Uncle Ray is my earliest memory. He wasn’t my uncle. He was my mother’s uncle, so he was my great-uncle, my grandfather’s only living brother. He lived in Sioux Falls with his second wife, Lena, who had terrible arthritis. Even at a young age, which she must’ve been when I was born, probably in her forties or fifties then, her hands were a mangled mess and she was reliant on other people to help her with menial daily tasks. Uncle Ray did a lot of things for her, including buttoning her clothes, tying her shoes or scarves. She was a dear woman and he took good care of her. He truly loved her.
Ray was a slender, tall man who was completely bald and had a long face, like a horse. He had the deep-set eyes that are a telltale sign from his family and raccoon eyes that got darker if or when he was overly tired. My mother had those same eyes. When I was small, I thought Uncle Ray looked a lot like Lurch on the TV show “The Addams Family”. I was enthralled by Cousin It and Lurch and the gang. It was a popular show at that time and he would watch it with the children. When the show was over, if someone called his name, he would slowly saunter into a room and in a very deep voice say “You rang”. This caused me to giggle endlessly because it was just so funny that we had our own personal version of Lurch babysitting us.
Ray and Lena babysat for me quite often. When I was in the way or a bother, I would stay with Ray, who was the one who was babysitting. Lena couldn’t do much with a small child except pat my head and read me a book. Ray would make us meals and give me a bath and change my clothes. Lena just couldn’t do it with her arthritis. Ray gave me great joy on occasion by putting me on his shoulders and letting me ride around the house up there, hanging on desperately to his ears. He was tall enough, that, when we did that, we had to duck for doorways, which was great fun. There wasn’t any hair to hold on to up there and it was a long way off the ground. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, so I had to be very careful how I held onto his ears. He’d walk around a bit and I’d try to touch the ceiling, laughing and smiling the whole time while Lena followed us around, concerned for my safety. Ray really knew how to show a kid a great time and it didn’t cost him a dime.
He had very long legs so when he sat, he’d cross one leg over the other and I’d straddle his foot like it was a pony in a stable. He’d hold my hands out to the side and rock his foot up and down to give me the cheapest carnival ride on earth. As an adult, when I think back to it, that had to have been hard on him. He was already an older man, well into his fifties, who had a heart condition and a sick wife, but it didn’t matter to him. I was a joy to him. He genuinely adored me and treated me like a queen. He had never had a daughter and both of his sons had died. We all knew that. He held a sadness within him that was just a part of him. It oozed out of his skin even if he tried not to let it show. But for brief, shining moments, when he was playing with me, I could see nothing but pure happiness in his heart. Although I was only three when he died, I will never forget Uncle Ray. He was a very special man and I’ll always love him. Those earliest memories of my life were very happy ones because of him.