Alice Driver | Longreads | March 2018 | 10 minutes (2,574 words)
“I didn’t choose. I walked backwards till it came around front.” — Uncle Lee
I sipped my Uncle Lee’s favorite gin martini made bitter with the taste of three pearly onions at The Alley Cantina in Taos, New Mexico. The mother of my long-lost cousin Julianne stepped up to the microphone in front of the gathered crowd and told the story of their brief love affair and how Lee “loved women.” I’ve never been to a funeral like the ones on TV where you go to a cemetery and cry while watching a casket go into the ground. My family does these storytelling gatherings with food and drink, and we bask in the memory of the ones we loved in sharp and detailed pain and glory.
I didn’t know that Julianne existed until I was in my 20s. My Uncle Lee, who died at 73, was a tall willowy, half-bent figure who had two sons and a daughter. As a young man, he had survived several diving accidents, which according to another uncle, Larry, left him a little bit crooked in posture. Uncle Lee disclosed Julianne’s existence to some of the family over the years, but that news reached me late. It hit me like a wave rolling me under the currents — took my breath away — because she had my green eyes, and the tall, lean Driver build. In another universe, she could have been my sister. We had followed parallel tracks, both spending much of our 20s living and working in Latin America. She eventually settled in Bolivia, married, and had a daughter.
At my Uncle Lee’s memorial, Julianne read a letter she had written to her 22-month-old daughter about Lee, who she came to know as her biological father when she was a teenager. Before his death, he had traveled to Bolivia to spend time with her, and she held close those memories of getting to know him as a father. Tears ran down my face and into my bourbon and ginger ale as I watched Julianne read from her journal. Following Julianne, a woman got up and told the story of my Uncle Lee making the French doors for her house. He was a fine woodworker specializing in spiral staircases. Before sitting down, she said, “We weren’t lovers.”
The last time I saw my Uncle Lee in 2013, he was traveling through Mexico, I think on his way to a peyote experience. He had a long-term relationship with hallucinogenic drugs, and he periodically left his tiny carpentry shop in Taos, above which he lived, to travel through Central and South America in search of such experiences. By that time, he was suffering from gout, and he wasn’t supposed to drink. We sat on the roof of a rented house in Sayulita as the sun set, him with a shot of tequila in hand and a worn cowboy hat tipped down low almost to meet his eyes. As he looked at me and said, “Don’t do what I’ve done. I never thought about the future. I always did what I wanted. Maybe it’s good to save a bit of money.” I sat in shock, as my model for life, and that of most of the artists in my family, was some mix of that philosophy — to make art at all costs. He talked about his health problems, lamenting the fact that he had no health insurance and that he could never stop working. Even though he loved carpentry, his gout was making it impossible.
I realized I knew so little of his life, only that he had been a quick wit, a voracious reader and someone who understood me via my writing like few others. That he’d married and divorced the same woman twice and had caused a lot of strife in the process of loving women. He knew that too, I think. Some time after we met up in Mexico, he wrote, “Truth. If you ever wonder what to do, stick with that. The truth can be illusive [sic] though. It can be squeezed into different shapes. You got a [sic] watch it. Stick to it if/whenever you can. Or surely, go back to it. Tell the truth. Or, get back to it soon as you can. And forgive yourself. And me.”
His whole life, my Uncle Lee harbored dreams of being a writer, and I had, in desperate fits and starts over the years, become one. In the years before his death, we wrote, I think, because we recognized each other, like two beasts meeting on a snowy night and seeing in each other’s eyes a yearning. Like me he was a wanderer and a writer, but he didn’t push his words out into the world — no concern about publishing or perishing — just occasionally sending stories to one family member or another. One of the last things he wrote me made me cry, because even from a distance, with him in the mountains of New Mexico breathing via oxygen tank and me in Mexico City, I felt as if he saw me so clearly: “But if I had been smart and career motivated at a young age like I probably should have been, and seen the writing on the wall, I’d be doing what Alice is doing, writing like a motherfucker, hammering out words strung together picked from thin air, holding them up to the light and polishing them up, and setting them out like pieces to decorate the yard, like furniture.”
