I feel like everybody has an eccentric Uncle Ed. Mine was much shorter than yours. His small stature earned him the nickname “Ducky” as he could be found waddling from his lifelong home on Vernon Hill in Worcester, Massachusetts to downtown Worcester every day until shortly before he died. A daily 5 mile walking regimen likely accounted for the fact that he lived to be in his late 80’s despite several bypass surgeries.
Every day Ed would walk from his three-decker to the same newsstand in Worcester and spend the morning scratching lottery tickets. Then he would have lunch at a local diner and flirt with the waitress who was fifty years his junior. After lunch Ed would walk to the mall and read the paper at CVS (which he never bought) and read a book at the book store. He read a couple a chapters, then marked the page and returned the book to the shelf so he could continue the next day. After a quick nap in one of the comfy chairs, he began the trek home. On the way home Ed would stop at the Lithuanian-American Veteran’s club (he was 100% Irish) for a whiskey and a cigar. According to barroom lore, he stood the entire time because the stools were too high for him.
As a child Ed was my favorite uncle. Most of my relatives insisted that I earn every dollar that I receive, but Ed was happy to slip me ten and sometimes twenty dollars when my folks weren’t looking. He taught me the loaded handshake, where I could receive money right in front of my mother without alerting her to my newfound fortune. This was crucial since if we were caught, the money would disappear into a mysterious savings account that I still haven’t found. I hope that one day this skill will allow me to effectively receive bribes from people.
One holiday tradition in my family is to scratch lottery tickets between the main course and dessert. This was started by Uncle Ed who always came to dinner (and anywhere else) with pockets full of scratch tickets. We all chose one ticket and scratched away. Everyone had their turn winning money from these scratch tickets. Except me. I would lose every time. My relatives doubted my ability to understand the rules of the games ad would check the tickets, but eventually came to the conclusion that I was not cut out for the Massachusetts State Lottery.
I also liked that Ed was the first relative that I was taller than. I assumed that since I was as tall as an adult, I was pretty close to being an adult myself. Ed, at five foot one, allowed me this privilege at the age of 8. This was great because I felt I’d be a much better adult that a kid anyways. He was also responsible for my unfortunate sense of humor. He always listened patiently while I spouted off puns to him for an hour at a time over the phone when I was a little kid. And he inspired me in return with Limericks (and cash) with every holiday card I received. Incidentally, I also learned sleight of hand removing the cash from these cards under the watchful eyes of my mother.
The last summer I really got to spend time with my Uncle Ed was the summer of 1996. I was home from college and decided that I would go to church with Ed on Sundays in order to spend quality time with him. During the sermons Ed would take out a pile of scratch tickets from his pocket and scratch away. If he did not win, Ed tucked the losing ticket into the hymnal. When I first saw this, I laughed and asked Ed what his was doing. “I making them into winners,” he said.
After church, we would head over to the diner for bacon and eggs. This is where Ed taught me to love black coffee. He explained that if you drank coffee black, you never had to buy milk or sugar. This was a handy tip during the lean years of my early 20’s. He also taught me to flirt with diner waitresses.
Eventually, all good things must come to an end and Ed succumbed to old age. I came home for the wake and funeral. At the wake I sat next to my Uncle Bob, a Marine in World War II and he started talking to me about Ed. I knew that Ed was in the Navy, but Bob told me that Ed joined the Navy without knowing how to swim. He was made a Submariner which worked out well since he could not swim and could fit easily into the cramped quarters aboard a submarine. Bob told me that Ed’s submarine was following a Japanese warship into Tokyo harbor accidentally and was trapped for several hours under Tokyo harbor until they could follow a ship back out.
The next day, the priest delivered a disappointing eulogy remembering Ed as a man of faith, but missing all the things that made him hilarious. After the service, I walked over to the general area where Ed sat on Sundays. I opened the hymnals and found about a dozen losing lottery tickets throughout the books. The family got together at Ed’s favorite non-diner restaurant after the funeral. On the way there, I thought it would be a nice gesture if I bought scratch tickets for the whole family in Ed’s honor. I brought the scratch tickets to dinner and passed them out after the main course, as was the tradition. Silently, everyone scratched the silver goop off of the tickets and examined the numbers beneath. One by one each member of the family put their tickets down in defeat. Except me. I won $50 with my Ed Burke Memorial Scratch Ticket. I like to think that from beyond the grave, I received one last loaded handshake from my favorite diminutive uncle.