“You don’t want to move to Jacksonville,” Uncle Lee said. “It’s full of strip clubs and pawn shops.” He was visibly unhappy, but I could tell he was trying to hide it.
“Oh, Lee, leave her alone,” Auntie Sue, his wife, and my dear aunt would say.
“It’s rough,” he said, standing firm.
“Roger says it’s different now,” I told him. He smirked and pursed his lips. Roger was twenty-three and a grunt marine, basically a punk ass to a more seasoned Marine, but Uncle Lee would never say that. I can picture him, though, standing straight, holding a brown bottle of beer, wanting just a private five-minute meeting with Roger. I stood tall, too, because we share that internal, prideful grrrrrr, but inside I was saying “eek.”
I had just told my family that I met a Marine and fell in love. I purposely didn’t tell my uncle first, knowing full well that the news would reach him soon enough. He was careful not to roll his eyes when we finally talked about it in person, but I’m sure it took effort. Uncle Lee didn’t want me to date a Marine. I mean, he knew what they were like; he was one of them.
Uncle Lee was in the Marine Corps. for decades. He’s been to Hell a few times, which of course there’s no fully leaving. I’ve read his stories. It was actually Hell. He’s also been to Jacksonville. He knew what he was talking about, and he knew what the town could dish out to this patriotic, yet smalltown girl. He also knew I was hard-headed like him, so he treaded lightly.
When I was little, I loved the Marine Corps and was so proud that my uncle was a Marine. My dad and I shared that sentiment. He talked about his brother with pride and love and supported him in parades and homecomings. We would go to the small town parades and fly our colors high and proud. I’ll never forget the click click click in unison of the Marines in their cammies, their black boots moving in graceful syncopation, smearing their sound on the Easthampton, Mass blacktop. We would attend the USMC ball, a formal party with thickly frosted cake in reds and bright whites, lots of high heels, and dancing-to-the-DJ. Uncle Lee wore his dress blues, a uniform which is incomparable, truly, to any other branch of service.
We all wore our best as well while we did the twist and the chicken dance, and we stood by in awe as the Mexican Hat Dance, the national dance of Mexico, was performed. Uncle Lee’s friend, Sgt. Perez, used his cover to perform the dance. Afterwards, Perez kissed Uncle Lee’s cover out of respect for placing it on the floor, and Uncle Lee nodded to him. They looked at each other and paused as they both held onto the crisp white cover, four hands in perfect measure around the circle. Although quick, it was maybe the most respectful exchange I’ve ever seen. I latched onto it for decades, and I still think about it. I’ll always think about it. I went to the ball a couple times when I was young, and the last one Uncle Lee and I attended together was in 1995, the night Roger proposed to me.
My parents, brother, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and dear family friends all attended that ball in Chicopee, MA. We had hotel rooms, wads of ones for the bar, and the most fun. After Roger and I became engaged, some went to bed, but Roger, my dad, my brother, Uncle Lee, and some other fun people moved over to the bar in the hotel. We danced some more, did shots, and had maybe the best time I’ve ever had until that day’s tomorrow. The next day, Roger left to go back to North Carolina and we started planning our wedding. I’m not confident Uncle Lee was completely happy about it yet, but he was a good sport.
After some time, he began to accept my Marine husband. During Christmas and July 4th leaves, I would see them huddled up talking about the military. They were both grunts and they shared an MOS. It would warm my heart to see them creating a relationship; I wanted them to. Roger was not a man of too many words, not a gabber, but eventually they connected. They began a relationship and gained each other’s respect. I was elated. We would go home to Massachusetts when Roger had leave, each time with a new baby boy, and Uncle Lee would be the first one to take the drooling baby in his arms. The baby never cried. He would feed them cantaloupes and take their photos, sneak them a slice of lemon once in awhile, give them sugar.
When Roger died on June 29, 2009, I was in Massachusetts visiting family, and oddly enough, Sgt. Perez who performed the Mexican Hat Dance, showed up with the National Guard to notify me. He wasn’t the one to share words with me, to tell me my husband was gone, but he stood by stoic, ready, connected to us in two ways. I didn’t even recognize who it was until later. Uncle Lee came right to my parents’ house as soon as he heard from my dad who called him right away. When he showed up, he was different, like I’ve never seen him, on guard almost. He was in unfortunate and familiar territory. He deeply understood what the boys and I were about to go through, and he realized the longevity of it. Although some of it was familiar, it was different, like it connected his two deeply emotional worlds: The Vietnam War and his beloved family.
Uncle Lee and Auntie Sue came to NC for Roger’s wake, funeral, and graveside service. He carefully stood by while I was asked to make decision after decision. My cognizance teetered during those months, and I’m sure his did, too. I imagine there were moments of recognition for Uncle Lee, moments of photo memories of Vietnam and Desert Storm, flags being passed to loved ones, and I wonder how many memories Roger’s services penetrated his own from decades ago. It may have been a nightmarish awakening for him, and I was in no place to help. His calm demeanor and steady posture was impressive, but I knew it took flexed muscles and strong resolve to stand that tall, only because, I know my uncle. Only because I’m just like him.
He stood. He sat. He saluted the brass of all branches and the many flags. He whispered social intelligence to me about the generals and other fancy-pants I was about to meet and accept coins from during the formal ceremonies. He gritted his teeth and set his jaw, but you couldn’t tell. He joked with the boys and focused on them most, ensuring they were safe and loved. He was my deeply-rooted tree, tall, strong, and straight. He never rested during the services. He wore deep blue Blues in July and kept his cover low. He was an uncle, a great uncle to Gold Star children, a marine, a silent mourner. He was tucked away, quietly in a corner until I faltered invisibly, then he appeared out of nowhere. He was back in Jacksonville, North Carolina, reliving the old and living the new, both of them a vivid and spiky Hell.
To this day, I have a strong relationship with Uncle Lee. We always have and we always will. He loves words and so do I. He writes, my uncle, about Christmas, Vietnam, his squirrel journal, Halloween fiction, and letters to the President. He dresses like Santa Claus for his grandchildren, Mia and Mario, for Christmas. He holds a tenderness for animals and children, and he worries. I also hold my Auntie Sue so dearly. We have more in common than I ever realized, and she really loves us as we do her.
The day before the boys and I left Massachusetts, Uncle Lee showed up. He scrubbed the floors, vacuumed the entire upstairs, organized our extensive and embarrassing trash pile, and so much more. I’ll never forget watching him drive away one last time that day in his red truck. I don’t love that memory, but I lean on it.
Uncle Lee and Auntie Sue made special accounts just to read my blog posts. They are my biggest fans, my everlasting support, two people who probably have no clue how much they mean to me. See, I’ve never doubted how much they love me and the boys, but I hope they feel the same about my love for them. We were able to spend some real time with them when we lived in Massachusetts this last time. During COVID, they took car trips, making their rounds to see friends and family. They wore masks and stayed far away, but we were able to at least see them. It made me feel safe. Although my stubborn I-don’t-need-anyone attitude was on the visible surface, inside, I needed to see them, to know they were there. After the pandemic slightly relaxed, we were able to visit them at their house. I felt like I was home.
We’re so far away now, logistically, but I’m aware more than ever how close we are where it counts, in the heart and in the soul. Uncle Lee and I used to write paper letters with pen. Now, we email when we can. Well, when I can. He’s always right there, interested in what I have to say, completely invested in us. Everyone should be so blessed to have an Uncle Lee and Auntie Sue.
Never for a moment did I not appreciate them. Never for a moment have I not appreciated them. Never for a moment will I not appreciate them. #iloveyou