I grew up with three uncles: one in Colorado, another on the other side of the state, and one near my home town in Des Moines, Iowa.
Uncle Frank was older than the other uncles, but since his daughter, Nina, was my age, I hardly noticed. He was married to my grandma’s younger sister. They lived in a solid brick house on 30th Avenue, with a huge detached garage where he stocked and sold vacuum cleaner parts.
Uncle Frank sat at the head of the table when we were invited over for Sunday dinners. He said strange things like “Jiminy Christmas” and “Bless my stars!” My mom was his niece (I was his great niece). Anyway, five more hungry kids were a lot to feed, but Aunt Katherine was up to the task every now and then.
My aunt and uncle only had one child, a late-in-life surprise and blessing. Nina was everything I wasn’t: artistic, a cat and bug lover, a girl with a funny laugh, and my closest cousin (really my 2nd cousin).
The house had antiques everywhere, color TV, new cars in the driveway, a bottomless bowl of butterscotch candies, and lots of smiles and laughter. I enjoyed going there because the trio was happy to see me and never wanted anything in return.
There was an antique grandfather clock that chimed on the quarter hour, half hour, three quarter hour, and on the hour. The few times I slept over, the chimes would awaken me and reassure me of where I was.
Shadow, the Siamese cat, would surprise me every time. We were dog people but just didn’t didn’t have one yet. Mom hated sneaky cats that got on the counters.
One summer we had gone over to Aunt Katherine and Uncle Frank’s house for a picnic type meal, and the 4th of July was just a few days away. I mentioned that I was looking forward to the carnival our town of Urbandale put on every year.
“We don’t have money for that this year,” Mom said.
I must’ve looked dejected because the next thing I knew, Uncle Frank was getting a large glass jar of coins and dumping the contents onto the dining room table.
“Who wants to help me count this money?” he asked.
I might’ve been ten or eleven, which meant my youngest brother would’ve been a baby. So at least the three of us girls sat down to help count, and maybe my other brother, too, who would’ve been five or six.
“Who wants to help me divide this money into four equal piles?” Uncle Frank asked.
I knew what my uncle was up to. The four of us at the table helped divide the quarters, the dimes, the nickels, even the pennies. When we were done, each pile had almost $3.00 in it. That was a hunk of money in 1966.
“I want you kids to take the money and spend it at the carnival,” Uncle Frank said.
I knew that was what he had been up to. Mom thanked him. Then we each thanked him. He was our rich uncle, giving his niece’s kids a chance to buy food, play games, and get lemonade at the two-day carnival.
Many years later, after I’d been in California for decades, Aunt Katherine died. Uncle Frank lived a few more years and made it to 96. Nina died the following year at the age of 50.
I miss that little family, where I was always greeted with a smile, where the clock always chimed and Nina laughed just like her mom did.
Uncle Frank was a tough disciplinarian (or so I’ve heard) to his own daughter, but he was a sweetheart to me and my sibs.
RIP, Uncle Frank. And thanks again for your pocket change.