By Larry Teren
Twenty six years after his passing, I still think about Uncle Henry. Which reminds me- before Al Gore invented email (or was it just the Internet?) my fellow human beings took great care in how we put thoughts on paper. We went to great lengths to make sure our handwriting was legible and worthy of reading.
Of course, those of us who are lefties, have had issues back before Bic invented the modern pen in gliding our hand over paper as we write cursively. (Hmm… that doesn’t sound right.) In the 1950′ and early 1960’s, the ink cartridge type pens we used would create blots on the page and the residue would smear our left hand as we moved it across the spot in which we just wrote. Our elderly teachers- at least to kids they seemed so- would try in vain to get us to switch and use the right one. That was like asking me to switch from boxers to… uh, you get the picture.
Supposedly you can tell the breeding of a person based on his penmanship as well as word choice. Uncle Henry, born in 1908, didn’t make it past elementary public school for his formal education. One day- maybe it was in 8th grade- he asked the teacher if he could be excused to take care of business. She waved him on and that was the last time he was found in a public school classroom. He not only went home to use the nicer facilities in the apartment building my Dad’s parents owned, but decided he could get a better dose of education on the streets of Chicago.
Despite the abbreviated formal public school education, Uncle Henry displayed a beautiful cursive handwriting script. He spent his working lifetime as a cab driver and lived down to his income level in a run-down hotel in the Lakeview area not far from Wrigley Field. At one time, a client of mine who owned extensive commercial real estate told me that his own uncle owned the hotel my uncle lived in and that in the 1930’s a few of the bachelor Cub players would live there during the baseball season.
Henry was content in his milieu and not ashamed to invite his nieces and nephews to come over for a visit. As he got older and gave up driving, I’d not only go and visit but take him out to hang out in other areas just to get him out of his neighborhood for a while.
In those later years, he took to writing me often despite that I lived no more than a half hour drive away. I still cherish and keep the last letter he wrote in 1985 shortly before the fall that injured his skull and caused him to no longer be able to care for himself. My brother and I visited him in the hospital and remember his speaking the word “Geneva” as something he wanted to convey to us but couldn’t.
The last year of his life he spent in a long term care facility with a needle sticking in his body as a conduit to giving him enternal feeding. He had quit on a desire to eat- this from a man who looked like a twin for Curly of the Three Stooges. Ironically, it was the very last week of his existence that he decided he wanted to sit up and eat like a normal person again. Unfortunately, his body rejected this one final joy of life and he left us, presumably to finish his formal education upstairs.
There are several stories that can be told about the admiration Uncle Henry brought to this kid. I’d see his taxi, or what I thought was his, driving in the vicinity of our two-flat. To all of us, he was the big man on campus, bringing presents for the kids and money to Ma to help her buy groceries of which he would get his fair share.
There was the time he bought me a baseball uniform as a present for giving up my bedroom to my older sister when the youngest took her spot in the bedroom with the middle sister. I ended up sleeping on a highrise daybed in the dining room.
There was also the time he drove me back to a toy store to defend my honor when the old bag who monitored everything going on in her emporium accused me of the trying to steal a bag of toy soldiers.
He’d take us to the two famous KiddieLands in the Chicago area and spoil us as if his money grew on trees. And then there was the time he sat next to me at the Byrd Theatre as he slept and I watched and cried at the final scene in Old Yeller.
His willingness to do good things for those he loved went beyond spoiling kids. Supposedly, he volunteered to take his middle brother’s place in the Army as they used to permit in the early part of the 1900’s. This was after he had already done his time of service.
And there was the time when Dad was doing basic training at Fort Sheridan and got a call to report to the commander’s office. Nervous and bewildered, he double-timed it there to find his brother Henry trading jokes with the commanding officer and told that he was being given a pass for the weekend. Apparently, Uncle Henry had arranged a big favor for the commander having to do with getting his house painted and furnished with some extra accoutrements.
About a year and a half ago, while going to visit Dad’s grave, I decided it was time again to check out Henry’s. I knew it was in the same location but several yards away. With help from the cemetery office, I found his tombstone and felt terrible to see how weeds had grown over it practically hiding the words etched in stone. I hightailed it back to the office and paid to have it weeded and cleaned. It was the least I could do for the guy who had perfect penmanship.