The end of September in 2004 was the last time I saw my uncle Mark. He and my parents had driven up to Baltimore to help move me out of the condo I was living, since I was moving back to Wilmington, NC. He was so strong, lugging my dressers and couch from up and down the stairs. There was no indication to any of us he’d have a heart attack on a crisp cool October morning while hunting, just a few weeks later.
In the line of my mom’s biological siblings, he came third, and my mom was fourth. My mom and Mark always were together. When my mom first moved out of her parents house, they were roommates, and he still lived with us until I was in High School. My brother was probably in first or second grade, and my sister was in third or fourth, but I know he was a huge part of their formative years. In my childhood memory of my Gramma and Poppy’s house, there was a Norman Rockwell painting of a boy and girl sitting on a bench with a knapsack on the ground behind them with the sun in front of them. It always reminded Gramma of the two of them, so now it does the same for me, too.
Mark was probably the easiest person to like that I’ve ever met. He always wore a smile, except when the camera was pointed in his direction. He would either just stare unsmiling at the lens, or put his hand up in front of his face. Out of all the pictures ever taken of him, that’s what you saw. UNLESS he had a fish in his hands that he’d just pulled out of the water. Then that smile would be as big as the fish tales he would tell. He was always agreeable, yet annoying in a big-brother kind of way. At mealtimes, he insisted on sitting to my left, so we constantly bumped elbows. I’m a lefty, and he was a born righty, having to switch to being left-handed after royally messing up his right thumb so it couldn’t bend. He’d also know just when to swipe my hand out from under my head when we were watching tv. I’d be laying on the ground with my head propped up by my hand, and when I was most absorbed or oblivious, he’d whack my arm back and chuckle as my head nearly hit the floor. He always let me punch him for it afterwards, which was satisfying.
We were never without milk or bread in the house because nearly every night before he came home from work, he’d stop and grab one or the other, or both. The only time he took days off from work was for for the opening day of duck, buck, turkey, or bow season. He worked for Transmission Incorporated, and I still can remember his work phone number. His fingernails were always rough from working and black with car grease. He always wore a ball cap. It was strange to see his head, he wore a hat so much. In the summer, he’d let us all pile in the pack of his gray Toyota truck for a 7-11 Slurpee run. When we got home, we’d jump in our backyard pool. We would all have our swimming suits on, except him. He always wore his navy blue Dickies in the pool. I never saw his legs above those pink ankles, and I don’t think he ever wore shorts beyond his teen years. I remember his bedroom was just off our family room above the basement. It always smelled like stale smoke, even after he quit smoking. He had a waterbed, and we all thought that was the most amazing bed to lay on. He also had a tiny 5×5″ square black and white television on his nightstand with knobs to change the channel and volume.
I remember one night, probably after watching MacGuyver or Tour of Duty, he told me about seeing bullfrogs as big as his forearm. I wanted so badly to see one, so he offered to take me, on the condition we had to wake up before the sun the next morning since I had school and he had work. I woke up the next morning, after the sun, and went down to his room. A man’s sized shoebox was on the floor wrapped in a rubber band, and a note scribbled from Mark that here was my bullfrog. I opened the lid, and sure enough, the biggest frog I’ve ever seen in my life was sitting inside. Wonder, awe, and guilt rushed through me. I didn’t want to leave the poor frog inside the shoe box all day- I am a child of the 80’s and saw E.T. dozens of times. So, I took him out to the backyard and released him near our creek, praying he’d make it back home unscathed. I loved Mark for going and bringing me back this magnificent creature. To this day, I still kick myself for not waking up early to go with him. It would have given me just a few more hours of memories.