Posted 11-11-2004 at 08:41:38
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At fourteen, I was a bit of a rebel. While the world around me "kept on truckin' ", and the government found the technology to rebuild Lee Majors into the six-million dollar man, I was desperately searching for who I was and who I was going to be; rolling my hair up in empty juice cans, happy face stickers plastered across every available surface, and the words "peace" and "groovy" punctuating my every sentence. I was the quintessential seventies chick.
There's a black sheep somewhere in everybody's family. In my dad's family it was his younger brother, Bobby. Bobby was a rebel. A free-thinker. Okay... Bobby was a hippie. What little I had heard about him led me to believe that he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. At the time, anything that went against my parents beliefs was "groovy". Bobby fit the bill. He was the stereotypical teenager that never grew up. It was Thanksgiving Day of nineteen seventy-four that I met Uncle Bobby for the first time, and his timing couldn't have been worse.
For the five-day week preceding Thanksgiving, I had been skipping school. Not just a few classes, but whole days. It was alarmingly easy. I was dropped off at school by the school bus, and then a friend and I crossed the street and caught the city bus which took us to Northcross Mall, where we hung out and played video games all day. I was poor as a church mouse, but Liz--my buddy, had money to burn. There's a very real possibility that had we not gotten caught, we would still be there today feeding quarters into the PacMan game with wild abandon.
But we did get caught. In fact, my loving brother dropped a dime on us. He was sporting an F in math, so when he found out that I had been skipping school for a week, it didn't take long for him to figure out that shifting the parental focus would work to his advantage. Unfortunately, the news was delivered to my stunned mother and father within minutes of the arrival of my uncle Bobby. I was staring down the barrel of two sets of enraged eyes, the smell of roasting turkey and fresh home made bread heavy in the air, when he pulled into the yard in his psychedelic Volkswagen van and screeched to a stop. My dad answered the door.
"Hey man." I heard a drawl. "It's been a long time!" There was the sound of an awkward hug and then..."I was in town, and I thought I'd drop by and do the bird thing with ya."
Translation: It's Thanksgiving, and I'm lonely and you're feeding me turkey whether you want to or not.
"Come in." My dad said stiffly. "Have a seat. I have a little something to take care of, I'll be right back." With that, he pointed down the hall and my stomach tied up in a knot. I knew what was coming. However, that long walk down the hall gave me a chance to think over what I had seen of Uncle Bobby. His reputation had preceded him and his subsequent appearance did not disappoint. His dark hair was down to the middle of his back and held out of his face with a headband. He wore a tattoo over his right bicep that proclaimed FREEDOM! in inch-high letters, a leather vest with no shirt underneath, dingy jeans, and sandals on his feet. He was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life, and now... he was going to get to listen to me get my butt torn up for skipping school. The injustice!
"Assume the position." My dad said as he closed the his bedroom door. Being in my parents bedroom was never conducive to a good memory. It was the place we went when we were sick (mom and dad's big double bed served as a quiet place for fevered children) and the place we went when we were in trouble (the foot of the same bed served as a place to rest the hands and better expose the rear-end).
Dad wasted no time on a perfunctory lecture, but lit right in with a vengeance, the buckle of his belt tinkling in time.
"If I ever...whack...hear of you...whack...skipping even one minute...whack...of school again...whack...I'll whup you til you can't sit for a week!... Whack-a-roooni!..."
The last one was designed to send home the message for good and all, and was always the worst. I stood there and took it all. What else could I do? I had it coming. It was not an unfair attack. It was the physical expression of a severely disappointed parent. Even so, that little rebel spirit that possessed me (and the fact that Uncle Bobby was sitting in there in the living room in all his renegade glory) shored me up, so I shed not one tear and felt not one ounce of remorse. I had to show Bobby that I was tough, I could deal with this, it was just another day of being a teenager.
A few hours later, I was sitting (gently) on the front porch--basically hiding--when Uncle Bobby sought me out.
"Hey there, little sister. How goes it?"
I sniffed once and then unleashed my rage.
"I hate him!" I said, knowing it was the worst kind of betrayal to my father. "I can't wait to get away from here! Take me with you when you leave? Pleeease?" I turned tear-soaked eyes on him beseechingly, and he blushed.
"Oh, now...I couldn't do that. I have a feeling your father would chase us down and skin me like a coon."
"But they don't understand anything!" I insisted.
In that moment, minutes before turkey time and with my rear-end still tingling from the assault, uncle Bobby proved to me that even thirty-something year old hippies with tattered clothing, and no place to call home, are capable of possessing that certain type of wisdom that can only come from the heart.
"You know..." He said conversationally, as though changing the subject, "I have a daughter about your age." He was studying his sandals as though the answer to all the worlds questions could be found there.
"You do!?" I asked, amazed. I had a cousin that I didn't know about? How could that be?!
"Yes, I do. Her name is Amelia."
"Well..." I asked the obvious question..."where is she?"
"I couldn't tell you, little sister. I saw her with her mom at Woodstock. She was nine at the time. Prettiest little thing you ever saw. Big 'ol blue eyes, and blonde hair down to there." I glanced at him quickly, but he didn't indicate where 'there' was, so I assumed that her hair must have just gone on forever.
"But, how can...I mean, how can you...?" I stammered. The fact that he had a child and had no idea of her whereabouts just boggled my mind.
"Not know where she's at?" He looked at me then, right in the eye. "Well, how do you think?"
It was then that all the answers came to me, and in that moment, I knew all I needed to know about uncle Bobby. I knew who he was, and what he stood for. It was also then, that mom came to the front door.
"Dinner's ready, you two."
I never tasted the turkey, or the dressing, the mashed potatoes and gravy. I didn't taste the rolls or the creamy butter. I ate automatically, as I was too busy doing comparisons. I was comparing Daddy's work boots to Uncle Bobby's sandals. His plaid shirt; the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, to Bobby's grungy vest. Daddy's clean hands and pristine fingernails, scrubbed to within an inch of their lives, to Bobby's dirty ones that looked like he had been working on his van and forgot to wash up after. Daddy's neat haircut against Bobby's long, flowing locks.
Bobby knew all this was going on; he turned and studied me and winked at me each time I reacted with startled embarrassment at having been caught. By sacrificing my opinion of him, he gave the means to understand what was important. He gave me the greatest gift anyone could have given me at that turbulent time in my life. He gave me a basis for comparison and an ability to recognize the choice he had made--versus the choice my father had made, and I will love him forever for it.
Bobby left shortly after dinner and I haven't seen him since. I don't know if he's alive or dead. As far as I know he could still be rattling around in that old van and catching his meals where he can. I don't know any more about him than Amelia did, but I suspect that he may have never done anything right in his entire life...short of setting me straight on Thanksgiving Day, 1974.