Thursday, April 3, 2014

Save a Spot for the Eggs

I'm going to take a pause from my usual cooking posts to write a few remembrances of my Great Uncle Christopher Thompson.
Uncle Sammy.

This summer will mark ten years that I've lived in New York City. I owe much of my life here to Uncle Sammy. He gave me a place to live at a time when I had no money, barely a job, and no idea how a move to New York would impact my life. I just needed to do it, and he was there to maybe lend a hand. 
I remember very clearly that day in June. I went to him, and said. "Okay. I can pay you 200 dollars a month, until I get a better job, what do you say?" He was not thrilled about the 200 dollars, but as I pointed out at the time he was only paying 475 in maintenance it seemed like a fair deal to me. I would also be there when he wasn't so I'd be looking after the place. He agreed to let me move in, and so August 16th 2004 I loaded up a U haul, and headed east.

Over the next few years, he was in and out every month or so, I would never know when he would show up, which was always an interesting surprise. It certainly made dating interesting. I mean how do you explain to a date that you live with your great uncle, and if you invite him for dinner he (your uncle) may or may not show up in the middle? It was always startling when I had been working late (1am or later) and come home to find that he had arrived. He would always forget to lock the door. That's how I would know.
I got a roommate to help with the rent, the maintenance went up and I was paying all of it so a roommate was necessary.
He and Uncle Sammy got on well. They would spend the early mornings (6am or earlier) in the kitchen chatting while Tyler ironed his pants for work. They would share stories about the military. Uncle Sammy a WW2 vet and Tyler a former marine turned hedge fund manager had few things in common, but due to circumstance cultivated a kind of interesting relationship over the years.Tyler thought Uncle Sammy was interesting (because he was) And Uncle Sammy thought Tyler was swell.

One thing that was always important to Uncle Sammy was having things the same when he arrived in New York. Since I never knew when he would arrive his room remained untouched. It looked as if Ms. Havisham lived in that room, and it smelled of his cologne. It was yellow (his favorite color) and dark, and full of stuff. It is now Noah's room. All traces of yellow walls are gone, and the only thing that remains as a reminder is his old Westinghouse fan.
It still works.
Since his eye sight was bad, we also would keep things in the same places in the refrigerator. The eggs in particular, were always well stocked and on the second shelf on the right.
They still are.
Just in case he shows up, he can have his egg, toast and tea for breakfast.

His last trip to New York was to attend our wedding. That was five and a half years ago. It wasn't that he was not a welcomed guest after that, it was just he had started to have difficulty with his eyes, and it was increasingly dangerous for him to move about the city. He was in his late 80's at this point.  His usual haunts Macy's and Crate and Barrel were just to difficult for him to manage. After some negotiation he transferred his shares of the co-op to Michael and I. He always had intended for the apartment to be mine I was the one who lived here after all, and now that I was married it made sense. Michael and I planned to build our life in New York. I would call and keep him abreast of the building gossip and let him know that people had asked after him. He was always interested to know what was happening with the co-op.
As far as co-ops go. There is ALWAYS something. It's a hot bed for gossip and craziness. He relished learning of all the crazy goings on.

I have learned over the last few months, that Uncle Sammy hid his contempt well. He hid it with Christmas Cards, and asking "How's the baby?" and feigning interest in my career. He felt bullied into giving up the apartment. That's what he said, but really it was about control and the frustration of getting old. He knew he couldn't have his jet setting life any longer and it pissed him off. So he directed that anger at family. Isn't that always the way? The good thing about family is they will forgive you. Love you regardless. Right?
I knew his eccentricities could go either way. Incredibly kind or incredibly cutting. I mean he did let me move in. I would have moved to New York weather he allowed me to live in the apartment or not, but he made the move easier when I could have ended up living in Far Rockaway or with 8 roommates, because it was all I could afford. Before I moved into the apartment he actually lied to the board of directors telling them that I was a budding opera singer and coming to New York to study at Julliard. Because for him "trying" to make it on Broadway was not enough.  He certainly seemed proud enough when he attended my Broadway debut in 2005 a year after I'd moved to the city.

He was an enigma to everyone, and we'll always wonder who he really was, would the the mid-atlantic accent ever be dropped? Would the man forever fighting against having grown up on a Virginia farm during the depression ever truly be at peace with where he was from and who he was? What he had accomplished in his life was great.  A masters degree was a big deal in those days for a young African American. Some would argue it still is.  He traveled the world, had fought a war, and was an African American man who spoke fluent French, some Turkish, and said that of all the places in the world he had been Singapore was his favorite.

I'm not sad today. I hope that he has found peace. He was 93 and had a full fascinating life. Despite our differences and disagreements I am glad to have had such an adventure with him. It has given me interesting stories to tell for days and days. The tea cozy hat, trekking Central Park to attend our wedding in a seer sucker suit and baret, and him shouting from his bedroom "Don't make me anything, I'll just call the Chinaman." He has enriched my life, and because of that has enriched our children's lives because we are able to have our lives here in the City. Nobody. Including Uncle Sammy can ever say I didn't say thank you that I wasn't grateful. I am everyday.
We'll keep that spot open for the eggs.

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