When Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Bubba came to visit, the women went to the kitchen and talked about families, childbirth, and homemaking. Uncle Bubba went to the parlor with Dad. My sister, Grace and I, wandered between both settings.
Our parlor was Uncle Bubba’s debate forum. There, surrounded by lace curtains, furnishings frozen in time from the Victorian era, Uncle Bubba held forth–starting with an inquiry as to the availability of home-baked delicacies.
Uncle Bubba was a big, guffawing, hulk of a man. Aunt Gertrude was a prim and proper wisp of a woman–quiet and reserved. Her salt-and-pepper hair was usually fixed in a bun. Unlike her husband, Aunt Gertrude always saw the good in everything.
“It was on Merv Griffin yesterday–people depressed at Christmas, after Christmas, during winter, spring, and every other time of year. Christmas blues, Post-Holiday blues, the “Boo-Hoo” blues, the “You and Me” blues–who believes that crap? It’s just another excuse for people to not work and get on the public dole,” Uncle Bubba said.
“What’s everybody looking at me for? Pardon me for being slow on the uptake. I get it, now. If it was any of your dad gum business–which it ain’t; I injured my back at the meat-packing plant. That’s why I can’t work anymore.”
“Nobody’s singling you out,” Dad said defensively. “Uncle Bubba, who’s Merv Griffin?” Grace asked. Dad’s stern expression said, “keep quiet.” But Grace went on, anyway. “Depression is a serious mental illness. Sometimes people fall into dark holes and can’t climb out without help.” Grace was like mom–spoke what was on her mind.
“Drug companies are always looking for ways to make more money–that’s all I was saying. Pretty soon, everybody’s going to be on feel-good pills. Well, whatever–it was on one of them talk shows. I don’t even try to keep up. They’re all the same. I mean, what other job is there–where you get paid for talking, and don’t have to know anything?”
Dinner guests meant kid shenanigans at the table. Grace would stick a spoon on her nose; then I’d eat peas with my knife, until Mom or Dad gave us the “stink eye.” We knew when and where, to not cross the line. Then, Uncle Bubba concealed amusement with fake coughing attacks, excused himself from the table.
Uncle Bubba’s passion and rage was everywhere. His lack of discernible skills, made drudgery last as long as possible. It didn’t stop him from offering opinions on just about everything. At least, it seemed that way to me, back then.
“Cream rises to the top. Dregs sink to the bottom. It’s that simple.” Was I cream or dregs? I always thought Uncle Bubba was talking about me. Especially on the day, my foot slipped off the clutch of his old GMC pickup. I hit a pothole so hard, the old truck bounced–Uncle Bubba’s head banged into the roof. “Damn it, Son–you gotta’ be more careful,” was all he had to say.
He was my father’s brother. They couldn’t have been more different. My father was quiet and reserved. Uncle Bubba was seldom, if ever, quiet. My father was of average height and weight with a full shock of hair. Uncle Bubba was portly, and bald as a billiard ball. Could there have been a mix-up at the hospital when he was born?
I loathed working for him. He was obstinate, stubborn, opinionated–couldn’t (or wouldn’t) communicate. The only emotions expressed were frustration and rage. I could never live up to his expectations. It seemed, as if there were always better ways to do everything. However, Aunt Gertrude was nice. How had she ended up with him?
Sometimes the silence between dramatic pauses was too much to bear. Then, I’d talk about anything and everything, just to break the silence. Uncle Bubba never said anything about me being a “motor mouth.” On those days, maybe he just didn’t feel like talking?
“You look like a polecat–with that white stripe in your hair.” Uncle Bubba said, once, on Halloween. I don’t think he ever knew or cared–that I was supposed to be Eddie Munster.
“Son, do you know Jesus?” Uncle Bubba asked one day, right out of the blue. “Yes, I learned about Jesus in Mrs. Hampton’s Sunday school class,” I answered. I’d never known Uncle Bubba to be a religious man. He threw around a few “damns” and “hells,” but never took the Lord’s name in vain.
“I want you to promise me that you’ll ask Jesus to forgive your sins.” I’d never seen him so sincere–so, I promised that I would. Was it because he never had a son? He never said those exact words, but I think it was true.
George Henry Walsh was Uncle Bubba’s real name. He was Grandma Mary’s son by another man. The man’s name was never mentioned. People in those days didn’t talk about such things. Grandpa Joe raised him as if he were his own flesh and blood.
Uncle Bubba passed away on a gray November day in 1999. There it was–inscribed in polished granite, plain as day: “George Henry ‘Bubba’ Walsh, Beloved Adopted Son of Joseph M. & Mary R. Walsh.”