Meeting Uncle Charlie

       My uncle Charlie drove up in his red sedan, the car in good shape but an older model, and parked to the left of our driveway. I stood behind my father. I knew several of my uncles well— all of them liked to tease and tickle me while I pretended to be annoyed. This new uncle was an enigma. Not a stranger, not really; I’d heard my dad mention his brother once or twice. But he wasn’t familiar either.

       I don’t remember exactly when this visit happened. Long enough ago that the boundaries of the memory are hazy like yellowed newspaper curling at the edges, or a sepia-tone photograph with indistinct faces. But I must have been at least five or six to remember it as well as I do.

My family waited on the sloping driveway to greet him. Katie, my sister, leaned against my mom. Charlie was a helicopter crew chief with the Marines and handsome like my dad—blond and blue-eyed with a dimpled smile.

       Dad embraced him, and Mom shook his hand; she hadn’t seen him many times since she and Dad got married over a decade ago. Katie and I came forward to be introduced.

       “Hey, there,” Uncle Charlie said to us. Anyone could see he was a little uncomfortable with kids—we weren’t his first nieces, but we were the youngest—and he tugged at his ball cap a little, reminding me of my papaw.

       Mom and Dad stood outside with Charlie by his red car. They talked and caught up, glad that Charlie stopped by while he was off-duty. Like most siblings, Dad and Charlie enjoyed trying to embarrass and one-up each other. Usually, their stories cut off with Mom hissing “Ed!” at my dad, because Katie and I were young and impressionable.

      I don’t remember the ending to this memory. Maybe the five of us went to dinner, or Charlie came inside to watch a Marshall football game with Dad. Maybe we drove to St. Albans to visit Mamaw and Papaw, and Mamaw entertained Katie and me by playing “Red Light, Green Light” and “Mother May I” on the cracked sidewalk. She’d stand on the porch and smoke a cigarette and watch us hop closer and closer at her instruction.

       What I do remember: Charlie’s brown leather jacket was soft as he hugged me goodbye and ruffled my short hair.

       That leather under my cheek still feels as real to me as my hands on this keyboard. But there’s a problem: my uncle Charlie died in 1977. Fourteen years before I was born, and several years before my parents even met.