My father's cousin, Bill, is dying of pancreatic cancer. He may have a few weeks left or a few days. Armed with this knowledge, I made a date to see him over this past weekend. Bill had been a member of a drinkers' club, for lack of a better term, for over 30 years, in a nearby city called Brisbane before he moved a few years ago up to Reno, the biggest little gambling city in Nevada. I met him Saturday at his old club for what will probably be our last visit together. Bill was sat at a table drinking a whiskey & water with some pals when I arrived. Spread out in front of him were papers, a pen, and a small notebook--his betting gear. He and the others had been hanging out most of the afternoon betting on the horses. It was the Kentucky Derby and none of their picks came up winners. At one end of the room was a spread of food in take-away containers on a card table that I assumed was for Bill, but turned out it was leftovers left out from a Cinco de Mayo party the club had thrown the night before.
Bill and my pops were born the same year, 1940, eight months apart. Like many working-class folks of that era, their families not only lived in the same district, Bernal Heights, but many of them on the same block. When Bill was a teenager, he told me, he was such a wallflower that he never much socialized with anyone outside the family. Many evenings were spent at his grandparents' (my paternal great-grandparents) house just up the road from where he lived with his Mom, Dad and sisters. Mormor Ana and Morfar Axel, Swedish immigrants, who had arrived in SF in the 1870s, were fond of card games with pay checks as bets on the line--well, more Ana than Axel I've been told--as well as liking the drink. Bill's sister, cousin D, used to tell me stories about how when she was little Ana would send her to the corner market for cigarettes and whiskey. D would also then recite snippets of the Swedish lullabies Ana used to sing her and the other grandchildren. I never tired of hearing D sing the songs even though I understood not one jot!
In October 2002, my Dad took Bill out to dinner for his birthday. The story I then heard about that fateful night was this: Dad hadn't felt well at the table and excused himself to use the restroom. Bill was concerned as my father had turned very pale and seemed unsteady on his feet. He got up to follow my Dad only to be able to catch him in an embrace when he fell and subsequently died of a cardiac arrest en route to the facilities. Bill made mention of this story during our visit together. To say that this was the shittiest birthday ever for Bill is probably an understatement.
There were two women standing at the table with Bill when I arrived late afternoon. They already appeared to be three sheets to the wind. One was another old-timer like Bill and one seemed to be about my age. I had brought with me a couple of old family photos for Bill to see. One was of Bill's mother and grandmother circa 1918 and one was of nearly all the Swedes sitting on the stoop of my paternal grandparents' place ca.1945. Bill and my Dad, the youngest children in the photo, were down front in the shot. The barfly who seemed to be about my age pointed to a woman in the picture and asked if she were me. I mentioned that the photo was taken in 1945, she mumbled some kind of apology and then made her way to the bar.
In addition to me and an old friend of Bill's from junior high school, one of his nieces showed up with her husband in tow. I remembered both of them from the Swedish Family Picnic when I was a teen. In 1993, the niece and hubs decided to move away to a city called Fresno and stopped attending the family picnic. It's pretty remarkable that kids are adept at figuring out who to avoid and who to embrace, for the most part. Even at a young age, I knew that these relatives were not welcoming and I did not interact with them. I suppose what I mean to say is that they were righteous bible-thumpers and held others in the family at arms' length.
What struck me about our visit with Bill was how deftly the niece inserted her religious and political views into the conversation. It quickly became apparent that I was sitting with an anti-vax, 'freedumb'-loving racist who was clearly re-writting family history to suit her own needs. She inexplicably brought up the Black Panthers, her having home-schooled her kids in order to teach them 'real world history', 'real science' and 'real English'. I thought it best to have no comment on her sharing.
At the end of my visit with Bill, I mentioned how I wish my Dad could have been there and gave him a hug. He didn't quite respond but told me he'd be at the club the following day betting on the horses again, if anyone would like to come by. I smiled and wished him a good trip back to Reno.