Bye, Phil


My uncle Phil died on Saturday. He was 86. I don’t want to write a long, emotional thing here, but I don’t know.

My brother sent me this picture. I was kind of numb until I saw this, then I cried so hard the cat got worried.

Listen, I was trying to remember my first memory of Phil, and it turns out to be my first memory at all. I was maybe two. He was carrying me on his back, down the path between his filbert orchard and his garden. A row of blackberries was on the left, the filbert trees on the right. Do you know the smell of filbert trees?

Beyond the row of berries was his large vegetable garden. The path led from his barn and chicken house between his junk pile and his wood pile, past his garage and tool shed, to his house. On the right are the fields where he had cows and my dad would later have horses sometimes.

Phil is carrying me, and I say, “Phil, you’re a pill.”

The rhyme interested me. And kidding with Phil.

There are a lot of things here. They are central to me, and they all come from my uncle. Everything I am, or very very much of it, is thanks to uncle Phil.

And this one image, this one memory says so much about him.

He was always carrying someone in one way or another. He lived to help other people. He was never rich and never had money, but he always had a twenty for you when you were broke, there was always cash in his birthday cards, or a check. He never had money but he made the world an abundant place and then he shared that abundance with everyone.

He helped my folks a lot. He helped all the relatives, he helped old people, he baby sat nieces and nephews. When I was in college I worked with him recycling metals and paper, and washing windows, and he shared the proceeds with me way more generously than he ought to have.

He financed my first trip to Europe by selling government bonds. I worked after school jobs and summer jobs to pay him back. He financed my second trip to Europe. I paid him back for that, too. Never once did he mention it or ask me to repay him.

And he was this way with everyone.

Always a twenty. Always a box of tomatoes from his garden. Always some eggs from the chicken house.

He took us camping, and his pack was always the heaviest, despite the rocks he hid in your pack as a practical joke.

Dinners were fun times. If you looked away, he stole your food.

I won’t go on and on here,  although I could.

He took pictures. It was like having Diane Arbus in the family. He took many thousands of pictures since the 1940s. Always the camera. Always posing us. Or taking candid shots. We were often, Oh, Phil, not another picture. But, now we have dozens and dozens of albums, dating back to the 1940s. It’s a precious thing.

Little did we know.

And funny thing, he liked word play, especially spoonerisms, and I like words too. I have a garden. I like practical jokes. And it’s not only me. My brother has a garden and chickens. If you go to his house, he will give you vegetables. He takes care of old people. And my sister is that way too. And my cousins. Phil was central to all of us. We all want to go to Hawaii again. He got us started with that. We all like to travel. If you look away, we will all steal your food.

So, Phil. Abundant and funny, practical jokes and generous. I am not monkey man strong, though. Things have their limits. He was not a big guy, average size about, but he would come home from the mountains with a truckload of waste wood he had salvaged from some logging operation, to burn, and dude – there were logs in there that filled the bed of his truck. How did you get those in there, we would ask him. I just put them in, he would say.

And he had an arm. He liked ball sports. He was athletic. I’m none of these things. I remember him one time, he was up on a ladder picking pears. I was bugging him about something. Then I ran away. I got clear across the field. I thought I was home free. How far away was I? It felt like miles. I was running and laughing when a rotten pear hit me right in the lower back so hard that half the pear went up my shirt, clear to my shoulder blades, and the other half filled the crack of my ass. It was the most perfect rotten pear shot known to science.

I started crying, I was so shocked. It shouldn’t have been possible! No one can throw a rotten pear that far!

I don’t know how old I was. Forty? Or nine, maybe? Something like that.

So, Phil. I could go on and on. We were driving down the street once, and a guy on the sidewalk spazzed out and fell down. Phil stopped the car, ran over and helped him. Would you have? At the time, I would have just ignored it. But he got the guy into the shade, found out what was wrong with him, got help.

I think the guy was drunk. I think it turned out he was drunk, but I also think I’m making that up, or made it up then. He may have had a seizure, it was a hot day. I don’t know. It was just a weird, scary guy, and Phil didn’t even think, he ran over and helped him.

I could go on and on.

On and on.