"That Jack is a real card," my mother or father would say, with a shake of the head and a half-smile, seeming to indicate that being a card was both a good and a bad thing. Clearly, being a card would not be acceptable for most people, and certainly not for any of our repressed family unit, but with Jack, perhaps an exception could be made. "What are you gonna do," the other one would respond, with a complementary shrug of the shoulders.
Mom and Dad were talking about my Uncle Jack, who wasn't actually my uncle, though we were directed to call him that. Uncle Jack was my Dad's first cousin, which made him my cousin also, but I guess it didn't sound right to call him Cousin Jack, and for sure kids didn't call adults by their first names. That would have been disrespectful. Whatever the name, I loved Uncle Jack. He was one of our only relatives who laughed and told jokes and stories, and, best of all, included the children in the conversation. When Uncle Jack came to visit, I felt like I'd been released from the gloomy silence our family lived in most of the time.
Uncle Jack was a big man, though not solid. He was fat, actually, and kind of sloppy-looking. His shirt was always untucked and his trousers seemed in danger of falling down. His face was splotchy pink, but when he smiled or laughed he looked to me like one of the comedians we saw on television, Jimmy Durante or Jackie Gleason, someone I could both enjoy and admire.
"Put food in front of that Jack," Mom said, "and it's gone in thirty seconds." I think she too enjoyed our cousin, glad that someone openly appreciated her.
"Isabelle, you're the best," Uncle Jack would say, stuffing the little crackers with cream cheese and red pepper slices into his mouth, crumbs tumbling down his shirtfront. "That Meyer is one lucky fella. Who wouldn't be in love with a woman like you." Mom may have even blushed at that, and she was not a woman easily given to embarrassment. Dad didn't say anything. Wouldn't even smile.
Uncle Jack worked at the Hess gas station across the river in Camden, New Jersey. When we drove down the Shore, Dad would stop there to fill up and Jack would lumber over wearing his Hess cap and shirt with his name stitched above the pocket. He'd pop his big head inside the back window and reach over and rub my head. "Butchie," he'd say. "How you doing, kiddo? How 'bout them Phillies?" But before I had a chance to answer, he'd pull back out and get the gas hose going and the windows squeegeed, all the while keeping up a running monologue directed at my dad who he called Meyer, not once, but over and over.
"Meyer, let me tell you about this pain I've been having in my shoulder" and "You should see, Meyer, the look on Esther's face when I told her. Meyer, boychick, you wouldn't believe it." Meyer was my dad's first name, but no one ever called him that. It was always Dr. Freedman or 'Doc', or sometimes even 'sir.' Even Mom used his first name only in private, and then sparingly I imagine.
But Jack was not one to pay attention to formalities or social conventions, and, best of all I thought, he was never ashamed of who he was or what he did. "I work in a gas station," he said. "So big deal, I'm not about to get ulcers, am I? And you should see all the interesting people I meet." He'd put his beefy arm around my shoulder and bend down to speak right to my face, like we were best buddies. Except for Uncle Jack, I didn't know any other adults who treated me like I was a real person.
My other uncles, the real ones, acted like I was barely there, unless I happened to get in the way. My Uncle Milton even once told me, "Shut your mouth. No one wants to know what you think," when I dared to give voice at a family dinner to some opinion I had. Neither Mom or Dad spoke up to defend me. They kept right on eating, looking down at their dinner plates like they didn't even know me.
Jack would never have treated me like that. He even told me stories about when he and my father were kids and the crazy things they did: stealing candy, getting into fights, chasing pretty girls. One story that stuck with me was how my dad was the best musician in their group. He played the violin so well, Jack told me, that all the other kids—tough Jewish street kids—would beg him to play. I could hardly believe these stories were about the man who was my father. Dad sure never played music anymore.
As I got older, we seemed to see less and less of Uncle Jack. I think my father told Mom not to invite him and Aunt Esther and their son Michael over to the house anymore. Though Dad had been tolerant of Uncle Jack's shenanigans, I overheard him say to Mom. "I don't have time for this anymore. All they want from me is free medical advice."
"The children like him," Mom said.
"The children don't know what they like," Dad said.
"I think they do," Mom insisted.
And then Dad didn't say anything cause he didn't have to.
But he's your cousin, I wanted to shout. And he's my favorite relative. But that's not the kind of thing you could get away with in our family. You didn't contradict my father; he wouldn't stand for it. I'd found that out the hard way.
Uncle Jack's son, Michael, who really was my cousin, was also a favorite. He and my brother Paulie and I would wrestle on the beach at the Shore, all twisted together in one sandy, sweaty, laughing pile of boys. Dad hadn't been able to bar Jack and Esther from our shore house. They never waited for an invitation, just showed up with a bag full of bagels and deli meats, and went out back to the outdoor shower to get into their swimsuits. On one occasion, Jack, wearing his enormous bathing trunks, grabbed my sister's hula hoop and right there in our living room began twirling it around his naked belly. We all fell on the floor in hysterics. "This is how Elvis does it," Jack shouted. "Look at me, I'm doing the twist."
Dad grumped around, trying to hide behind his copy of The Philadelphia Inquirer, but eventually gave in to Uncle Jack's nonstop banter and good cheer and put aside the paper and let Jack tell his stories, and sometimes I'd even catch Dad smiling or making a comment of his own. And I could imagine then Jack and Meyer as kids, running around the streets of South Philadelphia. I wanted badly to know this other man who was my father.
A few years later, Michael was diagnosed with leukemia. He was only 13 at the time and after that blow, Jack was not as jolly as before. Michael, though, hung right in there and underwent all sorts of terrible medical treatments without complaining, even when all his hair fell out. I thought that he must have gotten his strength from being raised by such happy parents. But my parents rarely even smiled and I was healthy as a damn horse. None of it made sense.
Michael died when he was 17. At his funeral, Uncle Jack told me Michael had never even had a chance to have a girlfriend. Jack shook his head. He looked then almost like a different person. His face was pale and he'd lost a lot of weight. "It's just not right, is it, Butchie?"
I told him I was really sorry. I didn't know what else to say.