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Uncle Gerard and an Unexpected Present
After three days of travel, sleeping in hotel rooms, eating at roadside diners and swimming in motel pools the family was eager to reach the end of the trip. Uncle Gerard’s house was located off the highway at the end of a long and winding road that started out as asphalt and ended in a wide gravel drive leading up to the two story house and surrounding lawn situated in the middle of clearing cut into the heart of the pine and elm wood that flanked both sides of the road. The house was made of brick, brown with flecks of red and gray. The large windows that dominated the front of the house looked out over the high flagstone porch into the lush green lawn. Three small windows were evenly spaced on the second floor and Grace hoped that one of those windows would be a guest room where she could sleep and look out over the woods surrounding the house after dark when the stars made everything seem magical and still.
Mr. Chuckles began to bark from his place in the back seat with the children as the front door opened and a large man in a white cotton shirt and overalls stepped out onto the flagstone porch. Ms. Shaw smiled and turned to the children in the back seat. “That’s your Uncle Gerard, be polite and don’t forget your yes sirs and no sirs. Lets show him just how wonderful and polite his favorite niece’s children are.” Grace and Jacob got out of the car slowly and Chuckles instantly bounded out of the back seat right past his master.
Uncle Gerard was a big man. In fact, Jacob had never seen a man so tall. He was at least a head taller than Jacob’s father and was twice as broad across the shoulders. His arms and chest were thick but not fat as was the case with most men his age. He was deeply tanned and there were wrinkles at the corners of his pale green eyes. His hair and beard were a coppery red with a generous amount of gray above his ears and just under his bottom lip. He didn’t carry himself like a man as old as their grandfather either. He walked quickly and easily, like a man that was accustomed to doing things with his hands and playing with children, instead of sitting them in front of a television while he read the Sunday paper.
“Come here doll, let your old uncle get a look at you, it’s been far too long.” He boomed in a deep bass voice that made Grace think of the wise old kings in the books she spent rainy and sunny afternoons reading. She wondered if King Arthur or Sir Lancelot might have had a voice like her great uncle.
At first Grace thought that Uncle Gerard was talking to her but she was quickly corrected by the sound of her mother’s laughter as she rushed into the big man’s arms. Uncle Gerard spun her in a circle like she was still a little girl and held her out at arms length her toes barely touching the well-kept grass of his front yard. His smile was wide and his green eyes sparkled as he looked at his now grown up niece.
“I always knew you would be beautiful, child, but who could have predicted that the little girl who I half expect to still wear her hair in pigtails at thirty, would grow into such a beautiful woman, with two half grown babies of her own.”
“Uncle Gerard you always knew just what to say to make a girl smile, you old fox. You remember Stuart of course and though they’ve grown quite a bit since you last saw them, these are my two babies.” She said with a smile.
Gerard dropped down to a knee a grin slowly spreading across his broad face and a twinkle in his eyes just as Jacob corrected his mother putting a fist on a bony hip as he looked up at her.
“I don’t know about Grace but I am certainly not a baby anymore. Babies can’t ride bicycles without training wheels or catch frogs with their bare hands.” he said indignantly.
Uncle Gerard let out a deep hearty laugh before the boy’s mother had a chance to remind her son to mind his manners. His belly shook as he laughed and Grace once again thought of fairy tales, this time wondering about whether Little John or Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood stories would sound more like Uncle Gerard. She was quickly beginning to like her great-uncle more and more.
“The youngster has spunk, you have to give him that Gretchen. Reminds me a little of his mom when she was small.” He said continuing to laugh just a little as he reached out a broad fingered hand to tousle Jacob’s hair. “You and I will get along just fine, I’m willing to bet on it Jake. You don’t mind if I call you Jake do you?”
Jacob paused for just a minute before considering whether or not he liked this new nickname. His parents had always called him by his full name, and so had all of his friends, but Jake it sounded, well so much more like one of the kids in the adventure movies he liked to watch on Saturday mornings, where there were monsters and aliens and all manner of weird goings on.
“No I guess I don’t.” he said with a broad grin.
Finally Gerard’s eyes seemed to focus on the boy’s older sister. He smiled warmly and said much more quietly than his normal booming bass voice. “No who do we have here? Is this the same little girl that I remember being only knee high and always wanting to walk around in my work boots? Could this pretty thing be that same child?
“I guess so” she replied quietly.
“Well look at you now, so tall and so pretty. I see you inherited your uncle’s hair.”, he said running a hand over his beard. “Gretchen you had better watch the boys around this little princess in a few years, they’ll be lined up around the block, once they realize what has been under their noses all along.”
“Listen to you, always the charmer. Don’t go putting ideas in my little one’s head. I hope that we won’t have to worry about that particular problem for a least a couple of years.” Gretchen retorted.
At that Stuart spoke up. “Dear, I think your Uncle may just be right, Grace is growing up faster than you want to admit. The days of school dances and boyfriends aren’t far away.” As he spoke he flashed his daughter a quick smile, which for some reason made Grace blush. At that moment, he was reminded how her mother looked the day they met so many years ago.
“Men, they just won’t let a mother have a few more years of denial will they.” Gretchen harrumphed tousling Grace’s copper curls as she shook her head. “Kids, grab your bags while we grown-ups have a little talk.”
Grace nodded eager to see the inside of the house headed straight to the van, but her brother had other plans in mind. “But Mom,” Jacob exclaimed as he watched Mr. Chuckles prowl around the edges of the yard investigating all the unfamiliar scents his sensitive nose detected out in the surrounding woods. “I don’t want to miss any of the good stuff!”
