I was sixteen when I saw my Uncle George for the last time. He lay in a hospital bed. The sheet that covered him was hardly moved by his shallow breathing. He whispered a greeting and a few broken sentences, but mostly he drifted in and out of sleep. I knew he was dying, and it was very hard for me to look at him. But when I did, I saw he had saved his best conjuring for last. His face, which was all that showed, was clear. None of the redness, the blotches, the crusty patches that had for so long made him unattractive to so many. Instead, his skin appeared fresh and new, untouched by age or the difficult life he had led. He looked so different, it was hard to believe Uncle George lay before me. Later that night, I wondered if I had imagined his transformation.
A few days later, on the way from his funeral to the cemetery, I finally asked my mother about George’s skin. I found I hadn’t imagined the change; it had taken her aback as well. Her theory was that George’s skin problems had “gone inside” him, causing his death. This didn’t make much sense to me, but I had no better explanation then, nor do I have one today. But now whenever I think about George or see an old photo in which he appears, two images commingle: the ravaged face that for so long presented the lonely eccentric to the world and the unmarked countenance of his last days, the face of what . . . I am never sure, but I keep looking.
I was born about a year before the United States entered the Second World War, and when my father left to fight, my mother and I went to live with her mother in a large gray house with many rooms, several staircases, a large porch and an expansive lawn. When I was young, I was always uncertain about where I had lived before my grandmother’s house or if I had ever lived anywhere else. It really didn’t matter much: the big gray house was all I remembered. By then my grandmother had been a widow for about fifteen years. But the house still reflected my grandfather’s success as a businessman. The family recalled with pride that the house had been the first in town wired for electricity. When I was older, I saw that it bore signs of familial decline, but as a child, I loved it and thought it magnificent.
It had once been busy with the bustle of my mother, her three sisters and two brothers, but now the house was quiet with only one sister and Uncle George, both unmarried, still living there. My grandmother, who had difficulty getting around, spent most of her days in a chair in her bedroom reading or listening to the radio. As soon as I learned to manage the stairs and landings, I began regular trips to her room. She knew many wonderful stories. She taught me to crochet and to play cards. And she kept small candies in a drawer near her chair. On Saturdays, my aunt often took me to the movies where my ticket cost sixteen cents. Later I learned she drank, a lot. But she loved me, and I remember that we laughed a great deal together. Uncle George worked for an insurance company as an actuary. Later I learned that he was widely considered odd, and that he, too, drank a lot. But while I lived with him, he was a photographer, story teller, magician, fisherman—and great fun.
One of our favorite activities was cloud watching. On rare days, clouds puffing up on one another make a white on blue kaleidoscope. Stirred by the invisible hand of the wind, they move with stately grace from one pattern to another. George taught me to watch these displays. There we’d be, lying on our backs on some grassy spot, spectators to a fantastic performance. Often to get me started, he would point out an animal or a fairy tale character forming in the sky. Sometimes the clouds made an unambiguous image, and I saw what he saw. But it wasn’t always so simple. His cat could be my horse. Or a character from one of my books that seemed so clear to him might stay hidden from me. It wasn’t long, however, before I could find figures in the clouds that he had missed, and when I did, Uncle George always marveled at my discoveries. But assemblages in the sky slowly twist and turn into existence and back out, so agreement between us on any particular cloud picture was provisional at best. While this made watching engaging, it also made it frustrating. What you saw was never lasting.
Whenever the skies were right, if Uncle George wasn’t around, I’d enlist mother or my aunt. In the billowing above, however, I often discovered hidden figures apparently meant only for me. No matter how much I pointed and how carefully I described them, neither my mother nor my aunt could see what I saw. Uncle George took watching clouds much more seriously than they did. He was certainly better at it. For one thing, he was never in a hurry, never had someone waiting, something he needed to do. Indeed, he always impressed upon me that cloud watching rewarded patience. A first look could lead you astray, causing you to miss the best. Even in a sky with only wisps floating in an expanse of blue, prolonged watching could reveal smudges and layers of different hues. My uncle taught me then to focus my eyes on the deepest part of the sky as though to see through it. The air would shimmer and streaks of light would slice across. When I was a year or two older, he took me out to look at the night sky, which repaid serious watching in its own way. Spaces between stars that initially seemed empty would gradually fill, first with faint patches of light and then with more stars. And if we stayed very still and tried the same trick, to see beyond the sky, more filaments of light would slowly emerge.
For a few years after his death, I occasionally watched the sky alone. When I lay on my back, giving myself up to George’s way of intense looking, my seeing would sometimes become feeling. As planes of light or clouds emerged, I felt that I enveloped them. The more intently I looked at the sky, the more I expanded, the more of it I took in. That sensation was the true reward. But it could be too much. Then I was like a balloon expanded to the point of bursting. If I took in any more sky, I would explode. I had to look away. With a shudder, I would shake that feeling out of myself. Afterwards, I felt I had barely escaped something disastrous or momentous or wonderful. Yet what that something was, I couldn’t say. Even now, many years later, this part of sky watching has a hold on me. Sitting very still, I can imagine myself again on the grass, staring at the sky. That same mysterious feeling begins to stir within me. Sometimes I let it grow until I can’t stand it any more, then with a spasm I cast it off. As before, remnants of the experience linger, but I still have no words for them.
