“Every family has one,” my sister Joyce liked to say. “One crazy uncle or aunt they can’t hide or forget.” She was referring to our Uncle Walter on our mother’s side, the bachelor who inherited the family farm. Since Uncle Walter was never officially diagnosed, the question of his mental condition was frequently debated by my aunts and uncles. As her authority in the family grew, Joyce joined these discussions. She helped make decisions about how Uncle Walter should be treated and eventually took over what was left of his financial situation. Her comment on the distribution of insanity in families was usually followed by the observation that each generation created its own example. When she said this, she would stab the air with her forefinger to indicate that I had somehow inherited Uncle Walter’s instability, offering my miserable career as an untenured teacher of English composition at a series of obscure universities as evidence. Or, most telling of all, she would shake her head and say: “Look at your love life, Gary. It’s a path of devastation.”
In fact there was another case of madness in our family. My sister usually neglected to mention Aunt Edie, who had been institutionalized after chasing Aunt Martha around the farmhouse kitchen with a butcher knife, and who appeared once a year at the family Fourth of July gathering wearing a shapeless gray dress and her hair looking as if it had been chopped off with a hatchet. Since her case had been officially decided, she was rarely mentioned. Walter’s condition wasn’t so clear and was thus the subject of much family debate.
To begin with, he was a confirmed bachelor. Whenever Aunt Martha would mention that fact, one of my uncles would tamp down his pipe or take a swallow from a bottle of beer and assert that this was the only evidence of his sanity. Several stories about Walter’s failure to marry floated around the family like silk from a milk pod, lifting and gliding but never seeming to settle anywhere. One was that he had fallen in love as a young man, but was denied his prize by my fiercely Lutheran grandfather because she was Catholic. In this version he remained true to his untarnished dream of love, while growing more and more bitter toward his father. In another version his character was almost the exact opposite. He was said to be an incorrigible womanizer, taking pleasure wherever he could, stealing the virginity of young women and spoiling the married ones without the least hesitation or sense of responsibility. It was hard to see how he could have accomplished this in a community of dairy farmers, where the men milk twice a day and are never farther than the nearest feed mill or tavern. Both stories were used to support the theory that he was insane.
Sometimes his condition was blamed on the fall he had taken from the center beam of a barn roof he was building with Grandfather and his brothers. All the men in the family were skilled carpenters. They had built many of the barns in our part of Wisconsin as a way of staving off the inevitable ruin associated with small scale dairy farming. My Grandfather and his sons held the secret of framing up a hip roof, a feat they had accomplished successfully numerous times, but something had gone wrong with that particular job. The main beam gave way just as they were nailing it into place. Everyone fell but Grandfather, but only Uncle Walter was seriously hurt. Major bones were broken, and something happened to his spleen. He lay unconscious for days. The accident was hashed and rehashed for decades, with the brothers shaking their fists and shouting the vilest of curses at each other. The one thing they agreed about was that the fall had seriously altered Walter’s behavior.
Finally, he had odd views. The rest of my aunts and uncles, who had all been taught a sort of radical progressivism from Grandfather, had followed the country on its march to the right. Walter, they said, was completely out of touch with the reality of a changing world. He rarely bought a newspaper or magazine. The only television he saw was in the local taverns. Nevertheless, he was certain his sinking fortunes were the result of a careful plan hatched in the corporate offices of a diabolical cartel he would outline in the finest detail to anyone who would listen.
After Grandmother and Grandfather died, Walter inherited the house and farm. He found a young couple to move in with him, in exchange for whatever chores they did and the rent they paid, but mainly for the company. That arrangement lasted no more than two years. The rest of the family could never agree about whether the couple left of their own accord or if Walter threw them out. One story was they left out of disgust at his dirty habits. Also, the couple had a child by then and another on the way, and Walter may have wanted more space. In any event, he found himself living alone as he approached his seventieth year, his social contacts limited to his nights at the tavern, where he earned a reputation as a good talker and expert at Sheepshead (in our part of the world the game is played with clubs trump, while the rest of the world inexplicably favors diamonds). By all accounts, he was not a lonely drinker.
