I grew up with a collection of aunts and uncles that weren’t blood: friends of my mom’s, distant relatives, siblings of grandparents, etc. There’s a handful of aunties—Lisa, Tina, Donna—who were my mom’s best friends from college, and there’s Uncle Bud, my father’s uncle who was more of a dad to my dad than his ever could be, and Aunt Edna, a very dear neighbor who was close to my grandma when she was growing up in Everett. There’s a lot about my family that’s messy, painful to explain or difficult to understand, but on both sides, Duffy or Hughes, I’m lucky in that I grew up with plenty of people in my life who were family members my parents or grandparents chose for themselves, people who they loved dearly without obligation and friends who were present at more birthday parties than closer relations every passing year.
I can’t remember how exactly my mom met Uncle Armand, but I know that she met him while my parents were still married and that she had met him through her in-laws. My earliest memories of Uncle Armand involve a green Ford pick-up truck, Dusty, his tiny dog, and an enormous glass mug he’d drink his coffee out of that better fit on the counter of a Gloucester bar than a construction site. Uncle Armand and Mom worked on houses together: she designed and decorated them, overseeing renovations, and Armand was one of the guys who worked with her, a carpenter who listened to classic rock and smoked Marlboro reds (but never on a client’s property).
There’s a photo of the two of them in our driveway on Cambridge Street, both sweaty and covered in sawdust with pencils behind their ears, standing hip to hip and reaching their arms out towards the camera. They were such good friends when Jimmy and I were kids, and they haven’t been that way for well over a decade—as friends do, a falling out led to a few years of being out of touch which led to an insurmountable canyon of silence that neither one of them could traverse. Jimmy and I grew up and graduated from high school and ultimately college. When my stepbrother died, Uncle Armand didn’t know. Finally, my mom, who had long since lost his number, tracked him down by visiting the stores he used to work at in the town he used to live in, and she eventually found him, and she showed up unannounced one day, just because it was time and because she wanted to make sure he was still alive, for one thing. Since then, they’ve spoken a few times, but the disconnect remains.
When Grampa died Friday morning, my mom made a list of people to call—the Aunties, a few friends of hers—that she couldn’t handle telling at the time, and she gave it to my stepdad. Armand wasn’t called, but he was on the list, one of the many names that came up in conversations over the endless stretch these past couple of days have been. While we were in the kitchen earlier making some toast and downing some leftovers before the wake this afternoon, I saw “CALL ARMAND” on the notepad my mom keeps on the fridge for grocery lists, grabbed her phone and called him after checking with her first. He answered on the fourth ring and clearly was in the middle of something, and was startled when he heard my voice instead of my mom’s: he hasn’t seen me for 10 years at least, and I’m sure I sound different, or that he’d forgotten about me as anything but the 4-year-old who’d chase Dusty around our driveway. He asked if everything was alright, I said kind of but no and I hurried through the details for the wake and the funeral tomorrow morning before he mentioned something about trying to make it and we hung up.
Thankfully, he showed, and he looked the same, though 20 years older, which makes sense: instead of paint-splattered jeans with a hammer hooked through a belt loop, Uncle Armand wore a tweed blazer and corduroys an he combed his hair to come tell my mom how sorry he was about her dad. Gary and Dad both hugged him as if they saw him last Thanskgiving. We talked about Brooklyn and Italy (his parents are from Venice; he didn’t know that Jim and I went to Rome last year), and Jim says he thinks he made his day when he mentioned that he still has a toy plane he gave him years ago.
He drove to Winchester past our house on Cambridge Street and practically made it all the way into Arlington before he stopped for directions to Lane’s. Of all the people who came through the funeral home for the wake tonight, thinking about Uncle Armand makes my heart swell, just because he’s heart-beating proof that people give a shit despite everything.