While my grandmother benignly governed her upstairs domain, my uncle gruffly ruled his downstairs den. In that room, I was introduced to his fisherman’s collection of tied flies and his old wicker creels, baskets for storing caught fish. Once when he returned from fishing, I had seen several fish in his creel, one with a hook still in its mouth. The flies particularly intrigued me. Arrayed in their flat box, bright-colored and feathered, they seemed the miniature flags of some tiny army of elves or fairies. But they were dangerous. Uncle George frequently warned me of the sharp points concealed by their plumage. Once he pressed the barb of a hook against my palm to emphasize the danger. Although the point had only reddened it, I imagined the hook piercing my skin, pulling it to the point of tearing, like the mouth of that fish I had seen. From then on, I made sure never to get too close to the case of flies for fear that one might somehow snag me.
The creels were much safer, and my uncle let me play with them. He had three or four woven from wicker with leather straps holding the tops to the baskets and longer straps for carrying them. The wicker, which had been varnished, was smooth and shiny except in a few places where broken or splintered pieces stuck out. When I lifted the top of a creel, it creaked slightly as though wanting to keep its contents hidden. Two had tops with secondary openings, little doors through which I could peer into the baskets. Uncle George told me that these let you see the fish inside, but kept them from jumping out. So when I played with these creels, I put several of my toy soldiers inside and peered in at them through the top. They were my prisoners, and I had to make sure that they couldn’t escape. Sometimes, depending on how I held the creel, the soldiers disappeared in darkness. If I stared into the hole, I might see only vague hints of their forms. I imagined they had fled after all. Then quickly I would open the top for a reassuring view of them lying inside.
Off one end of my uncle’s den was his darkroom. At first, I wasn’t allowed in the darkroom, although I could sit on the floor outside playing with the creels or looking at picture books while Uncle George worked on his prints. Sharp smells wafted from under the door, and I could hear the mysterious sloshing of liquids mingled with intermittent mumbling and singing. Often he emerged from the dark room with nothing to show for his efforts. His prints, black and white, were either drying or “just no damn good” and consigned to the trash.
When he did come out with prints, my uncle took great pains to review them with me. We sat on the floor outside the darkroom with the pictures scattered haphazardly about us. Although my uncle’s work was generally representational, his images sometimes emerged from a mix of light and shadow that made them hard to recognize on first look. A picture of tree branches lit from behind by sunlight and darkened in the foreground by masses of leaves might seem to be some intricate sculpture. Or an initially confusing picture might have been taken from an unusual angle or distance. The side of an old barn photographed close-up at an acute angle was like a stretch of recently raked sand. So for me, the first viewing of a new batch of prints was another delightful guessing game. What was it? And then, because my uncle seldom went very far from home to take his pictures, a second challenge was to identify the place, the building, the object in the picture. Unlike my mother and aunt who, when I couldn’t see their figures in the clouds, gave me copious hints, my uncle offered no help. I had to do it on my own. Sometimes that meant a whole day would pass without my recognizing a particular image. In that case, my uncle would leave the picture on the floor so I could return from time to time to study it. When I had a new idea, I would bring it to him, who like a Zen master judging a student’s answer to a koan, would accept the answer or reject it with no further comment. In some undetected way, however, George must have guided me with those uncertain images, because I don’t recall ever failing such a test for long.
When I got a bit older, my uncle let me into the darkroom to watch him work with his enlarger and trays of developing solutions. I was enthralled by the images gradually forming under the liquid. Like cloud figures, they swirled into being. But unlike those pictures in the sky, once the photographs materialized, they remained fixed, each capturing just a moment in time. Outside the darkroom, I seemed to be the sole audience for my uncle’s work, because after I’d seen and studied his prints, he generally stacked them with others in piles on his desk or stuffed them into folders scattered on the floor. I never saw his pictures anywhere else in the house. When he died, I acquired a small collection of his work, which I would look through from time to time. I always thought he was a good photographer. Now, however, I find I have only a few of his pictures. Somehow I lost the rest.
Shortly after my father’s return, we moved to a duplex a mile or so from my grandmother’s house. In our visits, we usually found my aunt at home, but George was often away. And unlike my aunt, he almost never came to our place, so I saw much less of him than I had during the war. When we did find him at home, I always headed to his den to play with his creels or see his latest pictures. Now he also kept magic coins there, which he could make disappear from his hand and reappear in my pocket or in my ear. “Watch closely,” he would say as he shuffled them in one hand then covered them in the other. “Look carefully.” But I couldn’t see the trick, how he made the coins vanish.
Once I outgrew toy soldiers, the creels lost their appeal. And in time I learned that George’s magic was just moderately clever sleight-of-hand. Still I had reason to visit his den. Among his photographs stacked on his desk, stuffed in a chair or scattered on the floor, there was always something engaging to be found, something to connect me again with Uncle George. But back in our home, when my parents talked about him, I began to recognize a certain tone in their conversation, one they used when they were exasperated with me. Even when my mother said she loved him dearly or my father declared what a smart guy he was, I could sense that there was something wrong with him. I was beginning to learn that Uncle George was “eccentric.”