Opinion remained divided about Walter’s condition for several years. If nothing else, these arguments kept him from being committed, at least for the time being. That and the shame factor. The potential disgrace of having a brother in the loony bin united the family and, coincidentally, kept Walter a free man. Besides, the days when one could commit one’s favorite dotty aunt or obnoxious uncle at the drop of a hat were finished. New laws had made commitment much more difficult.
But then he started burning the house down, and that unsettled things again. The first time he did it, he had just turned seventy and was still living alone in the old family farmhouse. It was a large Victorian structure with a rather pleasant front parlor filled with comfortable furniture and a window that looked out over Grandmother’s apple orchard. The house’s only sources of heat were the wood burning cook stove in the kitchen and the old potbellied stove in the parlor. Both burned wood.
After many years of cutting wood in the fall, piling it outside the side entry, and then carrying it in by armloads as needed, just at the family had always done, Walter decided he would find an easier way. That fall, after cutting and loading some good hickory logs, he backed the wagon right up to the door and piled the load in the parlor. A cord about filled the room, leaving just enough space for the stove and his easy chair. He moved the rest of the furniture into the kitchen or his bedroom. Now he was able to sit comfortably by the stove without having to make extra trips outside for wood. The aunts went into a frenzy about the dirt and insects he was introducing into the parlor they still thought of as theirs. “He’s out of his tree,” said one of the uncles.
One night, in the dead of winter, the volunteer fire department was called. The old farmhouse was on fire. In spite of their efforts, the wing containing the parlor and Walter’s bedroom was burned away. Fortunately, it was a Friday night and he was holding forth at a local tavern.
The fire resulted in a family council that included my aunts and uncles and their spouses, along with my sister, Joyce, who had been elevated to honorary member due to her generally stable behavior and the fact that she and her husband still resided in the area. I was not invited, either because I was barely holding on to an untenured position in another state, or because of my unworthiness. I got a pretty good account from my sister when I visited her the following spring. The verdict was that Walter was definitely incapable of living on his own any longer. “He’s gone ‘round the bend,” an uncle said. “Early Alzheimer’s,” offered Aunt Martha. As evidence she mentioned his increasingly aggressive attitude toward her when she went to visit him and clean the house. Walter wasn’t invited either, but when he was approached about the incident, he swore the fire started when a spark jumped from the stove to the seat of the easy chair.This could have happened to anyone and had nothing to do with the way he handled his firewood.
Uncle Walter ended up being saved by one of his brothers that time. Uncle Henry had retired from his career as a carpenter, but he was still in good health and offered to help Walter rebuild the place the following spring. Walter would spend the rest of the winter living with Henry and his wife. From there it was only ten miles to the home place, so he would be able to drive over every day and take care of the animals and anything else that needed doing.
It was during the rebuilding that I took my first wife to visit. We had been married several years and had ridden out a few stormy periods. I felt it was finally time for her to meet Uncle Walter. I would have called ahead, but he didn’t have a phone. When we pulled into the yard, the two old men were straddling the roof beam and fitting a sheet of plywood into place. hey were also swearing at each other, filling the air with the most obscene imprecations imaginable. Henry’s language had been tempered a little by his years of living with a gentle woman, but Walter’s knew no such good influence. I looked over at Amanda. er hair had been newly done for the trip and she was wearing a tan London Fog coat and shiny black flats you could see your reflection in. She was a picture of elegance and sophistication. And she hated foul language. Apparently the uncles hadn’t heard us approach. They kept on screaming at each other until finally Uncle Walter noticed Amanda. He stopped swearing then and just looked down at her for a moment. Henry stopped, too, finally. Then Walter tugged at his hair and said, “Sorry, ma’am. We’re just making a little correction.” Then he looked at me. “You’re Lydia’s boy, right? Well, hold on now and we’ll come down for a visit.”
