Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Uncle Charles

Everyone will tell you Uncle Charles was Grannie's favorite. Whether because he was her first born, the first of her children to leave Lexington or something else was never clear. Whatever the reason, Grannie adored him.

Dad's family doesn't talk much about the past. Times were hard. Today they laugh about divvying up fried chicken at dinner time. My grandfather and Uncle Charles got a breast, the older siblings snagged the thighs and legs and the youngest siblings fought over the neck and wings. I don't think anyone held it against him. In fact, next to his many nieces and nephews, I'd say my aunts and uncles were among his most ardent admirers.

Uncle Charles was a tall, tan, relatively athletic guy with a booming voice and a larger-than-life presence. He made entrances and tended to maintain the attention of everyone in the room. His most striking feature was the family nose. It was going to be his most striking feature anyway, but the fact it had been broken once or twice sealed the deal.

Despite his humble roots, he had an eye for quality and an appreciation for the finer things. Long before the term came into common usage, Uncle Charles was a metrosexual. He wore gorgeous clothes, permed his hair, and enjoyed manicures, pedicures and designer fragrances. One of my most treasured possessions is a full-length 100 percent wool topcoat from Angelucci and Ringo he wore in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Uncle Charles moved to Ontario (outside of Los Angeles) with his first wife, Sherry, before or shortly after I was born. I was maybe five the last time I saw her. Accurate or not, in my memory she looked like a 60's pin-up girl--a beautiful, buxom platinum blonde--like Marilyn Monroe, with the volume turned way up. She left him for the next door neighbor a few years later. I never heard him talk about it.

A visit from Uncle Charles was a big event. He brought B.J., his black standard poodle with him when I was little. I'm not sure if he was the first dog I ever met, but he's the first I can remember. It was my job to take care of B.J. while Uncle Charles visited friends. B.J. stayed at our house and slept in the bed with me until Uncle Charles picked him up late that night. He made me feel special--like it was all about me, rather than simply convenient for him.

Later he drove all the way from Ontario to Lexington so we could meet Judy, his new wife. She taught English at the school where Uncle Charles coached basketball. Judy wore wigs, make-up and contact lenses. That made her exotic in the extreme to a family more accustomed to women with sensible shoes, beauty school perms and five o'clock shadows. She became a part of the family with that first visit.

The summer of my 13th year Uncle Charles flew me out all by myself to Ontario for a two-week visit. It was incredible. I ended up staying two extra weeks. We went to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, and Huntington Library. We checked out the Hollywood sign, drove by the homes of movie stars, watched movies (Ben and Nicholas & Alexandra), walked on the beach, and hiked in the mountains. I had Chinese, Basque and Mexican foods for the first time. It was the very best of the many wonderful summers of my youth.

Uncle Charles hosted a Kentucky Derby Party for a number of years. On more than one occasion the event made the social page of the local paper. In the write-ups Uncle Charles was referred to in reverential tones as "The Colonel". He did serve in the military as I recall, but not any longer than required and certainly not long enough to advance to the rank of Colonel. He was, however, a Kentucky Colonel--the highest honor awarded by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to the community, state or the nation.

Uncle Charles had more friends than anyone I know. He stayed close to his Lexington friends until he died--before Facebook, e-mail, or cheap long distance telephone calls made staying in touch so easy. He was active in the community, made a difference for countless students and as far as I know, was genuinely liked by everyone he ever met. I'm so very glad to have known him.

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