Uncle Carl
This is us, Carl the younger and Carl the older, at my grandparents’ home in Burlington, Ontario.

I am eight years old and leaving my parents for the first time. Leaving the country even. My grandparents are taking me on a road trip to meet my Great Uncle Carl.

My grandfather came from Vermont. He married the daughter of a southern plantation owner. They met at university in New York.  She played the violin and had a dramatic flair, the middle of two equally entertaining sisters. He was a middle child, too. His brother Carl was the oldest in a family of all boys. As am I.

My grandfather worked for the Beechnut Cough Drop company. They sent him to Burlington to introduce Beechnut Cough Drops to Canada. Some time after he arrived the company was restructured, and my grandfather lost his job. The man who fired him, Banker Bates, also lived in Burlington, and became his best friend. I met Mr. Bates. Such amazing magic tricks.

So my grandfather, unemployed in a foreign country, with a wife and family, picked himself up and started again. In life insurance. Eventually he founded his own company. He did well. And he remained in Burlington and raised three children: two girls, and late in life, a boy.  My father. 

My father was named after his father. And he followed him into business: went to the Wharton School in Philadelphia, then returned home to work in his father’s company. For his entire adult life, except for two years when he lost his job and worked as a night security guard to feed his family, my father remained in insurance until he died. As his father had.

I was given permission to be somebody different. I wasn’t named after my grandfather. I was named after his talented, wacky, older brother.

I remember this trip still, the long drive to Vermont.  Motels and candy racks. Nanna asking me if I wanted any candy. “No thank you, Nanna, but I would like some chocolate.” Chocolate is in a class all by itself.

Aunt Eva provided an endless supply of pink lemonade. They had an outdoor shower hooked up to a garden hose. I stood under it all day.

At night, I shared a bed with my Nanna – once. She never slept with me again. Apparently I kick in my sleep (although I learned this at 8, I didn’t warn my wife before we got married. Some things you don’t tell…).

My cousin Margaret took me out to buy chocolate and dinky cars. She taught me you could be safe in a thunderstorm by sitting in a car.

The best part of the whole trip was watching my Uncle Carl play. He played the piano, the harmonica, and the bass drum – at the same time. I remember him sitting on the piano bench, hands on the keyboard, a metal frame holding the harmonica to his mouth, legs twisted sideways so that he could reach the drum pedal. 

I was told later that he was being careful not to show off in front of me. Usually, they said, he plays four instruments at the same time, and four different songs.

He also made things. For years I wore a belt that he had made, and had given me on this trip. And I have a chair that he made.

The purpose of the trip was to connect me. Later my father gave me a copy of the family tree, going back to the late 1700’s. “We belong to the MacMillan clan,” he said. “Mary Queen of Scots kicked us out of Scotland. We came to America. Your great grandfather saved the life of the president of the United States, by jumping in his carriage and stopping his horses from bolting over a cliff.”

It was a little scary, belonging to this family of talented people. What would be expected of me?

A few years after that road trip, my grandfather had a stroke. A year after that, he passed away. And then my grandmother moved to Toronto – closer to her children – and I lost that mythical connection with my ancestors that seemed to flow through Burlington.

Small wonder that I felt a strong pull to return to the area as an adult. To be different. To be my own person. And yet to be connected.

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