I don’t remember how old I was: older than twelve and probably younger than fifteen. I know I had reached puberty. It was the topic of the conversation.
There were three boys and a girl in my Dad’s family. Jack, Dad, Fernie, and Ray, in that order, age-wise. There was a nine-year difference between Dad and Ray. Ray was the baby brother, and my Dad loved him fiercely.
Grown-ups were very different in the sixties. There was a clear and dramatic difference between childhood and adulthood. Demeanor, attitude, sense of humour, point of view, clothing, hairstyle - all different. Not at all like today where that line is blurred. Uncle Ray was a singular grown-up. He didn’t talk down to us kids. He told us jokes. Best of all, he could belch louder and longer than anyone we knew - and would bust out these spectacular prolonged burps at impressively inappropriate moments.
I remember thinking later that I’d been set up. That Dad had arranged for Uncle Ray and I to be alone together in his car. He was self-consciously squirmy in a way that I’d never seen. His face was red and he was having trouble kick-starting the conversation.
Maybe we were on our way to a motorcycle rally. Dad and Uncle Jack gave up their bikes when they married, but Uncle Ray continued to ride his Harley, and our family would attend GVMC events to watch him compete. I can’t imagine how Dad arranged for the two of us to travel together alone - Ray was married with a family at the time.
They used to call it having a talk about “the birds and the bees”. When Uncle Ray stammered into his introduction, I remember feeling a little annoyed that my Dad had passed off this right-of-passage duty to someone else. Uncle Ray was clearly not enjoying the experience either, but he gamely forged ahead.
Dad was an introvert. He expressed himself with his art, or when he played his mouth organ. He could tell good, dependable stories with beginnings and endings. He prepared follow-up stories so he wouldn’t be caught short without one. He was charming and kind with people but essentially shy and uncomfortable in the spotlight. I think Uncle Ray shared Dad’s core shyness, but he blustered on through with courageous bravado. The jokes and the funny stories broke the ice.
Dad named me - his first child - after Uncle Ray. Uncle Ray named his first child, Harry, after my Dad. Their great love and admiration for each other was obvious to anyone who saw them together.
“So, uh … how much do you know already?” Uncle Ray was looking to minimize the discomfort of the task at hand.
“Uh, you know … pretty much everything.” I lied.
“Ok, well, is there anything you need to know?”
I scrambled. There were many things sexual that were still a complete mystery to me. I needed to pick one and put us both out of our misery.
“Uh …” I muttered hopefully, “what’s a hickey?”
At the ‘celebration of life’ that we held after Dad passed away, Uncle Ray spoke about what a great brother Dad had been - how most kids would shun a sibling that was nine years younger but how Dad had taken him everywhere with him - made him toys - helped put together his first motorcycle. Listening to him speak, I was reminded once again that he was my favourite relative.
My Uncle Ray died suddenly of a heart attack on July 19th. He was seventy-six.
I have an excellent last memory of him - jamming with Connor and I and my brother Gary in our living room. He was playing his heart out on his harmonica as we played along on guitars - broad smiles on all our faces.
My sad, but perfect, memory of him took place a few days before Dad died, as he sat at Dad’s bedside and played him ‘Old Shep’ and ‘Danny Boy’ on his harmonica. ‘Old Shep’ and ‘Danny Boy’ were my Dad’s two favourite songs.