Nobody in Skip's family is very fond of Uncle Olaf, so when the odd duck of the family disappears on New Year's Eve no eyelashes are batted. Unknown to the rest of the family, Skip has met up with Uncle Olaf during the night and discovered that the effort of keeping personal secrets has completely altered people's perceptions of his unusual relative. A short story from our Nibs literary line.
Nobody liked Uncle Olaf.
I only saw him laugh once. Of course, I didn’t see him that much. The last time I (or anyone else in the family) saw him was New Year’s Eve, 1985.
I was ten at the time, going on eleven, and had consequently not yet reached the age where I knew everything. That was five or six years away.
The family always gathered at Aunt Mille and Uncle Henry’s farm, a fourteen-acre piece of privacy tucked away in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania; too far north to be called the Poconos, but still hilly enough for us city dwellers to call it, “the mountains.”
Millie is my dad’s sister, and every year we would officially “kick off” the new year by spending New Year’s Eve and Day in her big, old farmhouse. My dad, his brother Greg and sister June brought their families, and Olaf would show up too.
Olaf was my uncle by marriage. He used to be married to Dad’s other sister, Susan, but Aunt Susan died when I was about five, so I barely remember her. I do remember she was small and pretty, and unlike Olaf, she always seemed to be smiling. Everybody missed Aunt Susan. She was the youngest of all my dad’s siblings, and whenever I asked what had happened to her, the answer was always the same: she had a heart attack. Except once, I heard my dad say, “She died of a broken heart.” As a kid, I always thought they were the same thing.
The late December skies showed early signs of an especially cold and snowy winter, and the temperature hovered at freezing on that last day of ‘85 as Dad maneuvered our station wagon down the long gravel road that led from the old two-lane highway to my aunt and uncle’s farmhouse.
“Place never seems to change,” Dad said as we pulled up in front of the big house. We all just stared up at the old, gray, three-story home, its twin cupolas looking out over the surrounding leafless woods like two rigid sentinels. An indifferent curl of smoke twisted up from the brick chimney that ran alongside the far right wall of the wooden house and ended a good five feet higher than the peak of the black shingled roof.
We kids loved spending time at the farm. We could explore the woods, explore the old house (I especially liked the enclosed spiral staircase that wound its way up to the third floor where two of the five bedrooms were). And what other house do you know of that could boast an indoor pistol range in the basement? (Aunt Millie had been in the Marines during World War II.)
By nine o’clock that evening, all fourteen of us were in the parlor. The adults sat in three big davenports that formed a horseshoe around the fire, while I played “Go Fish” on the floor with my cousins Sandra and Gary, and the twins, only six at the time, were watching a Disney tape on TV.
Around the fire were my mom and dad, Uncle Greg (Dad’s brother) and Aunt Carol, Dad’s sister June and her husband, Ted (Sandra and Tom’s parents), and Olaf. That was another funny thing about him, or rather about how the other adults talked about him. Whenever the family was gathered, and they spoke about anyone, they always used titles. You know, Uncle Hen, Aunt Millie, Uncle Greg, Aunt June…but with Olaf, it was always just Olaf. Even I could refer to him as Olaf to my parents, and there would never be the requisite admonishment forthcoming, “You mean Uncle Olaf.”
Anyway, there we all were, ready to start the festivities. Uncle Hen had a rip-roarin’ fire going. That’s what he called it—rip-roarin’. Aunt Millie was collecting empty glasses and heading into the kitchen to brew up her next batch of “holiday frozen daiquiris.” Each round of daiquiris would be a different flavor—it was the way our family officially end the year. The stroke of midnight wasn’t that important to us. It was the time leading up to that hour that we enjoyed most.