My uncle Joey's was obsessed with touching earlobes, at least that's how I remember it. He would call you over, and he would talk to you in a low, authoritative voice, and fondle your ear. He died at 50. I just turned 50 and it recently occurred to me that his obsession with earlobes was a bit odd.
I suppose I let him do it for many reasons. He was a father figure and you didn't argue, and I was in need of that kind of attention. He was one of my 4 uncles that I wanted to know better. The attention and ear touching was the only 1-1 time we had together.
I remember my uncle Joey projecting manliness, smarts, outdoor ruggedness, and a touch of sophistication that seemed lacking in other people I knew. As a kid, we rarely went to his house, but when we did, it was special. There was an aesthetic there that was enticing. The living areas were like exploring a small museum displaying objects out of a cabinet of curiosities of a Renaissance collector with a real leather couch and a cool stereo to boot. The kitchen area was slightly chaotic and well-used. It was the opposite in the house I grew up in. We had living areas filled with ordinary stuff: a penny jar, empty chianti fiaschi, posters, and a fabric couch. Our kitchen looked like it was hardly used.
Joey built his house by hand, at least in my mind. It was part lodge, part house, in natural woods with an open floor plan, and views to the surrounding countryside. By contrast, our house arrived on a tractor trailer in two halves that were snapped together creating a rabbit warren of small rooms with flimsy walls. We looked out on our neighbors in a suburban track development. We had puke-colored carpet that scratched our skin during wrestling matches. No natural hardwood floors for us.
Joey's skills seemed practical. With his forestry degree, he could identify trees and tell stories about them. What could be cooler than that? And, he knew how to grow trees - lots of them. People paid for his skill. My dad delivered fuel oil, ancient trees in liquid form.
A case of the trees looking greener on the other side of the fence? Maybe so. I was always secretly envious of my two cousins, Joey's daughters. I wanted to be part of their family. Though, I’m guessing my cousins version of reality is quite different than mine.
Heck, Joey even had a waterbed and once, with my two cousins, we snuck up and bounced around on it. Now that's living I thought.
I admit the line between fact and myth is a bit blurred in regard to my uncle Joey, but I like it that way. I imagine him working for days in the forest, able to survive on wit. He seemed to know something about everything, and I was ever so curious. Yes, you can fondle my earlobe if you tell me a story about a tree.
It's odd that later I would gravitate toward traits similar to an uncle I barely knew, be it a love of nature and trees, a fascination for what things are called, or even an aesthetic about how to keep my home. (Not earlobes though.)
My siblings and I were much closer to my mom's family, and that meant we were in the constant throes of the tumultuous relationship between my mother and her mother. My grandmother was sort of gravitational force that once in her pull, it was hard to escape. One of my other uncles called her the "planet".
My uncles were distant satellites checking in periodically in their orbit around my grandmother. We had little chance to get to know them. What's more, there always seemed to be an tension in the air between my mother and her brothers. This was a solar system that had problems. One uncle was seemed to always be strung out and didn't want anything to do with pesky nephews and nieces. Another uncle lived far away, drove a VW bug, and was viciously smart. We'd see him occasionally and that was enough. A third uncle was dark and handsome, but prone to bouts of anger. I remember him jumping up and down on a car roof and brandishing a gun. That left uncle Joey, the oldest of the brothers and seemingly most sane. So what if that came with a little ear fondling.
My uncle Joey once gave me the book Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, the 1979 book by astrophysicist Carl Sagan. I was about 16 at the time, and I remember the book being an invitation to enter into his world. A book I ought to read. A book that he endorsed. The book's black cover and red title font conveyed seriousness.
I didn't read it, at least not right away. It wasn't until many years later that I made it through Broca's Brain. A wasted invitation.
But, if I had to give one image to fix in your mind the image of my uncle Joey, Carl Sagan would in fact be it. Joey, 10 years younger than Sagan, I imagine followed Sagan as a role model, in scientific leaning as well as in fashion. Joey's thick dark hair was always swept to one side, not too fussy much like Sagan. As well, my uncle was prone to wearing a tan corduroy jacket, with elbow patches, and a simple turtle neck sweater underneath. I suppose the seventies were partly to blame as well.
