When I was a boy, it was my family’s New Year’s Eve tradition to gather for an oyster soup supper, followed by a rousing round of Rook, a trick-taking card game, that pitted one set of partners against another. We played a lot of Rook in those days. My father and my uncles were competitive, and the games were full of big talk and big egos. One uncle in particular absolutely hated to lose, and he could occasionally be goaded into a fit of temper.
I remember the first time it happened. His son stepped into the game mid-way through, replacing my father as my partner, and it was clear that my cousin was intent on getting my uncle’s goat. At first, it was all great fun. I paid very close attention to the cards I should play, not wanting to make a mistake, and my cousin was happy when we took in trick after trick. He kept ribbing my uncle until a breaking point came. I’ve forgotten exactly what happened, but it may have been that my uncle didn’t make his bid and went set. I just remember that during the next hand, my cousin said something my uncle didn’t like, and he threw down his cards, pushed himself away from the table, and stormed off.
You have to understand that my uncle was a good man who always treated me with kindness. He liked calling me Leander for some reason, which I didn’t understand, but I knew it was a term of endearment, and I knew it gave him pleasure to use it. I looked forward to his visits and to the times that we visited his house where I learned to pitch horseshoes, where I got to play with the family cocker spaniel, where my uncle was always in good spirits.
I don’t know what it was that caused my cousin to try to get a rise out of my uncle that night, but given my own experience with my father, I can imagine the sort of rivalry that rises up between most fathers and sons. At a certain point, you want to be your own man, and sometimes the way you do that is by making it plain that you’ve somehow moved on beyond the need of a father’s supervision and advice.
Then the time comes, as it did for me, when you’re in the last days of your life with your father, and sometimes you don’t even know it. The last time I saw my father alive it was summer, the hot days of the end of July. He came to bring potatoes from his garden. As I walked him to his car, I told him not to work too hard, which embarrassed him. I didn’t mean to, but I know now that when I said what I did, I called attention to the fact that he was sixty-nine years old—a heart attack survivor—and he was at an age when his son felt he had every right to worry about him. I remember once back in the winter, when he and I repaired a bed frame at my parents’ house. We finished the job, both of us sitting on the floor. I got to my feet, and then I reached out and took him by his arm.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
“I’m helping you up.”
“I don’t need your help.”
He was miffed that I’d offered. He could stand on his own two feet, thank you very much, but I know, now that I’m sixty, that getting up from the floor takes a bit more effort as each year goes by. Still, my father wasn’t ready to admit that he might need a bit of help from his son.
That hot July day, I said to him, “Don’t work too hard.”
I heard the embarrassment in his voice when he replied, “I won’t.”
Then he got in his car and drove away, and a few days later he was dead. His heart stopped while he was mowing his yard. And then there were funeral arrangements to be made, my mother to see to, and suddenly my life felt very different to me because for the first time ever I was without my father.
There are still times when I wish I could ask him for advice, just as there are times when I’d like to see those aunts and uncles and cousins who gathered on those New Year’s Eves. I felt safe and cared for in their company. They were the ones who knew things I didn’t. Now I’m the one who’s supposed to know things, and sometimes I’m not sure I do, but there’s no one to ask, so I go ahead and do the best I can, and what’s clear to me at this age is that it surely must have been the same for my father and my uncle and my cousin, and for all the adults around me. They were all caught in a game of Rook, having to make a bid, leading cards, hoping for the best.
The night when my uncle exploded everything went quiet. We were all little children, not knowing what to say, what to do, because my uncle, usually a genial man, had been goaded into losing his temper. I remember that slowly things came back to normal. Someone said something, and someone said something else, and maybe we had cake and ice cream and the conversation turned toward anything but what had happened, and we went on like that because that’s what you do when you’re a family.
I remember all this as my way of wishing you and yours a very happy 2016. May your bids be sure. May your cards be true. May you win your hands. But when you don’t and you let yourself be less than you should be, may there be someone there to remind you of everything you offer to all the imperfect people whom you love and who love you in return. May you have peace and joy in your hearts as we go on through the days to come.