By Lise Funderburg
The Chattahoochee Review
“Have some more pie,” my Uncle Buck offers. “I don’t want you telling your daddy I didn’t feed you.”
I say no, thanks (again), and push my plastic slipcovered seat away from his kitchen table. I have eaten the steak and potatoes and spinach Buck and his wife, Louise, cooked for me, all of it flavored with salt and pepper, garlic and onions and Accent, which has as its first, and possibly only, ingredient, monosodium glutamate. “I think it wakes up the flavor,” Aunt Louise said, sprinkling liberally.
We were eating by six, but still it’s gotten dark out and I’m wondering which train to catch back to New York. For eight years I’ve lived at the opposite end of a commuter line from Buck, my father’s first cousin, but today — this icy, late January day — is my first visit to his house.
This trip, of course, must have something to do with the blood clot. My father, now recovering, had a close call with a pulmonary embolism earlier this winter and, as fallout, I am feeling sentimental. I want to hear about him, about my relatives, about times that I wasn’t a part of but that belong, at least partially, to me.
(My father is a good storyteller. He is a careful watcher of the world; he sees how closely pain and humor plait together. But he picks and chooses his storytelling times. He’ll tell me about his job pasting labels onto peach crates sixty years ago, in the Georgia farm country where he spent most of his childhood, or the two identical sets of furniture in the waiting room of his father’s medical office — but he won’t talk much about why, for a time, his father disowned him. I ask a lot for stories about race. He grew up black and I grew up mixed; he’s Southern, I’m Northern; he saw the Civil Rights movement as a young father, and I was born into it. I want to know how it all felt to him, but I think he doesn’t want to feel it again, ever, and so I can get it in small, raw glimpses or as rote lectures, but nothing more.)
And so I’ve come to see Uncle Buck, who, unlike my father, is known to be a talker. On the day of my visit, I head into the waiting room of New Haven’s train station counting on this reputation, with no specific questions and only a bag full of blank cassette tapes.
Uncle Buck has insisted on meeting me. It’s no trouble, he’s assured me over the phone, and anyway his house is some distance from the station. I don’t know what he’ll look like. I’ve never met him, though I did meet his father once, more than a decade ago at my grandfather Fred’s funeral. Uncle Buck’s father, Bob, swooned at his brother’s casket during “Amazing Grace,” and several young men had to support him out of the chapel while those left behind whispered. Bob looked like my grandfather’s twin, only with browner, redder skin, and during the service and the large supper afterward, I snuck long glances in his direction and was comforted by the ghost he made.
At seventy, Uncle Buck has shrunk down to be about my height (not tall). His wife, Louise, is even shorter, and as I climb the stairs from the station’s pedestrian underpass, I see them sitting forward on a curved bench, dwarfed by the vast and nearly empty waiting hall, their feet barely touching the floor. They don’t look familiar, but they don’t look unfamiliar, either, and I see no one else more likely. So I head towards them and once he and I have held each other’s gaze, not looking away as strangers do, we greet and hug and talk about the recent bad weather.
Four hours of full tape later, I have confirmed that Uncle Buck is a talker. He settles into a living room wing chair (decorated in florals, like every last bit of upholstery and curtain and bedspread in their small, boxy house); he strips off his shoes and he talks about the early days in Anniston, Alabama, when all the Funderburgs lived close to each other, mostly on the property of a patrician grandfather who amassed hundreds of acres thanks to land speculation, a position at the pipe company, and no small amount of bootlegging. Uncle Buck tells me that Papa George, as the grandfather was called (“Only two names in this family,” Uncle Buck jokes, “George and Fred”), was known to proclaim with some regularity that “you can walk all day and still be on Funderburg land.”
(My father, George, would say that he doesn’t tell these same stories because they’re not true. Thirty, maybe 40 acres of land is the most the family ever had, he estimates, and then places Uncle Buck’s veracity level at somewhere between two and ten percent. My father’s version would better explain why Papa George continued to hold down a job at the soil pipe foundry. But I’m looking for memories here, not Truth, and so the discrepancies only pique my interest.)
Uncle Buck talks about his strict grandmother Ophelia, whose arrogance the family linked to her being half-Creek. “That’s what we attributed it to at the time,” he says, sounding less convinced now. He tells me about how he and his buddies caught a serious lashing when they bypassed the high school dance in order to go shimmy with loose women in the rough part of town; about my great-uncle Ilon, who ran a roadhouse and barbecue pit; and about an uncle on his mother’s side who regularly liberated fresh chunks of coal as they were freighted out of the mines and resold them to neighbors at market price.
Uncle Buck is considerably slimmer than he was in his prime, a result of more careful living in the three years since his kidneys quit him. But the change in diet hasn’t diminished his love for food, which, as far as I can tell, is a genetic trait. I hear about the family meals in assiduous detail. For big gatherings, where attendance and appetite were mandatory, the imperious Ophelia put at least two meats and twelve chickens onto the table, several vegetables, macaroni and cheese, and sheets of biscuits, fifteen at a time. And gravy, of course. Buck’s own mother cooked in volume, too — for her family, for church friends, for the neighbor boys who would straggle in precisely at mealtime. “Buster,” she’d say to Buck if more friends showed up, calling him by his other nickname — anything but Otha Neal, the name he was born into — “Sugar, go get me some more bacon from the smokehouse.” She canned everything from peaches to sausage patties (the latter suspended in lard) and spent most of her waking hours within reach of the wood cook stove.
