When the phone rang fifty minutes past midnight this morning, I knew my Uncle Dean had died. Phones don't ring at that hour for other reasons.
I was supposed to be on a plane later in the morning - flying out to Salt Lake City to visit him. We spoke briefly yesterday, the last time we would speak, and our conversation was short and heartbreaking. Short because he didn't have the strength to talk very long, heartbreaking because his words were so labored but so soft that it was clear my uncle was passing.
|Dean Petrulas, 1943|
I held out arrogant hope that because I let him know I was on my way, he would be alive today, would be there waiting for me. Would be present for one last visit.
I can be a smug, foolish man.
Dean Petrulas (yes, his name was shorter, yes) was the last member of his generation from the Petrulakis family.
My Papou and YiaYia had long since left us. My father's sister, Sylvia, was the first of the four siblings to pass away - shortly after our own Elizabeth was born. Elizabeth, named after my grandmother, my YiaYia.
This family, my family, was so loud - though my father was the most quiet - but so loud, so Greek.
This family, my family - and now they're gone.
My Papou, the coal miner - the man who would begin this family, my family. George Anthony Petrulakis. Why did he leave Crete as a teenager? The stories vary. There may have been a sister, avenged, and the need to flee. There may have been a land of opportunity turned to when there were no opportunities at home.
Maybe it was just wanderlust.
My strongest memory of Papou is from my last summer with him, our last visit together. After our annual drive - 714 miles from Sherwood Avenue in Modesto, California to Ramona Avenue in Salt Lake City, Utah - Papou met us outside his brick bungalow. With a huge smile, he beckoned his grandchildren into his backyard, his yellow dahlias ablaze, and there, in front of the ramshackle detached garage, was a plastic tub filled with sand.
Carefully placed among the sculpted dunes? Plastic cowboys and Indians. Green ones and blue ones, red ones and yellow. Attacking, retreating. A tableau of the old west, of old time Utah, created for three boys from Modesto. And YiaYia just stood there smiling at the love this old man showed for his young grandchildren - the only grandchildren I thought he had.
YiaYia. YiaYia who was raised in Dawson, New Mexico. YiaYia who, in my mom's kitchen, cooked the best Mexican feast I've ever had - homemade tortillas and enchiladas and re-fried beans. Everything made from scratch. Great Mexican cooking from a Greek YiaYia.
YiaYia. YiaYia and her ridiculous affection for Kitty, her Siamese. Kitty who hissed at everyone but YiaYia.
Well, at everyone but YiaYia and my Thea Sylvia, my dad's only sister. Thea Sylvia who sent my brother George a silver letter opener for high school graduation, who sent me a gold tie pin. What did she send my brother Dean? I forget. I forget so much. But not her laugh. Thea Sylvia's laugh? Oh, Thea. I miss you. I'm so sorry you and YiaYia never met Elizabeth, never met Kristina.
Uncle Pete at least met Elizabeth. Uncle Pete who passed away this year in that cruel month of April. Uncle Pete who, one summer night, grabbed a grasshopper for me in front of his house in Sandy, Utah. Held it in his fingers and gently pinched its head until it spit out what he said was tobacco. And since he said it, I believed it. Believed it and tried to replicate the pinching back home in Modesto - never successfully.
Uncle Pete who showed me the framed painting of the raccoon that he sheepishly said he spent too much money on, but that he loved. Uncle Pete who came into my bedroom after I ran from my family, crying. Crying because they'd just mentioned - this family, my family - they'd just mentioned, in passing, that Uncle Pete had been married before, had a daughter I never knew. Everyone knew, it seemed, but me. And Uncle Pete came into my room, quiet, and just talked to me. Man to man even though I was a boy. Talked and then explained to his brother, my dad, why it was important that we had talked.
My dad? Ah, Dad. Dad, I miss you. Dad, I love you.
And Uncle Dean was the last, the last of this family, my family. Uncle Dean who I spoke with more in the few years since my father passed away than in all the time before. Uncle Dean, the last repository of the stories, of the knowledge, of the tales of this family, my family, the family Petrulakis.
Uncle Dean, who died at 1:52 am. Judy called me then, right then, and we talked and we cried and I told her to tell Uncle Dean that I loved him, and she did, whispered to him my words while I apologized for not being there - I was supposed to be on a plane later this morning to visit. My visit was going to keep Uncle Dean alive for a few more hours, I had that power, didn't I?
