Both my mother and her only sister Carolyn married Americans. My father was from Fall River, Massachusetts, and my Uncle Bill was born and raised in New York City. Both men enlisted to serve their country, but in different wars. Dad joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, eventually completing 31 missions as the navigator of a B-29 bomber in The Pacific Theatre. Uncle Bill enlisted as a Marine a decade later and was just about to be shipped overseas when the Korean war ended. Throughout my childhood they got along famously anytime they saw one another which never made sense to me given how outwardly different they appeared to be. My father was a musician in Toronto and consequently had friends and colleagues of every creed and colour, worked incessantly and had no set schedule. In contrast with this more cosmopolitan lifestyle, Uncle Bill was a 9 to 5 salesman in an overwhelmingly white area of New England. He had been an excellent athlete in his youth and consequently pushed his three sons into sports, accepting nothing other than excellence from them. My father’s approach to parenting was more in line with the hands-off fathering predominant amongst men of his generation.
There was one place however where they really came together. Uncle Bill’s family always visited us at Christmastime, and at some point during their stay he and Dad would inevitably play gin. This wasn’t just a casual card game though, there was a ritualistic procedure which had to be followed. After banishing us kids to the basement, the two men would silently clear one end of the dining room table. One of them would pour two glasses of scotch while the other ceremoniously took the plastic off a new deck of cards. The cards were shuffled and cut, the score pad was marked with their names, and the battle began. There was always a little money at stake just to make things more interesting, and they played for hours. During the game they would periodically rap so ferociously on the table that the eight of us in the basement would startle as though we’d all simultaneously received a jolt of electricity. I wasn’t yet aware that knocking was a part of gin and therefore attributed these noisy outbursts to an expression of frustration or anger on the part of one of the players, as opposed to simple excitement at the prospect of winning a hand. As the afternoon wore on and their knocking became progressively louder – a fact I now put down to increased drunkenness rather than growing hostility – I thought they were demonstrating a uniquely American quality: extreme competitiveness. Anyone who has met rabid Canadian hockey fans or seen an Italian soccer riot on TV can attest to the fact that competitiveness is a human trait which supersedes borders, but to this day I feel that growing up in the good ol’ U.S. of A. was the main reason for the ferocity of their contest.
My dad was the second youngest of seven children so we had masses of aunts, uncles and cousins in Fall River. As it happens a few years before I was born my Uncle Bill got a job in Massachusetts and moved his family from New Hampshire to the small town of Raynham, less than an hour from Fall River. This fortuitous bit of happenstance allowed us to easily visit with both sides of our extended family when we made our yearly summer sojourn to the States. I always enjoyed these trips because my dad’s siblings and their spouses were all colourful characters and extremely loving and welcoming. My Aunt Lida, the eldest of the group, was wisely cynical and had an accent strikingly reminiscent of Bugs Bunny, both traits largely attributable to her many years living in Brooklyn. Aunt Mary was sweetly soft spoken, Aunt Lucky was kind, and Uncle Cesar was hilarious, possessing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of corny jokes. My Aunt Alice was a gregarious cut-up and her husband, my Uncle Barber, was the most calm and centred man I have ever met. He could get his cat and dog (who hated each other) to silently sit nose-to-nose until he released them with a clap of his hands. It was like magic. I liked and loved all these people but there were no kids to play with in Fall River, so by the end of my time with there I was always anxious to leave and meet up with my cousins in Raynham.
My Uncle Bill’s sister Mary Jane and her family lived in a house just around the corner from his in Raynham, so we had her kids to play with when we came down as well. It was traditional that we would visit Horseneck Beach once or twice during each visit, and if Aunt Mary Jane’s crew came along we had a grand total of 18 people in our party – six adults and twelve kids. My Uncle Bill always had a station wagon for work and on beach days a whole giggling gaggle of us youngsters would pile unrestrained into the back. Mandatory seat belts were still some years off so we would roil about and randomly pop up like bubbles in simmering water during the hour-long drive to the beach, our appendages hilariously intertwined. The noise and movement in the back would intensify as we hit the rutted dirt path that led to the beach parking lot; the increased bumping along with the blossoming tang of briny water in our nostrils serving to amplify our anticipation and excitement.
