Sarah Miller | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,614 words)
I was at the eye doctor’s Monday and my phone rang, which is unusual. It was my mother’s cell phone number, even more unusual. I didn’t answer, because the eye doctor was just about to put in dilating drops. “I think my uncle just died,” I said, and realizing that sounded weird, added: “I’m pretty sure that’s what that phone call was, because my mother never calls me, and he just had a stroke and was about to die, so.”
Before the eye doctor could respond, I continued, “It’s not that big a deal, because he was a jerk and no one ever talked to him. Except some lady he was sort of with. Sort of. But they weren’t having sex, because he couldn’t breathe that well anymore.”
My eye doctor is Mormon and maybe 62. His office is in a shopping center in Grass Valley, a former gold-mining turned pot-growing town between Tahoe and Sacramento, with long summers and a short winter that’s getting shorter. I have heard there are a lot of Mormons here but he’s one of only two I know. The other one is extremely lapsed. My eye doctor is not lapsed. He was wearing an aggressively dorky short-sleeved button down shirt, as if to head off at the pass the hoards of women certain to hit on him that day.
I sensed I was barking up the wrong tree by telling my 62-year-old Mormon eye doctor that my mom’s brother had just died and that he was a jerk whose breathing problems had prevented him from having sex. He stepped back, holding the drops like he might hold a cocktail, if he drank. His wedding ring was stainless steel and enormous, like his wife had their sub-zero refrigerator melted down to make it. He cleared his throat. “Do you want to call your mother back?”
“You can put those drops in first,” I said. “I might as well get it over with.”
As he put them in I thought about a friend of mine who said she hated the eye doctor more than the dentist or the gynecologist. I mind none of these things and in fact pride myself on being an imperturbable medical patient.
He led me out of the office area into the front room, which has a reception desk, a small waiting area and a large showroom section where they keep all the glasses. I called my mother but she didn’t answer so I tried on a bunch of glasses. Almost all glasses look terrible on me. I have a low forehead and deep set eyes and glasses don’t help. My uncle and I have the same face. So does my brother. In fact, I am pretty much either of them with a wig of their exact hair grown longer. I was my brother for Halloween once — I wore a Patagonia jacket and a baseball hat and tried to carry myself like a confident young man instead of a conflicted young woman.
I tried on like 100 pairs of glasses and could see, even with my compromised vision, that none of them were any good. I saw a pair that I thought might look alright and realized they’re the ones I already have. They’re Kate Spade — not a brand that resonates with me, exactly, but whatever. Sometimes you just have to accept the mediocre.
I sensed I was barking up the wrong tree by telling my 62-year-old Mormon eye doctor that my mom’s brother had just died and that he was a jerk whose breathing problems had prevented him from having sex.
An older woman and college student-ish man sat in the waiting area and I eavesdropped on their conversation, which was essentially a list of all the things each liked about Provo, Utah. Finally the woman said Provo was “too much activity for her,” and the college student looked at the floor. I don’t know if it was because he was going to crack up or because he felt sorry for Provo. Presently, the doctor emerged again and I thought he was going to take me with him but instead he hugged the woman. They hugged but in this very chaste way, like they were experimenting with how much you could back away from someone and hug them at the same time, and then he escorted her to his office.
My mother called back. “Uncle Jeff is gone,” she said.
“Well,” I said. Outside in the hot parking lot, two white dudes with dreadlocks wearing loose, dirty pants and flip flops got out of an old Audi station wagon. One of them stretched up to the sky, the other looked through his wallet, frowning.
“Where are you?” she said.
“At the eye doctor. He’s Mormon.” For some added local color I described the hippies in the parking lot. “Between them I bet they have 15 pounds of hair.”
“You live in such an interesting community,” my mother said. “Anyway. I talked to Patti. I said, ‘Don’t feel bad you didn’t talk to your father for 20 years.’ I told her no one could get along with him, and that’s not her fault.”
