“I’m not much for small talk.”
That’s the first thing I remember Bill Rose ever saying to me. He was my wife’s only living uncle, so of course I’d met him before, but this was the first time we’d been placed in intimate contact. We were seated together at a kitchen table in suburban Houston, left to our own devices while my wife Myra helped her cousin Greg – Bill’s son – prepare dinner.
I suppose I could have interpreted Bill’s “small talk” comment as an insult, sort of a “Don’t even bother making the effort, junior,” but I took it in the spirit in which it was intended: a preemptive apology for the forthcoming lack of frivolous chit-chat. It was a relief, honestly. Bill was a clean-cut, 80-something WWII vet and former construction foreman from Chicago. I was a shaggy, 24-year-old New Orleanian barista with dreams of making it big as a fiction writer. I had been panicking about what common topics we could possibly have to discuss.
“That’s OK,” I said. “I’m really not much for small talk either.”
And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Within the next year, Myra and I would wind up living half a block from Bill and his wife Julie in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. When I was accepted into the Fiction Writing MFA program at Columbia College Chicago, Myra asked her Aunt Steph for advice on finding a good place to rent. Instead of passing us off to a rental agent, Steph lived up to her Polish-American focus on the family and had her long-vacant upstairs apartment renovated for us. Suddenly I was deep within the bosom of my in-laws, for better or for worse.
I attribute a lot of that “better” directly to Bill. Early on in our Chicago tenure, Myra established a weekly tradition of strolling up the block to spend a few hours commiserating with Bill and Julie. We’d sit in their living room, sip weak Folger’s coffee and chat while half-watching TV. We sat through an eclectic blend of programming – local news, Keeping Up Appearances, Dancing with the Stars, Cubs and Sox games (although Bill was a Cardinals fan) – but the defining show of our visits was Antiques Roadshow. Watching regular folks unearthing relics from the darkened crannies of American history proved to be a perfect conversation starter. While Julie regaled Myra with family stories, Bill and I maintained a running commentary, swapping opinions on the assorted antiques and hazy historical nuggets from our own experiences.
Our TV-bonding soon blossomed into a deeper connection. Bill was as quick-witted as anyone I knew, but years of physical labor had rendered him incapable of any activity more strenuous than a slow trudge around the block. I could and did roam about the city with impunity, but our sleepy little corner of the Northwest Side was populated almost entirely by old folks and families. Seeing as neither Bill nor I had much of an immediate peer group, we latched on to each other as not just uncle- and nephew-in-law, but as legitimate friends. We were also united by being non-Polish, non-Catholic men who married into a family that placed great stock in both of those attributes.
I suppose it should be an odd thing, making friends with a man nearly four times one’s own age, but it came easily and naturally with Bill. It helped that he was one of the most genuinely decent human beings I ever met. I’ve often heard people of my generation write off people of Bill’s generation as being stuck, through no real fault of their own, in antiquated mindsets where bigotry and Puritanism were just the accepted norm. While I’m sure that’s true in many cases, Bill was the very model of live-and-let-live tolerance. Whenever a provocative news story got emotions flaring in the living room, he remained conspicuously silent. He didn’t know anybody’s whole story except his own, he reasoned, so it was hardly his place to pass judgment on anyone else. The only people against whom I ever heard Bill say a negative word were Mayor Daley and Ronald Reagan, and c’mon – those are freebies if ever there were.
Eventually I came to realize that Myra and I were sort of Bill’s window to the world. As I said, he didn’t get out much, and that frustrated the hell out of him. His wife Julie was remarkably active for her age, regularly taking long walks around the neighborhood and attending yoga classes at the local rec center. He had a strong, loving relationship with his son Greg, but Greg lived in Texas and could only make it home five or six times a year. If he couldn’t get out to see the world, I figured it was the least we could do to bring some of the world to him.
I don’t want to say we had some kind of “Tuesdays with Morrie” thing going on. Bill was far too much of a taciturn old schooler for that kind of emotional bonding. We were more like hangout buddies. After a while I started dropping by to visit even if Myra was out of town. Bill would offer me a coffee or a beer (usually Old Style or Miller, and always in a can), he’d hand me the newest Chicago Sun-Times and we’d settle into our usual positions, he in the lounge chair he felt was a little too plush, me on the left edge of the uncomfortable davenport that had maintained its position since the ‘60s. I’d work the crossword puzzles while we chatted about all manner of things: the week’s non-events in our sleepy little corner of Chicago, Bill’s childhood in the fantastically named southern Illinois hamlet of Cave-in-Rock, the St. Louis heyday of Paul and Dizzy Dean and other ephemera. His recall was amazing. He seemed to have a near-photographic command over the details of not just his own life, but also of the world around him.
That acute awareness could be a curse as well as a blessing. One evening when Myra and Julie were cutting some pound cake in the kitchen, Bill turned to me and said with a chilling matter-of-factness, “Ira, it’s hell being old.” Bill was in most respects a simple, humble man, but he also had a lot of pride. His greatest fear was being a burden on those around him. He absolutely hated that the ravages of age had robbed him of many of his youthful abilities and he’d be damned if he was going to be forced into the role of doddering old man without a fight. He refused to eat in front of other people because he felt his ill-fitting dentures made the process too unsightly. He would not allow me to get away with mowing his lawn unless I accepted a 20-dollar bill for my efforts. He apologized profusely any time he had to ask for my help, even on the several occasions when Myra and I drove him to the hospital with various ailments.
Despite his protests, I always knew Bill and Julie appreciated having us nearby, and the feeling was more than mutual. That made our eventual decision to move away from Chicago all the more wrenching. We were going to miss the hell out of Myra’s family and all of our friends, certainly, but we knew they’d all be able to cope without us. We weren’t so sure about Bill and Julie.
The last thing I did on my last day in Chicago (Myra had moved up to Minneapolis a few weeks earlier to start her job while I finished out mine) was visit Bill and Julie. The conversation that night was grimly awkward. I tried to maintain my game face, talking brightly about how we’d be down to visit all the time and how everything was going to work out fine. Bill nodded along with my spiel, but he wasn’t buying it anymore than I was selling it. He and I sat down at the kitchen counter and shared a mostly silent meal of Polish sausage and steamed cabbage. We kept the small talk to a minimum just like we had at our first communal meal, but this time the reasons were different. I managed to hold it together through the goodnight routine, this time capped off with brief hugs from both Bill and Julie. I made it about a hundred feet up the sidewalk before I gave in to the tears. By the time I staggered back into my now-empty upstairs apartment, I was doubled over in full-body, soul-shaking sobs that wouldn’t subside for another hour.
Four years, one month and seven days later, Bill died. That was yesterday. It had been a long time coming. His health had been in varying stages of failing for most of the previous decade. Most everyone who knew him believed he was tired of fighting and ready to embrace some well-earned peace. In that respect, I’m relieved, even happy for him. In another respect, I’m devastated that I’ll never again sit down to drink weak coffee and watch Antiques Roadshow with one of the best friends I ever had.
Goodnight, Uncle Bill.
Goodbye, my dear, sweet friend.