Monday, March 17, 2008

Tennis, Anyone

I played Scrabble this morning. It triggered a memory.

He's the only one of the lot I really identify with. At family dinners, the two of us would sit in our little huddle, snickering and drawing caricatures of all the others as they backstabbed, plotted, bitched and politicked at the dinner tables.

We would watch and pass sarky little comments to each other, sniggering and giggling like two school kids. We would not speak with any of them unless absolutely necessary. And even then, it would always be short and civil but rich with unspoken scorn and contempt. We were the Staetler and Warldofs of the family.

It is ironic that one I feel closest to in the family is not even related to me by blood.

He'd always been my Uncle L. A tall, burly man with a thick mop of jet black hair and glasses. Sarcastic, cantankerous, intelligent and a master of pointed put-downs.

Everyone in the family was afraid of him. Aunts used his name as the bogey man to frightened the children into obedience. The women complained that he was a misogynist. The men both admired him for his balls in standing up to the women and were offended by his lack of desire to be part of the "menfolk".

My grandmother hated him with a vengeance. 


Because he came from a small village. His parents were simple folks - a school teacher and a housewife. He came from humble beginnings and had studied and worked his way up.

She never felt he was good enough for our family and she made him know it. She barely acknowledged his existence and would bemoaned his "undesirable" traits and that her favourite daughter had married beneath her.

Even as a toddler, I liked him. He did not make coochie coochie noises at me. He talked to me and explained things clearly and logically without patronising me. 

He hated all children. Except me. No one could understand how a tiny baby with sticky outie hair and a curious disposition managed to enthrall Uncle L, but I did. According to my mother, the moment he held me in his arms, he adored me. His legendary temper and impatience were non-existent where I was concerned. I, apparently, was the only one he had time for.

Everyone wondered what he saw in Aunt R, who was widely acknowledged as a bit of a dullard, twit and simpering idiot. Think Mr and Mr Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and you would be close to the mark.

As much as I adored Uncle L, Aunt R drove me absolutely barmy. Watching her mean-spirited bigotry, prissy idiocy and perpetual, whining dramatics gave me the exact antithesis of what I wanted to grow up to be.

He was constantly short with her. Demanding, short-tempered, impatient, sarcastic and curt. He showed his disdain of her less than stellar IQ by sniffing at almost every and anything she did. He could be out and out rude and mean. He refused to wait for her for anything. He went on separate vacations from her as he once said he did not want to be accused of murdering his own wife.

As much as my grandmother disapproved of him as a son-in-law, he was the only man who could put up with Aunt R.

Theirs was a strangely dysfunctional and odd marriage that worked. They met in university and he was top of his class while she was the campus idiot. He had to help her even marginally graduate. How or why he fell for her remains a mystery to this day.

He liked sports. She thought climbing the stairs was uncivilised. He liked food and loved cooking. She only learnt how to cook after a smitten colleague at work kept inviting him to her house for dinners. He used to drag me with him. She was a good cook. We missed her when Aunt R started trying to cook.

He liked photography. She thought his cameras took up space. He liked dogs. She was sick of them since we always had at least 7 at home. He liked old ruins and architectural tours. She just wanted to shop and stay indoors.

I suppose he craved companionship to share all his interests and he would have loved it if Aunt R could. Instead, they were the proverbial chalk and cheese. But you could not deny the man loved her.

She was phenomenally lazy even by our family's standards so he did all the housework. He refused to have a maid as he hated having his privacy invaded. She complained incessantly about it to Grandmother. 

She was a terrible cook so in self-defense, Uncle L did most of the cooking. She hated taking care of the dog so Uncle L did that too. She was hopeless with money so Uncle L made all the financial arrangements and gave her an allowance and credit card that allowed her to lavish herself with silly things while he owned a total of 5 work shirts, 7 polo Ts, 5 work pants, 6 ties and 7 tennis shorts. 

Everyone thought the scales of love fell heavier on Aunt R's side and that she would be totally lost without him. He was always off doing his own thing, at the tennis courts or in his photo studio. She wiled her time waiting for him by shadowing my grandmother as they wrecked the lives and reputations of those unfortunate enough to cross their path. 

He hated her constant need for gossip. He sneered at her perpetual plotting with the other aunts and Grandmother to discredit the non-blood related members of the family. He dubbed her Apprentice to the Wicked Witch of the East (aka Grandmama).

He broke down when she passed away.

All those decades of watching him scold her, deride and dismiss her. The day she died, Uncle L sank to his knees and wept. He sat there for seemingly hours, staring into the void where she used to be and watched his empty existence unfold.

He was inconsolable and did not eat, sleep or go to work for weeks. I was not home and did not know until one of the aunts called me.

I flew back. Perhaps I am as heartless as they all say as I did not cry for Aunt R. I suspected the cause of her illness a long time ago and had warned them of the terminal dangers but they had not heeded me. I could only feel sad about that fact but did not feel any other emotions. Until I saw him.

The big, always slightly chubby man was a shell of despondency. His hair was now gray, his face gaunt. His once strong hands that tried to teach me how to hold the racket were trembling and cold.

I nursed him for a week. And finally I took a rolled up newspaper and thwapped him.

"Get up. Now. The dog needs you."

And that was that. We went to lunch and took the poor, beleaguered dog for a much needed walk. At home, I cooked him his favourite meal and we played Scrabble. Then I put him to sleep and told him she would not want him like this. To turn into her. Helpless and directionless.

And I held him in my arms as he cried to sleep.

I left the next day. And Uncle L went on with life without Aunt R. 

If you see a tall, slightly chubby man with gray hair and thick, black glasses, ask him for a game of tennis. It's all he has to live for till he goes off to scold his wife for being a silly twit.