A bachelor uncle reaches out of the past
“What Mom? Something bad?”
“My brother Duane died.”
I could hear her breathing over the phone. Actually, you could most always hear her breathing…her COPD. But this time it was more rapid than usual. She was not very close to her brother. But still at their age, every connection counts. Come to think of it, Duane was not very close to anyone. Well, that’s not true, exactly. He was close to thousands of people over a long career as an NBC evening news producer. He would line guests up for each night’s show. Greet them. Prep them. I guess you could call that ‘getting close.’ But he never married. Hung in ‘high end’ circles: cocktail parties, lunches with pols, black tie events.
“So, Jimmy…” my mom coughed. When my Mom called me that, I knew there was a favor-ask coming. “Jimmy,” she finally wheezed, “I need your help with arrangements.”
“Ma, I hardly knew the guy. And what do I know about funerals?”
“Don’t worry about the funeral.” Long breath. “I took care of all that…memorial service. I’ll email the details.” I could hear her blowing air through her pursed lips. “He left instructions.”
“So, what do I need to do?”
“Let people know…his friends.”
“He had friends?”
“Don’t get smart. Work friends and that. His lawyer called me. Gave me the keys to his apartment. Said we should take care of his personal effects.”
“So, you want me to go to New York and clean out his place right in the middle of tax season. Clothes. Books. Furniture. What am I supposed to do, hold a garage sale on Fifth Avenue?” I thought for a moment. “And how is Judy going to get both kids to soccer and music lessons at the same time by herself? Geez, Ma!”
“We sent you to college, which by the way, Duane helped pay for, let me remind you, Mr. CPA. So, maybe you’re smart enough to figure out…” More coughing.
“Okay. Okay. Calm down. I’ll do what I can.”
I scanned his apartment. Nothing cheap for Uncle Duane. Not the kind of stuff to hand off to Goodwill. Maybe I could get the landlord to keep it and rent as furnished. That way I just need to get rid of the personal stuff, of which there was very little. One picture of mom and dad and him at their wedding. Me in studio C. I was twelve. Impressed by the cameras and lights. The control room vibrating with commands from the director:
“Ready camera one. Take One.”
“Cut to commercial.”
All that while I studied the banks of monitors and people on head-sets. Reminded me of moon launches and Star Wars movies. 5-4-3-2-1.
Duane was so cool, meeting the guests. Introducing me to one—a lady running for governor at the time. She was pretty and said something nice to me. But underneath her smile you could tell she was tough. Sweet but hard like a lemon cough drop, I remember thinking. And Uncle Duane seemed very friendly with her, helping adjust her mic, straightening the shoulder of her jacket. Saying something softly to her that got a quick nod and a sideways smile.
Traffic honking outside his apartment drew me to a kind of office nook framed by the bay windows overlooking the street. I needed his contact list of colleagues and friends but I couldn’t open his computer without a password and when I found a cell phone…same problem. Opening desk drawers, I found a scuffed phone book alphabetized down the side. Maybe that would work. But I wondered if any of the names still had hardline phones.
I sighed, sat down and using my cell punched in the first name under A—Mike Anderson.
“Number not in service.”
Same with Sean Avery. And Mary Bedford. And Chris Daniels. Finally, I connected with a Marty Finnegan.
“Hello, Mr. Finnegan. This is James Cleary calling. I’m a nephew of Duane Donohue.”
“Yeah…Duane. I heard he bought it. Sad. We were good friends growing up. Guys at Grotty’s told me about it. Pancreatic cancer. Went down hard, I heard.”
“I didn’t know a thing about it.”
“So, you gotta be what? Jimmy? His sister Clara’s boy and she didn’t tell you about his cancer?”
“My uncle and I weren’t exactly close.”
“No? Funny thing, he talked about you all the time…back aways. Playing Little League. High school track. Huh!”
