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Uncle Harvey

By Penelope Needham


Uncle Harvey turned 88 on Wednesday. He is still over 6 feet tall as I judge from 5 foot 3, but his hearing is poor and his memory is failing. He is not able to negotiate a daily schedule without help and has lost interest in most

things. The books sit unopened, the computer is untouched. He no longer talks of college administration, teaching, business, flying airplanes, or public speaking. He sleeps a lot, but politely and generously rallies when there is a visitor and still retains his sense of humor.

Conversations are better in the morning. I know that my afternoon visit may not be well timed, but it is the time available on this trip to Montana.


Harvey's wife sits in one of the twin blue recliners in their apartment, her walker nearby. Arthritis has weakened her balance but her hearing is good and her mind is sharp. Harvey picked his wife/sweetheart/homecoming queen/valedictorian from the neighboring high school. He fell in love with her beautiful blue eyes, he told me once or twice. She was attracted to his brown eyes, she tells, smiling sweetly as if 65 years were yesterday.


"He had a very good conversation with his brother this morning," she says. "It was the best conversation they've had in a long time. They laughed and joked. I hope this good day continues. I'll go wake him up, " she says.

"Penny's here."
Louder, "Penny is here!"
Sounds of Harvey rising.
His wife exits the bedroom and sits down in her comfortable chair.


Harvey emerges from the bedroom. He smiles at me. I ask, "How are you?" He only smiles. I notice he is not wearing his hearing aids. I point to his ears. He says, "I guess I need my ears. Where did I put them?" His wife says, "In the bedroom." "Where?" "In the bedroom." She rolls her eyes with the strain of having to speak louder than comfortable. I volunteer to search and return with his "ears" and his glasses.


"You are good at finding things," he says as he puts them on, the squealing batteries signaling readiness. "We could use you around here more often."

I pull a chair around to face him so he can better see and hear me.
"Are you still working?" he continues.
"I work one day a week."
"That's about right, " he laughs.

"Do you live around here?"
"No, I live in Minnesota."
"What do you do?"
"I'm a teacher."
"What do you teach?"
"I facilitate support groups for adopted kids and teach music."

"Why did we go so many years without knowing you? And you're the prettiest one."
I just smile, flattered, and a little embarrassed for my four younger sisters not present.

"Do you live around here?" not realizing his repetition.
"I live in Minnesota. What do you remember about growing up in Minnesota or growing up on the farm?"
"I left the farm pretty early and went into the Marine Air Corps."

"Did you enjoy flying? " I ask, hoping to jog his memory for a story.
"Oh, it was pretty exciting."
"Where did you fly?"
He looks blank.


His wife gets up to get a piece of paper. "This is a list of all the major trips we took and places we've lived." Guam, Hawaii, Germany, Spain. The list spans nearly 50 years, but Harvey doesn't seem to remember any of them or want to talk about them.

"Why did we go so many years without knowing you?" Harvey asks again.
"And you're the prettiest one. It must have been my mother's fault.
"I don't think your mother knew about me. You were the only one your brother told. And you kept his secret."
"Even from me, " said his wife.
"Why did you have to be a secret for so long," asked Harvey.
"I guess they thought that was best at the time, " I answered.

"Are you still working?"
"I work one day a week."
"That's about right."

"Do you live around here?"
"I live in Minnesota. Do you remember Minnesota?"
"I have degrees from the University of Minnesota." The heavy gold class ring on his right hand still remains. It swivels easily now on his long finger with his declining body weight. No more information comes with the prompt.

"I don't know why you were kept a secret all those years. It must have been my mother's fault. His wife shakes here head and says, "No. She was a warm and wonderful person."
I gently say, "She didn't know about me. You were loyal to your brother's confidence and did not tell anyone. It was a long time ago. My mother was very young – only 17 when I came along and she was not ready for marriage or parenting or farm life. She wanted to go to college. The timing was not right for her. But I was OK. I had a good life."

In an aside, Harvey's wife says, "You had a better life than you would have had growing up there. There were no advantages."

"Do you live around here?"
"I live in Minnesota."
"We should have been able to keep you in the family. You're the prettiest one. We lost all those years of enjoying you. Darn Secrets. It must have been Mother. "
"It wasn't your mother," She shakes her head again.

"Do you live in these parts?" he asks again.
"I live in Minnesota."
"Do you work?"
"I teach one day a week."
"That's about right." Laughter. The cycle is becoming its own amusement.
"Why did we go so many years without you? And you are the prettiest one."
"My birth mother wanted to go to college." I add, "After a year of college she returned to marry your brother. I already had a new family."

Harvey's wife says to me, "The first years of marriage were very difficult for her.
She wanted to be a teacher and pursue music."
"When I was born, she stipulated that I be placed with a couple who would nurture music if I showed any interest or talent. She was not allowed to see me or hold me after I was born. She wanted to give me her high school class ring, the only thing of value she had, but the nuns would not allow that either. She gave it to me the first summer after we met. "

"Why did it take so long to get to meet you?" Harvey asks stopping our side conversation.
"The timing wasn't right."
"It must have been Mother's fault."
"No, it wasn't," she says again.
"Your Mother didn't know about me. You were the only one who knew. Your brother trusted you to keep the secret, and you did. "
"Why did we go so many years without you? It must have been my mother."
Again his wife shakes her head.

"The timing wasn't right, but it worked out OK and we are here together now. That's all that matters."
"Do you live around here?"
"I live in Minnesota."
"Why did we go so many years without you? You are the prettiest one."

I take his hands in mine to stop the circle of questions and say, " We have each other now, and I know I was "uncle-ed" in your heart all those missing years. "

"I love you," he says.
"I love you, too."
"Do you live around here?"
"I live in Minnesota, but I come to Montana often."
"Come and see us often."
"I will."
Hugs. Goodbyes.


I cry when I get into the outside air. I feel "uncle-ed", loved, and pretty.

 Penelope Needham 2011

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