Last summer, in late July, I received a phone call from my father notifying me of the death of my uncle Teddy, and asking me to come to San Francisco to help him sort through his brother’s belongings before the movers came.
My uncle had no children. He had never married, and his girlfriend of many years had gone her own way for reasons—I would later learn—related to the story that will come. He was a quiet figure, my father’s only brother, and overshadowed by my mother’s sprawling clan of six siblings. Indeed, when I first heard of Teddy’s death, I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen him. By then, our weekend family trips to San Francisco were very much a thing of the past. Even to this day, I can’t recall the surname of that girlfriend, an apricot-hued woman who chain-smoked his Camels and who, in contrast to my Aunt Deborah, my Aunt Judith, my Uncle Michael, etc., we all knew just as Donna. Nor did I remember any discussion of why they hadn’t married, or why they had no kids. For me, it was just one of Teddy’s particularities, like the Technicolor fuchsia of the borscht he drank each morning, or the elastic suspenders he wore over his off-white dress shirts, or the background drone of professional wrestling on his bedroom television, which seemed to cycle on some eternal loop.
In the beginning, it was the television that helped break down my resistance to those long visits. At home, my mother had banished ours to the bedroom closet, but at some point, in one of the backroom negotiations I now know make up much of parenthood, my parents must have decided that TV at Teddy’s was permitted. So for a time, on a weekly basis, my sister and I would squeeze into the sofa chair of worn yellow corduroy that sat just inches from the screen. This was during the reign of Hulk Hogan, and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and my uncle’s favorite, Andre the Giant, who, he reminded me on several occasions, though French by birth, was Polish by extraction, and who I thought—for quite some time, and not without some degree of perplexity—was the same Andre as the one in Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, a film I often heard discussed among my parents’ friends. The television, a Sony Trinitron—part screen, part speaker—had 12 channels, accessed by a row of plastic buttons that gave off a satisfying ping when pressed. My father had given Teddy a VCR, yet I don’t remember him watching anything but wrestling. Why this was, I never stopped to wonder. Only later would I consider that something about the cartoon violence functioned as a parody of all violence, and, perhaps, as a catharsis for the real kind that he’d been through.