The brothers climbed down and they were soon sharing their sandwiches with us and offering coffee from their enormous thermos bottles. They were both good carpenters and they were proud of their ability to rebuild the house exactly the way we all remembered it. Amanda got over the shock of her rough introduction to my uncles and she was amiable enough. I don’t say this experience harmed our marriage. But I don’t think it did it any good either.
Then, three years later, there was another fire. Walter was in the tavern again when it started, but this time he beat the firemen to the scene. When they got there the parlor was completely in flames, but Walter had found a ladder, put it up against the house and was about to commence climbing to the second floor, when the firemen managed to pull him away from it. He fought like a man possessed, screaming that he was going after the checks the cheese factory had paid him for milk. They managed to wrestle him to the ground, but it was not an easy job. “Damned lunatic fought like a bear,” one of them told me later.
After the second fire the same condemnations and threats were made and the same excuses offered, but this time the family was more united. My sister was among the most adamant. Over the years, the technical vocabulary of mental illness had become more widely known, and my aunts had learned their share of diagnostic terms from television and popular magazines. Uncle Walter was delusional, sociopathic, and perhaps paranoid. He would be found incompetent, a danger to himself, and be “put away.” Even Uncle Henry deserted him. “I’m too old for this bullshit,” he announced. “This time he can fix the place himself, the old fool.” Uncle Walter’s days as a free man seemed numbered. But then he had one more card to play. After staying with Henry and his wife a few days, he moved into the barn. Not the barn proper, where the cattle were kept, but the milk house. He wasn’t milking cows any more, so it wasn’t being used. It was a small space with walls of whitewashed stone and windows draped with cobwebs, but it had running water, and it would keep him warm enough. He made a bed out of a door he had saved from the house and two saw horses, installed the potbellied stove, vented it through a window, and announced that he had a rifle (he did, as it turned out, but no bullets) and wanted to be left alone. Everybody agreed to just let things take their course.
By the following summer I was beginning to see Bridget, the woman who would become my second wife. When we met Uncle Walter it was purely by accident. We had stolen into the area without telling anyone. I wanted to show her my country without submitting her a family inquisition, so I took her to the place we called the Dells, a rocky gorge of rugged beauty through which the Somoc River boiled. Uncle Walter had been lying on one of the flat granite boulders just below the gorge, where the water begins to quiet down after its fall. He had a line in the water, but he wasn’t paying any attention to it. By the time I recognized him, it was too late. When he saw us, he stood up, thrust his head toward us, and widened his eyes the way I have seen a wolf do.
“Now let’s see,” he said. “You’d be Lydia’s boy, isn’t that right? I believe you’re Gary.”
“That’s right, Uncle Walter.”
“But who is this?” he asked, casting a critical glance toward Bridget. “This isn’t your wife. She’s a blonde and this one’s a redhead.”
“No, she’s not my wife. But she is the woman I love. Amanda and I aren’t married any longer.”
“Just like that?” he asked. There was no note of condemnation in his voice, only amazement. I thought of explaining to him how quickly and coldly divorce transpired in my world, but I never had a chance.
Bridget smiled pleasantly, looked him right in the eye, and asked him what he was fishing for.
“Suckers,” he said, and pulled a string of three fish from the water.
“They’re not bad smoked,” she commented.
Walter nodded agreement. “It’s the only way. I’ve had ‘em pickled and I can’t eat ‘em like that.”
