Uncle Tim’s Ring
“Cathy, I wanted to talk with you. Can you come outside?” Tiny, sturdy Aunt Anne is halfway out the the rickety cottage’s banging screen door as she invites me to join her, away from the cousins, aunts, uncles, second cousins, sisters, brothers and mothers who comprise our annual Old Orchard Beach reunion. Aunt Anne is my great-aunt on my mother’s side of the family; her husband, Tim, was my grandmother’s brother. The last time I saw her was at my fortieth birthday party in April. She had been one of the surprise guests.
Aunt Anne walks me to the trunk of her gold Buick sedan, the car Uncle Tim used to drive before he died fourteen years ago. “I have a present for you. I didn’t want to give you just anything for your birthday, so I thought about it for awhile.” I am touched by the thought of my great-aunt spending time thinking about the right gift for me. We are not a birthday-gift-giving-family. Gifts are offered only if you attend a party or holiday gathering and you are perceived to have a close enough relationship to obligate the gift. “Close” is defined as immediate family and their progeny. In-laws are questionable. Children under eighteen are the sole exception to the closeness factor, and gifts will be bestowed upon a niece, nephew, grandchild, or child of a cousin if the child is the focus of a party. Not attending the party or holiday gathering automatically nullifies the necessity to give. If a close family member doesn’t bring a gift, even when they “should”, the obligation to give expires when the party or holiday gathering is over. There are lots of ways not to give a gift in my family.
Aunt Anne opens the trunk, blocking the cottage from our view, providing an instant privacy screen. I surreptitiously scan for a package. Instead, Aunt Anne reaches into the purse she had locked in the trunk and withdraws a small brown paper package and a letter. “I want you to have Uncle Tim’s ring,” her voice hushed. “I brought you out here because I didn’t want everyone to see. There was a lot of speculation when Tim died – everyone wanted his diamond ring. I want you to have it. But don’t tell anyone.”
Don’t tell anyone. “Anne. Wow. Thank you.” My throat is stuck and Aunt Anne’s face, the face that has had the same number of wrinkles for my entire life, is suddenly blurry, the wrinkles smoothed. For a moment, I see the younger Anne, the woman Uncle Tim married. The strawberry-blonde pin-up girl laughing in a framed 1940′s magazine advertisement. Aunt Anne’s one moment of fame. I wipe my eyes, take the package from her.
She stands next to me, head level with my shoulder, as I read the brief note in her small handwriting. In it she tells me Uncle Tim was always proud of me. Proud that I went to Smith College. Proud I was so smart. Proud I was a good kid. Tim would want me have his ring. She tells me that we kids were important to both of them. She tells me that I know what having nieces and nephews means, she has seen what I do for mine.
Aunt Anne watches as I unwrap the overly-taped package to reveal a battered jewelers box. “The original box,” she informs me. Inside is a man’s gold diamond ring, three stones set in a white gold square face. This is the ring Uncle Tim wore everyday, on his pinky.
“I’m overwhelmed.” My eyes fill and I look from the ring tucked in the box to Aunt Anne and back again. This is more than we ever give each other and more sentiment than we openly share. Anne is a no-nonsense Yankee. Her eyes are dry. “You don’t have children,” she states, matter of fact. “I know you know.” She hugs me, closes the trunk, turns and returns to the family in the cottage.
I head away from the Buick and the cottage, move to my own car for privacy. Cry by myself. Think about Breanne and Murph and Matt and Tim. I do know what nieces and nephews mean. I do know. And I think about what uncles and aunts mean. What they meant to me.
When he retired, Tim Murphy was the Chief Liquor Inspector for the State of Maine, in the days when liquor could only be bought in bars or state run liquor stores. If you wanted a liquor license, you went through him. If you already possessed a liquor license, you feared him. Uncle Tim, all five feet four inches of Irish willfulness, was passionate about enforcement. That passion was superseded only by his love of family. Uncle Tim was a father to my mom and a grandfather to her children. He looked after my twenty year-old parents, bringing groceries for them and clothes and toys for an infant me. Once, he arrived at their apartment to discover my mother in ill-fitting clothes, unable to conceal her second pregnancy. My brother Bruce had been conceived two months after I was born. Uncle Tim simply took my mother shopping. No judgement, only action.
