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Nostalgia April 2012

Agelessly Yours

If Not For Childhood Conditioning...

By Karen White-Walker

"For God's sake," he scoffed, "one of the poorest, most downtrodden human beings I ever met was a writer. Don't tell anybody you want to be that. You better have a backup plan, kid."

It's funny how the people we're exposed to when we're younger prepare us for future trials, tribulations and unexpected joys. If not for my adored Uncle Charles, I'm convinced I wouldn't have the stamina to live with my gruff husband. You see, when people met my abrasive uncle, they took two giant steps --- backwards. I was tempted to take two baby steps --- forward.

He intimidated people just by an overwhelming sense of confidence. He had reason to feel so self-assured because he was the son of immigrant parents who made good. By good, I mean in the early 1950s he was a self-made millionaire. Back then you seldom heard the word thousands, and never millions.

Uncle Charles didn't greet his many nieces and nephews with hugs and kisses, that would be rather indicative of someone soft and civil, so he'd bite us on our chubby cheeks that left teeth marks for hours. Most of us would go screaming and crying to our parents, but whether he was a little gentler with me, I'll never know, because I seldom flinched. Even at a younger age I sensed that I was in the presence of someone who comes along maybe once in a lifetime — if you're lucky.

"My daughter would be better off being bitten by a dog!" lamented my mother, who clashed with her big brother because he always treated her like the baby of the family that she was.

Generously he'd shell out big bucks to his siblings, never to be paid back, but with interest that was at a much higher price than a dollar sign — a feeling that because you took, he never really quite respected you.

He once just happened to meet my newlywed cousin's husband at the bank who was cashing his weekly check. With that exasperating sense of entitlement of his, my uncle rudely grabbed the young man's payroll stub, glanced at the amount and in front of everyone, flung it up into the air and yelled, "Why, I spend that much money per week on my Cuban cigars!" The young groom was mortified, but my uncouth uncle roared with laughter because that was his idea of humor.

He'd repeatedly make condescending remarks, but insisted he was only kidding. Of course this didn't endear him to many, but I was never the recipient of such sarcasm. So why can I also be so sarcastic? "Association leads to assimilation," some might say.

"What do you want to be?" he once asked me.

"A, a writer," I stammered.

"For God's sake," he scoffed, "one of the poorest, most downtrodden human beings I ever met was a writer. Don't tell anybody you want to be that. You better have a backup plan, kid."

The backup plan could never have been math because he was constantly giving us nieces and nephews little oral math pop quizzes and, to this day, numbers scare the hell out of us. He could add faster than any adding machine, so imagine his disappointment when he caught us using paper and pen to solve an equation.

He was the epitome of masculinity with strong features, a powerful build and that aura of self-assurance. But how could anyone possess that much self-confidence when they'd attend Sunday Mass wearing a concoction of a purple shirt, multi-colored brown and red jacket and maybe striped black and gray pants? He'd always insist on sitting next to me in church and I'd pretend not to know him. It was a stupid little weekly game I'd play, because I'd always lean over and whisper in his ear. "Do you have a Pepto Bismol for my stomach? I've seen swankier outfits on beggars and bums."

"He'd flash a grin, lean over and whisper in my ear. "Woman, you're some piece of work, some piece of work." Then he'd reach over and pinch my cheek, hard. The red mark would last for hours and there was no need ever for rouge.

To this day I can almost feel those pinching fingers that belonged to a man who helped shape my perception of what a man should be, as distorted as it might seem. Not too many women would gravitate toward such tough hombres as potential marriage material. I did, and upon first meeting my husband and after talking to me, he leaned over and whispered, "Woman, you're some piece of work." I was taken aback. All that was missing was that sweet, delicious smell of a cigar and an outfit that even the Goodwill would refuse.


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