Arthritis runs in the family. My Uncle Art had it in his back and he suffered greatly from it. The first thing you saw was his bent form, not his face or his long, elegant fingers, or the shy kindness of the forever bachelor who had no clue what uncles did, but he tried with the five year old visitor from far away Philadelphia.
My early memories were of a table groaning under the weight of pork and sauerkraut, gravy, mashed potatoes, dumplings and rolls and butter, serving dishes steaming with classic Slovak fare. Crowded together in a lock step march from the head of the table to me, sitting next to my uncle. There was enough to feed an army. Probably two.
He spooned out onto my plate small portions that somehow became a mountain of strange looking, even stranger-smelling, nose-wrinkling, throat-gagging, evil…
Crap. To this day I cannot tolerate the sight or smell of sauerkraut.
The drive had been eventful and exhausting. There was no Ohio turnpike back then so the trip from Philly to Chicago took 18 hours or so, maybe more. I was little. I had to pee in a jar because… no rest areas. Yes, the struggle was real. I was wedged in the back seat between my maternal grandparents because a trip that momentous required the entire clan participate.
And when we arrived, close to midnight, the over-burdened table was waiting for us, the food kept warm for who knew how long, and I think I threw up but I missed Uncle Art’s lap.
Despite that, I still had to taste everything, one bite’s worth, even the vile sauerkraut. I had yet to be indoctrinated into prayer but I’d bought into the guardian angel deal with a natural gift for negotiation, though at that age I had few bargaining chips and a limited imagination. I counted it a win to take a bite, one bite only.
Fortunately that changed over time, those negotiation skills, though they’re more likely split evenly between right and left shoulder nowadays.
So there I was, with the man and his bent back, a man who rarely if ever spoke, letting his sister do all the talking for him, a man I felt some kinship with, a man I saw maybe a half dozen times my entire life, but he left an impression, though I doubt today I’d be able to pick him out of the lineup of the eight Vanasek siblings in the old photos I have.
He kept company with his sister Bertha, neither ever married. Art worked. I was told he had a good job though I don’t think anyone ever said what that might be. Bertha kept the house. So few words, so much of life revealed in a couple terse sentences. Bertha cared for Art until he passed. I think she lived less than a year longer.
We were too far away to attend the funerals, though I visited their grave sites several times over the years, the entire family resting in the Bohemian National Cemetery, including my father.
I too have the arthritis that plagued Art, mostly in my right hand and lower spine. It was merely annoying and painful until I dislocated my right thumb. Putting it back locked it in place. It’s no longer functional, making writing anything damn near impossible. Or try picking up the aspirin I dropped, or a penny.
Firstborn and I always joke about how dangerous Little Miss Mayhem (Herself) would be if she had opposable thumbs. I’m missing one and suddenly I get it. I truly do, so when she stares at me fixedly when dinner time rolls around, I tend to pay attention now.
I get the can and set it down for both of us to contemplate. Her with the delicate furry nubbins, me with one less useful digit to grasp the tab pull and give it a yank to reveal the foul-smelling pate she so favors.
It smells like sauerkraut.
Two odd reasons to remember Art. Two reasons to find peace and solace in shared history, to know that I’m never truly alone. None of us are.
I’ll never regret taking just that one bite…