Uncle Bill what the deal was.

“Jeepers Cripes O Fridy!” He had a good laugh over it.

Uncle Bill was a lifelong bachelor, but for years, he was engaged (off and on) to a woman named Erma. As I understood it, Erma’s initial excuse for not marrying him was that she was living with and taking care of her frail mother. So, presumably, she was waiting for her mother to die(?!). But Mother, of course, lived on for many years.

Erma was a rather jealous woman; she was even jealous of me. One time when my family had made the trip to PA for a visit, which only happened every two or three years, Erma was mad because Bill wanted to spend time with us. He tried to bring her flowers to make up, but she wouldn’t take them. So, I got my first bouquet of flowers when I was seven years old.

A few years later, another big stink errupted when Uncle Bill decided he wanted to go on a Caribbean cruise. Erma would not accompany him, so he went without her. Afterwards, when they were back together again and we were visiting, I heard Erma say, “I don’t know why Bill wanted to go to the Virgin Islands. If he wanted a virgin, he could have stayed right here!” She was well into her fifties at the time.

When we weren’t able to visit Uncle Bill or vice versa, he would still come through on holidays. Holidays are very big with my mom’s side of the family and with everyone who lives in St. Marys. I’m not just talking about Christmas and birthdays either. Each Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and St. Patrick’s Day – maybe even the Fourth of July – I could always count on getting a card in the mail from good ole Uncle Bill, with a nice five or ten dollar bill stapled to the inside three times. He didn’t want the money to go flying out of the envelope when I opened it, so it was always stapled three times to the inside of the card. Well into my teens, throughout college, and into adulthood, I would get these cards, usually with the hand-scrawled message, “Have a drink on me. Love, Uncle Lushwell.”

I stopped getting cards from Uncle Lushwell after he died on the Fourth of July in 2001.

In 2007, while visiting other relatives in St. Marys, my brothers and I asked our Aunt Ada if she would take us up to the cemetery so we could visit him. She showed us to his gravestone. It was next to Erma’s. Erma still lives, and they never married, but they had purchased cemetery plots next to each other.

By coincidence, we had been wondering what to do with some leftover Straub beer before we left town. So, there on the hillside, on a beautiful sunny morning before noon, we opened a bottle of Straub in honor of Uncle Lushwell. We each took a sip and then let Uncle Bill “drink” the rest. I would bet after six years he really enjoyed it. And even though I usually prefer darker brews, that was one of the best beers I’ve ever had.

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