I’ve never been to a funeral like the ones on TV where you go to a cemetery and cry while watching a casket go into the ground. My family does these storytelling gatherings with food and drink, and we bask in the memory of the ones we loved in sharp and detailed pain and glory.
Uncle Lee never told me why he didn’t publish any of his writing, only that he had walked backward into his life. I interpreted it to mean that he had found his place in the world against the odds, as so many of us do. He told me that he was never really interested in a career per se, and wrote, “I’ve often had the feeling through dreams, both waking and sleeping, and in visions, that I was at some point in my existence, a wagon maker; wagon meaning like in horse drawn wagon. And if I was a wagon maker, I would surely have dreamed of being a shipbuilder, a shipwright; which to me is the highest form of carpenter, where art, form, and function all come together in the beautifulest of ways.” What came through for me was both his love of woodworking and his love of words.
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For Uncle Lee, one of the great joys in life was, “Discovering over and over again that, whatever it was, I could figure it out.” He was a risk-taker, as were his brothers, including my dad — a characteristic that ran strong in my family. At the memorial, my cousin Kya told the story of when, in 1977, my Uncle Lee, my dad, and their three brothers had divided up the children in the family and hitchhiked to Michigan to celebrate my grandma Eleanor’s birthday. Lee had hitchhiked with Kya and my dad with my cousin Erin — at the time nobody had much money so hitchhiking seemed like the ideal solution to get the entire family to Michigan.
Money was often scarce, but if he ever came into money, Uncle Lee had a few plans: “Finish/repair the house. Make sure all of mine need have no money worries. Rent a villa, invite entire family and a few friends to a weeks-long party, travel included. New Truck with Alaskan camper. New teeth. New laptop, flatscreen, Roku. 37′ sloop. Go sailing.” His list made me feel tender-hearted, especially the part about new teeth. Words can sometimes be more intimate than any physical gesture, I think.
Lee wrote me about his scars, about jumping off the rope swing and diving into our shallow creek on the banks of the Little Mulberry River in 1977 and hitting his head on a rock, about breaking a fall in his woodworking shop by thrusting his hand into a saw. He wrote, “I looked once again into the maw of a dent in my body reminiscent of that day by the creek, when I got my feet tangled in power cords, tripped, reached out to break my fall and set my hand down on a whirling joiner blade. Not good. Eyeow. 11 stitches and some OxyContin. Wooee.” His body was writ over with his daring and folly, a testament to the fragility and strength of flesh and bone.
Writing about one hitchhiking experience where he almost jumped out of a moving car he explained, “I need to say at this point, that none of the action I took was arrived at by thinking or deduction, but rather in the way when you slip on the ice and flail your arms and legs to keep your balance and hopefully, land on your feet.” I found myself drawn into his writing because he expressed the kind of crazy thoughts and impulses that sometimes enter our minds — like when you are standing on the edge of a cliff and think of jumping off — and often he followed those impulses to their natural end. “As we climbed up the slope toward onrushing traffic, my hand like it knew what it was doing, lifted up on the door handle, opened the door, and I leaned out,” Uncle Lee wrote. “This had the effect of throwing a change, a wobble into the spin, a counterbalance to our trajectory that caused the car, with an assist by gravity, to slip back down into the median, finally coming to rest pointing the way from which we had come. Whew. Must a been a full two minutes and me and that guy sat there motionless, facing front in complete and utter silence. At some point, he looked at me and said ‘you ok?’ I was. We were.” My memories of him were like that, moments plucked from time. Whole years were missing, but he managed to convey the essence when he shared such stories.
His whole life, my Uncle Lee harbored dreams of being a writer, and I had, in desperate fits and starts over the years, become one.