“They say that’s what killed her,” says Buck’s wife, Louise, in a rare interruption. “Cooking too much.”
“She cooked all the time,” Uncle Buck says, nodding. I hear stories about my father that he would never tell, mostly about his rebellious youth, and running away at fourteen from his father in Georgia to the more tolerant relatives in Anniston. I only know that my father roamed for years, working on Great Lakes steamers, Connecticut tobacco farms, and as a door-to-door salesman. Apparently, he did his share of catting around, too, although on that particular subject, even Uncle Buck will only tell me so much. “Your father liked older people,” he says diplomatically and then changes the subject.
We spend most of the afternoon digging back as far as Uncle Buck’s memory will let him. His loquaciousness is a force of nature and Aunt Louise rarely speaks, noting only if she’s been to this place or met that person. She does join in, however, when we turn to more current news. I ask a vague question about their children, too embarrassed to admit I don’t know whether they have any.
Together, it turns out, they had one child, a bright boy two years older than me who read voraciously and skipped grades in school. In his teens, he started to withdraw, spending day after day in the house. Aunt Louise says sometimes his temper got so bad they’d had to call the police. Now their son lives in a nearby town, in a group home. He’s been diagnosed, they tell me: schizophrenia. Uncle Buck stumbles over the word.
“You ask yourself why, why, why, why,” says Uncle Buck, the laughter in his eyes momentarily extinguished. “The doctors tell you that’s a waste of time — there is no answer — but you can’t help asking.”
In search of family photographs, we head downstairs to the finished half of the basement: a paneled rectangle with a bar at one end. Their white plastic-coated albums are mostly filled with people I don’t know, black and white snapshots with scalloped edges or Instamatic blurs of over-saturated color. Aunt Louise points out certain outfits she wore — “that was my red two-piece” — and Uncle Buck lingers over the page devoted to his old DeSoto. Trips to Niagara Falls and her South Carolina Geechee family bracket their son’s second birthday party: He has his mother’s beautiful, wide mouth. To record a Phoenix holiday, they have secured postcards of saguaros and roadrunners under the clear mylar sheets. At the end of the last album, there is a scrapbook page with a hotel bill and an empty foil packet from the airplane ride.
“Those were peanuts,” Aunt Louise explains. When we have exhausted the albums, Uncle Buck leads a tour of the rest of the basement. He delicately pulls the crocheted poodle cover from a bottle of wine that his best friend gave him a decade ago. They were going to drink it together, he tells me, but now the friend is dead and Uncle Buck thinks he’ll just keep it the way it is. I notice that the protective foil has been removed from its top, exposing the cork, but don’t see a point in saying so.
We cross over to the unfinished half of downstairs and just before he turns on the light, Uncle Buck announces that this is Louise’s room. I expect hobbies, maybe — a revelatory decor. But it’s just a basement. Washer, dryer, two refrigerators (one working), and an ironing board. “I keep that board up all the time,” Aunt Louise tells me as she tugs her gray wig into place. Behind Louise’s room is a storage area, a museum of child-sized bikes lined up against the back wall, books and toys piled onto shelves. We look around quietly and then turn back to go upstairs.
Our day goes like this. Funny little stories followed by heartbreaks. Relatives lost, relatives found. They don’t know about my father’s blood clot. When I tell them, they register concern but not shock: At their age, this is everyday news.
Back at the train station, I don’t argue when Uncle Buck parks the car so they can walk me inside. My visit is an event, I know, in their world of shrinking resources and energies. Suddenly, I feel too helpless and too powerful. Too tired.
I brought a camera. A young man seated across from us in the waiting area agrees to take our picture. I sit in the middle and my relatives lean in towards me. Aunt Louise clutches her purse in her lap, and Uncle Buck, who’s been carrying my satchel, lets it rest on the floor between his legs. Aunt Louise and I smile as the flash goes off, Uncle Buck is talking. “Could you take another one?” I ask the stranger.
“You don’t know what this has meant to me, sweetie,” Uncle Buck says as our time runs out.
“People don’t think about family for years,” Aunt Louise says, “and then one day, you wake up and there’s nobody. Don’t wait too long before coming back.”
“I won’t,” I say. “I should have come before.” I don’t go back. I mean to — I think about visiting every time I pass through the state on my way somewhere else. It doesn’t have to be a production, I tell myself, but still I don’t call. In the first couple of weeks after the visit I send things: a card for Uncle Buck’s seventieth birthday; copies of the photos I took in their kitchen, in the station. That’s it, though, nothing more. Now and then, pushing past a baffle of guilt, I ask my father if he’s talked to Buck. No, he says, he hasn’t heard anything for some time. I buy relief with this answer, relief that the news isn’t more definitive, more detailed, more final. And I think maybe I will get back there — someday soon, maybe in the Spring, when we can sit outside in their square patch of a backyard and talk some more.