“So how did Aunt Joan die?” I asked my Uncle Bud.
Strange that I didn’t know the answer to that, but I didn’t, so I asked. Uncle Bud, his real name is Albert, but everyone called him Bud, was my dad’s oldest brother. As the oldest brother, Uncle Bud was the patriarch of the family, at least since my grandpa had died in 1983.
“It was complications from liver cancer. She made it to Thanksgiving, but then just turned yellow, made it a couple days in the hospital, and that was it,” Uncle Bud told me, very matter of fact. We were standing by my barn, looking out over my pond and dried up wetlands that I was trying to harvest peat moss from, Interstate 65 a mile or so off past the neighbor’s farmland.
I shook my head, looking down at the gravel, amazed that we were talking about this. “That’s rough,” I said, feeling like I needed to say something.
“Yea, it was,” Uncle Bud replied, with a deep sigh. “But you know how it goes.”
I did know how it goes. It had been about a year and a half since Trish died, and she had gone fast, but not as fast as Aunt Joan. When Aunt Joan died eighteen years earlier, in her early 60’s, I had just heard that she was sick, maybe only a couple weeks before she died.
“Yea, I guess so,” acknowledging that I did in fact know how it goes, looking out over my empire of dirt in the cool September sun, Bella, my dog, plopped down near us, tired from chasing ducks around the pond.
Uncle Bud showed up out at my farm often, usually for no reason at all, other than he was old and retired and had nothing better to do. Plus, he would often catch my dad out there with me, and they would catch up on family issues. My dad and his older brother Bud were the last two brothers, out of my grandparents’ 13 kids—9 girls and 4 boys. At the time, Dad was 68 and Uncle Bud was 81.
“Trish was a great lady,” Uncle Bud observed.
“So was Aunt Joan,” I replied. “She was always took care of us, and made us laugh, at least until we had a cut or scrape.” Uncle Bud laughed at that, remembering with me how Aunt Joan took an almost sadistic glee in putting iodine on a kid who had a cut or scrape, which would sting like hell, and she would laugh about it. Aunt Joan had a hilarious, loud laugh.
I also didn’t mention that although all the cousins loved Aunt Joan, we were scared as hell of Uncle Bud. We avoided him if possible. While all my other uncles were funny guys, always telling jokes and stories, Uncle Bud was very serious, to the point of being crotchety. After Aunt Joan died, when Uncle Bud was in his mid-60’s, he was even worse.
At our family gatherings, when everyone else was joking and laughing, Uncle Bud was barking out orders. Uncle Bud was a large man, and wiry strong. After serving in Korea, Uncle Bud came home and worked in construction for a couple years, and then left and started his own construction and excavation company at the age of 25 in 1957. His company never grew large, a few employees at most, but Uncle Bud always did very well. He owned tons of construction equipment, like backhoes and bulldozers, that he operated and fixed himself. But he also knew how to operate a shovel and never backed away from physical labor.
Growing up, I avoided Uncle Bud, mostly out of fear. But later in life, after moving back home to Indiana, we had grown closer. When we first moved there, I bought a riding lawnmower from him, and he always came over and fixed it when something went wrong. I helped Uncle Bud fix his computers. Twice, Trish slid off our windy lane on the ice, and Uncle bud came over and pulled her out.
My dad and I built a castle in my back yard for the kids, a massive structure with a clubhouse on the top floor, swings and a bridge. Uncle Bud stopped by to inspect the construction.
“You get a permit for that?” Uncle Bud asked.
“No, I checked, and you don’t need a permit for a swing set,” I answered.
“Well, alotta guys would get a permit for something like that,” Uncle Bud declared, shaking his head and grunting.
Uncle Bud also noted that the floor we were building was not level, which he could tell by looking, standing in the yard 35 feet away. When I showed him that the floor was, in fact, level, he claimed that my 4-foot aluminum level was obviously faulty and could not be trusted. When I laughed at that logic, he got pissed off and left, returning an hour later with a mahogany level, which showed that the floor was not level. Uncle Bud then gave me that old mahogany level, and told me that I was either going to use it and do things right, or he was going to shove it up my ass. I opted for the former.
“Yea, I still can’t believe she’s gone sometimes,” Uncle Bud noted about Aunt Joan. 18 years a widower, Uncle Bud had never remarried, or even dated, as far as I knew. There had been rumors, nothing ever confirmed. Uncle Bud certainly never brought a woman around the family.
