Secondhand Gifts

Ginny Fite

Uncle Willie arrives from New York City limping slightly and carrying two bulging, cloth shopping bags. His face is sweaty and flushed. He hugs me and asks for a glass of water. I tell him to sit, bring him the water, and delve into the bags he holds out for me.

One brims with a loaf of challah, an entire sleeve of hard salami, a miraculously still-warm strudel from which waves of sugared apple and tart cinnamon waft, chocolate-covered jellied candies in a flat box that slides open to dreams of childhood, a dill pickle wrapped in wax paper, a piece of handmade jewelry, and a hardcover book.

The title of this week’s book is The Territorial Imperative. Flipping through the first pages, I see it was published in 1966, three years ago. I know instantly it's important in the same way I knew Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was critical to understanding the world when Uncle Willie gave me the record for my twelfth birthday—because the gift comes from him and he knows things no one else in my family does.

His other bag is stuffed with his sewing kit and pieces of folded cloth cut into perfect squares. While I watch, he arrays for my delight a kaleidoscope of colored cloth on the dining table. The heart of the quilt he’s making blooms into view. With no wife or children, his art is the center of his focus, or so I think. I hover over the quilt, admiring it, thinking about him.

A little bedraggled, Uncle Willie wears an overly large, gray plaid suit jacket over a light blue short-sleeved shirt with an open, frayed collar. His slacks are a slightly different blue-gray plaid. I wonder if this is the new style. He shops only in second-hand stores, my mother says. His fading blue eyes and thinning hair are the only fixed elements in a face that displays every emotion, as if his face were a mirror of life taking its toll. It’s hard now to fix a single image of him in my mind, except for his kindness and round cheeks, our family’s genetic signature, the Hungarian in us. He's my favorite uncle, my own second-hand Santa Claus, savant and storyteller.

He’s been quilting for ten years—a more portable art than the painting he does in his studio. He must, he says, always be making something. His eyes twinkle as he tells me cotton is more malleable than stretched canvas. He quilts in restaurants when he eats alone and on the bus. His sisters are embarrassed by him. Women watch him, he says, and talk about him behind their hands. From the glint in his eyes I know how he relishes his mild notoriety.  

The bus ferries him from Manhattan and he walks from the bus stop to my apartment in Irvington once a week on Thursday afternoons just as he visited my mother in Newark when I was a child. I ask about his limp. He waves his hand, “Don’t worry.”

I never comment on how far it is to my apartment from the bus stop or worry that it’s a hardship for him to visit me. I never ask how it is that he isn’t at work during the weekday, that in his mid-fifties he’s unmarried and lives alone. I assume heartbreak no one speaks about, heartbreak that is somehow normal and acceptable. It’s not that he wouldn’t answer my questions. Perhaps he even wants me to ask, but he's a natural phenomenon in my life—a mountain or the ocean, the moon in the night sky. I don’t question the moon.

His duplicate bridge partner, a physician in general practice has a car and will pick him up at four, before dinner, he reminds me, before my husband gets home. That’s part of our routine. He tells me this every week, as if I might forget the arrangement. I try to forget nothing.

In my tiny kitchen, I inhale the yeast and honey aroma of the challah and cut thick slices for our salami sandwiches while Uncle Willie packs his pieces of cloth back into the bag and entertains my toddler, who sits in his high chair expectantly, watching everything. Without any preamble, Willie turns to my son and sticks out his tongue. He presses his nose with his pointer finger and his tongue slips back between his lips, hidden. My son stares, his brown eyes wide with wonder. Willie does it again. My son shrieks with glee and bangs on the high chair tray with his small hands to demand the trick again. Willie repeats. They understand each other, my son and my uncle. They have no need for history, or questions, or even words. For them, there is only now. Only delight.

We eat our sandwiches and Willie quilts while I clean up, his fingers adept at pulling the needle through cloth in exactly the right spot, looping the thread, pulling again. His stitches are even, the same length, a marvel of precision. Repetition is mesmerizing. Pieces of cloth align in the growing puzzle to which only he has the key. As he sews, he tells me stories about our family—the only relative who will. He’s violating family rules. My elders guard a storehouse of secrets that can't be spoken aloud, secrets being our only treasure, never to be shared.