My uncle Jeff was kind of a dick. He and my mother grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. It’s a lush, wealthy suburb with giant houses on long avenues and merely huge ones on its shorter, perpendicularly running roads. Tom Cruise, Cindy Sherman, and Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig also grew up there. My mother was born in 1938, five years before Jeff. She was Miss Glen Ridge High School 1956, which was about being smart, and pretty, and good, not just pretty. After that she went to a fancy college and married someone who went to a fancier college, and also kindly alerted her to the existence of the Democratic Party. They began good careers in which they both Helped People and Steadily Advanced, and in addition to remodeling a lovely Victorian in the Berkshires, they spawned two total suck-up student athletes — me and my brother. They are perfect.
My uncle got in fights and stole a car. He was in the army and then he became a truck driver. He lived in Alabama and married a woman whose naked Polaroid he kept on the dash of his truck, which, to my parents, with their Kennedy-era nerddom, was basically like being a serial killer. His truck cab was decorated with a giant, glossy Confederate flag and his CB handle was Yank.
One time Jeff and his wife got in a fight and he went outside with his gun and a bottle of ketchup and shot the gun up into the air and then put ketchup all over his face and body and lay down in their driveway. His wife came running out of the house screaming, and after letting her carry on for a minute or so he sat up and said “Surprise!” I saw him tell that story once when she was around and she looked like she was really in love with him and he was with her but he couldn’t make her stay with him. It was really hard for him to understand how other people felt about things.
They had a daughter, Patti. The summer I was 12 she lived with us. She complained that our house was too big, wanted to watch TV all day, and wanted my mother to make fried okra, which was not happening for so many reasons. She put makeup on me once and my mother did not like this, and frankly, neither did I. By the end of the summer we were sort of friends, but it was mostly a disaster, like if someone tried to shoot Cold Mountain on the set of Rushmore.
Toward the end of my time in high school, my uncle moved up from Alabama to live about a mile away from us with my grandmother. She watched the NBC lineup of soaps, loved James Michener, and was openly racist. If you told her about a person with an Italian last name she would tell you about another Italian person she knew. Looking through my college facebook, she said, “A lot of Jewish kids.”
My uncle lived in Alabama and married a woman whose naked Polaroid he kept on the dash of his truck, which, to my parents, with their Kennedy-era nerddom, was basically like being a serial killer.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Jewish men are too short,” she said, and then probably washed two Ativan down with vodka. Also: she only had one lung.
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My uncle and grandmother fought a lot. He got on her about how much she drank she got on him about everything. He didn’t have a steady job so he depended on her and was definitely more interested in his inheritance than one should perhaps be while a person is still alive. My uncle and my grandmother had one major thing in common, which was that they both disapproved of my mother, mostly because she had a job and didn’t have the time or interest to take either of their sides about anything.
There was also some creepy German maid mixed up in their dynamic. I tried my best to ignore all of them. I went over there once and the German maid started lecturing me that I didn’t spend enough time with my grandmother, and I was like, “All she does is tell me that I’m fat and need to do different stuff with my hair.” She looked me over, trying to figure out if my grandmother was on to something. She had her eye on my grandmother’s money. She didn’t get any of it. It wasn’t that much, just the kind of money that white people used to just have if they stayed alive long enough.
I hung around my uncle a little even though he was a dick because he used to make me laugh out loud sometimes. He was funny the way I can be. He would say bad stuff, mean stuff, much of which was just undeniably true. He did a good imitation of my grandmother smoking a cigarette, one half of her body inflating while the other stayed still.
The last time I saw my uncle I was a college sophomore. He came over to the house during the day. “You look like you put on a little weight,” he said.
“Ok,” I said, “Could you please not say that?”
“I’m just telling you you’re looking a little heavy,” he said. “You might want to lay off the ice cream.”
I called my father. “Uncle Jeff said I’m fat,” I said, and started to cry.
My father’s office was in the town hall, maybe a 90 second walk from our house. I’d no sooner hung the phone up and walked out into the upstairs hallway when I saw my father barreling down our driveway. There could be no mistaking what he was doing, but I was still surprised when he opened the front door “Jeff?”
“Yap!” My uncle’s response sounded like an exact copy of an awful short honking noise my grandmother also made, his only identifiably Northern or WASPY trait, and I heard my father’s shoes pounding in its direction.
