My grandmother’s acre-wide lawn, lush green beneath a baby blanket sky, was kept neat and trimmed by her youngest son—my uncle, my favorite. Even at six years old I noticed his difference. I was frequently disappointed by adults, their tiresome demands for obedience and respect. He demanded nothing. Simultaneously youthful and all-knowing, amidst the noise and busy preoccupation of other adults, he wore a quiet smirk and never gave in to the temptation to lecture me.
Maybe it was his lack of demands, or his handsome cuffed shirts; maybe, the ever-present dark lenses and chrome frames disguising his inherited sharp blue eyes. Maybe it was the way every surface willingly accommodated his penchant for nonchalant leaning. Whatever the primary indicator, it was obvious even to one so young as I that he was cool.
He took the time to train his awkward little basset hound to count. Mutt (the hound was lovingly called) would bark twice when two fingers were held up, four times for four, and so on. Mutt could climb a ladder, drive the riding lawn mower, and would happily pose for photos wearing shades and a cap. No other grown up I’ve known, then or since, possessed the patience or the insight to tend to a homely old awkward dog until its genius is revealed for all to witness.
I was the type of kid that tried the nerves of taller folk—teen babysitters to elderly grandparents, and all in between. So they often told me. Visiting relatives were warned upon arrival: don’t mind Kathy, she’ll ask you why and how until your hair falls out. During these dire declarations, as the visitors backed away warily, my favorite uncle would place a hand atop my head and remain reassuringly silent. Later on, when the visitors were sure to see, he would create an opportunity for me prove worthy of their admiring attentions.
I would accompany him to the garden to bring in vegetables, climb the peach tree for dessert ingredients, command Mutt to do all his tricks for the audience, read aloud a joke from the Reader’s Digest, or listings in the TV Guide. He would smirk and level dark glasses on these visitors until they admitted with beaming smiles that I was well behaved and possibly the smartest kid they’d ever met.
Best of all—unique in my world dominated by exasperated adults—when he wanted to be free of my company he would take off his shades, look me in the eye and say, go away now. A kid can’t help but admire a straight forward grown up.
It may have been my baby brother who first called our uncle Joe Cool, I can’t remember with certainty. Regardless, no other nickname in the history of nicknames was ever so suitable. Years went by. Five became eight, then ten, then twelve. His coolness never wavered; my admiration sometimes turned to envy.
I craved his easy quietness, his penchant for nonchalant leaning. My regret mounted as I couldn’t, no matter how I practiced before the mirror, achieve that all-knowing smirk. And I never could convince any of my puppies to do more than sit or chase a stick.
When he drove over for visits, sacrificed his time to “just because” shopping sprees with me and my sister, or drove us all around for Mama’s errands, or took us on day trips to a state park, I would observe him closely. The realization of momentary shyness, obligation to protect, or tension around my father only compounded my appreciation.
He passed on a lot to me, including how to mow a lawn, a love for great stereos and vintage cars. My appreciation didn’t waver when it became obvious he didn’t possess the steely nerves required for teaching me to drive. I have to admit my own fault for that since it seemed impossible to listen to his soft spoken wisdom once my foot was near an accelerator. I did manage to absorb his lessons on car care, and lawn care, though, which is knowledge that’s served me well throughout my own adulthood.
Why can’t more adults be like him? Why can’t I? The years have continued to tumble away. He is now near the same age as my first memories of Grandma, getting elderly and frail, coughing when he laughs. We haven’t been on a road trip or shopping spree in ages. And I’ve yet to teach a dog to count.