Horseneck Beach was perfect for families given its gradual slope into deep water, fairly calm surf, and large expanse of pristine sand. One time when all 18 of us were in attendance some of the cousins and I decided to play tag in the water. I was not (and am not) a very strong swimmer. My mother had taken me for lessons but I have always hated putting my head under water so never really learned how to do a proper crawl. At one point in the game I heedlessly swam away from whoever was “it”, and when I stopped to take stock of where they were I realized I had swum far enough out that I could no longer touch bottom – farther out than I had ever been. I began frantically swimming towards shore but didn’t appear to be making any progress. As it turns out I had unwittingly found myself an undertow and no matter how hard I swam, I simply couldn’t pull myself free of it. I could see members of my family dotted throughout the water and on the beach and began waving and shouting to get their attention, but my voice got lost in the sound of the surf and the squeals of the happy bathers. I was starting to run out of energy at this point and began to panic. With so many kids to supervise the odds of any adult in my family noticing my distress were slim to none. The undertow periodically pulled me into the depths before allowing me to desperately claw my way back to the surface and the air, forcing my young mind to the realization that I was completely at the mercy of natural forces beyond my control and I could easily drown right here and now. I had almost given up hope when suddenly someone grabbed my outstretched hand and yanked me up. As my head cleared the water I looked up and saw Uncle Bill’s face, backlit by the blazing summer sun like a bronze Greek hero. His strong arms enclosed my shivering body and I clung to his chest like a barnacle to the hull of a boat. He only needed to swim for a few seconds before his feet could touch down, and then he walked me to the beach and deposited me on a towel next to my mother. He didn’t scold or tattle on me, he simply put me down exactly where I needed to be. He sent me a quick wink then turned and walked away. We both knew that a special bond had just been forged between us although neither of us said a word.
Uncle Bill came to my rescue again some years later but in a radically different setting. My grandmother, my Aunt Carolyn and my mother were all avid patrons of the arts. Mom regularly took me to ballets and to the theatre, and she owned a host of cast recordings of Broadway musicals which I listened to with and without her – to this day I can flawlessly sing “Jesus Christ Superstar” from start to finish. One of my favourite albums was “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Bill had relocated to Boston by the time I was a teenager, and one year when I went to visit with a friend, “Jacques Brel” was playing at a local theatre. I was overjoyed when Aunt Carolyn told me she was taking us to the show. “Jacques Brel” is not a musical but rather a cabaret, meaning the performers dramatically present the songs but there is no over-arching story to tie them together. The only thing they have in common is that they were all written by the same person. The production therefore took place in a dinner theatre setting, with the audience seated at individual tables around the stage enjoying drinks (but not food) during the performance.
When we arrived at the theatre we were seated in the second tier with one final row of tables in back and slightly above us. There was a flamboyantly gay couple sitting in the third tier directly behind us and they insisted on singing along with the performers in a most unrestrained manner. While I have always been a person who likes to sing along, I have sense enough to know not to sing when at a public performance, regardless of how much I would like to or how familiar I am with the songs. After enduring two or three songs of this couple’s unwanted accompaniment, I turned and politely asked if they would please stop. We had all paid good money to hear the cast sing, not them. They were somewhat subdued at the beginning of the next song, but quickly began singing out loud once again. After a couple more songs of quietly simmering closer and closer to his boiling point, Uncle Bill had finally had enough. He stood up so abruptly that his chair went flying and then climbed up the small railing that separated the tiers, leaned across the men’s table and getting right in their faces. He hissed in a quiet, menacing tone that his niece had already politely asked them to be quiet, and that if they hadn’t understood, perhaps they could all step outside and he would make it clearer to them. The men paled and offered profuse apologies. My uncle climbed down, righted his chair, sat down, and sent me a quick wink. We didn’t hear another peep from the table behind us for the rest of the night.
The original thesis I had in mind for this piece was a rumination on the intrinsically American qualities exhibited by both my father and uncle. It wound up morphing into a love letter to my uncle, possibly because I lost him much more recently than my father and because he was the last of his generation to go. While my initial hypothesis largely failed to bear fruit, it did lead to the realization that the most logical focus for an article about the lives of Henry Monis and Bill Gannon is not how or where they grew up, but rather the horrific affliction they shared at the end of their lives. My next piece will explore the final chapter for each of these men and the heartbreaking malady which led them to slowly disappear even as their physical beings lingered on – Alzheimer’s disease.