All my life, my mother has been telling me not to believe Uncle Willie’s stories. I think that means he will tell me something true she doesn’t want me to know. She rotates her finger in a circle near her temple, a gesture for crazy. He was shell-shocked in World War II and periodically spends time in the VA hospital, she says. They give him shock treatments. She expects revulsion, or fear, some fierce emotion that rips apart my affection for him. Instead, I quake with sorrow. Perhaps she means he’s crazy like a fox, her other favorite expression, truth leading us all on a frantic chase, escaping at the last minute from whimpering dogs that hound it to ground.

Willie never comments about my apartment, furnished in a style I call early relative, each mismatched piece flotsam from other people’s homes. He doesn't care about appearances. He lives in a third-floor walk-up in Greenwich Village, a dark, two-room garret where he’s painted a mural on the ceiling and shares the hall bathroom with a fortuneteller. His eyebrows arch as he tells me this, as if there’s something important in this detail and I should pay attention. I have his painting of the fortuneteller—greenbacks stuffed into her bra—looming above a tiny supplicant whose boneless limbs form a heart as she pleads for love. I wonder if his neighbor foretold his life.

He drops ideas into his conversations as easily as he puts sugar he shouldn't have in his coffee. He tells me about plays he attends, paintings he's making. “Do you know about surrealism?” he asks. He’s been doing this—the subtle education of his niece—since I was a small child. He describes the delicious smells of ink and aging paper in the New York public library. “Old dust,” he says, “has a flavor you can taste on your tongue.” He changes my vistas. The world opens like a book I have only to check out.

This time, as he sews he tells me about my Uncle Bobby, who drowned in the Pacific Ocean saving my aunt. Bobby, a year younger than my mother, was the last of my grandmother’s nine children. He died before I was born. I recall Willie’s portrait of Bobby. It hung over the purple velvet chair in my grandmother's apartment. To my eye, Bobby looked like Willie, but younger and muscled. I have the painting for reference and a photo album with black and white images of Bobby wearing only a white jockstrap, posing on a hill under a bare tree. The photos shocked me with their boldness when I found them in a scrapbook under piles of another aunt’s discarded memories. His muscled body glowed in the early morning light, a young Greek god caught seemingly unaware in a moment of yogic contemplation of the horizon.

As in all large families, Willie and his siblings were given single-word attributes by their mother, a shorthand way to identify them in the developing story of their lives she would confide to her friends. Bobby was the strong one, Hugo the handsome one, Ellie—Willie’s twin—the beauty, Mellie the sharp one, Allie the good one, Igin the smart one. Teddy was rarely mentioned, and Willie was kind. Zuzu, my mother, was forgotten.

Bobby’s life is a short story, Willie tells me while I change my son’s diaper and put him on the floor to play. “He was eighteen, a body-builder hoping to make America’s discus-throwing Olympic team. He went to visit Mellie in California.” Willie checks his watch for the time. We have another hour.

I imagine green palm trees, vivid blue skies, white sand beaches, and black cliffs high above a deep blue bay, the scent of flowers in the air. Bobby and Mellie went swimming off a deserted beach in La Jolla and were swept away by a rip tide. Exhausted from the struggle to stay afloat, Bobby held his sister’s head above the water until the Coast Guard lifeboat reached them. Rescuers pulled Mellie onto the boat but when they turned to get him, he was gone. His body was never found.

I imagine Mellie pacing the shoreline for hours calling for her brother until she was hoarse. I see night fall into the sea and Mellie, crouched by the edge of the surf, the only one still waiting for Bobby to return. I see her returning home alone in her roadster, picking up the telephone, turning her back on the constellation of lights blinking on in the hills. She would have had to tell the story of how he drowned to Willie, over the phone from three thousand miles away. I imagine the call, what it took to say the words, “Our brother drowned. Bobby’s dead. They can’t find his body.”

I hear Willie say, “Not our Bobby. He was so strong. That can’t be. Are you sure?” The connection crackles; her weary confirmation fades. And then Willie told the story eight more times to his mother, to each sibling, saying the words over and over until they were real.

Willie’s voice is quiet. He takes a few stitches in silence. I observe the pattern developing across joined squares. He doesn’t say the family grieved, ravaged by anguish. He doesn’t say his sister was plagued by guilt. He tells the story as if it happened to someone else, as if it wasn’t his heart that broke, as if his mother didn’t weep for years. Perhaps that’s the only way a story like that can be told.