“Yeah, well. Look. I need to tell folks about his memorial and all that and I’m trying to contact as many of his friends and work people as I can. Can you help me with phone numbers or email addresses…or even just names so I can Google them?”
“Google them? What’s that? Sounds dirty or something. Nah, I don’t know any of his work buddies. I can tell the guys at Grotty’s. Funeral gonna be at St. Jude’s, right? Don’t get Fr. Mahoney. He’s a twinky and all stuck on himself. Get the pastor, Fr. Damien. Got his head on right.”
“Well actually, there’s not going to be a church service. Just a memorial at the funeral home. He’s being cremated.”
“Ah. I see.”
“So, Mr. Finnegan, maybe some of the people in his phone book still use a landline.”
“A house phone…not a cell phone.”
“Ah. How would I know?”
“Well, if you don’t mind, maybe I could just read some of the names and you could tell me if I should do an internet search to find them.”
“I guess. Okay.”
I went through As and Bs before I got to Candace.
“Ah, Candy. Oh, now that was someone your uncle got into…well maybe not like that. Or maybe I should say, she got into him.”
Finally fixing on the photo of an attractive women next to the laptop, I struggled to remember how I knew her.
“Candy…Candace what anyone called her when she ran for governor a good while back. She and your uncle…well.”
She was the one in the studio that day when Uncle Duane brought me in. Even as a kid, I knew to look and see if she wore a wedding ring. “She was married, wasn’t she?” I asked Finnegan.
“Oh, yeah. And she stayed married. But Duane…huh. I never saw him act like he did around her. A confirmed bachelor knocked off his pins. They take it the hardest. But ‘nothing but good about the dead.’”
“So, what’s the story?”
“How do I know? He never came around the old neighborhood after the election. Maybe you should ask her.”
“How can I? I don’t even know her full name.”
“Cohn. Candace Cohn. Look her up, however you do it. She’s a lawyer.”
“Got it. And, before we hang up, the memorial service is next Wednesday at the Craiger Funeral parlor. Maybe you might want to say something…nice…about Duane.”
“I don’t do speeches. But I’ll tell Bobby at the pub. He tells good stories.”
I looked up Candace Cohn and got her profile. Paid a couple bucks for contact info and decided to email rather than call her.
Ms. Cohn. I’m Duane Donohue’s nephew. In case you haven’t heard, I want to let you know that he passed away yesterday and that there is going to be a memorial service for him on Wednesday, 2 PM at Kruger’s Funeral Home.
I’d like to ask you something. Would you be willing to pass this information along to anyone else you think would want to know or participate? Further, I’d really appreciate a chance to meet you. You may not remember, but I was at an interview you conducted with Evening News when I was twelve and you were running for governor. Your picture on my uncle’s desk reminded me. I feel bad that I missed so much of his life and am having trouble connecting with his friends…although it seems he didn’t actually have that many. And I get the impression that you were important and close to him. Any chance we could meet at a place of your choice? I want to make up for lost time in getting to know Duane Donohue. And, besides, you dazzled a young boy once. Be nice to see you again.
A woman in a charcoal business suit, briskly walked ahead of me and yanked open the door to Clemente’s. As I was just behind her, she automatically held it open while focused on the interior. We both paused to adjust to the darkness of the mid-afternoon, mostly empty bistro. When it became clear that only three couples were seated at tables or booths, we finally made eye contact. Handsome woman, I thought. Maybe mid-sixties or even younger. Not afraid to show her age, burnished silver hair set off the planes of her face with graceful folds that moved like drapes in a gentle breeze as she turned toward me and locked her jade eyes with mine.
“James Cleary?” she asked.
I nodded, still drinking her in. I could see how Uncle Duane could have been fascinated by this woman…what? fifteen years ago? “Thanks, for agreeing to meet with me,” I managed to say. “Booth?”
She ordered a Manhattan. I a Bud Lite. “Would you like anything to eat?” I asked.
