Writing recently about my cousin Mosey ("A Nine Year-Old's Idea Of A Good Deed") brought to mind a considerably closer relative, my Dad’s youngest brother, my delightful, funny and pleasure-loving Uncle Irving. My memory of his remarkable passion for life reminds me of his recalling some particularly delicious Italian ice cream he’d once tasted, and watching his face explode with Epicurean rapture.
When my Dad died, it was my Uncle Irving who stepped into the surrogate male- parental breach. It was he who responded to my birthday present desires, even when, as a pre-teen, and a fan of a then current TV western, I requested a Bowie knife. Uncle Irving got me one. Though, I suppose for safety sake, it was a considerably smaller replica of the one Jim Bowie wielded so heroically on his show.
(Remember the “Jim Bowie” theme song, that began,
He roamed the wilderness, unafraid
From Natchez to Rio Grande
With all the might of his gleaming blade
He fought for the rights of man.
Jim Bowie, Jim Boweeeee…
If you’re under a hundred, this will probably mean nothing to you.)
My Uncle Irving was a playful pincher, and slightly naughty joke teller.
“You know what comes out of an elephant’s penis when he gets excited?”
My Uncle Irving was also, apparently, prescient. For my Bar Mitzvah, he (and my marvelous Auntie Bea) presented me with a pale green Olivetti portable typewriter. When I left for Hollywood, that typewriter went with me, where I used it to tap out my first freelance script assignments. I did not replace it until, after a number of unpaid audience warm-up performances, I was awarded an IBM Selectric Two (with Correct-Tape). Though, to this day, I retain my Bar Mitzvah-present typewriter.
After my paternal grandmother (Uncle Irving’s mother) curtailed her mega-Seders, Uncle Irving presided over more intimate Passover gatherings, rewarding the male members of the family’s robust singing and participation with Tuero cigars, wrapped in paper-thin balsa wood, and sheathed in silver metal cylinders.
I never experienced Uncle Irving less than boisterously congenial. Except when, for reasons now forgotten, I visited him at his workplace, our family-owned dry goods store, which he took over after my father’s passing, and discovered a tense and surly man that I barely recognized. This eye-opening experience gave me a vision of what the burden of responsibility can do to you that I unfortunately assimilated all too well.
But primarily, Uncle Irving conjures joyous memories, my favorite being rare but exhilarating excursions to Toronto Maple Leaf hockey games on Saturday nights, a designation known far and white as “Hockey Night in Canada.”
What was it like? Fenway Park. Wrigley Field. Maple Leaf Gardens. Same idea. Same feeling. Chills. And not because it was winter.
One particularly outing leaps memorably to mind. My Uncle Irving took me to a game, accompanied by a friend and contemporary of his, named Victor. The night was shimmering perfection. Three guys at a hockey game. And one of them was me.
I was, maybe, ten.
The game’s going on. I am almost too excited to breathe. Finally, it’s time for food. I hear my eager little boy’s voice chirp, “I’ll get it!”
Uncle Irving and his friend Victor share a look. “Do you think he can handle it?” Finally, they relent. (It's most likely they were playing with me, but when you're a kid, or at least me as a kid, you don't know the difference.)
Uncle Irving entrusts me with a five-dollar bill, and they rattle of their orders. It is my job to commit them to memory. Who wants mustard, who wants relish, what kind of soft drinks they prefer, how many “peanuts”?
“Can your remember all that?”
And off I go. My goal is to purchase and bring back the food, while missing as little of the game as possible.
I am very excited.
I’m in line at the Concession Stand, impatiently awaiting my turn. Finally, I’m at the counter, repeating my order exactly as I’d rehearsed it. Fifty or sixty times.
The refreshments are brought, I pay, and off I race, back to the seats, my mission impeccably accomplished.
Except for one thing.
I had forgotten the change.
More than two of the five dollars I had been given.
I immediately panic. What should I do? If I return to the Concession Stand and say, “I forgot the change”, would they believe me, or say, “Get outta here, kid!”
Could I handle a dispute with a grown-up? I knew, to my shame, I could not.
But there was also shame waiting for me back at the seats.
“I forgot the change.”
Shaking heads and heaving sighs of regret.
“What a baby.”
“We should never have let him do it.”
I did not relish that moment of reckoning. For a moment, I considered disappearing. Just “Poof!”
“And he was never seen again.”
It was magical thinking. Though the unreality did not exclude it from consideration.
I had no choice. I would return to Uncle Irving, and take my medicine.
I am at back at the seats. Uncle Irving relieves me of the refreshments, doling the appropriate portions to his friend. I see smiles and hear compliments.
“A perfect job,” I am told. They are about to learn otherwise. On the verge of confession, I hear my Uncle’s voice continue:
“And for doing so well, Nephew, you may keep...
I remember nothing about that game. Who the Leafs played that night. Who won. I recall only one thing.
I had miraculously dodged a bullet.
And for that I was truly content.
I was in California when my Uncle Irving died, at the hideously young age of forty-seven. I did not get to say goodbye, or thank you.
In some small but, hopefully, meaningful way, I have tried to make up for that today.
An extra special shout-out today to my brother on his "big number" birthday.
My brother taught me many important lessons, perhaps the most important being, when you're crossing the street, you should always look the driver of the car headed in your direction straight in the eye, rather than ignoring them and counting on their doing the right thing. I have followed that advice, and, as yet, have not been run over.
Thank you for keeping me alive. And for numerous other favors as well.