Two recent deaths in my family sent me searching through old boxes and files for a photogragh someone took during a camping trip in southern Illinois sometime around 1970. My obsession worsened for about a month until the person most affected by those deaths sent me a scanned version of the photograph.
The man with a child in his arms is my cousin Bruce, and the boy he’s holding is his son Randy. Bruce’s wife Charlotte—the person who sent me the photograph—is seated at the table in the lower right of the picture. Charlotte’s grandfather, mother and father are standing to Bruce’s left, and some friends of Charlotte’s parents are standing to his right. Bruce’s mom—my Aunt Gladys—is sitting next to Charlotte. Next to Aunt Gladys is my mom, and next to my mom is my stepfather Cy. Across from Cy, at the far left corner of the table, is my mom’s brother and Bruce’s father, Uncle Floyd. The teenager next to Uncle Floyd is a friend of Charlotte’s family.
Uncle Floyd is the man I most admired when I was a child. He went to Europe to fight in World War II, hunted and fished the way I wanted to hunt and fish, and made his living as a maintenance mechanic for Southern Illinois Univeristy. His smile was broad and contagious—the kind of smile that easily shatters cultural and class boundries—so it was not surprising that, upon learning his last name was Holliday, many of the university professors respectfully called him Doc. Uncle Floyd raised a bountiful garden, and I remember a biology professor who would visit frequently to ask Doc for advice about gardening. Looking back, I don’t think the professor really cared about gardening. He just liked to talk to Uncle Floyd.
As a boy, I had limited relationships with men in general and father figures in particular. My father left before I was old enough to know him. My mom remarried a man named Jack Schulz who I liked so much that I took his last name, but he died when I was six. She married Cy around the time of this picture, and, although I liked him at times, I could never get over the yelling and screaming that happened when he and my mom drank too much. They probably shared blame for the outbursts, but I never doubted whose side I was on.
Although my mom taught me to fish her way, over time I increasingly wanted to fish like Uncle Floyd and Bruce. Mom taught me to fish effectively and patiently with bait, but Uncle Floyd and Bruce fished excitingly and hastily with lures that they could cast and retrieve, over and over again. Mom wasn’t much impressed with Bruce’s method of fishing, but she believed he was the perfect example of how a young man should live his life, so she encouraged Bruce to take me fishing as much as possible. “Grow up to be like Bruce,” she’d say, “and find yourself a sweet girl like Charlotte.” I was only 19 when my mom died, so I don’t know if she’d be satisfied with the way I’ve lived my life, but, although she never met my wife Roxanne, I am certain she’d approve of that part.
Uncle Floyd, Bruce, and Cy all influenced my life in important ways, but, lately, the person I’ve been thinking about most is the young boy in the lower left of the photo. That’s my cousin Keith, and the kid with the sheepish look to his left is me. Keith was Bruce and Charlotte’s first son, so, strictly speaking, he was my cousin once removed, but I’ve always just called him my cousin.
My relationship with Keith was different than my relationship with anyone else I knew in those years. We spent a lot of time together, but we didn’t play the way I played with other friends. When we were stuck inside and bored, for instance, we’d do things like look through the J.C. Penney catalog. Like most boys my age, I’d be interested in the toys and balls and bikes, and maybe even the guns, but Keith would look at the clothes. “What do you think about this shirt?” he’d ask. “Looks okay,” I’d respond. I didn’t think kids were supposed to fantasize about new clothes, but I had to concede that it was kinda fun and the stuff that Keith said looked nice did, indeed, look nice. And while many of my other friends listened to music that I didn’t like very much, Keith liked to listen to Elton John, and I had to admit that I did too. When we could go outside, though, we’d often part ways. I’d follow Uncle Floyd and Bruce around the yard and pester them to take me fishing, while Keith would stay inside and talk with my mom and Aunt Gladys.
On our drives home after a visit, Mom and Cy would talk about how something was different about Keith. Between swigs of Falstaff from a can that he’d wrapped in a paper towel so the police couldn’t see that he was drinking beer in the car, Cy would say that it wasn’t right for a kid to want to talk with the women so much. Mom would agree. I understood what they were saying, but, for me, the thing that stood out most about Keith was that he was the nicest boy I knew.
Keith and I saw each other less often as we grew older, and, after my mom died in 1981, I moved to California and we lost touch completely. When Uncle Floyd died in the early 90s, I flew back from Michigan and Keith flew back from Texas. After the funeral, I went with Keith to a riverboat casino to have a few drinks and play the slot machines. At some point in the night, Keith started laughing and said “I don’t think we’re having a few drinks anymore. Now we are simply drinking.” Later that night we sat on the kitchen floor in his parents house and ate the food that was leftover from the wake. We mostly joked and laughed, but Keith got serious for a while and told me how excited he was about President Clinton. “Timmy,” he said, “I know some people don’t think you should let one issue define your politics, but it’s hard not to do that when that one issue is who you are and how you find happiness in your life.” We both flew home the next day, and that was the last time I talked to Keith.
When the hospital Keith worked for “downsized” his job a few years ago, Keith and his partner Greg moved back to Illinois to be near Keith’s mom, his dad, his brother Randy and Randy’s wife Stacy. There, they’d be close to the people who loved them for the one issue that Keith told me about the night of Uncle Floyd’s funeral: who they were and how they found happiness in their lives. But when Greg—who had been Keith’s life partner for 17 years—died last May, Keith’s heart broke and he fell into a deep depression. Much of the happiness he had found was gone. Then, when Keith’s father Bruce died a week before Christmas, his heartbreak and depression intensified. Two months later, Charlotte took Keith to the hospital with symptoms of pneumonia, and a few days after that, at 4am on February 14, Keith’s broken heart stopped beating.
Hundreds of miles and decades of time were between me and Keith now, so I had to learn all of the details of Keith’s last years from Stacy. And when she finished by saying that Keith got to be with Greg for Valentine’s Day after all, I cried.