Just as his wife turned to remind the headstrong boy to mind his manners and do as he was told, Uncle Gerard interjected. “Young man, the good stuff as you call it has only just begun, so why not you help your sister with the luggage like a good lad, and then you two can explore the house. Jake your room is on the first floor just off the kitchen, and Grace you’ll be staying at the room at the top of the stairs right after you pass the bathroom. Now run along and let us old folks catch up.”
Jacob almost started to protest, wanting to join his pet in exploring the yard and surrounding woods but the thought of exploring the inside of the house with no grown-ups telling him not to open cabinets and doors made him reconsider. With a glance back at Mr. Chuckles he joined his sister in digging their bags out of the piles of luggage in back of the family van.
Grace shouldered her bags and helped Jacob arrange the straps of the vast collection of toy filled duffels and backpacks on his slender arms and headed up the last few yards of gravel drive leading to the expansive porch. A quick glance over her shoulder showed her parents and Uncle Gerard deep in conversation, probably about what foods Jacob is allergic to, and his habit of bringing lizards and other critters home in his pockets and the usual grown up stuff. Uncle Gerard was waving his hands animatedly and she could hear his booming laugh starting up as she reached the foot of the stairs leading onto the porch and the oak front door.
Just as she put a hand on the handle of the front door, and it was a handle not a knob as she was used to. It made of polished brass with a thumb latch and an antique looking keyhole in the plate over the latch, she heard her father call out.
“Gracie put your bags down on the porch and come back over here with us, I need to talk to you kids before we head off for the airport. Hurry because your mother and I don’t want to be late.” Hearing that Grace hurried back down the drive, where her father was squatted next to one of his bags, arm elbow deep in it’s interior. Jacob stood covered in various duffels and knapsacks watching their father anxiously, shifting his weight from foot to foot so much that Grace suppressed a giggle. It looked as if he needed to go to the bathroom.
“What is it dad? Is it a present? Aww, come on dad, tell me!” Jacob pleaded anxiously.
“Be patient, Jake. We’ll find out soon enough.” Grace said as she arrived at the scene, trying out her little brother’s new nickname and noticing that he was so wrapped up in what their father was pulling from his bag that he didn’t even notice.
Stuart pulled out two brightly wrapped boxes one long and slender and the other small and square from the bottom of the bag and held them out to the children. “Your mother and I thought we should show how much we appreciate you kids being so understanding about your mother and I taking this vacation without bringing you along, so these are for you.” He handed the longer box to Grace and pitched the smaller one underhanded to Jacob, who nearly dropped one of his bags in his surprise. “Go on, open them.”
Jacob tore into the wrapping paper with the reckless abandon only small boys can master. The small white box was quickly opened to reveal a worn pocketknife with bone inlays in the handle. The boy carefully opened first on blade and then the other, and began to test the edge with his thumb as he had often seen his father do.
“Son, that knife is sharp enough to shave with, I wouldn’t go carving on my hands like that.” His father said a hint of a smile in his voice. “I cut myself the day my father gave me that very same knife, and that’s a family tradition I don’t want to see passed down.”
“Okay dad, I’ll be careful.” Jacob said with a sheepish grin. He was sure to test it out later when there were no parents around to stop him. “This was Grandpa’s knife, right?”
“It sure was. He carried it in his pocket every day until my tenth birthday, when he gave it to me.“ his father explained. Stuart shot a quick look at his wife as he told the story, willing her to be silent and not ruin this father-son moment. The truth was they had argued about whether or not Jacob was old enough for this gift. He had argued that if the boy was old enough to be left to his own devices in the woods around her great uncles’ house, that he was old enough to have the responsibility of his own pocketknife. Gretchen had relented and here they were. Remembering his wife’s concern, he knelt down in front of his young son.
“Son, a knife is not a toy, it’s a tool. You should only open it when you have a need for it. Treat it with respect and you will be able to pass it on to your own son when the time comes. Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”
The boy nodded solemnly. “I’ll be careful with it, I promise. I won’t open it unless I need to use it.”
Satisfied with his son’s answer, Stuart turned to Grace who was watching the scene even as she unwrapped her present. “I guess this would be a machete, right?” she said with a grin.
“Not likely.” Gretchen replied with a raised eyebrow. “I won’t have both my children carrying knives in their pockets like silly old men.”
“Watch it now honey,” Stuart said laughing slightly “let Grace open her present.”
With an encouraging nod from her father, Grace opened up the narrow box after carefully removing the wrapping paper. Inside was a folded length of bright yellow cloth the width of three of her fingers that after she unfolded it was longer than she was tall. Upon seeing his daughter’s puzzled look Stuart felt the need to explain. “It’s a belt honey. I went to see Sensei Turner about signing you up for karate class, and the yellow belt is the first belt you test for. I decided that since your mother and I have no doubts that you’ll make it, we would give you the belt early as something to remind you that you can do it.”
Grace looked at the length of brightly dyed cloth in her hands, smiled and suggested something that caught her parents completely off guard.
“Why don’t you come and take karate with me Daddy? You’re going to be taking me to the class anyway. It would be fun! We could even practice at home.”
Not wanting to promise Grace anything that he couldn’t guarantee he would be able to do Stuart smiled and said, “I’m not sure yet darling , but we’ll see when your mother and I get back from vacation. Now give me and your mother a hug and a kiss so we can get to the airport.”
Smile if you're stupid,
laugh if you understand.