As a family, we feared Uncle Tim even as we revered him. Once, he showed up unannounced in my seventh grade biology class. “Where’s Cathy Kidman?” he boomed as he charged through the classroom door. Paralyzed with embarrassment, I could only stare as he announced, “I’ve come to take her to the Youth Center.” The Youth Center was Maine’s juvenile correctional institution. I was too mortified to look around to see how my classmates responded to the news that straight-A-never-get-in-trouble-Cathy-Kidman was headed to the youth center. “It’s okay, Mr. E., he’s my Uncle,” I reluctantly admitted, relieved Uncle Tim had not flashed his handcuffs.
Unexpected visits like these were how my brother and I would find out we were going to visit Tim and Anne. Uncle Tim would swoop in, scoop one or both of us off for a couple of days – and later my younger sister, Laura – and return us fed, often with newly purchased clothes. Bruce loved it. Laura seemed indifferent. I never lost a slight dread. Uncle Tim was loud, demanding, always right, and lived to tease us. Around Uncle Tim, I felt like I maybe might possibly be doing something sort of wrong even when I was asleep, as I imagine many bar owners felt. So I kept several books with me to read and hide behind, not that it worked. My reading never went unnoticed. It was his constant opportunity to tease me.
I hold the open box, the ring glinting, and remember. Uncle Tim standing in the summer sun, shirtless and hairy, commanding the smoking grill at each Old Orchard Beach gathering. Uncle Tim sautéeing his pan of chopped buttered onions and grilling steaks for the adults who don’t eat lobster and the hamburgers and hotdogs for the children who do, but who wouldn’t be getting any anyway. Uncle Tim gathering nine small bathing suit clad cousins together like ducklings and marching us single file down one seemingly endless block. Uncle Tim stepping out into the crosswalk and compelling the respect of the street, his military posture negating his white-haired chest, bathing trunks, and flip flops. Uncle Tim raising his hands to signal “stop” in both directions, the hot summer traffic forced to obey. Pedestrians gawking as the nine of us filed past him, none of us daring to run or get out of line.
Our sole destination: Gregory’s, the corner convenience store that sold everything a vacationing family might want for their week at the beach. Styrofoam surf boards, beach balls, and towels. Price-gouged beer, milk, cans of soup, toothpaste, and sunscreen. All crammed into narrow aisles. But none of that existed in our eyes. We were focused like lasers on the rows of candy and ice cream. In the long year between summers, anticipation of going to “The Store” with Uncle Tim fueled endless conversations. “I’m getting every hot-ball there is.” “I’m getting every fudge-cycle.”
Uncle Tim, the authoritarian source and symbol of our summer joy.
It’s getting hot in the car, but I’m not ready to go back to the cramped cottage and face my family. I’m still thinking about Aunt Anne’s words. We never asked why Tim and Anne did not have children. Between them, there was a twenty-five year age difference. As children with same-aged parents, we cousins thought the two-and-a-half decade chasm answered any questions. “He’s too old to be a Dad!” Besides, he was our “Fungle Dim,” our bigger-than-life uncle, and we certainly didn’t want competition for his affection. As young adults, we remained curious but did not ask. Uncle Tim and Aunt Anne formed their own family unit, their privacy not to be intruded upon. I observed Uncle Tim’s loud behaviors, his all-consuming presence that I both admired and dreaded, and a context emerged for the snatches of exasperation overheard in my childhood. “Aunt Anne is a saint.” “She’s the only one who could put up with him.” “Can you imagine if he had his own kids?” So I sometimes wondered if maybe it was a good thing, maybe the universe took care of him and Anne.
Not having children. The importance of nieces and nephews. Yes, I understand.
Don’t tell anyone. This will be difficult.
© 2011 Cathy Kidman