I grew up with a lot of uncles. I am down to two that I know of. Like any family, the cruelty of death’s uncontrollable attrition removed many of them from contention of being my current favorite.
No one would consider us close-knit, but I have had affection and respect for all of them.
I became closer to two of them much later in their lives; both could be considered melancholy by nature. I have a streak of melancholy too. Those who are close to me can see it. They ask me about it way too much. I have embraced the melancholy feel as something I am blessed with rather than looking at it as a character flaw.
It makes dark humor more appealing— to me— than most people with whom I rub elbows, and I like sad songs.
I am as comfortable being alone as others are when saddled with an entourage. It’s not strange to want to spend time by yourself. I purport that it’s normal to want to do so, but not everyone feels it should be embraced. I find myself rather pleasant to be around and easily entertainable.
Years ago, I asked my doctor about it. I assure you that I felt fine, but too many people close to me had inquired if I was sad, mad, or, Lord forbid, hiding feelings of hurting myself. I wasn’t, and I am not. I’m not any of those things. I may be melancholy with bursts of raucous humor and sarcastic comments, but I’m indeed not ready to end it all; not a chance.
But I was concerned, like anyone, that people were seeing something I couldn’t see myself. I know they were trying to help.
That simple one-time inquiry— to a doctor I trusted implicitly— modified how my future medical care professionals scrutinized my answers to the question, “How are you feeling?” Once they find that in your charts, medical professionals become cynical about your answers. They now follow up with questions like, “What do you do to relieve stress?” My standard answer is that I do whatever I want, which seems to work for me.
One of them tried to prescribe me a dose of happy pills about fifteen years ago. I read about the side effects. One of the most prominent was that the mild mood enhancer causes constipation in most patients.
I told the doc I would be far more unhappy if I had trouble pooping, so I took a hard pass. No pun intended.
I never asked for help to feel better or feel different; I only wanted to ensure I was “normal.” Now, I don’t believe that there is a normal.
My trusted doc said I was fine; he reassured me that not everyone understands everyone else, sometimes creating valid concerns.
There is no question in my mind that my career changed me, but it didn’t make me melancholy. It merely enhanced what I was already. I came wrapped that way. No different than a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup package—square and easily identifiable. Ultimately, once you take off the accordion paper, it’s simply delicious.
Genetically transferred from generation to generation, I have been lucky enough to observe some of these traits in one uncle, who I was lucky enough to spend time with—fishing—before he passed away. Reflecting on some of those times is like a preview of a movie I am now starring in.
My Uncle Paul had struggled earlier in his life, for he was a burglar. I recall sitting in the car as a small boy while my Mama went inside to visit him during one of a couple of his stints in prison. He became a very well-regarded chef because of what he learned while incarcerated. Reform was the idea back then, and Paul took advantage of it. He later worked in some fine restaurants up and down the east coast. On a more personal level, Uncle Paul was always responsible for the gravy during holiday gatherings. The smoothness was always worthy of praise.
In the early 90s, my Uncle Paul invited me to hole up at a cabin in a beautiful place, his favorite place, for a long weekend. Paul knew I loved to fish and spend time outdoors. He asked me to come along but specified that I bring my own canoe because he preferred fishing alone. That was unique to me at that time. I was accustomed to floating around the same canoe with my fishing partners.
I showed up with a cooler, a few clothes, and my old green square stern canoe. It was the autumn of the year, and the beauty framing that tiny pond was breathtaking. Colorful hardwoods partitioned apart by a sprinkling of dark firs contained us within the bowl as we fished separately. This was his happy place, but he didn’t let on. He just soaked it in quietly.
I understood, only then, that fishing alone was how he made the best of the sadness, managing that which made him what he was.
The pond was small enough to be able to keep an eye out for the other guy but spacious enough that you had to make an effort to get within earshot. It was one of the most peaceful trips of my life. In a way, Paul taught me that going out and doing things by yourself was okay. It was acceptable to be happy without excessive conversation or artificially flavored glee. I saw that it was preferable in Paul’s mind, and I came to accept the similar feelings that sometimes permeated me when things got too loud or busy.
Uncle Paul made supper in the evenings while we listened to the radio. His egg sauce over fresh brook trout created elegance from simplicity.
After supper, we didn’t even chat. We read for a time, then retired to our rooms when yawning became more predominant than the waning sound of crickets and peepers outside in the cooling grass. Lying there, and bathing in the quiet, became my favorite lifetime supplement.
Breakfast was delicious and served early. At the shore, he gave me parting advice on how to troll the hand-tied flies presented to me upon my arrival. I still have many of them. Then we pushed off with an awkward wave to one another, only to talk again at lunch. I knew my uncle suffered from depression, but spending that weekend gave me a valuable lesson in how to manage it if I were ever afflicted with the same thing.
Oh, and we caught some fish. He caught more, of course. He was so elated when I showed up at the shore with at least one trout that rivaled his biggest of the weekend. People are not typically like that, and I’ve tried to personify that trait when someone is more successful than I have been. Life doesn’t constantly need to be about competition.
Oh, and we ate like kings. Silent, but like kings.
At the end of the weekend, he helped me heft my canoe on top of my old Ford, and we parted ways. I headed north. No hugs, just a wave, and a smile. There was no backslapping and cajoling, but it was enough. More than enough. Plenty.
We hunted one more time together before he died. It was on Thanksgiving Day, and he even spent the night on this end of the state, staying with my mom and dad. We woke up to snow on the ground that morning, and I remember his happiness when I picked him up. He was pleased that there would be a way to track a deer and read the area in one of my hunting spots—a place where he had never been before or since. We were successful, but neither one of us saw a deer.
Uncle Paul made yet another fantastic gravy for the family that gathered for dinner. He smiled when people thanked him, but it wasn’t a big smile. That was reserved for other things. I think I know what it was, but I can’t swear to it. He kept it to himself.
I’ve listened to the family conversations over the years; the predominant belief was that Uncle Paul suffered from deep depression. I tend to agree, but I saw a different side of the man; he refused to suppress his sadness because he didn’t feel that he had to.
What Paul did do was figure out a way to manage it. No drugs; he found something better and places that worked for him. People seem to have difficulty with that part of their mental health equation.
A faint genetic trail of that innate sadness leads to me. Some of it, hopefully, watered down a bit, was most likely passed to my son. Suppressing it or ignoring it is the worst thing we can do.
Let’s go fishing. Oh, bring your own canoe. We will appreciate each other so much more at the end of the day.
From the Jagged Edge, I remain.