Dear Great-Uncle Paul,
I am sorry to say that I have trouble recognizing your face. It’s neither of our faults, I was too young and you lived too far away. But, once every Saturday morning or so, I smell the scent of my father’s black coffee and immediately remember what it felt to look out the bottom window pane near the door. It all comes back in a chronological order: The squeaking of the gate’s hinges, the sudden havoc of movement through the household, and grey-furred Maggie yearning alongside me to see your long, skinny figure walking toward the glass. The door opens and I am once again swaddled with the smell of a fresh brew. I remember every touch of a soft white shirt, a furry mustache, faded jeans, bony fingers, and the smooth leather of your biker jacket. My dad laughs about it now, and I can’t help but admit that it’s true: You did often look like a porn star from the seventies. I never did pay attention to those eyes behind those broad-framed glasses.
It is with the scents of coffee and the spring air of May that I can recall memories of my birthdays. You drove hours to see endless parties of little girls doing “gymnastics” and flopping around in foam pits. I have briefs moments of you telling me at the table that you also preferred vanilla cake instead of chocolate. As you laughed as you watched the Olympian that almost was, my mother would ask how the traffic was coming from Watsonville. My father would ask if you still owned that Harley-Davidson. You would say yes and ask if there was any more refreshments.
I am glad that I never saw you through my father’s eyes. I never saw you as the man who sometimes shared a room with a fourteen-year old in a small, busy home. I never saw those stickers as nicotine patches. I never saw you as someone who was found by concerned neighbors, collapsed in the living room of your house. When my father came back from your funeral, all he could describe to me were the gruff-looking members of your motorcycle gang, and how he too had given a brief speech about his own memories of his uncle. A brief speech.
As I matured, I learned to understand certain aspects about you that a six-year old could never appreciate. What it takes to turn your past around. What it takes to be a leader and help change the lives of others. It will be a while until I know what it’s like to finally marry the love of my life, or to lose your partner to cancer, or to have a stepson who is a dentist, of all things. This dentist I have never met currently owns your Harley-Davidson, although I’m aware that you initially left it to our family in your will. I guess my childish pestering during every birthday party paid off.
Two more images come into mind when I think of you. The first is another description of my father told me from your funeral. He told me of how your motorcycle hoard rode through the windy roads of the Santa Cruz mountains, spreading your ashes into the air and throughout the forests. I went straight downstairs to my room, closed the door, sat on my bed, yet no tears welled in my eyes. I couldn’t feel upset, and I couldn’t understand why until I remembered you again. In the spare times we were together, I would poke fun at how your name, Paul Bunin, resembled that of the folk legend “Paul Bunyan.” But you are more than just a folktale to me; You are not just the story of how the rogue man from the suburbs of Queens, New York escaped to live in the wild exploits of California. Now, your ashes nourish its Redwood trees.
The second is a physical image of a day I can’t seem to entirely recollect. It was not my birthday. It was just of you and me at the San Francisco Zoo, ignoring the views of the lemurs behind us. In your white shirt, faded jeans, and leather jacket, you had crouched down to where you were below my short stature. It made that small girl with the pink floral coat and wispy hairs feel as tough as her four-year old ego. She was smiling, your unblurred face was smiling, the lemurs surely weren’t, and we embraced each other against the blow of cold fog. And she remembered how she had touched your happiness.