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The importance of uncles, continued.
He was tall, about 6’2”, and he walked, as he did everything else, with a natural casualness. He had sleek black hair he combed back as if it were a kind of icing. His head was large and squarish, and his dark eyes were set within a plain but not unhandsome face. He had a small appealing gap between his two front teeth. He had the softest handshake of any man I’ve ever met. The hand was dead. It drooped in yours. I took his hand, squeezed it firmly as I had been taught by my father, expecting some response, some reciprocation. I never got any. I got surrender, and it was disconcerting. I never asked him why he shook hands like that. I thought, later, that it might have been a kind of passive protest against the traditional idea of manhood.
Harold’s voice was soft, like his handshake. It was soothing, not because of what he said, but because of its tone, its easy-listening frequency. His voice was pleasant, just not modulated. I never heard him shout, not even once, in the years I knew him. In fact, I never heard him raise his voice above that steady, low hum. I only saw him angry once, and that was at my brother.
C. Harold Wills, Jr was his full name. I never knew what the “C” stood for until recently, when I looked up his father, C. Harold Wills—who was a famous man in automotive history—and found that it stood for “Childe”. So his first two names would spell the name of the Byron poem. No wonder his father turned his first name into an initial. Harold grew up in St. Clair, Michigan, about two hours north of Detroit, where his father had bought a house that overlooked the mile-wide St. Clair River. He married my mother’s younger sister, Dottie, whom he had met when he was in the navy, stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside of Dayton, Ohio, where my mother and her sister grew up. He and Dottie had three children, all girls.
It was Harold and Dottie who took us in after my parents’ divorce in the mid-1950s. I’d grown up in Virginia Beach, Virginia. When my parents’ marriage broke apart, my mother wanted to get as far away from the South as she could. Her sister and Harold offered refuge. So, led by my mother, one evening in August, my brother, sister and I walked into their home and into our new lives. It was—for me, anyway—the beginning of years of sadness. For my mother, it was the only place she felt she could go with three young children and no means to provide for us except the alimony and child support she received. I went from a beach resort in southeastern Virginia to a farming town in Michigan just across the Canadian border. All in a matter of days. In 1957.
My mother was not in good shape after the divorce. She had been drinking before the marriage split apart, and when everything went to hell, she increased the dosage. There were times, I’m sure, when she was a trial to her sister and to Harold, because she was a messy drunk. But I never saw them do anything but welcome us into their home and their lives. If the divorce taught me anything, it was how to be steadfast when those you love are not themselves. When they need your help.
Look who my uncle took into his home: his sister-in-law, my mother, a woman pummeled emotionally, reeling of failure, heartbroken, unraveled. And her three children, ages 12 and 11, my brother and sister being twins. We were stunned. These are the people who entered his home on an August evening in 1957. A family undone. Confused and upended. Harold never complained or resented, as far as I know. He took us, these refugees, into his home, and I never in all the years we lived in St Clair—we eventually found a place of our own to live—felt unwanted or a burden. Much later, after I’d left town and come back on one of the few visits I made from college, he told me that soon after the divorce my father had called him and said, “Please take care of my children.” That’s a lot to ask, but he did.
I think Harold had a job at one point. I know he was a member of some boards. He never went off to work in the mornings, like my father did. He would have been about forty when we arrived, so he wasn’t at retirement age. I would imagine his father, having made a fortune working for Henry Ford, left Harold some money. Mostly, in my mind’s eye, I see Uncle Harold seated in an easy chair in his living room, a drink to his side, reading a book or the newspaper. The fact is, it took me a while to comprehend this, but in the end I realized my uncle, unlike his father, was one of the least ambitious men I ever knew. Yet one of the most honorable.
Harold was a man’s man. Surrounded by females as he was, he would escape the house in exasperation from time to time to go fishing on his boat or fly off somewhere in his small plane. He was one of the first people I’d ever met who had spent time in Alaska, a place as remote to me as the moon. He had hunted Kodiak bear in Alaska, and would tell us about that. “A bear can outrun a horse,” he said to me once. I didn’t believe him. That was because I knew nothing about bears, particularly about brown bears in Alaska. He would fly up to Alaska in his plane, the trip taking a number of days, and hunt. This was the first time I heard about the infamous Alaska mosquitoes. “Sometimes,” he told me once, “you’ll see a moose wander into town, driven crazy by the mosquitoes.” I didn’t believe that either, but he was right.
One of the first things I learned from Harold was that a grown man could speak to a boy as a person, not as an inferior. My father never spoke to me except as an inferior. He never revealed anything about what he loved or liked, anything about his beliefs, about his convictions, about what he considered fair or unfair, about what made him happy or sad, about what is was to be a good person or to be a man on this earth. Harold Wills spoke to me. Directly. It was awkward for me at first, because it was new. He taught me that just because I was young didn’t mean I was incapable of conversation or understanding. That I wasn’t worthy to be talked to. That I could think. That I could comprehend.
What I learned from Harold was a man takes care of those he loves and sometimes when the occasion calls for it, he takes care of people his wife loves, or his brother loves or his sister loves or even a friend loves. He does so unreservedly and generously. He opens his home and he treats the wayward travelers with kindness and grace. I saw Harold do that. He never made us feel like we were supplicants or to be pitied. You would think that any good man would do that, but I had not been taught that or shown that. I learned from Harold that not every man was to be feared. My father made me afraid of him and of men in general, because I modeled all men after him. Harold instructed me otherwise by his example.
Then, finally, it was time for me to leave St. Clair and go to college.
Then—this is after I had graduated from the University of Michigan, lived in Chicago, gone off to Europe and returned—Harold had a heart attack. He was told by his doctor to rest, not to exert himself. But just a few weeks after the attack, he felt he had to drive to Detroit for a board meeting of some kind. His wife, my aunt, tried to stop him. He waved her off, got dressed, got in his car and drove the two hours or so to Detroit. When he returned, he had a second heart attack and died. He was just 57. I was 28, living in Cambridge, MA. I hadn’t seen him in nearly ten years.
Never once did he ask for thanks for what he had done, to provide us all with a home where we were always welcomed. He wasn’t my father. He couldn’t give me all the things my father should have. But he did give me so much. He was there. He did his best. That’s all a good man can do.