My great uncle Sam died a few days ago at age 85. He was the last of his siblings; baby brother to my grandmother and her sisters. Sam Tewksbury was one of the true characters of our childhoods. A big, shambling man who never had a family of his own, for years he occupied a small room in my grandmother’s house, across the hall from Ya-Ya, the old Danish widow who rented the back apartment. As a kid, the thing I found most remarkable about him was how he wouldn’t emerge in the morning until after 11. Then he’d make himself something sweet for breakfast in the dented tin measuring cup that he used for most of his meals (except when he was forced into sitting at the table for one of the big family gatherings). He was shy and slow with words. If you asked him how he was, he’d always answer, “Oh, ‘bout the same.”
I didn’t learn how to hold a conversation with Sam until I was 20 years old. I must have found some patience by then. If you’d say something to him, he’d respond with a non-committal “hmmm hmmm”. But if you waited – I mean really waited while a minute or so of silence trickled by – saying nothing, asking nothing – he would give a real response to what you said. And then you could respond as quickly or as slowly as you wanted and settle in for another long pause while Sam slowly cogitated and formulated his next statement.
I guess his sisters considered him a bit simple-minded, but he never struck me that way. He repaired televisions and other electronics in the back room of my grandmother’s store, and tended to the customers a few hours of the day. He never spent a nickel if he could avoid it and he was frugal to the point of pathology. He let me drive his old gray station wagon when I was 15 and taught me how to save gas by coasting down hills. There were people who would let him know when a deer had been killed on the roads, so he could gather a haunch for his dog before the vultures got to it. Whatever cash money he had he played into the stock market, at least that’s what my parents said, since I never heard him speak of it. Despite the frugality he finally moved out of my grandmother’s house and into his own place (maybe she pushed him out, but the rent was low because the building was condemned and gradually falling down). A true child of the Great Depression, he never voluntarily threw anything away, and he filled the dark house to the ceilings and heated it with scrounged scrap lumber and rolled newspaper. Above his entryway he hung a graceful sign that said “S TEWKSBURY”. It was an uncharacteristic flourish and I asked him about it. He told me it was his parents’ “TEWKSBURYS” sign that he’d split and re-arranged.
Maybe his judgment wasn’t always the best, but I’d play Sam’s assistant even when I didn’t understand what we were up to. I remember hunching behind wooden shields up by the barn while we attempted to break old television tubes by hurtling rocks at them (He vaguely explained about them being toxic and a bit explosive). I think my sister Chris has a couple of scars on her leg from helping him with soldering television cables. And I spent at least one afternoon shimmying up trees with an old car seatbelt to check on cables he had run up over Tyler Hill for some reason. Other times it was just to drive out to gather beechnuts or pick apples in abandoned fencerows, or to let the dog hunt for groundhogs. On those outings he kept a small acetylene torch handy for tent caterpillars. He was a tremendously gentle man, but he bore a strange hatred for tent caterpillars. It seemed to bring him great satisfaction to watch the silk retreat from the blue flame and the singed caterpillars come tumbling out.
But Sam was always good to me. On summer afternoons, when we were visiting, he’d gather up his little collection of short, odd-shaped baseball bats and his flat, ancient ball glove and we’d go up to the little league field to hit the ball around for a while. Even in his 50’s he was pretty good.