Life lessons from Uncle Jack

bubblegumpetuniasbybrucestambaugh
From the front porch.

By Bruce Stambaugh

After lunch, I took a glass of my wife’s incredible lemonade and a fresh baked chocolate chip cookie out onto the front porch to warm myself in the noontime sun. It was one of those perfect September days, fluffy white clouds sailing in blue sky, driven by a steady, cool northwest wind.

In front of me bumblebees and honeybees and Clouded Sulphur butterflies worked the patch of Sweet Williams and splay of fragrant Bubblegum Petunias. Under such a spell, my mind wandered back to similar days, days of my youth when our grandfather would come calling.

Even if we weren’t outside, we knew Grandpa Merle had arrived. We could hear our Uncle Jack, who always accompanied our grandfather, long before they entered our brick bungalow in suburban Canton, Ohio.

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The brick house where I was raised.

Jack’s speech was loud, unintelligible, and inarticulate. We knew though that Jack was a good soul stuck in a damaged body. Jack had suffered a traumatic, life-threatening head injury as a young child. He and my father, Jack’s only brother, were seriously injured in an automobile accident 90 years ago.

Their grandfather had taken them for an impromptu Sunday afternoon drive in 1923 in his brand new car on a lovely summer’s day, like the one I was enjoying. Just one block from returning home, a drunk driver hit their car, killing my great grandfather instantly. The other driver was uninjured, and never charged for causing the crash.

Both my father and Jack suffered serious injuries. Back then trauma medical treatment was limited. Fortunate to be alive, Jack’s injuries were permanent, leaving him mentally retarded. Our father was less injured, and recovered more quickly.

The accident devastated my father’s family. To say raising Jack became difficult wouldn’t do the situation justice. With no social or educational support available in those days, caring for Jack became tedious and demanding, and eventually frayed my grandparents’ relationship.

Less than a decade later, they were divorced, and grandpa spent the rest of his life discouraged, wrought with the pressure of raising Jack alone. He worked long and hard to make a go of life for them both.

His grandchildren were his safety net. He and Jack often visited us on Sunday afternoons. The five of us grandkids greeted them with a mix of eager anticipation and reverent reserve. Grandpa Merle usually brought candy, perhaps to sweeten the harsh reality of Jack’s presence.

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Uncle Jack in 1990.
Because of his brain damage, Jack had some unique physical idiosyncrasies that could be construed to be bothersome. Besides his boisterous incoherence, Jack slapped himself frequently. When he sat, he generally crossed his legs, the top one wiggling nervously like an out of control metronome.

I don’t remember any of us ever being afraid or even ashamed of Jack. We managed to get the gist of what he was saying and knew he meant well.

I wish others had had the same view. Because of his quirky antics and loud manners, Grandpa Merle had to be careful where he took Jack. Out of fear and ignorance, some people were really mean to him.

As I look back on it, I realize that despite his social and mental limitations Uncle Jack had much to teach us. Tolerance toward others, acceptance of people as they are, and compassion for the less fortunate were just a few of the life lessons Jack imparted.

I also recall that Jack liked pink petunias and white, fluffy cloud days.