Whenever my cell phone starts singing “Mama Tried,” I get concerned.
I’ve made themed Grateful Dead ringtones for everyone in my contact list, and the Dead’s version of Merle Haggard’s classic weeper is what plays when my mom calls. But my folks almost always call using my dad’s phone … so when “Mama Tried” comes up, something unusual is afoot.
This afternoon it was indeed bad news: My Uncle T.J., my mom’s younger brother, was found dead in his home earlier this weekend. If I do the math correctly, he was 71.
(Frequent flyers on the old Hope Street blog might remember Uncle T.J. playing football for Stamford’s old Rippowam High School. Or, maybe not. A lot of people came and went over there.)
Unfortunately, Uncle T.J. kinda stopped crossing into my orbit around the time I was in high school. So I never really connected with him on an adult level as a parent, a homeowner or a fellow American working stiff. He was always a grown-up in the room and I was always a kid.
Might have been interesting to have that other perspective on him … but, so be it.
(T.J., who spent his life in blue-collar pursuits, might have read Adult Me as a callow white-collar jackass; a money counter; a Hooper to his Quint. He might have been right.)
I do have a couple memories of Uncle T.J. that I’ll share here. Can’t be less interesting than my ramblings on any other subject…
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My brother and I called our maternal grandfather Pool Boy because he had a pool table in his basement. But it was actually my uncle’s table.
I can’t come up with a picture of it. But it doesn’t take a lot of thought to imagine my uncle leaning over it, breaking authoritatively to start a fresh game, and probably smoking a cigarette.
He also had a stereo set up in the room, with a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. (Maybe there were other records; The Wall is the only one I remember.)
To my recollection, the record never got put on when we were there — which is just as well, as I’ve never much liked it. Usually, in deference to his visitors, my uncle would let my dad put on a jazz station out of New York City.
(Edit: Uncle T.J. liked to call my dad
“Kodak,” “Eastman,” though he’d known my dad before my dad ever worked at Eastman Kodak. I never really unpacked the possible meanings behind that as a kid, and I guess I won’t start now.)
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My uncle also owned a clapped-out old station wagon that apparently breathed its last at my grandparents’ house. It reposed in the grass next to their driveway for rather a long time, until somebody finally arranged to get it towed away.
I was fascinated by cars for a good part of my childhood. So there was no better toy than a real-life car that was guaranteed not to go anywhere, no matter what I did when I was sitting behind the wheel.
I spent quite a bit of time sitting in its cluttered confines, navigating highways in my mind.
I don’t know if I ever thanked my uncle for parking it there (or my grandpa for patiently letting it sit as long as it did). But in retrospect it seems like one of those quirky-but-perfect gifts only an aunt or an uncle can come up with.
In an alternate universe, after my high school band’s first two records went gold, I found a ’71 Volvo wagon in a chop-lot outside Schenectady and gave somebody a whole bunch of David Geffen’s money to rebuild it for me.
It purrs like a kitten to this day.
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Uncle T.J. gets credit for introducing me to a classic New England expression — one I use maybe once a year nowadays, generally to the complete befuddlement of the Pennsylvanians who surround me.
The expression is “stove in.” It means caved in, and it can be used either as a verb (When the tree fell, it stove in my roof) or an adjective (That old barn’s got a stove roof.)
It all started on a long-ago Thanksgiving Day at my maternal grandparents’ in Stamford, watching football.
The New York Giants — my grandpa’s favorite team, and probably my uncle’s as well — were playing. Lawrence Taylor, then a ferocious young linebacker for Big Blue, absolutely collapsed some hapless offensive lineman before storming in to assault the other team’s quarterback.
My uncle, a former offensive lineman himself, nodded sagely at the replay. “Stove ‘im right in,” he said.
Some months ago, I discovered this exact same play on YouTube. It was the first of a series of plays in which Taylor pretty much singlehandedly bent the outcome of the game in his team’s favor, the way that really great players can.
The year was 1982. The opposing lineman was no patsy, but an experienced pro — Karl Baldischwiler of the Detroit Lions, as it happens.
And my uncle, as you’ll see, was spot-on: Taylor stove ‘im right in.
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Finally, there’s this picture. It was taken by my maternal grandpa four years before I was born, so it shows a more youthful Uncle T.J. than I ever knew.
I don’t know who the other guy in the pic was — a friend of the family from central Massachusetts, I think — and I obviously don’t know who won the game.
But I think it’s a great picture of a concentrated moment in time. Is the old man schooling the young upstart? Or is the young upstart about to teach a new trick to the older man?
Either way, it seems like a good place to leave off.