I watch my son, babbling as he plays with his blocks, think what it would cost me to lose him, and close my eyes. A voice in me howls. I recall my grandmother sitting in her velvet armchair under the painting of Bobby, endlessly crocheting antimacassars, her thoughts elsewhere. How did she bear it?

In my mind, she smiles at me. “I bear it, sheyna punim. I have you.”

I look back at Willie. “You look like my mother,” he says, half-reading my thoughts.

It’s what everyone in my family says, even now. I look like my grandmother. They seem surprised, as if I should look like someone else. I don’t mind, I tell them. As a child, my sister was the spitting image of Ellie, the beauty. I understand my grandmother. Our genes circulate, retire, and re-emerge in endlessly reforming patterns stitched together by chance.

 As an antidote to sorrow, Willie tells me about Mellie, the sharp one who didn’t drown, and the story of her two husbands—one smart, old, and rich, the other young, handsome, and reckless. She loved the reckless one and married the smart one. First. And when the smart one died, now rich, she married the one she loved. It sounds like a movie plot with Barbara Stanwyck in the leading role. I wonder if this is the truth or only a story Willie prefers to tell. I wonder if there’s a distinction or if truth is in the act of telling, not the elements of the story. Truth is not, I’ve already learned, always beautiful.

Years later, in a desk my mother gave me, I find Aunt Mellie’s 1923 diploma from law school. I add grit to the list of my family’s genetic traits. I think of Magyars crossing the mountains on horseback to claim a kingdom. Yes, we could do that. I feel the horse moving under my body, spine to spine. I see the plain unfolding in rippling hills before us, a nation ahead of us to conquer.

My clairvoyance doesn’t go very far. I don’t see the despair, the loneliness Uncle Willie never admits. I have no context to frame his sorrow. “None but the lonely heart,” he sang on a record he made for my mother before he shipped off to Germany as a private two years before I was born. She played it for me when I was a child, wanting me to understand. Even now, the song haunts me.

At the appointed time, Willie packs up, gives me a hug and kiss, and limps out into the corridor. I watch until he’s on the elevator, wave and close the door, and put my son down in his crib for a late nap.

A week later, Willie calls to tell me the doctors are cutting off his leg. “I won’t be coming for a while,” he says.

Gangrene has set into his foot, he explains. “Diabetes,” he says before I can ask how this happened. They can’t take the chance gangrene will creep up into other organs. His voice is quiet, controlled. He talks about the surgery as if he were reading about it in a magazine. I call my mother for verification but I should have known from the studied calm in his voice. This story is true.

I get a sitter for my son and take the bus into the city. I walk however many blocks it is to the VA hospital from Penn Station, glad of my legs, of the fierce Hungarian pride that pushes them along the sidewalks, of the grit it takes to just be human and survive.

I make my way through endless corridors smelling of urine-soaked sheets and the reek of hopelessness, find his bed, sit in the straight-backed visitor’s chair, and wait for him to wake. Willie opens his eyes and smiles. He tells me about his stump—how the doctors cut his leg off above the knee, how the flap of skin is sewn back over the bone. He shows it to me. I call on every bit of courage I have and look at it with him. A voice inside me weeps and rages. How can this be his fate? I change his epithet in my ongoing saga of who we are: Willie, the brave one.

He introduces me to his roommates in the ward. “My niece,” he says, as if I’m a trophy he won for the highest score in a duplicate bridge tournament. I smile at everyone, showing them my grandmother’s face.

Ginny Fite's stories have appeared or will appear in Fluent Magazine, the Delmarva Review, Temenos, Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, Coffin Belland the Spy newspapers.  

Author of the thriller No End of Bad and the Detective Sam Lagarde mysteries Cromwell’s FollyNo Good Deed Left Undone, and Lying, Cheating & Occasionally Murder, Fite earned her degrees from Rutgers University and Johns Hopkins University and studied at the School for Women Healers and the Maryland Poetry Therapy Institute. An award-winning journalist, she has also published a humorous book of essays on aging, I Should Be Dead by Now, a collection of short stories, What Goes Around, and two collections of poetry.