And then, with Uncle Dean already gone, my flight would be canceled. Oakland fog and gray, mocking skies would cancel my flight. What power do we have? We have no power.
Can I tell you a story about my Uncle Dean? About the thing that comes to mind first when I think of him, of that tall, powerful man?
It must've been, what, 1975? Was that when Glen Campbell sang about his Rhinestone Cowboy? Uncle Dean was soon to arrive at the house, his parent's bungalow on Ramona, and when he did, the three Petrulakis boys would line up inside the front door, practically ready to salute when he came in.
And come in he did, Uncle Dean - confirmed bachelor, owner of a new car (seemingly) every year. Did he once own a yellow Lincoln Continental with suicide doors? Oh, he did.
So Uncle Dean walked in, and we've dutifully lined up for him, standing there in the living room of YiaYia's house, that brick house with the porch we'd jump from onto the small patch of grass, the grass where we'd drink cream soda during those Salt Lake summers - the three of us, the three brothers, in the new sneakers we'd get each year before making the trip to Utah. And Uncle Dean walked in, and we saluted and smiled, and he looked at us, and down at our new shoes, and up at my dad - and by this time Uncle Dean was laughing.
"Tone," he said, calling my dad by one of the many nicknames he'd earned in Hiawatha - Wheels being my personal favorite - "Tone," he said, shaking his head and looking back down at our new shoes, "that is the exact reason why I'll never get married and have kids."
And that incident became shorthand for my thoughts of Uncle Dean. I admired him for it. Here was a man, part of this family, my family, who knew himself so well, who was so comfortable in that knowledge, that he could admit to his brother that perhaps he was selfish enough never to want children - but that he was content with the realization. Happy to go about his life with his new cars and terrific condo on the golf course without the encumbrance of kids.
But then - a funny thing happened. Life happened. Life happened and Karen and I got married and then Karen got pregnant - though this took too long, the time between the one and then the other, much too long according to many of the Greeks in our life.
But after Karen became pregnant, we made our calls to share the news - and Uncle Dean was one of the first calls I made.
We talked for a minute about nothing - and then I said, "Uncle Dean, I've got some news." And after I told him, that Karen was expecting, that we had a little girl on the way, the line got very quiet.
|Karen, Nick, Uncle Dean, Dean, Wheels|
"Nick," Uncle Dean said, "the best thing you ever did was marry Karen. That young woman," he said, "she is so smart."
"I know," I said, "I keep trying to figure out what she sees in me."
"That's not what I'm talking about right now," he said. "What I'm talking about right now is the fact that it's the best thing you ever did."
He became quiet again.
"But the best thing the two of you will ever do is what you just told me. It's a blessing, Nick," he said. "Your family is a blessing. And you remember that, ok? Because I made a mistake. Never getting married was a mistake. Family is so important and I made a mistake."
We talked more after that, but not much. My conversations with my uncle were always short, then. Not like they've been lately. But his revelation was a surprise - because "Uncle Dean" was a story that I told, a story about a man - when he was younger than I am now - who admitted to his oldest brother that he knew what was right for him, for Uncle Dean, and a wife wasn't right for him and kids certainly weren't right for him.
But here he was, my Uncle Dean, this important part of this family, my family, upending the convention that I had created. Upending and exploding it with a simple declaration that I had done right where he had done wrong.
My Uncle Dean was an amazing man. An amazing man who was fortunate to find an amazing woman - Judy - with whom he spent the last ten years of his life. Not married, no - but happier together than many who are. And we were happy, too, everyone was happy that Uncle Dean had found his family with Judy. Each of those boys that he ribbed my dad about almost forty years ago had found their own families, and Uncle Dean had found his, too.
My Uncle Dean was an amazing man. Hardworking and proud. The way he talked about my dad these last few years, the delight he demonstrated in displaying the pictures of his nieces and nephews - the gratitude in his voice when he talked to Judy, or about Judy.
My Uncle Dean was an amazing man, such an important part of this family, my family.
I'm sorry I wasn't there with you yesterday, Uncle Dean. I love you. I miss you.
Eternal be your memory.