"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wild Uncle Bougie

Last week, my great-uncle Bougie died.  He is pictured here (center) participating in one of his favorite pastimes - gambling.  He was not sweet or kind or tidy or moral.  He was wild in every sense of the word.  I loved him for that.  If there is any relative with which I can credit the inheritance of my rough edges, it is him.

My earliest memories of Uncle Bougie (whose real name is Albert DeSisto) are clear in my mind.  They have a sharp, almost electric feeling to them, unlike the oceans of vague, tepid memories of childhood we carry in the back of our thinking.  They zap and zing into the forefront of my mind so vividly I can almost smell the cigarette smoke.

I remember him yelling a lot.  Yelling at the TV.  ("Goddamn president's an asshole!  What the hell is the matter with him?")  Yelling at his bookie on the phone.  ("Goddamn you, Andy!  That's it!  Don't ever talk to me again!  Shit.")  Yelling at family members. ("Why you gonna do that?  Hell, that's a stupid idea.")  Yet there was always something soft under his yelling that he could never quite hide, like the creamy insides of a cannoli squeezing out from the hard shell that can never seem to hold it.  Yelling at the TV really just meant that he cared about the state of the world and wanted for it to be better.  Yelling at Andy never lasted long; they were best friends again the next day.  And yelling at family was often followed by a deep laugh, straight from his gut and erupting onto his face with a contagious joy that kept everyone from holding a grudge.

He scared and fascinated me at the same time.  I remember playing in the fancy sitting room (which all Italian families have) while my parents would visit in the living room.  I would stare in wonder at the shelves and shelves of antique treasures he had, listening with one ear to the profanity and laughter coming from the next room.  Sometimes he would come in and try to play with me.  Even as a little girl, I sort of knew that he didn't really know how to play with kids, but I could tell that he loved me.  He smiled and slipped me $20 bills when I was only five, whispering "Don't tell your parents."

He had cut off the top half of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand in a machine accident at a lumber plant in his twenties.  He was animated when he talked, to say the least, waving his hands and arms around for emphasis.  I would stare at those stubs flying frantically around, mesmerized, following them with my eyes like a cat follows a fly.

About four years ago, he found out that he had a mass in his lungs.  He told nearly no one, and chose never to seek treatment or even to find out if it was cancerous.  About a year after that, he asked if I would write his obituary.  I didn't know about the mass then, but I could tell that he was thinking seriously about his mortality.  It took three more years for that mass to turn into full blown lung cancer and spread throughout his body.

Through the process of writing his obituary (which ended up reading more like a eulogy), I found out many more wild things about his life.  He lied about his age, forging a fake birth certificate to enter the navy at age 16.  He traveled all over the world on ships, working as a cook and a baker.  He crossed the country on Route 66 with a friend, once pissing his friend off so gravely that he kicked Bougie out on the side of the road in Oklahoma and told him to walk.

At his funeral this weekend, I actually enjoyed myself.  I usually despise formal ceremonies like weddings and funerals.  I'm not a very traditional girl.  I get antsy in church pews, and nauseous when I sense fakeness or empty ritual.  For Uncle Bougie's memorial, I didn't have to sit in a church pew at all (which he would have whole-heartedly approved of), and the simple, 15-minute graveside service was honorable and genuine - complete with a 21-gun salute and taps.

The best part, however, was the ceremony afterward at the Sons of Italy club.  There was no empty emotion.  People spilled over with story after story of Bougie's humor, steadfast friendship, and eccentricities.  I loved that this man, who was not at all the pinnacle of "rightness," was so deeply loved in life and so wildly honored at death.  It gave me hope.  It was a grateful reminder that life is indeed more than a list of your "good" and "bad" deeds.  It pays to live large.  It pays to be wild.  Thanks, Bougie.  I hope you're having a wild party and winning every bet, wherever you are.

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