“Did you say something to Sarah about her weight?” my father shouted.
I stood on the back staircase, thinking about how my uncle probably hated us for having two staircases, feeling fat and elated all at once.
They had a daughter, Patti. By the end of the summer we were sort of friends, but it was mostly a disaster, like if someone tried to shoot Cold Mountain on the set of Rushmore.
“I just said she looked like she put on a little weight,” my uncle said.
“She is a child,” my father said, and wondered for a second who he was talking about and then realized it was me.
“Get the hell out of here.” My uncle started laughing, but my father, who rarely yells at anybody, repeated himself. “I said get out of here. We are done.”
I stood in the upstairs front window and watched my uncle walk to his car. He was 6’4, with tiny hips and big shoulders, possibly on steroids, and he moved with stiff decisiveness. He folded himself into his tiny silver Honda sports car, head up our driveway, and without signaling made a left onto Route 7. He lived with my grandmother for a few more years, but I never saw him again.
* * *
I asked my mother if she was okay. “Oh yes,” she said. “I mean, I am sad that I never really had a relationship with my brother, but, I am glad we had a chance to talk the week before he died.” It was totally random: she’d called to ask him to take a DNA test. This had happened because someone gave me a DNA test for Christmas as a joke, after I said DNA tests were stupid. When I got the news I was 25 percent Jewish I jumped up and down in a grocery store parking lot for ten minutes and then went home and danced the Horah for about two hours and then gifted my parents each their own DNA tests. So then my mother found out she was 50 percent Jewish — she was equally excited; all vaguely intellectual WASP women wish they were Jewish, not just us — and wanted to see if her brother was too, because my one-lunged grandmother was no stranger to the extramarital dalliance. To make a long story short, we think my grandmother was probably Jewish, possibly adopted, because she was born so long after her parents were married, was an only child, and unusually obsessed with race.
My uncle spit in the vial and mailed it off and a week later he was dead. “He made me laugh,” my mother said. “When he went on a first date with that woman he was seeing and she asked how old he was, and he told her, and she said, ‘Oh, I don’t believe you,’ and he said, ‘If I took you home, you would.’”
One time Jeff told me he thought my father was square. I said, “You’re just jealous,” which was mean. Maybe I should have just said, “Yeah, I guess, whatever, so am I, we’re square folk!” But this would have been bullshit to me. We barely talked about my uncle after the “you’re fat” incident, and we certainly didn’t agonize over it. I took this talent with me into adulthood. If someone crosses a line, there is no discussion, there is no agony, only the void they move into, and your new, brighter world on the other side of it. When people tell me stories about awful relatives they still speak to, I listen patiently, waiting to feel empathy, perhaps nodding to perform it, thinking all the while, honestly, “You are a fool.”
* * *
The Mormon lady that went in while they were waiting for my eyes to dilate came out from the back offices and I was summoned in again. The eye doctor had me look up to the right, down to the right, up to the left, and down to the left. I thought about how if I sucked at writing essays, because I was already writing this one in my head, I would talk about How That Made Me Reflect On Different Ways of Seeing.
I hung around my uncle a little even though he was a dick because he used to make me laugh out loud sometimes. He would say bad stuff, mean stuff, much of which was just undeniably true.
“Your eyesight will decline slightly over the next few years, but after that, it will never get any worse,” the eye doctor said. “You’ll be that person who can read the menu at the dinner table when everyone else is going to the car for their glasses. I’m that person.” He laughed and almost looked handsome but the shirt did its job.
“Great,” I said. “Something to look forward to.”
“Did you talk to your mother?”
“I did. Thank you.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” he said.
“It’s ok,” I said. “I really don’t care at all.”
“I always think it’s sad when families don’t get along. Everyone in my family gets along.”
Well, that’s a little smug, I thought. But I said, “Your family sounds awesome,” because I don’t think he actually meant to be hurtful.
* * *
Sarah Miller is the author of Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl. She writes essays and humor pieces about herself, feminism, wine, food, and celebrities. She also writes poems but only about David Brooks. She lives in Nevada City, California.
Editor: Sari Botton