My mother has a knack for taking in strays. Not stray dogs or cats, but people with no place to go. It wasn’t unusual for me and my siblings to leave for school and come home to the small utility room converted into a bedroom for the homeless aunt, uncle or lost co-worker.
My mom’s brother, my uncle Curt, became a permanent fixture in our home for the better part of my teens. He slept in the converted utility room that barely fit a double bed and small dresser. Curt hung the few clothes he had in the tiny closet my sisters and I used as a make-shift Barbie condo.
Curt was 10 years younger than my mother and 10 years older than me, which made him a combination uncle and brother. He was a self-proclaimed bachelor and inherited the gene that produces a strong desire for chemical-altering substances. A steady and dependable worker and employee, Curt was fun-loving and loyal, but terrible at managing money. He was more interested in a round of drinks with the guys at the bar than he was in paying his rent. He also enjoyed his tobacco. He was a mellow man, with a witty personality, and smiled more often than he frowned.
Curt holds the distinct honor of serving me my first beer and introducing me to “cigarettes.” I don’t know if I actually inhaled, but the smoke somehow invaded my lungs and caused me to cough so hard we both laughed until we cried. We also had the sudden urge to polish off an entire box of Oreo cookies and a giant bag of Cheetos while the frozen pizza baked.
Thanksgiving has never been a boring holiday for my tribe, particularly when Curt was in attendance. There is not enough room on this blog to introduce the cast of characters, but let’s just say his sense of humor, combined with the energy of our family, often led to not-so-thankful outcomes.
To this day, the odds in Vegas favor a day of heated arguments and dramatic drunken exits from the gathering. The spread is given on the time of day when, and with whom, they will occur.
In his late thirties, Curt met a magnificent woman who had a powerful influence on his life and helped him find another way. She brought out the beauty and light inside of Curt and she later became his wife. We watched him settle down and make a life for himself. He glowed when his two beautiful children were born and he and his wife started new Thanksgiving day traditions that didn’t involve our clan.
At the age of 44, Curt learned he had terminal lung cancer that had spread to his brain. He was given only months to live.
On his last day, his wife, my mom, my sisters and I sat in his hospital room and shared stories of our past. We reminisced about the good times and his contributions to our parties. We talked and sang and let Curt know how much we enjoyed having him in our lives. We wouldn’t be the same without him. He couldn’t speak, but his tears let us know he left this world feeling loved.
On Thanksgiving Days since his passing, we have toasted the legacies of those we have loved and lost. I visit the bedroom-now-converted-to-utility-room and find comfort in the recollected conversations with Curt and the memories of my tumultuous youth. Call me crazy, but through my tears, I swear I’ve heard him whisper, “party on little one, you are loved.”
Our family continues to grow, the celebrations have changed, and our rituals have become less dramatic, but the energy of our family still has Vegas giving odds on when and where. Uncle Curt would want it no other way.
For this, I give thanks.