“He was an ornery ole coot”, my mother would say. “Old Jack was a character though”, she would respond with a smile. “Got to love him.”
Uncle Jack, as I called him, because my mother was his wife’s sister, never said much to me. At family gatherings he would sit over in a corner chewing on his soggy cigar staring out a window while the women would chatter and gather in the kitchen.
His disheveled appearance and weathered skin showed a life of experience but he never spoke of it. He wore it like his old navy uniform I found in the attic after he died.
“Jack”, mom said, “was a boson’s mate in the navy.” I never understood what that meant, but he kept his uniform neatly folded and tidy in a wooden footlocker. There were some duty papers and picture in there too, but mom wouldn’t let me see them.
From the history I heard from mom, Uncle Jack went to work at the factory after the war. I have no idea of what he did or how long he worked there.
I did hear he got married to Aunt Thelma, mom’s sister. I never met her because she died in a streetcar accident and mom doesn’t talk much about her. I think mom didn’t like Auth Thelma’s choice of Uncle Jack, but there was little contact.
Mom took my sister Jenny and I to see Uncle Jack one time. He lived in this dilapidated apartment house on a side street in a poor section of time. I remember the room was bare with a table and a single bed and the footlocker and a chair by the window. Mom and Uncle Jack stood in a corner and she gave him some papers and a box. I don’t remember him saying anything. He just scolded and chewed on his cigar.
Jack (I never called him that for fear of getting a whack on the head) has a certain old smell. The dust on the floor and the unmade bed showed me he didn’t move around much. His sleeves were rolled up showing his old tattoos His crew cut had grown out but somehow he kept the sides clean. I never saw him light the cigar but it always had some ashes falling as he moved it from side to side in his mouth.
Uncle Jack had deep sunken eyes that seemed to see through you. They did not show any joy but just struggle. Perhaps it was his two sons who he raised but died in the next war. Maybe after his wife died, he gave up?
Mom bought a plaque to put on his grave that said “Jack”. Maybe that is all he was?