Throwing Away My Uncle’s Life…

To be honest I really wasn’t surprised by what I found when I entered my uncle’s house that first day.

It had not been renovated and as I’ve said before, I suspect the wallpaper was original since it was peeling in the corners.  I could be wrong, fifty-six years is a long time, he may have had the parquet floor laid;

the carpet up the stairs certainly looked new along with the bespoke stair lift that had been put in while he was in hospital,

and it looked as though he was preparing to decorate his bedroom as all the curtains were down and the walls were stripped.

The conservatory may have been an add-on.

The bathroom had never been updated.

All in all the house looked pretty original!

There were no homey touches just piles of books on chairs and tables, similar to a university professor’s study.

Magazines and periodicals on every surface.

A small bookcase by the front door was loaded with road maps, unwrapped gifts from Christmas, bundled post on the windowsill and the bottom stair.

Music books in the living room perched on a piano bench in front of a baby grand, which, by the way, was the most beautiful piece of furniture in the house.  I persuaded my brother to claim it!

“Why don’t you take it?” he asked completely forgetting for a moment that I lived in America!

I saw the evidence of where he’d fallen a couple of times.  Once into the front door’s glass panelling, after apparently losing his balance on the last few stairs.  He’d hit it with a terrific force and smashed it completely, there’s no knowing what the blow had done to his head but there was a piece of cardboard covering up the broken pane to keep the winter weather in the porch and out of the hallway.

Shards of glass in a curio cabinet in the lounge bore witness to another fall; Tony told my brother that he’d tripped over the large oriental rug and stumbled into it causing more cuts and bruises. Broken glass was everywhere, in the carpet, tucked between books, and lodged in chair cushions.

When I finally found the conservatory key I went in and was met with a rather pleasant smell of fresh soil.  I discovered small trees that had tendril-led their way inside and were happily growing in the corners of the picture windows along with miniature gardens of moss.

Thankfully there was no evidence of roof leaks or rising damp – a common condition in the UK – just blocked gutters where leaves had fallen during the year, easily sorted by our brilliant handyman.

Upstairs I found an upright piano in one of the bedrooms which turned out to be rather a good keyboard with more music books and a statuette of a deer and her fawn which may have been my grandmother’s.

Hubs found a radio controlled light aircraft in the garden shed that was a remnant of my uncle’s lifetime passion for flying.

Looking through the kitchen I found evidence of a solitary life, just a few plates and cups, cheap cutlery for four, no pots and pans, a couple of small casserole dishes, and a diminutive oven/dishwasher combo…quite a novelty for me!

The freezer was full of ready cooked meals, courtesy of meals-on-wheels, stashed and forgotten.

There was an electric kettle,

a washer/dryer combo that was so small it could hardly have held a few smalls let alone a towel or set of sheets, perhaps he sent the whites out to a laundry.

He was a collector, model aeroplanes, vintage cars,

special edition stamps, coins and snuff boxes.

He owned five vacuum cleaners!

After a thorough look and a cup of tea the only thing I could bring myself to do was to go through a tallboy next to the baby grand where I found every Christmas card and letter I’d ever sent him over the years.

I packed up the mountain of personal papers neatly sorted into folders that lined the walls in the lounge, added the Christmas cards and letters from me and offered a small prayer of thanks we’d decided not to stay.

The light was fading, I was tired, it was time to go home.

Another evening we sat at his coffee table enjoying fish and chips with my brother,

in memory of what had become a habit during Vincent’s Friday evening visits.

Over the next few weeks Hubs and I continued unravelling the life he had left behind.

I discovered he’d made quite an impact away from what he may have considered the awkwardness of his family home.

Sometimes it’s easier to be yourself among strangers.

Creative Instrumentation, the company he’d founded in the 70’s with one of his inventions, went on to manufacture an integral component used in the aerospace industry.  No surprises there! With its success came the added bonus of friendships with his business partners and their families.  From the notes and cards I found he’d become involved in their lives; he’d drawn close to their children, taken them up in his plane, thrown cocktail parties,  and grieved when someone in his close circle died, as evidenced in some  responses to letters of condolence he’d sent.

“Wouldn’t our children have loved to have been part of Tony’s life?” I observed to Hubs one day as I went through his correspondence.

“Flying with him?  Hmmm.  Probably safer than driving with him!” Hubs remarked!

Discarding these personal papers that told of a life with friends and colleagues whose identities were unknown to me, the very act of carefully destroying this part of who he’d become, was heart wrenching.

Through it all I wanted clues; without a shared history how was I to know what was precious to him and what wasn’t?

A few things jogged a memory for me, his sketch book, his camera, his car with its leather interior, his model aeroplanes.

Some pieces of china that I may have remembered from my grandmother’s sideboard…had he kept them to remind himself of her or were they merely gifts from people I didn’t know?

And those faux cats?  There were three of them…

…where had they come from?

I decided, with no other way of knowing, I would make up my own mind and take what was memorable for me; keepsakes that would start their own conversations; a way of finally having my uncle in America at Footlights.

Bearing in mind I was flying home I had to be selective.

I found watercolours with his initials, AJB, in the corners…who knew he painted?  Although I shouldn’t have been surprised for as a child he had charmed me with his sketches.

I found some handwritten notes with insights, musings, and a few pages I’d not seen, of his early story sent to me years ago.

I found his college diplomas and pulled out some engineering drawings that showed his meticulous nature.

I found leather flying caps, silk ties and dry fountain pens.

I found a whisky glass in a cabinet and the remains of a bottle which we enjoyed as the evenings got colder,

I found a couple of scarves hanging with the anorak he always wore and his gloves in the pockets.

I packed up the set of barometer, clock, and tide-o-meter hanging by his front door – my father had had a similar set which my brother must have nabbed years ago –

These things for sure were connected to the Tony I knew a long, long time ago.

I don’t know whether Vincent had removed bibles or prayer books prior to my arrival but there was no material evidence that he’d kept his faith.

Instead there were texts about angels, buddha, spiritual meditations, astronomy; it appeared he’d been searching for answers about the afterlife.    I was saddened he may have been afraid of death.  Vincent assured me he was at peace in the end.

I went through hundreds of books and found a few that were also on my bookshelves.  One in particular, a pilot’s memoir called, Fate is the Hunter by Ernest K. Gann.  When I’d first read it I knew he’d love it and here it was on his shelf.  I gave the copy to my brother.

“Read it,” I said, “there’s a lot of Tony in it!”

And finally I took a copy of a DVD of him flying a Spitfire maybe five years ago.  Every pilot’s dream is to fly this iconic plane that had won Britain the war.

The footage shows Tony in his element and I see his smile and hear his voice and his face says it all,

after his parents, his brother, me and Vincent,

flying was the most important thing to him…

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air ….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
(High Flight by John Gillespie McGee jr.)

And every time I hear a light aircraft go over our property I think of him.

Be at rest Anthony Joseph Baggarley, Tone, Uncle Tony.

Thank you for loving so well.

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