Published in warm and satisfying newspapers on August 20, 2009
Comedian Steve Martin used to do this bit about how hilarious it would be to teach kids the wrong words for things so that they show up on the first day of kindergarten and asked to use the restroom they would say something ridiculous like, “may I mambo dogface to the banana patch.”
Although most of us didn’t face anything that extreme growing up, some of us have had the experience of an abrupt discovery that something that seemed so normal in our family was completely absurd to the rest of the world - “Huh, I just figured everyone’s dad ate dinner while wearing only underwear.” One of those moments for me came when I was talking with a grade-school buddy about a visit to see my uncles – Peachy, Frog, and Burl. He was astounded by the names of my mother’s brothers and informed me that he had uncles named Bob and Jim.
I can clearly remember the light-bulb-over-the-head moment when I realized that I had never, ever, met any other people named Peachy or Frog and that the only other Burl I had encountered was the actor who narrated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
My trio of uncles was as eccentric as their names implied. Burl, the oldest, had lost his teeth early in life and wore his dentures only to the weddings of his daughters. Without the extra two or so inches his false teeth added to the length of his face, his head took on a shriveled apple-like appearance. Teeth or no teeth, he was a sweet and loving man who stepped in as a long-distance male role model after my dad died when I was only one. He came all the way from Houston to take me to get my first haircut because, in his view, that was a rite of passage in which mothers should not participate.
Frog’s real name was Homer but he was Frog to nearly everyone but his mother. His love for amphibians exhibited itself early in life and the nickname seemed perfectly logical. When he died I’m sure someone had to inventory his frog knickknacks – stuffed, plastic, carved, porcelain, and I’m sure they numbered in the hundreds. Frog was a consummate teller of jokes and stories and I could always be assured of a laugh-induced bellyache after an afternoon visit with Uncle Frog.
Peachy’s real name was Charles but I don’t think I even knew that until I saw it on his gravestone. Like his brother Frog, Peachy’s nickname was the result of a childhood love, his, of course, for peaches. What I remember most about Uncle Peachy is his capacity for unconditional love. His only son, John Charles, had cerebral palsy. He was several years older than me and, to be perfectly honest, spending time with John Charles made me uncomfortable. He was wheelchair bound, drooled, flailed his arms about uncontrollably, and made sounds I found distressing. But I recall Uncle Peachy loving his boy with as much affection and pride as any father could have for any son.
All three of my uncles are long gone, but pieces of them still remain with me. I think of Uncle Burl nearly every time I walk into a barber shop and especially when I see a young boy getting his first haircut. I’m grateful Homer and Charles had such colorful nicknames. When either frogs or peaches come up in conversation, their faces pop into my mind, usually for just a second or two. These memories are like unexpected little gifts.
I had one of those moments this week with Uncle Peachy when I visited a fruit stand. They had just received a shipment of tree-ripened South Carolina peaches and suddenly, my uncle was right there in my head, watching football on TV with John Charles, both cheering on their favorite team. I brought home some of the fruit. How could I resist? So, this week I’ll be making things with peaches – maybe some freezer jam, maybe a cobbler, and I’ll be spending some more time remembering my uncle.
If you care to follow my peach adventures or if you’d like to share some of your own stories about how memories get conjured up in the oddest of ways, please visit my website.