By Michael Degnan
I decided to visit Uncle Jack after my mom’s funeral. I threw a few changes of clothes into my backpack, grabbed a couple of books, and went to the airport. I got a discount ticket to Rome on one of those budget airlines that is supposed to save you money but charges you for just about everything. None of that mattered. I was off to see family.
Uncle Jack loomed large in my childhood. Growing up an only child wasn’t always the easiest thing. I’d watch shows like the Brady Bunch and movies like Home Alone and wonder why my family was so small, why our holidays were so quiet and uneventful.
My father passed away when I was five, which made things worse. My mom and I would eat TV dinners and watch murder mysteries, not saying a word. After a couple of bites, I would stop eating, and my hands would stick to the plastic tray.
When I was six, I asked Santa for more family. After that, I started getting postcards from Uncle Jack. The first was from Australia, then France. Then Argentina and Costa Rica. Uncle Jack was a globetrotter, and every few months I’d get a postcard with a couple of sentences scribbled on it. My mom said that he was a character and always rolled her eyes when the postcards arrived. I kept them all. I don’t think there was anything I looked forward to more.
After the plane took off, I opened my backpack and took out the postcard from Italy. It was the last one I had gotten, just over ten years ago. I was fifteen at the time. Uncle Jack said he was going to settle down in Rome and not travel for a while. I flagged the stewardess and asked for a gin and tonic. It had to be wishful thinking that Uncle Jack would still be at the return address. I didn’t even know what he looked like. I had never actually met him. I felt a wave of foolishness as I downed the drink and closed my eyes.
Walking through the city, I was amazed by the umbrella pines that lined Rome’s streets. They were so stately and tall. They looked like giant broccoli. Of course, I thought, even the trees here look like food. In the narrow shadow of one, I found Uncle Jack’s apartment. I knocked and took a deep breath.
A man came out, wearing loose-fitting linen pants and wool slippers. He had thick black stubble and smelled like peppermint.
“Uncle Jack?” He looked confused. “Elizabeth Purdy was my mom. She just died last week. Are you her brother?”
He ran a hand through his hair and gave me a sad, strange look, but didn’t say anything.
“Did you send me these?” I pulled the stack of postcards from my bag.
He sighed. “Why don’t you come in.”
“So you’re not my uncle?”
“I knew your mother, but we’re not related.” He poured me a glass of wine and put the bottle on an old wooden table. The room was sparse and bright. “We went to college together, even dated for a while. She knew that my work took me around the world, so twenty years ago she reached out with a favor. She asked if I’d send a postcard anytime I was on the road. Every now and then she would send me an envelope with a fifty-dollar bill to make sure I’d keep doing it.”
“Did she tell you why?”
“Something about the importance of family.”
I nodded. “Turns out I don’t actually have any family left.” I stood up and headed towards the door. “Thanks for the drink. I don’t need to take any more of your time.”
Jack stayed in his chair. “For what it’s worth, you’re lucky I’m not family. I lost my job and barely leave this small apartment. You’re better off on your own.”
I turned abruptly. “Are you kidding? You were my hero growing up, my absolute hero. I kept every postcard you sent. I couldn’t understand why we never visited you. It’s all I wanted. I dreamt of traveling the world like you. I dreamt of being you.” I looked him straight in the eyes. “You were one of the best parts of my childhood.”
Jack got up but didn’t say anything. He looked at the floor. Finally, he said, “You’re welcome to stay here while you’re in town. I have an extra room. I could show you around.” He looked at me again. I saw kindness. Maybe eagerness too.
After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Thanks.”
A week later, I got back to my studio apartment, having survived another red-eye flight with seats that barely recline. There was a stack of mail waiting for me, mostly junk. I flipped through it and, in the middle, found a postcard with a row of Rome’s majestic umbrella trees. It had a global express sticker on it. A stamp showed that the shipping cost had been fifty dollars.
I turned the card over. In familiar scribbles, it read, “Thanks for making the trip. I look forward to seeing you soon. Next time I’ll come to you. Your Uncle Jack.”
I put the postcard with the others I had gotten over the years and smiled, losing myself in dreams that smelled like peppermint and wine.