A few months before he died, Uncle Lee sent advice about raising children to the whole Driver family: “Growing food where you live though, never ever a bad move. Even just sprouts and herbs on the windowsill. Show them kids that when trouble arrives it can be worked out. Show them by doing that. Such things give em faith. And bolsters our own. Which gives em faith and anon.” His generation had experienced some deep schisms in the family that he didn’t want us to repeat. He added, “I know it’s hard. Sometimes we can’t work things out even if we want and intend and strive to.” I don’t think he worked everything out, but in trying to do so he left us all with genuine moments. I tend to think that the process is more essential than the outcome — that we love people not because they achieved any vision of perfection but because they loved as they could, in the ways they could, when not derailed by life’s unexpected events.
Over the course of our lives, Uncle Lee and I might have spent a few weeks together in person, maybe less. But when we wrote each other, I felt as if he knew me right down to the bone. His own dad had died young, and his oldest brother had died in the period of a few months, taken by cancer. I don’t think Uncle Lee ever expected to live too long. Imagining himself living in an earlier time, he wrote, “Had I lived, would eventually have had me experiencing careers in mountain man, fur trapper, squaw man, buffalo hunter, explorer, guide, soldier, peyote road man…who knows? And had I got to old age, I’d probably be tinkering around in a cabin I made in the wilderness, building stuff or just sitting there smoking staring off into the blue, sucking on a bottle of aguardiente.” I can envision him like this, alone in the wilderness working with his hands, living a life of adventure, which is how I would like to remember him.
At the memorial, when I got up to speak, even before my words could make their way out, I could taste the salt of my tears. I stood before my cousins, my uncle’s group of drinking friends, a score of women in wild fur coats, and my Uncle Larry, and told the story of my Uncle Lee responding to a project I was working on in Juárez on the US-Mexico border. When he read “Father of Migrants,” which recounts my time living at a migrant shelter, Uncle Lee wrote to me that he recognized danger in some of my interactions at the border. “Me and Jeb Bush and other old guys with experience of Latin America, read your article with a keen interest, perhaps a keener interest than the average Joe,” he wrote, referencing the fact that the younger Bush brother, to my surprise, had read and responded to my article. The thing about writing is that most of the time, you never know who is reading your work — if anyone.
I will miss those exchanges with Uncle Lee, who was curious to understand me. In him I saw some of myself, that raw, pure longing to write, a desire so strong that anyone who was really looking at you could see it. But that kind of longing, the need to be seen and known via words, could be debilitating, could put you at the mercy of the world. I wondered why he had stayed in the shadows of the writing world, participating in discussions held at online forums for lovers of Cormac McCarthy but never publishing his own work.
Uncle Lee said that my stories from the migrant shelter reminded him of when in 1970 he worked at the VA hospital in Chicago with veterans who were in a drug treatment program — he was a Vietnam vet himself. In fact, rather than going to qualifying races for the Olympics in swimming, he had volunteered to go to Vietnam. He explained, “The chronic program-wise Chicago street junkies, that made me want to talk to you re: your journalist venture among the turned-away or kicked out migrants. As I said, seems to me you had at least one among your interviewees, whose story was, let’s just say, shape shifting or evolving. He reminded me of those veteran junkies, guys who weren’t really trying to get better, but to work the system. Seemed like one of those guys was making the rounds of those migrant centers, like making a sort-of mini career of it.”
In the years before his death, we wrote, I think, because we recognized each other, like two beasts meeting on a snowy night and seeing in each other’s eyes a yearning.
He was worried about me, partially because I was a woman, and cautioned that, at some point, I needed to recognize when to step back or step away from dangerous interactions, ones that often offered no clear signs of danger beyond a gesture or a stray word. Receiving warnings from someone who I considered to be more of a risk taker than even I am gave me pause. “I thought I better say something, better safe than sorry and all that,” wrote Uncle Lee. “Please take care Alice, to not let your striving, get you too far out on a limb, or too far up shit creek, without a you know what. Yes, risk is an important ingredient to success, and in many ways, it is a benign world, but you gotta fuckin watch it.”
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Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She is the author of More or Less Dead, and she is writing a book on migration in Central America. She is currently producing a radio show for REVEAL from the Center for Investigative Reporting on trans women migrants.
Editor: Sari Botton