I had been with Bridget a while and knew she had grown up in the country, but I couldn’t tell if her interest was real or feigned. Either way it was an amazing performance. He showed her a Mason jar filled with balls of blood-soaked dough he used for bait, which she took from his hands in order to study it more closely. Then he sat her down on the boulder next to him and engaged her in conversation on several topics: what she did for a living, how many heifers he was running, and politics. They seemed quite taken with each other, and for a moment I felt a ridiculous twinge of jealousy. At some point, as they talked about the prospects of the latest anti-war candidate, he expressed disapproval, and she didn’t hesitate to argue with him. When she spoke of the evils connected with our nation’s foreign policies, he agreed but doubted the candidate’s sincerity. “It’s a case of misleading the fox,” he said, laying his finger alongside his nose like Santa Claus. It’s an expression I had heard only from him, and never made much sense to me. Bridget seemed to understand him instinctively. When she talked about the need for grass roots organizing, he pulled the broad bib of his overalls toward her with his thumbs and proclaimed, “I am the grass root.”
When it was time for us to go, Uncle Walter stood up and shook my hand, and then gathered Bridget in a warm hug, and she gathered him. This was something I had never seen him do. I looked back at him once more when we reached the car, and he was standing on a hunk of granite waving at us. That’s how I like to remember him: with the water rushing next to him, an expanse of soft blue behind him, a couple of corkscrew clouds whirling behind his head. He seemed significant then, a figure of stubborn freedom.
Two years later, when I went to see how he was doing in the milk house, I went alone. I was alone. Joyce had called to tell me that since my second divorce, my mother was concerned about my mental health. She was concerned that I was following Uncle Walter into stubborn misery and madness. To give my sister and mother their due, I had my own doubts about my condition.
Shortly after we married, Bridget had come with me to Cincinnati, where I had landed a modest position teaching a couple of writing courses. She found a job as a receptionist at a law office where she was better paid than I, so we were able to rent a comfortable apartment. Things looked hopeful at first. But sometime in our second year there, it became clear that I would have to start looking for another job and we would have to move. Bridget was hot on the idea of my going back to graduate school, but I had no interest in it. We argued, and after that things got bad pretty quickly.
During our last few months together, I had little control over my emotions. I had already failed in one marriage, and I was desperate to hold on to this one. At the same time, I did every thing I could to destroy it. I would start a conversation with the idea of working things out rationally and end up shouting wild accusations. I felt as if I had been taken over by a demon. Our nights were spent making frenzied love or lying next to each other without speaking. When she finally left, during the Christmas break, Cincinnati felt like some sort of Siberian camp. Since I hadn’t made any close friends, I spent my nights hanging out in bars. I’ve heard people argue that committing suicide is always a sign of madness, but I’ve never been convinced. Letting my love for Bridget turn into something like hatred seems to me a much more convincing demonstration of insanity. Maybe that’s why I went to see Uncle Walter, to gauge my madness by his.
It was fine day in late April. Bushes were blooming and green shoots were bursting from the soil. Bird song seemed to come from everywhere at once. None of this diminished the sadness I felt at the sight of the burned out shell of the house. Uncle Walter was feeding young stock from a trough alongside the barn. He looked a bit older, but contrary to what I had been led to believe, he seemed glad to have company. Maybe he sensed a kindred spirit.
He took me into the milk house to show me his place. Somewhere he had found a comfortable chair and there was a small table I recognized as a relic from the old house. It was the one thing that had been saved. On it were a few magazines and a small stack of bills and letters. Next to them he had set out a basin for washing and shaving.
“Look at this,” he said, and he held up a ballpoint pen and one of those cheap plastic razors, which he had somehow joined by melting their shanks together over a flame and then wrapping them with electrical tape. “I call it my two-in-one, my old DoubleBic. I can shave and do a little writing at the same time. He made a mock demonstration for my benefit. “I gotta take time to get the patent on this.”
“What are you writing?” I asked.
“Just a few jottings. Some poetry. Nothing worth talking about.”
“May I see a poem?”
“No, they’re not for anyone, just the fun of putting them down.” He pointed to the old potbellied stove and added: “When I finish one, that’s where it goes. I get a little heat from it that way.”
Then he invited me to dinner. We shared a can of pork and beans and some hot dogs he warmed on the infamous woodstove, along with a can of fruit cocktail. We ate on paper plates, like boys on an impromptu camping trip.
