Uncle Chuck’s Passing and the Death of Class

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My lovely Uncle Chuck recently died during this rotgut of a time and my thoughts echo with only the finest memories of New England’s classiest man. In a world of forgettable uncles, mine pulsed to a lo-fi beat of his own. For a young girl without much of a relationship with her own father, my uncle showed me how kind men can be.

Christmas Eves at Uncle’s Chuck’s Uxbridge home meant jazz whispering in the background while I nibbled on gourmet cheese, only to inevitably and secretly spit it out because it certainly wasn’t cheddar or American. Chuck’s five older and smarter-than-me children, my cousins, would regale me with tales from NYC and Africa. Before smoking cigarettes was officially deemed repugnant, we’d all smoke butts in the one room that Chuck begrudgingly allowed and I choked on the inside knowledge that I was in on something to remember, something cool. My mother always let me open one present before we left for Chuck’s home and I chose carefully—eager to show off an enormous Swatch watch or Esprit button-down shirt to everyone. Christmas Eve at Chuck’s wasn’t about food or presents, in fact I don’t remember either, it was about soaking it all in.

Chuck’s best friend was Rich Lupo of Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel fame and Rich would make holiday appearances and sprinkle stories of rock ‘n’ roll into conversations while I just wanted to know if he’d met Madonna. Years later, Chuck would marry his gorgeous and younger wife Judy and Lupo held the after party while I wondered how my suburban life could get any better. I would soon become a constant feature at Lupo’s and went to see so many bands play there, Hole’s 1994 show being my all-time highlight. I’d always brush Chuck up on my latest indie-rock obsession and we’d share our fondness for Lucinda Williams’s “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.”

My uncle’s couch was as smooth as his vibe.

My uncle was a pharmacist, just like my grandfather who died way before I was born. As I grew up, a trip to “the drugstore,” Chuck’s hybrid pharmacy-package store, was a highlight of my unruly Massachusetts life. My store purchases transcended from Swedish fish to a pack of Camels, to vodka and rum. My first store memory is being rewarded with a slice of American cheese and my last memory is showing off my new baby.

In 1985, I was a 10-year-old wise enough to use a trip to the drugstore as a way to sneak a peak at Madonna’s Playboy spread. While my uncle and cousin were busy talking to my mom, I used my gymnastics background and grabbed the magazine from the top row. I quickly gobbled everything I could see until innocently moving onto the penny candy. The realization that women could grow hair underneath their arms excited and confused me while I chewed my candy.

My cousin Sharon and I discuss NYC and my new Esprit shirt on Christmas Eve.

At 16, I found a new connection to Chuck through an infatuation with a teenager named Jeremy who worked at Chuck’s store in Douglas, MA. Making my new find even stranger, Jeremy was my mom’s former student, mysterious, a little older, and totally not interested in me. He was perfect.

My girlfriends and I would rush to the store to make Jeremy blush and be humiliated by my uncle. “What’s going on here, Kathy? You’ve never visited with friends before but now you all show up dressed like you’re going to Studio 54?” Chuck would tease. “Oh Jeremy, I think this one’s for you.” It was a pleasure sensation. No, I never got the boy but that was never really the point and I did thoroughly enjoy the chase.

Chuck admired my rebelliousness and remarked on my increasing face piercings with a wince and a wink. Years later as I had quickly domesticated and had a kid, after my facial piercings and rainbow-colored hair were gone, he observed, “I suppose it’s not about how long you have the look, but how strong it was when you had it.” Sure, I like that thought.

My bro Matt, Aunt Margie, sister Deirdre, and Uncle Chuck.

Sadly, my childhood wasn’t all pleasant Christmas Eves and idyllic trips to Chuck’s store. I was juggling the shame and embarrassment of having an alcoholic father and living through my folks’ nasty divorce. This was the 80s, way before my realization that alcoholism is a disease and that alcoholics are sick people. I didn’t know that yet, but I knew my father drank a lot and that his heavy drinking would manifest in blacked out, angry phone calls to my mother’s family, mostly Uncle Chuck. I knew this was happening although I never heard it myself. I’d hear about it in hushed, dirty whispers and I’d feel hushed and dirty.

My father sadly died way before he should have. My siblings and I did the best we could to remember my father and in the obituary we requested donations to the Alzheimer’s Foundation. My Uncle Chuck made an impressive donation, in my father’s memory, and I just couldn’t believe it; that stayed with me. Chuck donated in memory of someone who tormented him because he was that kind of man. He honored me and my siblings by honoring my father. My uncle attended every event we ever invited him to, but the kind gesture he made when my father died is something that will stay with me forever. That’s a man.

Rest in peace Chuck. Your children, beautiful wife and family members will remember you for life and your obituary was almost as beautiful as you were.

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