Sunday, 3 July 2016

Every Jewish family has an Uncle Harry - even if they don't!

Sipping whiskey outside the Grim’s Dyke Hotel...

As we drove along the damp lush twilit roads from Stansted Airport to the Cock Inn in the ancient English village of Sheering, the Snapper and I anticipated our hectic mini-break of kinship and craic.

The next day we were attending her sister-in-law’s 50th birthday bash. The morning after that we’d head off to the golf club, where her father was celebrating his 80th birthday. Everything went wonderfully and with smiles firmly planted on our faces, we headed south on the third day, to visit my mother.

I’d booked us in at the Grim’s Dyke Hotel, because it’s where I married the Snapper; where my parents had their Golden Wedding party on the night of 9/11; where although something will always go inexplicably wrong, you can sit outside a beautiful historical house in gorgeous grounds.

Originally we’d invited my brother and his wife to dinner to celebrate his 60th, thus doing three major family birthdays in consecutive nights, but sadly they were in Yorkshire. My sister’s birthday was near too, but she was away on holiday.

So it looked like just the three of us, which was wonderful, because at 87 my mother is as lucid and spirited as ever.

With the Snapper grabbing a shower, I walked off to spend an hour alone, sitting at a table in the hotel gardens, drinking in whiskey and my surroundings: the old wooden beams, aged bricks and towering Victorian chimneys; the roses, the lawns, the spectacular Rhododendron.

The Summer sunshine opened a heart full of memories of my dad and our wedding here, which he missed by two weeks. 

It’s the nature of families to simultaneously shrink and grow, as organic matter. Sadly I lost an aunt and uncle in the last couple of years, but I’ve gained a new lovely nephew through my niece’s marriage.

Then I anticipated the evening to come, now evolved to include my younger niece and her husband, along with my cousin, in from America, alongside my amazing mum.

Grabbing my phone I took the opportunity to transpose my emotions, memories and excitement into notes. I am a scribbler and that is what we do.

However after a few minutes I became self-conscious, I was that guy I hate, glued to his screen whilst surrounded by natural and historical splendour.

Putting the device down on the table I stretched my arms out, drawing a long breath in to greet the here and now.

In the near distance down the gravel path an old Jewish man was lumbering along. How did I know he was Jewish? For the same reasons he knew that I was too. Inexplicably, Jewdar is incredibly reliable between Jewish people.

As soon as he saw me stretch I knew two things: that this absolute stranger was now aiming for me and that he would feel very comfortable walking up and talking to me.

I was about to have an Uncle Harry encounter. Every Jewish family has an Uncle Harry, the older man who tells the best stories, usually starting with how he gets up at 5 in the morning, walks three miles, doesn’t drink doesn’t smoke.

Denis (for later I discovered his name) walked calmly up to me, our eyes locked in an embrace of kinship and familiarity. We knew who we were and, I suspect, felt aware of how incongruous our encounter felt in context; two Jewish guys in this quintessentially English setting.

Resting his hands on the back of the chair opposite me, he began.

“You don’t want to do that.”

I replied as required. 

“The stretching? Why not?”

“There comes a time when you know you’re no longer 38. I just discovered I’m not 38 and I’m 83, so that took some doing. Woke up one morning in my bed, a single bed, and did what you just did and there, in my neck, it’s gone. I yelled and yelled until my brother came, and he had to help me up out of the bed.

“He laughed but I told him to stop. I could barely breathe with the pain. One step at a time he had to help me down the stairs as I couldn’t looked to the front, locked, my neck, sideways, and then through the living room where they’re all laughing at me because they think it’s funny that I’m in pain and can’t walk forwards.

“Like a crab he takes me, leading me waltzing to the bus stop and then at the doctors they’re both laughing at me.

“So the doctor gets me face down on the table and he tells me to take a deep breath, so I take a deep breath and then his hands are on my neck and spine and for a second the world turns yellow.

“Then he’s turning to my brother and asking ‘Is he better now?’ and I’m sitting up with rage asking ‘Why are you asking him if I’m better now?’ and then they’re both laughing, nodding their heads at me, saying ‘Yes, he’s better now!’

“So don’t go stretching like that, not if you want to walk in a straight line when you’re 83.”

Shaking his hand I thanked him for his advice and we both laughed as he walked off, leaving me with a warm glow.

All these family members coming and going, past and present, but the one I never expected to see was my Uncle Harry, because I don’t have one. Meeting him was a pure pleasure.

PS: Many thanks to the biker from Uxbridge/West London who rode up to Sheering, armed with a copy of last year’s colyoom about the Cock Inn. When I saw that piece on the wall of the pub it made me smile. Thanks!

©Charlie Adley

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