I was 17 when I finally figured out that my Uncle Charley was queer. We didn't have the word "gay" in 1953it just was not in our vocabulary. So, we said "queer" or "fairy" or sometimes the Yiddish word "faygele," which meant "little bird."
Uncle Charley moved in with us after my grandma died in 1942. Charley and my mother were two years apartthe youngest two children of a family of 10.
They were always close and so after grandma passed away, Charley was on his own; my mother invited him to live with us. We had a very large, four-bedroom house in East Rogers Park.
By the time I was 10 or 11, Uncle Charley decided I was old enough to enjoy opera. So, he took me with him not only to opera and operetta but to concerts, as well. On Saturday night, when my parents went out and my older brother started to date, Uncle Charley and I listened to opera on WGN radio's "Chicago Theater of the Air." Neither of us liked when Col. McCormick made his remarks during the intermission and dragged on for what seemed to be hoursbut we stayed awake to hear the second half of the opera!
Uncle Charley loved our garden. He planted the most delicate flowers and spent hours clipping and shaping our hedges. Because of him, we had the prettiest yard on the blockand neighbors would comment on his hard work.
He had one friend who I remember. His name was Alderigo, and he would come by and visit.
I also remember quite well that Uncle Charley would sometimes go out late at nightand sometimes come home beaten up. When I grew older and understood him and who he really was, I would wonder where he would go and what he would do, what provoked other men to pummel him. Would he go to bars? Coffeeshops? Movie houses? Would he be suggestive to other men? Would still others drag him out and beat him up? The bruises on his face or arms would be highly discernableand my parents would tell me he had tripped outside.
But, when I grew older and figured things out, I realized what I believed to be the truth. He was anathema to other menor perhaps he was frightening to them. Perhaps they saw in him what they could be if they let go.
Uncle Charley died about a year after I was marriedthe result of another beating, harder and more destructive than others.
The day after the funeral, I stopped to see my mother, again. My dad wasn't home; she was alone.
I walked in, and sat with her in the living room for a while.
She asked me, "Did you know that Uncle Charley was queer?"
"Yes," I replied. "I figured it out when I was a teenager. Did you know?"
"I just found out this morning," she said. "Dad told me."
She stood up and walked toward the stairs.
"I have to ask you something," she said.
"We can talk right here," I replied. "No one is here but us."
"NoI need the privacy of my bedroom," she stammered.
So, we went upstairs and sat on the upholstered chairs in her bedroom.
"Now," she said. "Can you tell me what they do?"
So, realizing her naivete, I phrased my answer as minimally as possible.
"Really? Really? That's what they do? Those things?" She was red-faced and flustered. "That's what my brother did with other men?"
I tried to calm her, I tried to have her see that he had a different path, a different way.
I don't know if she ever accepted it.
A few months passed and there was a reading of Uncle Charley's will. He didn't have muchbut he left me $1,500. That was a great sum in the late 1950s and allowed my husband and me to buy our first propertya co-operative apartment in West Rogers Park.
Years went by. We outgrew the apartment, bought a house. Then suddenly, the three kids were grown, working and out of the house. We sold and bought a condo apartment.
Our across-the-hall neighbors were two of the greatest guys I have ever known.
We first met while throwing out garbage. Then, again, doing laundry. Then, once again, in the elevator. This couple were funny and sharp, each with a wonderful sense of humor, each with a good heart.
They came to our place for drinks or for coffee. They had us to their place for the same. They were wonderful conversationalistswe covered every topic. We talked politics, we talked books, music and movies, we talked terrific gossip!!
We became dear friends.
And, I thought about Uncle Charley.
Thank you, Uncle Charley, for preparing me for Jeff and Danny. Thank you for letting me understand, at a very young age, that every man and every woman must be seen and realized for who they are inside their soul. For their humor or for their good sense or for, maybe, their love of music.
It was a lesson I learned as a child and it has served me my whole life.