“I’d like to play a song for my niece, Teri.”
We may have been in a local bar in Western Mass., at the gazebo on a warm July day in Easthampton at the rotary, or even at an outdoor pavilion surrounded by a setting sun and dancing people, barefoot, fun liquid sloshing around in their red plastic cups. He also played music at Jack and Jill celebrations in American Legions, surrounded by dancing smoke and the scent of crock pot lazy Pierogis, and at birthday parties about ages that end in zero. Life stood still when he played, and people loved to listen.
Every time, I knew what song he would play for me.
“It’s called ‘Great Balls of Fire.’” At that, my Uncle Joe’s hands would dance around the keys flawlessly and his rich velvety voice would sing with smooth syncopation while it accidentally commanded attention. I don’t think he had to even look where he placed his piano fingers, no crinkled piece of notepaper held the lyrics for him.
When he played that song, our song, the one I told him I liked when I was a little girl decades ago, I felt like a kid again, little and loved by my big strong uncle, the one who served in the Navy, the one who really loved cats, and the one I shared my love of music with.
He played in a band for most of his life, many bands actually. His favorite music to play was old rock like “Penny Lane” by the Beatles or “Green Door” written by Jim Lowe in 1956, a peppy and very catchy song that offers a riddle about what’s behind the green door that is making people so happy. Uncle Joe sings the lyrics, “Don’t know what they’re doing. But they laugh a lot behind the green door.”
He was Joe Joe, a guy who said what was on his mind, even if maybe he shouldn’t. That’s what made him so real.
I remember the phone call we had after I lost my husband in 2009. I was in North Carolina and Uncle Joe was unable to fly down. We didn’t talk much. All I remember is hearing him choke out, “I love you.”
Years later he talked about his college and said I should give it a try.
“I went to Westfield State College. I think it’s called Westfield State University now,” he said. “It’s a great school.” I took his advice, and this December I will be finished with my degree at WSU.
I never wondered with Uncle Joe whether I was loved by him. He showed me by carrying around a giant bucket of Lincoln Logs he bought for me at Caldor, and by not getting mad when I got sick at McDonald’s. All over the place. He was kind when he found out I was seventeen and pregnant, and he always looked happy to see me.
It was rare to see him without a smile all over his face, and he didn’t simply walk into a room; he bounced. He had a strut stroll that was more of a cool saunter with rhythm, like coolness took no effort with him.
I still hear his deep, booming voice in my mind, and am thankful that he lives on in recordings of songs he played, present tense, but more than that, he lives on in me through the love that I have for him.
Rest, Uncle Joe, not peacefully, but full of oldies, cheeseburgers, and long-haired kittens.