Daddy’s brothers—my uncles—visited frequently when I was a child. They would show up unexpectedly and “stay” with us for a few days, weeks, or months, then disappear, usually during the middle of the night. I enjoyed their visits, but things seemed to change each time one left and the other appeared. I was never quite sure what was “right” and what was “wrong” to do or say during or following their visits. The episode below illustrates not only how difficult it can be to negotiate ever-changing family dynamics, but also how the lines between liking and respect could become blurred.
During one of his monthlong visits, I studied Uncle Jack sleeping on the couch. He fit the space better than Uncle Lester did; his feet didn’t hang off the end of the couch, over the arms. His socks were dirtier than Uncle Lester’s were, though, and he talked in his sleep. I had been told that Uncle Jack was too young to fight in the war like Daddy and Uncle Lester, but Grandma and Grandpa died when he was young, and Uncle Jack had no one to take care of him while Daddy was away. Daddy said Uncle Jack went wild. I wondered what it would feel like to go wild; I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I imagined Uncle Jack running through the woods like the mad dogs everyone was scared of back then.
Uncle Jack had arrived the night before, unannounced—again—on foot. The first thing he did when we all woke up was to pick up Amy. He loved her long black hair, which he said reminded him of his Cherokee grandmother. He said if Grandmother was still living she would love Amy a lot. I noticed when Uncle Jack was holding Amy that his hair was the same color as hers, but his skin was much darker. His talking voice was loud, but his laughing voice was even louder. After tussling Amy around for a while, Uncle Jack set her down, announced that he was hungry, and looked at Momma. Happy to be free, Amy ran to me for safety. Josephine walked in, saw Uncle Jack, and froze in her tracks.
“Your brothers do not own this place,” Mom whispered loudly to Daddy as she walked past him on her way into the kitchen.
“You’re right,” Daddy responded. “I do.”
“Neither one of them owns this place,” Josephine said, half to herself and half to me. “They rent it, and our rent is late…again.”
Daddy turned toward Uncle Jack. “Whatcha been up to lately?” he asked. Uncle Jack looked at us kids, and we knew to leave the room, but we walked as slowly as possible in order to hear and see as much as we could. What we saw shocked us.
Uncle Jack pulled a knife out of his pocket and laughed, “I got into a fight with a real mean SOB yesterday, but I won. I cut his liver.”
Josephine put her hands over Amy’s ears, and we picked up our pace toward the safety of the outdoors, the only escape from the two rooms of our house.
Later that day the same thing happened that had happened more than once before when Uncle Jack was visiting: A police car pulled into our driveway. We knew the drill.
“Jack, get under the bed!” Momma warned. The officers knocked loudly.
Daddy shouted toward the door in a loud voice, “Who is it?” as if he didn’t know. I flopped down on the sofa to make it look as if I had been the one sleeping there.
“Police. Open the door.”
Once inside, the police officers asked the question we’d heard before: “When did you last see Jack Harnett?”
“Let me think,” Daddy rubbed his chin as he talked. “When was it…?”
In an instant Amy squirmed in between Momma and Daddy, looked up at the officers, and said as clearly as she had ever spoken, “Uncle Jack cut his liver.”
“He did what?” The officer looked down at Amy as he asked the question, and his partner scribbled notes.
Momma picked Amy up and offered an explanation. “The last time Jack was here, I insisted that he eat his liver with a knife and fork instead of picking it up in his hands,” she said. “He finally learned how to cut it into pieces and eat like a human being.” When she finished talking, Momma turned and walked away with Amy in her arms. The police stood there silently and watched her leave the room.
After the coast was clear, Momma was the hero. Daddy and Uncle Jack hugged her while Amy clapped. Daddy said Momma was finally learning to cooperate.
Uncle Jack’s visits taught us that we had to do whatever it took to protect him and anyone else in our family, even when this meant hiding or changing the truth. We also developed a dislike for authority figures who might harm “our people.” Not until I became an adult did I learn that even though I sometimes dislike what happens when authority figures intervene, I must respect them for their positions and missions.
Bethanie Tucker is author of Tucker Signing Strategies for Reading and coauthor of Understanding and Engaging Under-Resourced College Students, among other titles. She is an aha! Process national consultant training on the programs she created, plus A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Research-Based Strategies, and others. Keep an eye on the aha! Process blog to find out what happens next in Tucker’s memoir series “Many Bridges to Cross.”