Afterward we walked around the place, taking sips from cups of his powerful coffee as we went. Shades of purple and pink were battling in the western sky, the soft tips of the branches in Grandmother’s orchard were bursting with pink blossoms. Believe it or not, we talked about God, although both of us had severed our connections with the Lutheran church we had been brought up in. He had made his break vociferously, orating to anyone who would listen about sycophant priests and superstitions. These tirades were often used as evidence against him by my devout relatives. My own disconnection with the faith of our ancestors was less violent, accomplished with an almost casual dismissal. But then I lived at a comfortable distance and didn’t have to worry about a posse of my relatives. The little church where we had shivered in our youth was just visible over the fields to the east of us. Puffy clouds seemed to butt their heads against its tower. At one point he swept his right arm in a broad demonstrative arc that seemed to take in everything from the barn and the orchard to the church on the far horizon. “What sort of god would make a mess like this?” I couldn’t be certain if he was referring to the neglected farm or the cosmos. Given the rambling nature of our conversation up to that point, he may have been referring to world affairs. He made enormous jumps of logic as he moved from the decline of family farming to the coming oil wars to the use of chemical fertilizers. It was the kind of irritated jabber that made him intolerable to my aunts and uncles. But by then I was reading Eliot and Pound and no longer considered enormous jumps a sign of aberration.
I’m ashamed to say this was the last time I saw him alive.
Something happened the fall after my last visit, another fire I was told. A small one this time. The barn was not seriously harmed, but the fire department had to be called again, and this apparently reverberated in the halls of county government. Something had to be done. “They’ll put him away this time,” Aunt Martha declared. On the other hand, Uncle Walter felt vindicated. The fire had not started in a woodpile inside the milk house. As he explained to anyone who would listen, he had to pile the wood outside because of lack of space. That amounted to proof that he was innocent of the other fires as well. And he had one more triumph. I’m not sure how these things work, but by agreeing to move into the Jefferson County Home, he avoided any final judgment of insanity. I can imagine him showing is toothy grin to the family and saying, “See, you sons-a-bitches, I’m not crazy. I’m old.” He was eighty.
I never went to visit him at the home. I was afraid of what I might find, my tough independent uncle reduced to a blubbering moan. The closest I got was to drive by the home place on my way to visit my sister’s family at Christmas. The barns, the shed, whatever was left of the house, had been razed. Even the old apple trees had been bulldozed onto a pile and burned. The only new building was a metal pole shed. The place had been given over to a herd of bison. This was central Wisconsin, where my Grandfather and his neighbors had cut down the old pine and hemlock to make farms. It had never been prairie. But American buffalo were now roaming my grandparents’ farm. My family had laid claim to this land for just two generations and had been replaced by someone who lived in town and produced buffalo burgers. Snow was gathering in the animals’ fur as I stared at them. Snow was gathering on my shoulders as they stared at me. If I had had a horse I would have cut the fence and driven them south to the Illinois Prairie.
Walter spent the next seven years in the Jefferson County home. I regret my squeamishness about visiting him there. From all accounts (mainly my mother’s and my sister’s), he was well-treated. True, his health failed bit by bit, but he was relatively happy. After all, he had avoided incarceration. He took walks, visited taverns, learned to watch television, and enjoyed the pleasures of indoor plumbing and central heating. He set no more fires.
And he fell in love.
We discovered this only after he died, when Joyce and I went to pick up his things at the home. They didn’t amount to much: a pair of bib overalls, a blue work shirt, two pairs of shoes, a brown suit, along with white shirt and dark blue tie, a Prince Albert tobacco can containing his financial estate ($7.36), and a stack of letters held together with a wide rubber band. My sister removed the rubber band, took the top letter, opened it, and began to read. After perusing it for a moment she made a low gasping sound. When she recovered, she said, “Listen to this: ‘My dearest Walter, when you are away from me in the hospital, I can barely breathe.’” And so on, in that vein, letter after letter. All were signed by Mary (no last name), and all were dated during the last six years of his life.
