My Uncle Michael was a true vulgarian, as John Cleese might say. In fact, you could say it was he who put me on the road to having my own foul mouth. But, when I first witnessed his temper combined with his expert swearing, it was kind of terrifying.
It happened about a month after Granny, Aunt Tudi, and I moved down to Duncan from Asheville in June of 1981. We moved into the small house behind Uncle Michael’s and Janice’s house. It would end up being the house I would live in until 2013. Needless to say, I was already out of sorts, having been hijacked to this hot, flat, hellhole from my beloved Smoky Mountains, but I tried to keep it to myself. But the day in question made me pull Aunt Tudi aside and ask her if there was no way we could just move back home, because I was fairly alarmed at Uncle Michael’s behaviour!
Uncle Michael had built a small workshop where he’d do his wood-working and other crafty projects. He was a master construction worker, just a hairbreadth’s away from being an architect. Had he been afforded the opportunity, he probably would have been famous for his designs. So, anyway, he had a big project he was eager to finish and pushed himself to stay in the unconditioned, ill-ventilated building, running hot machinery and exerting himself in his work…in the Summer…in South Carolina. The temperature that day had reached the mid-90s, with high humidity. The air was thick, and your sweat just stuck to you like hot honey. Not a good combination for the work he was doing.
We were all outside working in the garden when we heard the skill saw suddenly stop and the door to the shop burst open. There stood a shirtless Uncle Michael, covered in sweat, his skin a rosy red, the hair on his head standing on end from his pulling it up. His eyes looked like they were glowing, I kid you not. He screamed at the top of his lungs, “MY GODDAMNED BRAINS ARE BAKIN’!” and he stomped off into the house pretty much speaking in tongues from the level of expletives shooting out of his face.
Janice and the kids seemed not to really be bothered. Janice rolled her eyes and said something about getting him some tea, and followed him into the house. I just stood there looking after them with my mouth agape. What had just happened?
After spending the first few Summers in SC without any air-conditioning, I came to understand exactly what had happened, because it started happening to me. The heat and humidity can drive you plum crazy. It feels exactly like your goddamned brains are baking, and the only way you can express your misery is to pretty much do what Uncle Michael did that day.
After a while, I got used to Uncle Michael and came to admire the hell out of him, even his potty mouth, which I eagerly adopted when nobody could no longer tell me I couldn’t. We bonded over such language, over music like ELO, and our mutual love for harming ourselves with hot peppers every Sunday on our way to the flea market, to see which one could hold out the longest from the pain.
My mind has been fraught with so many memories of him over the past couple of days. I still can’t believe he’s gone, but I am so deeply grateful that I got to see him and tell him how much I love him on Tuesday. Honestly, I believed I would never see him, Janice, or any of my family ever again. Even in the midst of grief and uncertainty, I’m focusing on the things for which I can be grateful, and carrying on from there, step by step. It’s all any of us can do.
...that, and try to prevent our goddamned brains from bakin’.