Joey even spoke like Carl Sagan with a slow deliberate cadence. He gazed at you as if sizing you up, formulating the right question to catch you off imbalance. He wasn't the kind of uncle to ask you a quick math problem. No, it was a more serious question that made you think deeper. Something about stars and infinity, like Sagan would ask.
Joey attended Paul Smith's college in the Adirondacks where he studied forestry, and taught at the University of Connecticut. He was by all means the most successful in the family, if not the most revered. He was a Sagan in training. A few years after the Broca's Brain gift, I left home and the unstable solar system, and slowly lost contact with my uncle and his life during the 1980s and early 1990s. I don't understand the details of what happened, but it's fair to say that his life got derailed: a divorce, drugs, and untimely death.
~~~The man behind the camera~~~
All I have left of Joey are a few photos and vague stories about the photos. First, there's the black and white photo of me and my brother sitting in the grass. We are about 4 and 6 years old. I stare straight at the camera, at Joey behind the camera, while my brother gazes elsewhere. The photo transports me back to my grandmother's yard along the Farmington Valley River. It was our playground when we were young. My uncle was often there and often with a camera.
Another photo Joey took hung in my grandmother's tiny dining room for years. Countless family events took place in that dining room, everyone crowded around the table. Two windows, a closet, a desk, a hutch filled with knick-knacks, and two doorways took up most of the wall space in the room. What little space remained was taken up by examples of my grandmother's needlepoint and a picture of Michelangelo's David taken by Joey. My grandmother wasn't one for putting up much art, so this photo meant something. In the photo, David is photographed from the side and superimposed on a photo of a galaxy. A master of the photography and photo-processing, the image is an example of the blend of art and science that my uncle represented.
Not surprisingly, I have very few photos of Joey himself. He worked the other side of the camera mostly. Of the photos I have, two stand out. The first is a 1975 black and white snapshot. Joey is bare-chested and holding my recently-born cousin. Both gaze out of the photo as if in a stare-down match with the viewer. The second photo, is one of the last taken of him in 1993, a year before his death. A very gaunt, shell of the man from the first picture stands by the same cousin, now fully grown and recently-graduated. Joey stands behind my cousin and my grandparents encircling them with outstretched arms as if swooping in behind them. Protecting or holding on, I can't decide. An impossibly bank of bright yellow school lockers dominates the photo. There is tension in everyone's faces.
~~~Earlobes and star-stuff~~~
I remember the call from my mother: "Joey is dead. He froze to death." On a cold January day in 1994 he wandered into a roofless building that was under construction in the prosaic town of Pine Meadow, got locked in, and was found the next day. Some say maybe he went to the liquor store nearby, got drunk, and became trapped. Some say he knew he was dying and went there knowing the consequences. Others say it was an accident and he was too weak to get out. Whatever the explanation, he died in nature, which seemed strangely fitting. It was a cold, mysterious, and unfinished ending for me, much like my relationship with him. Our relationship froze at the point of the young boy who had a minute or two with an enigmatic ear fondler.
What are earlobes for? It seems the jury is out. Various suggestions include helping collect sound for the ears, acting as an erogenous zone, making us more attractive to partners, or just plain having lost their major biological function being vestiges of an earlier function. More ambiguity to live with, just like Joey's passion for the Lobulus auriculae, as earlobes are called in Latin and which I'm sure Joey would have known.
Many of my memories of Joey capture some aspect of truth, but never quite reveal him fully. But where there isn’t fact, fantasy fills in nicely. I’ll have to live with the ambiguity. I don't know what the purpose of an earlobe is let alone why my uncle liked to fondle them. So be it.
Carl Sagan died two years later in 1996. As Sagan said in his iconic Cosmos series: "The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself." Both him and my uncle went back to that star-stuff.