Ryan Morris English 015 – Section 004 Narrative Final Draft
My grandparents had a large family; seven kids, four boys, and three girls, including my mother, who all grew up in a small house near Pittsburgh. By now, they and their families have migrated across the country, from Philadelphia to Florida, West Virginia to California. Despite the distance, we’ve always managed to visit each other once in a while. I’ve spent a good amount of time with my relatives and I feel like I know them all pretty well. All except for my Uncle Paul. Up until recently he lived with his wife, Theresa, in New Jersey, wrote music, taught voice lessons, and suffered from severe chronic headaches. That’s about all I knew about him up until he died.
The day before the funeral, my family and I drove out to his house where most of the relatives had gathered. It was a small house, though it must have been more comfortable with just Paul and his wife, rather than all their siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews. Along with the people, there was also a fair bit of clutter competing for the limited space. Most of it was related to Paul’s music: microphones, speakers, guitars, recording equipment, and a thick coating of sheet music on every unused surface. Despite all this, the house didn’t feel cramped––just full. It struck me as odd that in the eighteen years of my life, I’d never once seen it before.
There was more stuff in his house than just music. Hanging in the living room were several unusual and intriguing paintings. I learned from my Aunt Theresa that Paul had painted all of them, using his own unique style. The paintings were abstract, in every sense of the word, but were much more than just paint splattered on canvas. They had intricate detail and depth not
usually seen in contemporary art. I found myself studying them for a long time. The patterns,
while not depicting anything specific, were reminiscent of things like waves, or flames, or even little organisms. Paul had also dabbled in collages, though not of the typical fashion. Most collages are literal; to make a tree, one cuts out a tree. Paul was more creative than that. A starry sky would become a shirt, waves of grain a face. The overall effect of color and texture was magnificent. Clearly, my uncle’s artistic talent stretched far into many fields.
The funeral itself was held in Theresa’s yoga studio, which was a much more open space than her house. It seemed to me plenty big enough to hold all of Paul’s relatives and friends, but even the first wave of visitors took up more space than I’d expected. And the people just kept on coming. Dozens of his former and current students, fellow musicians, and old college classmates, not to mention us relatives and Theresa’s friends, crowded into the quickly shrinking room. Even with every chair in the building crammed into the studio, there were still people standing in the hallway.
While the number of people alone was astonishing, it was nothing compared to what they had to say. The first to speak was his family. His brothers and sisters––my aunts and uncles–– recalled the old days when they were kids and spoke about memories of their brother. The most telling testimony to me, however, was that of my cousin, Mandy. She is the second oldest of my cousins, and one of the only ones to remember Paul before his chronic headaches started. Mandy was the only cousin to ever really become close to our uncle and actually get to know him. It seemed unfair that his illness had prevented the rest of us from knowing him just as well.
Strangely, though perhaps not surprisingly, Paul’s students told the gathering more about their teacher than his family did. One former pupil told us that when she first started taking lessons with my uncle, her dream was to attend Berklee College of Music. Paul’s response
was, “Oh yeah, I got three students in there.” He now has four. She performed a song for us, her
clear voice filling every corner of the studio. Whatever my uncle had taught her, he had taught her well.
Perhaps even more moving than the strongest voice was the weakest one. Another student, still in high school from the looks of him, recounted his experience with Paul in a surprisingly meek voice for a singer. He told us, “I was always really quiet and didn’t talk much. Paul got me to sing, and he got me to talk. I’ll always thank him for that.” The boy spoke nervously and quietly to the large audience, but despite his lack of public speaking skills, his words hit home just as hard as the singer form Berklee. What kind of man must my uncle have been to move this shy little kid to speak his heart to a room packed with strangers?
Many people spoke on behalf of Paul. It seemed like each story was as much a memory as it was an expression of gratitude. Everyone who spoke had something to thank him for, whether it was getting into their dream school or simply having a half-hour of peace and music every week. To me, every story was also and insight into Paul’s hitherto unknown life. My mental image of him slowly turned from a reclusive uncle with headaches to a teacher, a mentor, a musician, an artist with limitless creativity, and a man of unwavering kindness.
How could it have been that I learned so much more about my Uncle Paul after his death than I did while he was alive? His headaches certainly had hindered his ability to travel and kept him away from his relatives. But here were dozens of students and friends who had known him well, had been a part of his life, and he a part of theirs. I felt a pang of sadness, but not for the loss of my uncle. How could I miss someone I hardly knew? The sadness was for the the loss of an opportunity to know someone who I could have related to in so many ways––as an amateur musician, as an aspiring artist, and even simply as a nephew.
I didn’t feel any rush of grief or melancholy gloom. Tears come with loss, but I had merely come to realize what I’d never had. Instead, I felt the wasted opportunity, as if I’d found an empty room hidden in Paul and Theresa’s house full of stuff. It had always been there, but only now did I notice it, just in time to see its door close forever.