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Uncle Charley


I was 17 when I finally figured out that my Uncle Charley was queer. We didn't have the word "gay" in the 1950s - it just was not in our vocabulary. So, we said "queer" or "fairy" or sometimes the Yiddish word, "faygele" which meant "little bird".

Uncle Charley moved in with us after my grandma died in 1942. Charley and my mother were two years apart; the youngest two children of a family of ten. They were always close and so after grandma passed away and Uncle Charley was on his own, my mother invited him to live with us. We had a very large, four-bedroom house in East Rogers Park.

By the time I was ten or eleven, Uncle Charley decided I was old enough to enjoy opera. So he took me with him, not only to opera and operetta but to concerts as well. On Saturday nights, when my parents went out and my older brother started to date, Uncle Charley and I listened to opera on The Chicago Theater of the Air on WGN radio. Neither of us liked when Col. McCormick made his remarks during the intermission and dragged on for what seemed to be hours - but we stayed awake to hear the second half of the opera.

Once in a while, on a Saturday night when everyone was out except Uncle Charley and me, he would go to his room and bring down records. They were of famous cantors singing both Hebrew and Yiddish music. I remember hearing Yossele Roseblatt on very old and scratchy records - but also Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker. Their recordings were more up-to-date and I learned about their powerful voices. Sometimes Uncle Charley would tell me a story he knew about the cantors. I recall learning that Yossele Rosenblatt was eight years old when he started to sing in an Eastern European synagogue. Truly, Uncle Charley introduced me to Jewish music.

Uncle Charley loved our garden. He planted the prettiest flowers and spent hours clipping and shaping our hedges. Because of him, we had the nicest yard on the block - and neighbors would comment on his hard work.

He had one friend whom I remember. His name was Alderigo and he would come by and visit.

I also remember quite well that Uncle Charley would sometimes go out late at night - and sometimes come home beaten up. When I grew older and understood him and his lifestyle, I would wonder where he would go and what he would do, what provoked other men to pummel him. Would he go to bars? Coffee shops? Movie houses? Would he be suggestive to other men? Would still others drag him out and beat him up? The bruises on his face or arms would be highly discernable - my parents would tell me he had tripped outside.

But, when I grew older and figured things out, I realized what I believed to be the truth. He was anathema to other men - or perhaps he was frightening to them. Perhaps they saw in him what they could be if they let go.

Uncle Charley died a year after I was married - the result of another beating, harder and more destructive than others. The day after the funeral, I stopped to see my mother again. She was sitting shiva. My dad wasn't home; she was alone. I walked in, sat with her in the living room for a while.

She asked me a question. "Did you know that Uncle Charley was queer?"

"Yes," I replied. "I figured it out when I was a teenager. Did you know?"

"I just found out this morning," she said. "Dad told me. Can you tell me what they do? What the queers do?"

So, realizing her naivete, I phrased my answer as minimally as possible. "Really? Really? That's what they do? Those things?" She was red-faced and flustered. "That's what my brother did with other men?" I tried to calm her, I tried to have her see that he had a different path, a different way, a different style.

I don't know if she ever accepted it.

A few months passed and there was a reading of Uncle Charley's will. He didn't have much - but he left me $1500. That was a great sum in the late 1950s and allowed my husband and I to buy our first property - a co-operative apartment in West Rogers Park.

Years went by. We outgrew the apartment, bought a house. Then suddenly, more than forty years had passed, the three kids were grown, working and out of the house. We sold the house and bought a condo apartment.

Our neighbors across the hall were two of the greatest guys I have ever known, Jeff and Danny. We first met while throwing out garbage. Then, again, doing laundry. Then, once again, in the elevator. They were funny, sharp, with-it, each with a wonderful sense of humor, each with a good heart.

They came to our place for drinks or for coffee. They had us to their place for the same. They were wonderful conversationalists - we covered every topic. We talked politics, we talked books, music and movies, we talked terrific gossip!

We became dear friends.

And, I thought about Uncle Charley.

Thank you, Uncle Charley, for preparing me for Jeff and Danny. Thank you for letting me understand, at a very young age, that every man and every woman must be seen and realized for who they are inside their soul. For their humor or for their good sense or for, maybe, their love of music.

It was a lesson I learned as a child and it has served me my whole life. 

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Thursday, 29 February 2024

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