I don’t know why Daddy brought me with him to Uncle Martin’s house that day or even remember whether it was just he and I, but there we were, standing on the curb edge squinting into the sun, waiting for Uncle Martin to cross the street. Dressed in an un-tucked flowy white shirt and severely creased beige slacks, Uncle Martin was looking back nervously over his shoulder as he slowly made his way across the yard and on to the sidewalk carrying a small raggedy suitcase containing what he would later tell me were his “essentials.”
Much later, I would understand that Daddy was the logical one to be there that day. He and Uncle Martin had been close since the day Daddy married his only sister, my mom. Uncle Martin took one more quick look over his shoulder just before his foot hit the black asphalt of the street. Standing in a stiff row behind him were the family he was leaving, an angry wife and three children; a girl aged 10 and two boys aged 7 and 5. The girl stood solidly beside her mother trying her best to mimic her adult fury, while the oldest boy simply looked lost and confused. The youngest boy, who looked nothing like Uncle Martin, had a look on his face that coincided with his mismatch, that of utter detachment.
In the middle of the street now, car engine running, Daddy called out, “Come on man, let’s go. It’s hot as hell and I’m wasting gas here!”
With that, Uncle Martin wound his long slender fingers into a tighter grip around the fragile suitcase handle and sauntered in extended elegant strides to mom’s humming, brand new 1962 Chevy “Big Rider.” Daddy grabbed Uncle Martin’s shoulder and squeezed it, which made Uncle Martin lower his head and smile a strange combination of devastation and relief. We all piled onto the new car smell green leather seats, and with Daddy and Uncle Martin in the front and me in the back, Daddy pulled away from the curb.
I was the only one to look back. They were all still standing there in front of the house, mother and daughter staring daggers at us, the two boys wrestling in the dry grass. That would be the last time I saw my cousins.
Uncle Martin settled into his new apartment and over the years tried to be many things. He took a few turns as a janitor or maintenance man, tried once to become a gardener, then a construction worker, and held many other professions in between. With an ever-present half-pint of bourbon in his back pocket and a laugh always seeming to build and then tease hysteria, he was inevitably fired and perpetually unemployed. Mom said his “general discharge” from the Army and his drinking kept him from keeping a job for very long. But his most memorable occupation was his time as a preacher, like his big brother. His mother was solidly anchored to her Texas- bred conservative Church of God In Christ of that era, and his older brother, with his own church and following, was her pride and joy. Uncle Martin, with his “funny ways” as they would describe him, was definitely an outlier. And in his family, an outlier was a disappointment.
During his preacher days I never went to church to hear him, but that didn’t stop him from trying to share his brand of the word with me whenever he would visit. Mostly we just got into arguments, delightful arguments. Like the ones we had about cars. He had a penchant for Ford Thunderbirds and I had been raised in a strictly Chevy household. He was always getting stuck somewhere from lack of gas money or more often Ford product betrayal. Then there was the time we got into it about women’s rights, and he said women should obey the man of the house and I told him he was crazy and in trembly voice preacher style he said, “That’s why you all are called wo-man! It means woe be unto the man who has to be with you!” We didn’t speak for a couple of months after that. Our next argument was decidedly milder. A little tiff about Natalie Cole’s singing ability. I said she was a bit shrill. He loudly declared, “That girl can sing!” I said she was not that good. And he proclaimed she was marvelous. And on it went until we both started laughing until he seemed to catch himself somehow and just stopped.
Then mom died around the same time Uncle Martin’s longest relationship with a girlfriend and a years-long job with the post office both ran their course. He “retired” from life and work in California and moved back to his birthplace in Texas. We would talk by phone every now and then and he would always respond to my “ Hi Uncle Martin”, with “Sheryl, you sound just like a white lady.” And I would say, “Most people say I sound like I am from the South.” And he would say, “Yeah, like a white woman from the South!” And then the laugh would erupt over the phone line soon dissolving into easy giggles for both of us.
Then aunt Mary, his aunt and my great aunt, passed away and I was summoned to Texas. Uncle Martin was both surprised and shocked when I opened great aunt Mary’s front door to find him on the porch. We hugged and caught up a bit. We spent the night with other relatives at her house and sadly went to the funeral the next day. Great aunt Mary had left everything in the house to me. Uncle Martin had been very close to great aunt Mary and now heartbroken at her loss, he quietly and slowly roamed her house and looked through and touched the many figurines on almost every flat surface or specially made shelf in each and every room. There had to be at least 200 of them. Although angels of clear glass, porcelain, bronze and all sorts of materials took top billing, scattered among them were birds, cats, dogs, cherubs, small flowers, and the occasional rabbit.
“Uncle Martin, you like those knickknacks?”
Through the nervous laugh he said, “Yes, Sheryl, I watched over the years as she collected them. I even picked some of them up for her from the Post Office when they came in.”
“Then they are yours,” I said.
“Really? All of them?”
“All of them. Now get a box and make sure you go to every room.”
He looked at me with his lips in a straight line and tears in his eyes but said nothing. He found a box in the garage and almost skipping from room to room began to gather his memories. Laughing and giggling at each new find, more than once he called out to me, “Really Sheryl? All of them?” and I would answer, “Yes, all of them.” He soon returned to the garage to get another box. His delight was my peace.
The next day we said our goodbyes and I returned to California while Uncle Martin settled more into his life in Texas. We still spoke by phone from time to time and at the end of one of our last conversations he said, “I am sending a little gift to you.”
A few weeks later a small box arrived with a beautiful pen set inside. But what caught my attention was the name in the return address.
Route 1, Box 44
I called him right away.
“Who is Martina?”
“That’s me”, he said calmly and quietly.
“How did that happen?”
“That’s what my mother named me.”
“ I never knew.”
And that’s how my Uncle Martina came out to me. I never pressed for details and he never offered them. What we had at that point was enough. Now I understood the angry wife and hate filled and detached children and the day he left them. The trilly laugh that would sometimes seem to take him over and then build to near madness. The “General Discharge” from the Army. Why he tried to preach to please them even though they still didn’t believe he could be “saved.” The back pocket pint. I understood slivers of truth based on what I had seen and heard, but I knew I didn’t understand anything of how he suffered this life.
Over the next few years we stayed in touch with the occasional phone call. Nothing changed about our conversations. I would still tease him that Natalie Cole could not sing. He would laugh and tell me I talked like a white woman.
I got a call one day that he had been found dead on the living room floor of his doublewide. In a final mean-spirited bible-belt indignity, someone had posed his body with his pants pulled down below his knees.
A few months later a couple of photos of Uncle Martina made their way to my mailbox. In one he is dressed in full Army fatigues, standing in front of a barracks building. He is holding a guitar in the standard Elvis Presley pose of the period. His face is tense and his smile is on the verge of crazy.
In the other photo, Uncle Martina has a full silvery shoulder length wig on his head, bangs arranged just so. There is a Christmas tree in the background. He is wearing a mini skirt that showcases his long slender legs, lacey stockings and a frilly black and white sweater. On his feet are white go-go boots polished to perfection.
His face is relaxed and smooth and I notice how much he looks like Marvin Gaye. His smile is calm and peaceful. There are no hints of worry or creeping derangement.
Just my beloved Uncle Martina, being happy and looking fly.
Copyyright©2018 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte