On the 4th of July, a big day here in the States, I’ll be quietly celebrating the life of my Uncle Ted, on the 25th anniversary of his death. I remember the day he died, hot and sunny here in Seattle. My mother’s voice on the phone was husky with tears. Uncle Ted had been very ill, though not from the cancer that had been in miraculous remission for years (non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma). Still, this was Uncle Ted, my tough, strong-as-a-bull godfather, and I expected him to go on and on. He had calmly said good-bye to the friends visiting him in the hospital the previous night, saying the 4th of July was a good day to die. He loved the 4th. Fire crackers at Coney Island. But no one there believed he meant that farewell. I would have. After I hung up with my mother, I went out to deadhead the climbing roses along our long fence. Hours later I came in scratched and bloodied, my tears spent. My husband had made the arrangements for me to fly to New York City for the funeral.
This year my time with Ted has started early. Gearing up for the re-release of all the Owen Archer and Margaret Kerr mysteries in the US and Canada this summer, I’ve been spot-checking the eBook files and generally rereading passages in all the books in order to write the marketing copy for each. And I keep meeting my godfather, at least aspects of him, in so many characters. Brother Wulfstan in the first five Owen Archers; the innkeeper Murdoch Kerr in the Margaret Kerr mysteries (her uncle); Brother Erkenwald, the soldier-turned-Austin canon in The Riddle of St. Leonard’s (no, Uncle Ted wasn’t a monk). I catch glimpses of him in other characters as well, even Owen Archer, at times, and even women—Bess Merchet, who runs the York Tavern beside Lucie’s apothecary, has more than a little Uncle Ted in her. Of them all, only Murdoch Kerr was planned as a tribute to my godfather. But there Ted is, in so many of my favorite characters.
He’s even in the new Kate Clifford mysteries, the wise and protective Berend, a former…let’s just call him soldier for now.
So I’ve been wondering just what Uncle Ted represents for me. He was a barrel-chested, muscular, tough talking New Yorker who had nicknames for all his buddies like Ziggy and Moose. He wasn’t handsome in a leading-man way, balding early, with a bow-legged gait from knee injuries suffered in a jeep accident in WWII, and for most of his adult years, until the cancer, he sported quite the beer belly. He was a locksmith/safe installer, and in New York that meant he mixed with an interesting sampling of society. Family whispered that his gangster lingo wasn’t just an affectation. He was my mother’s brother, and she loved him dearly but often muttered a litany of his annoying qualities. When he came to visit us in the summer he entertained my friends—the whole block looked forward to “Uncle Teddy’s” visits. Oh, the tales he would tell, the magic tricks he’d perform, and the blunt, matter-of-fact way he’d talk to us, which made us all feel so grown up. (Magda Digby?) My friends’ parents loved him, too. The patio would buzz with conversations late into the night. He told me I was a great storyteller, and I should be proud of that. And he told me to be true to myself, not bother about what others said. When we went to Manhattan to visit my grandparents, I counted on adventures with Uncle Ted. He took me all over Greenwich Village and into the bars and coffee shops. He bought me things my mother didn’t want me to have and showed me how to hide them in my coat. He got a kick out of beatniks—the bongo drums, the goatees, how they chanted poetry as if they’re dying, and he enjoyed the folk singers in Washington Square Park. We had a falling out later, over “hippies” and “peaceniks”, but he eventually came to agree with me about a lot of my politics. And we agreed to ignore the rest.
The last time I saw my uncle in Manhattan I was there with my husband to spend time with his best friend who was dying of cancer. We were staying with our friend’s girlfriend in Brooklyn, and I didn’t have a chance to get together with Ted until the last night, when we were to catch the subway and meet him at a set time, a set stop. But our friend had a crisis that afternoon, and we stayed to see that he was okay. As we left for the subway I discovered I’d lost the notebook with Ted’s phone number and the subway stop (it had been a while since I’d been to his new apartment). So we were an hour and a stop late (maybe? I wasn’t sure), and I was panicking as we climbed up to the street. But there he was at the top of the steps, watching for us. He did that all the time. He knew how my mind worked? He had a hunch? Who knows? But my Uncle Ted was there, and everything was okay.