Uncle Bud also helped my dad and I build my barn out at the Property. He cleared the trees in the woods with his backhoe, arranged for all the stone to be hauled in and built the gravel pad for the barn. During construction, he would often show up unannounced to check on our progress, and offer advice and bark orders to the three high school kids who worked for me.
“Alotta guys would put those 2×4’s every 18 inches,” Uncle Bud observed about the boards holding the rafters together.
“Alotta guys would put a hurricane strap in that post,” he noticed.
Uncle Bud would also repeatedly remind me, every time he came out, that “Alotta guys get a permit to build something like this.” I didn’t have a permit to build that barn, which drove Uncle Bud outside his mind.
Uncle Bud’s “Alotta guys” advice was genius, if you think about it. On the one hand, he wasn’t taking responsibility for giving the advice. He was just saying how “Alotta guys” would do something. If the advice was wrong, well, that was on the other guys. On the other hand, he was giving the advice much more credibility than if just he was saying it. He wasn’t just recommending a particular course of action, he was saying that this particular procedure was so widely recognized that it was how “Alotta guys” do it.
But the best part of his way of giving advice was that he imprinted a masculine stamp on it, letting you know how a MAN would do it, or, at least, “Alotta guys.” If you didn’t do it that way, well, maybe you weren’t really a man.
After building my barn, I still had lots of projects out at the farm, and Uncle Bud would continue to show up unannounced, randomly, just to see what was going on. I had a lot going on. We had guys excavating the peat moss, and I was building a duck habitat, and then a waterfall. Then I bought 75 pheasant chicks, and built an aviary for those mean little bastards, until I had to release them because they were killing each other. I also had grass to mow, brush to clear and assorted jobs that kept me busy. Uncle Bud would show up, for no reason, and I would always take that opportunity to talk to him for awhile, usually grabbing an ice cold Bud Light out of the Chill Chamber.
“Did you ever date?” I asked Uncle Bud, out by the pond, when we were talking about Aunt Joan. I shocked myself that I would have the courage to ask him that question. There was a not insignificant chance that this 81-year-old hard ass would stick a boot in my ass for asking him a question like that.
“Awwwe, no, I never did,” Uncle Bud answered, obviously embarrassed, looking down at the ground. “There might a been a couple who wanted to come around once or twice, but I never thought about seein’ anyone after Joanie passed,” Uncle Bud added, cryptically.
I had no fucking clue what that meant. So there “might” have been a “couple” who “wanted to come around,” and then “once or twice”!
“Well, I’m dating, and the kids aren’t happy about it,” I told him. Dating was putting it mildly. Shanna had just moved in. The kids were definitely not happy about it.
“Well don’t you listen them kids,” Uncle Bud almost yelled, transforming back into that man I had feared my entire life. “You gotta do what is right for YOU,” Uncle Bud emphasized, pointing at me. “Don’t you listen to them damn kids.”
I nodded, appreciating that he was saying that, especially coming from the original man who “Answered to No One, Listened to Few.” Uncle Bud ran his own business for FIFTY YEARS, taking only the jobs he wanted and turning down or leaving jobs if he didn’t agree with whatever was going on. Uncle Bud didn’t take orders from anyone, and never had, for his entire life. Except for Aunt Joan. And she had been gone for almost twenty years.
No one ever got the better of Uncle Bud. He made sure of that. The closest I ever got was one time, out at my barn, standing around with my dad. Pointing at a nearby shovel, I asked Uncle Bud if he knew why the shovel was such an important invention.
I could tell my question irritated him. Having spent his entire life using a shovel, Uncle Bud couldn’t stand the fact that I might know something about this important tool that he didn’t. Who was I to tell him anything about a goddamn shovel. Uncle Bud shrugged and grunted, acting like he didn’t care why the shovel was such an important invention.
“Because it was groundbreaking,” I informed him anyway. My dad laughed, which irritated Uncle Bud even more. “Goddamn you,” Uncle Bud grumbled.
Uncle Bud died on March 9, 2014. I spoke at his funeral a few days later. During the eulogy, I noted that only two men had ever intimidated me—federal judges and Uncle Bud.
My dad and I saw Uncle Bud at his house the night before he died, with all his kids (my cousins), grand kids and great grand kids. His lung problems had been getting worse over the last couple months. I never thought anything would get him, except maybe getting run over by a truck or attacked by a wild beast.
That last night, I thanked Uncle Bud for all his help over the years, and how much I appreciated all he had done for me. I had never told him anything like that.
I also told Uncle Bud that I loved him. He nodded, unable to speak on his oxygen machine, and squeezed my hand. Hard.