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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Uncle Bill, 1926 - 2007

Grandpa Bro got his nickname while fishing with his youngest son -- my dad, then a teenager -- some time after he became a widower. A bunch of young women went canoeing by, and my grandpa ordered my dad to call him “Bro,” so as to create the illusion of youth. I’m sure he knew it wouldn’t work, but the joke stuck and that became his name for his children and grandchildren to call him. He died when I was three.

His parents had died young too. Bro was the oldest of 5 children, born in 1910, with siblings following in 1917, 1920, 1923, and 1926. The younger three were orphaned, and Bro and my grandma Betty raised them along with their own three sons.

Bill, Bro’s youngest sibling, lost his parents at age 3 and 11. He lived fast and hard and died three weeks ago at age 81. During the 2nd World War, when rationing was in place, Bill had a connection with the liquor distributor, and even though he was underage he could get alcohol beyond the ration limits. This came in handy when one of the Eberle or Eberly brothers came to Battle Creek (my dad never did remember whether it was Ray Eberle or Bob Eberly, both swing singing stars, who, though they were brothers, spelled their last name differently). Bill was a fan and invited Eberle/y back to the house for some alcohol, and he came. My dad would have been a toddler.

I didn’t know Uncle Bill well. He was tough and cheerful. I remember visiting him when he lived in Chicago. I would have been 6 or 7, and I remember driving down Lake Shore Drive, my mom in the front seat with Uncle Bill, me and my younger brother in the backseat, Bill cursing a blue streak at the other drivers.

“Son of a bitch!”

And then turning to my mom to apologize for cursing in front of the children.

“Sorry Julie.”

But the apology wouldn’t prevent further transgressions.

“Jesus Christ! Sorry Julie. Son of a bitch! Sorry Julie.”

And so on.

At the funeral two weeks ago, my sister tells me, our cousin Liz told the story of sitting in the backseat as a little girl while Bill was driving and writing down every time he cursed. “What are you doing back there?” Bill asked her. “What are you doing?”

My other vivid memory of Bill came about 10 years ago when Liz got married, and Bill was walking with a cane. He was living in Arizona then and old friends hadn’t realized that his health had started to deteriorate. I saw some old friend, whom he’d known for decades, razz him, “Bill, what are you doing with that cane!” It wasn’t a question.

Uncle Bill, with a semi-pissed-off, sardonic smile: “Walking!”

Because they all grew up together in the same house, my dad and his brothers were uncommonly close with their uncles and aunt.

I saw Bill last when my son was a few months old. He and Aunt Juanita bought some clothes for the baby. Once or twice a year since then I’d think of writing to them but I never did. Regrets, I have a few.

I will write to Aunt Juanita.

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