A personal essay in which reporter Alice Driver considers what lessons to take from a late uncle’s life.
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.”