It wasn’t long before my parents’ picture of my uncle became mine. There we would be, a group of nine- and ten-year olds with our basketball coach in an otherwise empty gym. Well not quite. My uncle, rumpled blue suit, tie arranged haphazardly, would be standing alone at the far end watching us play. Even in summer, he would be wearing his overcoat or have it hung over his arm. And indoors, he would still wear his porkpie hat. In later years, he would be standing at a baseball game or near the football field, dressed the same way, looking somewhat lost. I usually met him after games, but he never had much to say. Later, when there were bigger crowds, he just faded away once play was over. Occasionally someone, often a teammate, would call attention to him, adding some comment about his appearance. When I was younger, I hadn’t noticed his blotchy red face, his odd mustache, his dandruff, his big belly, his heavy breathing, all of which attracted the unkind notice of my friends. What bothered them now bothered me, and slowly I began to find my uncle not just an eccentric, but an embarrassment as well.
By the time I was starting high school, my uncle and I had more or less parted ways. Our family had by then moved to the edge of town, still only a few miles from my grandmother’s house, but that shift in geography seemed to put George out of reach. My grandmother had died after living with us for several years during which she absorbed most of my parents’ energy, leaving them little time to seek out my increasingly reclusive uncle. George’s attendance at my games became more sporadic, and when we met, he seemed even more distracted as though he was not quite sure why he was there.
Perhaps because of his mother’s death, he began to drink more, and on several occasions, my mother and father left on rescue missions to pick him up at some bar or help him recover at his apartment. Remarkably, even during his times of heavy drinking, he kept his actuarial job. Perhaps his more erratic behavior was seen simply as a manifestation of his widely noted eccentricity. But then one of these rescue missions ended at the hospital. Not just because George was drunk, but because he was sick as well. Very sick, it turned out, although no one told me the nature of his illness. In those days, I think, people were less forthcoming about diseases, at least with teenagers.
I visited him a couple of days after his admission. Now he did indeed look strange, wearing some kind of hair net and covered by a sheet pulled up to his chin. How different he sounded when he spoke. His voice, which had always been raspy, came even more hoarsely from a hollow deep within. He seemed less to speak his words than to expel them with contractions of his abdomen. I could even see the sheet over his big stomach lift and fall raggedly. Now I know he was preparing himself. As from shifting clouds, something new was on the verge of becoming.
Several of my uncle’s photographs are a part of my motley collection of childhood memorabilia. They aren’t the kind that puzzled me in his den long ago, which were usually extreme closeups that recast everyday objects as abstractions whose meaning hovered just outside my understanding. These are black and white pictures with easily discernible subjects. One shows the shore of a lake, the view of the rocks, sand and water beyond framed by clusters of birch trees. In the second, some old snowshoes, wood with leather bindings, lean against the wall beside the door of a rustic cabin, which is surrounded with snow. I know the lake, I remember the snowshoes. These pictures recall my childhood.
The subject of the third picture is equally clear, but I don’t recognize it. Yet this photograph moves me the most. It shows a dilapidated barn, seen from across a field of tall dry grass, standing forlorn against a wooded backdrop. The door of the barn is ajar, opening to a deeply shadowed inside. A broken window similarly reveals interior darkness. Many times I’ve looked at this picture. I’ve studied the rough exterior of the barn and the rusted tools that lie before it. I’ve devoted myself to the roof with its loose shingles and apparent holes. I know the outside of this barn very well. I can remember being there. Unlike my memories of the lake and the snowshoes, however, this remembrance is invented. I never visited the barn, but I have looked at the picture so often that it has become an artifact from my childhood around the time of the war. At first Over the years, I sometimes felt that I knew what lay behind those walls, but soon found I didn’t. Sometimes I sensed that, defying natural law, something would emerge from within. But nothing came. It was, of course, just a picture, not a display in the clouds. Patient waiting and looking didn’t help. So my imagination furnished the inside with an old broken wagon, a few harnesses, some piles of hay and a torn and faded blanket. That is how I know the barn now.
But when I see that barn, its rough exterior and its isolation, I also remember Uncle George himself standing apart after some game, looking lost. His blemished exterior—his blotchy skin, his dandruff, his clothes and his odd behavior told people how they should imagine him inside. When I was a child, I hadn’t learned to attend to his looks or behavior. For me, as I have said, he was simply great fun. In time, however, attention by my parents and friends to what was outside changed my view of what was inside as well. The barn probably fell into decay after it was abandoned. But I was with Uncle George however as decline and isolation enveloped him. That is why after all the years, the picture saddens me. And why I have decided that in his last days in that hospital bed, Uncle George became more than a cloud watcher. He became a cloud figure himself, his old burdensome complexion fading out and his new clear features fading in. For a brief time, he displayed for us a new, truer manifestation of his inner self. Then, like a cloud figure, he slowly turned and finally faded away.