My Great Uncle Earl was a tall, handsome man with snow-white hair, a tickly moustache, and brilliant blue eyes that twinkled with mischief. He loved to laugh, and when he did, we laughed with him – it was contagious, that laughter of his! And we all knew he was about ten years younger than our little Great Aunt Elda, but that was supposed to be a deep, dark secret, so we kept our secret that we knew “the secret.”
Uncle Earl had a passion for taking photographs and movies – the kind that had a reel to thread in a projector. We viewed countless movies in the basement of my nana’s home on Lehigh Street in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Some movies just showed us racing around the enormous pine tree in the middle of the big backyard or trying to eat our ice-cream off the sugar cone before it melted. My uncle loved to take movies of the family, and he was always shooting movies, but never in them.
My aunt and uncle lived with my great grandmother, and it was a blessing. Nana lived to be ninety, and she was able to stay at home and enjoy her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Nana’s house was large, with three bedrooms on the second floor and a “secret” staircase that led to a huge attic. My Great Aunt Elda’s nephew Henry had lived there until he moved away to California. My aunt and uncle also had a parakeet named Peety. Sometimes, he was allowed to fly around the house. My mother and father always shook their heads disapprovingly. Then Uncle Earl would whistle, and Peety would fly to his long index finger to perch.
Uncle Earl loved to buy gifts of jewelry for his great nieces, so my sisters and I always received beautiful bracelets, necklaces, and pins on our birthdays and for Christmas. We loved his taste in jewelry and the fact that he did not follow my parents’ and grandparents’ advice to buy us clothing: socks, blouses, jeans, or sweaters. We had enough of those practical items from the rest of our family members.
Whenever there were family gatherings, you’d see Uncle Earl duck outside to disappear from the disapproving eyes of my great aunt, my grandmother, and my nana in order to smoke a Chesterfield. He knew everyone wanted him to quit, but he just didn’t want to give it up. “When I’m eighty-five,” he’d say, and cross his heart solemnly. But he did not live long enough to keep his promise, and we all knew it was the cigarette smoke that buried him. My Great Aunt Elda was heartbroken. The shiniest star of all had been extinguished from her universe, and we knew we had lost a true family treasure.