The postmark on the plum-colored envelope read Idaho Springs, Colorado. Inside, within a folded sheet, were 5 one hundred dollar bills. Printed on each sheet in block letters were the words, “MERRY CHRISTMAS UNCLE HARRY.” All 11 nieces and nephews received one.
The dust this raised in the respective families was considerable. Uncle Harry had no children of his own, and to anyone’s recollection, no interest in anyone else’s. In lieu of reproducing, he had made his life purpose the accumulation of ducats. The reports about him that circulated through the family were invariably linked to his latest house—the spa, the bookless “library,” the heated driveway, and the even more heated disputes with his neighbors. No one had ever witnessed the marvel of the magically melting snow because no one, except his mother, Grandma Sarah, had been on the grounds of any of his chateaux. She, after a week in one, swore she’d never go back.
Five hundred dollars, in view of Uncle Harry’s mega-millions was less than a jot or a tittle, but all in all, better than a poke in the eye. Even the total slackers of the 11 felt compelled to write a thank-you note.
Thus over the next weeks, 11 envelopes arrived in Uncle Harry’s copper mailbox. Some came with a picture, some with a note and a snippet of news about whatnot. At first, he thought it was a practical joke, but by the 11th he was in a state of anxious perplexity. Several times he accused his wife Linda of perpetrating the fraud, but she swore repeatedly, tearfully, that she had not sent the money. If she was acting, she was doing it amazingly well. So it had to be one of his 3 brothers; it had to be Louis, the only one who could rub two dimes together. Whatever. It was not his business, his brother throwing away money.
Gradually the episode faded into the past.
In May Grandma Sarah took a fall on the church steps and broke her hip. As in so many similar cases, her decline was dramatic. In 3 weeks time the family had gathered in expectation of her death, all but Uncle Harry. It should not have been a surprise that he didn’t come to say goodbye but even so, everyone was irritated with him in addition to everything else they were feeling. In her final hours Grandma Sarah asked for him, and Anne, one of the daughters, phoned him and he did come, but by then it was too late.
There were 2 days between his arrival and the funeral, with many family gatherings at Anne’s home in the town they grew up in. Uncle Harry and Aunt Linda never showed up there, not once. He came alone to the wake, mumbled one rosary, and slipped away. It was pathetic. The prevailing attitude in the family toward him was veering from derision toward compassion.
In line for lunch after the funeral, in a spirit of reconciliation, Uncle Louis told Uncle Harry how much the Christmas gift had meant to brother Mark’s kids, both of them scraping by. The money had meant just as much to his own kids, but he didn’t want to get that personal. Uncle Harry looked at him and said, “Don’t give me that shit. You’re the one who did it.”
Aunt Linda and Uncle Harry were speeding toward the airport before dessert was served. By the time the dishes were done, the peculiar news that Uncle Harry knew nothing about the money had spread to everyone in the family beyond the age of reason. Most agreed that this made more overall sense but who, then, did it?
The same question buzzed in Uncle Harry’s mind: who? Seeing the flabbergasted look on Louis’s face…if he was acting, he was doing it amazingly well. Prime among the remainder of remotely possible candidates was his mother. She grew up in the Depression. She rarely spent a nickel on herself, and could have saved up that kind of money. But Grandma Sarah was no more than a remotely plausible candidate. She was not devious, nor did she go in for grand, $5,000 gestures. $5,500 to be exact.
Still he could not quite smoosh the worm of doubt. Now and then he had what seemed like intuitive flashes: she had done it and it was meant to tell him something. It was, in fact, a grand gesture. Maybe she knew she was dying and wasn’t going to need that money. He regretted not being able to ask her and find out for certain, a paradox given he almost never cared about her motives and opinions while she was alive. Not that he was sorry; her motives and opinions were not particularly relevant to his life. It was just this one issue.
The year passed, Christmastime approached. Uncle Harry bit his tongue when his wife again put a tree in the living room window though their house was so far upslope nobody not in a helicopter was ever going to see it. People don’t change. And, as in every year, a day after Christmas, she flew down to Phoenix to spend time with her mother who, due to dementia, did not recognize her nine-tenths of the time.
Other years Uncle Harry was glad for her absence but this year he resented coming home from work to an empty house with a dried out tree he didn’t want in the first place. He unplugged it from the timer before New Year’s Day and closed the door on it, writing a note for the housekeepers to remove it and make sure they vacuum up every needle. Why had he bought a Miele if they weren’t going to use it?
On the third of January in the copper mailbox was a thank-you note from nephew Eddie. Two days later there was one from niece Abby, and the next day another from Zachary. Zachary mentioned 500 dollars, the same figure as last year’s. Uncle Harry’s breathing became belabored, as if he were being strangled. For a moment he thought he might be having a heart attack but he was able to calm himself.
Ten notes in all arrived, from everyone but Reuben. The notes were warmer than last year’s, with some effort put into them. Tyler praised him for his generosity. Suzanne went so far as to ask him his opinion on whether she should major in econ or business ad. He had an opinion, but what was it worth to her? He didn’t respond.
He was going to have to quash this once and for all but he had no notion how. Instead, and this was absurd, he awaited the note from Reuben to complete the set and thereby open a course of action. Each night when he got home there was no note and he began ingesting a big helping of resentment toward Reuben—it literally upset his stomach—and he knew that was absurd too, since he had done nothing to deserve his gratitude. Those were almost the very words he said to himself, “I’ve done nothing to deserve gratitude,” and if this were a story with a moral, he might have gone on to say, “Why, that’s a terrible thing. I should do something to deserve someone’s gratitude.” But this is not a story with a moral. This is a story about Uncle Harry.
to be continued