After the slightest shake of a head, as if she couldn’t be bothered and was on her own time, not billing hours.
“So, what would you like to know, Jimmy. You don’t mind me calling you Jimmy, do you? I remember you from that day at NBC. It’s when I first really noticed your uncle. The way he was so proud of you like those coaches when they stand on the stage with a player they just drafted. He even gave you an NBC hat to wear.”
Our drinks came and I rotated my mug in the ring of condensation it left on the table, momentarily the little boy in the presence of a sophisticated woman. After a pause for a sip of her cocktail, Candace set her glass down, her hands at least, betraying her age, stared at her drink as if it were a microphone and began, “That was a tough time back then, especially for a woman, and I had a lot to learn. Duane helped me so much.”
“You were running for governor, right?’ Candace gave an almost imperceptible nod and grimace, as if I and everyone else should have known. “You didn’t lose by much, I recall.”
“We gave it a good shot. Duane was responsible for how far I came, how close I got.”
She took a longer sip of her drink, a deep breath, exhaled. “Women in politics. Like black or Hispanic politicians, we drag a lot of baggage into any race for office. You’re starting behind the starting line. You have to overcome prejudices and expectations before you can even get going. A strong woman can threaten a man’s ego. She’s supposed to be sweet and accommodating. If she acts assertive and strong minded, men feel threatened and back off. And even if they take you as equal, they get confused. They aren’t used to playing their A-game against women. It’s not fair to the weaker sex. And yet, we have to look attractive but not threatening to the wives. We have to be strong leaders but not act like we wear men’s underwear under our skirts.”
I snickered a mouthful of beer into a prolonged cough. When I was breathing easy again I asked, “So, how did Uncle Duane help with all that?”
“In many ways. Some of which he probably never even realized.”
Candace fingered the stem of her glass, looked up and out the single window beyond the bar. “He distracted me. At a time when so much shit was flying around, he would just talk to me and take long walks and discuss everything under the sun, including you and your exploits.”
“Me? Really? I was so bored and boring in junior high. “
“To yourself, maybe. He provided a hand-hold in the hot mess of a political campaign. Sometimes I would call him from some whistle-stop town and bend his ear for an hour just so I could get to sleep.”
“What about your husband?
“Him? He wasn’t political. The only office he ever ran for was president of the local Knights of Columbus. No, Richard was MIA when it came to my campaign.”
“So besides full-bore attention, what else did my uncle provide?”
“Well, he helped with strategy—which districts to pound on, which to back off from. What each part of the state needed to hear. He helped me clarify my platform, to define my policies. And with that, how to come across on the media. You know—hairstyle, make up, clothes and a sound-bite on the tip of my tongue.”
“So…like your campaign handler?”
“Sort of. But more than that.” She studied me as if gauging our age gap. “How to say it?”
Shrugging her shoulder to a deprecating grin, she added, “He kept me feminine. Kept me in touch with my softer, sweeter self in the middle of a brutal fist-fight campaign. When I felt like lambasting some reporter from some Podunk town asking the same stupid question I had answered a hundred times, I thought of Duane walking with me along a sunset beach and I offered a friendly, accommodating answer.”
I took a chance. “Talk about sunset beaches…did you ever go on sunrise walks with him?”
Candace looked at me askance, raised eyebrow and teasing smile in place. “Nil nisi bonum de mortuis.”
I knew some Latin too, so I stared back, shook my head and said, “Sounds like there could be a lot of good to be said about the two of you together.”
“Unless you were a married woman running for office.”
“Especially now.” She cut me a long assessing glance that stirred me in ways I didn’t expect from a woman my mother’s age. “I was with him till the end, Jim.” After another penetrating stare, “I won’t be attending the memorial…more harm than good for all concerned.” She reached over and gently covered my hand. “I still see that boy in you.” Then she chuckled in a rich mature voice. “And a lot of your uncle. Thanks for looking me up.”