We asked my mother what she knew about it and she said yes, someone from the home had called. They were concerned about Walter’s relationship with a woman who lived there. They said Walter carried on with her publicly, in the commons, in the dining hall, and outside, but much of the relationship went on behind closed doors.
“I didn’t know what to say,” my mother said. “I finally told them if they weren’t hurting each other, to leave them alone.” Then she added, with a snort, “The crazy old fool.”
I confess I felt a brief thrill of family pride at Uncle Walter’s octogenarian affair. Or perhaps I was just exhibiting the usual male bravado. At that point I didn’t care. I was convinced none of my other aunts or uncles had tasted the sweets in decades, so I thought, bully for him.
Then I had another thought.
“We have to find out who she is,” I told my sister.
“Why?” my mother asked.
“She should be at the funeral. She shouldn’t have to grieve alone.”
When we called the home to inquire, the woman who answered the phone knew immediately who Mary was, and when I asked if I could bring her to the services, she said I didn’t need to worry. They would transport her to the church.
There was some discussion about whether to bury Uncle Walter in his bibs and work shirt, which is what he always wore, or the brown suit. It was the usual debate between what’s natural and what’s formally acceptable, and, as usually happens, formal acceptability won. I knew better than to point out that Walter had not belonged to a church since childhood and that he ought to go out of the world more in accordance with his beliefs. After all, funerals are designed to protect us from the shocks of reality.
None of us were prepared for Mary’s arrival in a motorized wheel chair. She suffered from cerebral palsy, and her head hung limply to one side. She wore thick horn-rimmed glasses and someone had taken the trouble to do her hair into neat rows of waves. She was in her late forties, much younger than the other residents of the home. She was the only one who wept during the service.
It was a funeral, so no one said anything about what they were seeing, although there was plenty of muttering afterward. It was, some said, final evidence of his lunacy. My family can be wonderfully generous, or at least well-behaved, on public occasions Mary was welcomed and well treated at the funeral dinner. A few people went over to talk with her, but she couldn’t speak clearly, and besides, she was too choked up by her loss for chit chat.
Though I try to avoid it, my uncle’s romance with his stricken lady still intrudes upon my consciousness from time to time, threatening images of brutal clarity, but somehow my imagination always draws back at the last moment. I know there are more civilized places in this country where their affair would have been banned, or at least thwarted. There would have been angry accusations from the woman’s outraged family, who, I suspect, would have seen him as no more than a lust-driven animal. At this point I am confounded by my own narrative, but having begun I am determined to go on to the end. Even now I can not tell you how my uncle felt about Mary. The letters she wrote show that she loved him deeply, and I want to believe he cared for her, but I have no way of knowing. At times I come close to losing my faith in him and in my ability to tell this story. I never spent enough time with him to truly know him. No one did. He remains an enigma, beyond diagnosis.
Perhaps Chekhov would have understood. Chekhov, the committed bachelor who found his Olga, the love of his life, when he was already dying of tuberculosis.
In the end, Uncle Walter couldn’t help me either. In spite of his example, I am still alone. Oh, I occasionally enjoy the company of another teacher, on her way to tenure and a permanent relationship, but I haven’t been near anything resembling commitment in years. Now that I am nearing fifty, I seem to have lost the desire. Joyce, who does love me like a sister, still shakes her finger at me occasionally and reminds me of my terrible inheritance. At times, when I sink into a desperate period, I think she is right. If an overwhelming sense of loneliness, along with the conviction of the meaninglessness of one’s life, if those are the definition of madness, I am as crazy as anyone. I like to think Uncle Walter tried to save me from that by giving me the best gift a free person can offer, which is simply hope. On my best days I can imagine Mary and Walter together in the little garden behind the home, she in her chair and my uncle standing beside her, writing a few lines of love poetry with the inky end of his invention while the razor floats in circles above the paper. I wish I could do better than that. My uncle deserves Chekhov, and so does she.