I have an uncle that died a few months ago. No need to express condolences — he was a man I barely knew, a man with many demons, an uncle only by familial relationship, my father’s brother. And yet he has always been something more, an intriguing symbol of my childhood. After Marvin’s funeral, my sister said to me, “it feels like we’re losing our childhood.” I understood just what she meant.
They say when you lose a parent, you lose your past. We lost our mother recently, and while the past and present suddenly feels cleaved in two, it has never felt lost. Yet what do they say when you lose a distant stranger of an uncle who struggled with addictions? I don’t think they say anything at all.
Well, I have a few things to say.
My parents divorced when I was too young to remember. After this, I saw my father randomly and sometimes rarely, my mother soon remarried, and life moved on. Well, it would be easy to say life moved on, but something always remains behind — something complex and conflicted, mysterious and unsolvable.
Visits with my Dad often took place at my grandmother’s house, where Uncle Marvin also lived, in the basement. My grandmother’s house was a fascinating and cavernous place, filled with very breakable objects — which my sister and I were often reminded of as we ripped around the house in play. Unlike our house that was filled with our abused action figures, beheaded stuffed animals, broken game controllers, and a television with black spots from the time I stuck magnets on it, my grandmother’s house was a museum of exotic antiques.
There was an antique globe that just begged for me to spin it like a Harlem Globetrotter. There was the Victorian wood stereoscope that cried out for me to wear it like a virtual reality mask and crash into walls. There was a creaky old mechanical bank that longed for me to wind it up a million times, just to see that little dog whir out and take up the penny over and over.
(AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER until an adult made me stop.)
These visits with Dad were often whirlwinds of lost time crammed into a weekend or a holiday. Between the jaunts out to the Smithsonian, the trips for ice cream, and the stops at the playground, the visits were exhausting, overstimulating, and always ended with the dog bank getting broken.
More alluring than even the dog bank however, was Uncle Marvin. Marvin lived in the basement in what could only be described as a lair — an actual lair, a makeshift of half-finished drywalls and hanging flags and drapery, concealing a carved-out corner in the dark recesses of the basement.
He lived down there with a menagerie of taxidermied animals, clothes made from human hair, knives, crossbows, black lights, ashtrays, and an apparently legendary record collection. But most importantly to me as a six-year-old, he had a pet tarantula and a collection of shark teeth.
Covered in tattoos and faded denim, he resembled something between a biker, an outlaw, and Jesus. Tall, lanky, with missing teeth and stark icy blue eyes, he looked like no other human being I’d ever encountered. A subterranean creature, he rarely emerged from the basement lair. All of this combined made him something of a legend to me. It made him Walt Disney. It made him Robert Ripley. It made him absolutely terrifying.
For me and my sister, getting a peek at him was our greatest mission in life. Just one tiny peek. One glimpse to see the spider, the knives, the shark teeth, the bat in the jar, the cat skull, the pirate flag, the shag rug, the man, the myth, the legend. But mostly the spider.
Getting that coveted peek meant going on a spelunking mission into the basement. We’d crawl and lower ourselves slowly down the steps, careful not to cause a single creak on the old wooden staircase. Once we reached the cool tiled floor, we’d be barely breathing and desperately concealing our giggles. It could take an entire hour for us to work up the courage with each careful step, as we’d agonizingly ford the length of the basement toward the back corner.
Once there, we’d slowly peek in through the drapery, where he’d be in the center thick of it, on his couch, contentedly watching television or listening to music. We’d take it in for a second — if that — before tearing off as fast as we could, back up the stairs to safety, breathlessly reporting that we saw him. We saw him! We saw him.
I don’t know if I ever got a solid look at that lair — my entire memory of it is comprised of second-long glimpses combined, flickering together over the years. I don’t know if he ever noticed and or cared about the two kids stalking him out. I don’t know if he even knew who we were. All I know is, something about him made everyone want to hold onto their own piece of him, and the thrill of peeking into his lair was mine.
After the funeral, my dad gave me Marvin’s collection of shark teeth. My sister got one of the knives. Having a piece of that lair is having a piece of childhood, though not a piece that’s like an old beloved toy. It’s a complicated piece, a piece of something complex and conflicted, mysterious and unsolvable — much like the man they once belonged to.