My Uncle Len was a loner, and he died alone.
He was a complicated and brilliant man, the oldest son of the family.
My Mom, the middle child, said she always felt like Lenny got the attention for being the smartest, and Joyce got the attention for being the cutest.
Uncle Len was tall and gangly. He wore glasses, and leather loafers without socks.
In every family photo he looks like he’s remembering a joke with a sly smirk on his face and a slight tilt to his head. He had a trailer in the woods but lived in an apartment in the city. Surrounded by “gypsies” who might steal your Thanksgiving turkey off the grill if you weren’t watchful.
My memories of Uncle Len are tied up in cigarette smoke, woolen plaids, hunting artwork of Labrador retrievers, and Steely Dan’s “Aja” album playing on the stereo above the mantle. His forever license plate “FO 84”. There he is, hanging back on the outer edges of a conversation at Christmas, sipping his beer and laughing in that whistley snicker. His deep baritone piping in to share humor, or tell long tales of the Florida Keys, the gulf coast, the “Blonde Bomber” and wild adventures he shared with his buddy, T.C. Funny stories about the babes at Old Orchard where he worked as a Pinkerton guard.
He liked to camp out, travel, escape.
My great grandma Ana Komlenich always called Lenny “Chibo”, which meant something in Serbian. We all called him Chibo.
“Helllll-LO”, he greeted us on the phone or at the door. Growing up we spent a lot of time with Uncle Len. Holidays and barbecues and random Friday night dinners.
His apartment, where he raised two kids with his ex-wife, was a famous mess.
Papers and books piled everywhere, stale cigarette smoke dusting everything.
He was like Hunter S Thompson, my Uncle Len, in style and comportment.
Cynical and poetic. His younger cousins all adored him, looking to him for amusements. My brother and I loved to banter with him at the dinner table. He made us work our brains harder, challenged us. His children, Tim and Susie, cultivated his same sense of irreverence and humor, laughing at the absurdities of life.
Chad and I moved far away West in 1995, and due to our distance I can count the times we saw Uncle Len on one hand since…. Christmas 1997. My Mom’s wedding in 2005. During a favorite special visit we saw him for a whole week in 2001, when he drove cross-country with my mother, to visit us in Arizona. My Mom cannot fly, so she cajoled Uncle Len into a road trip to the southwest, summer monsoon rains filling New Mexico with the sweet smell of wet sagebrush. When his “FO 84” license plate pulled up out front of our Clarkdale Arizona bungalow I couldn’t believe my eyes. I jumped for joy.
The two of them, brother and sister, were funny together, like an old married couple, bickering. In the sweaty Arizona sun Uncle Len smelled exactly like Grampa.
My Mom spent the trip being excited and fidgety, Uncle Len poking fun at her, and all but saying “Keep Cool” like how Grampa always said to Grandma. Uncle Len worked for the Milwaukee Road Railroad for many years. I’m not quite sure what his job was there, but I think it was in the offices, being a genius. We rode the Verde Canyon Railroad, a scenic wilderness train (where I later got a job and have now worked for since 2002). I remember Uncle Len’s broad smile on the train ride, and how it was a “highlight” for him. Bantering with the engineers afterwards as they buttoned up and tucked the train in for the night.
People say something changed in Uncle Len when his only daughter died of a rare cancer when she was a senior in high school. Something broke inside him. From that point on, a slow retreat began, until eventually nobody saw him much, not even his son or grandkids. He did his own thing. He didn’t come to Serbian Christmas and there were no more random Friday night dinners. He missed funerals and birthdays, and my brother’s wedding. He was invited and included but seldom participated, much to the chagrin of my mother. Tim’s wife, Anna said he’d never come over for a spur of the moment meatloaf, but if they ever needed help he would drop everything and come over to help. (Because he truly did love them, and he was a good man.)
Despite his lack of family participation, my Mom never gave up on Len, and tried to reach out to him. He rarely reached back. He died alone, my Uncle Len. Even though I’ve not seen him in years, and he lived nearly 2,000 miles away, the world seems different now with him gone. I wonder if my grandparents welcomed him into the pearly gates. My grandma probably wagging her finger at him about all the events he’d missed out on. I wonder if he’s there on the other side reunited with Susie again.
Being at the depot comforts me now, thinking of Uncle Len riding on that train that’s parked outside. What a kick he got out of it. He went on and on about the train ride.
I always appreciated my uncle’s great storytelling, and his "c'est la vie" attitude. I never heard him raise his voice in anger. Uncle Len had a positive influence on me growing up, without my own dad, and that will always stick with me, as will my fond memories.