It’s ironic that some of the most influential people in our lives are the ones who have a negative impact on us. My Uncle Ben was like that. I spent most of my life terrified of him, yet I’ll never forget him. I understood in later years that he was harmless and I even came to realize that his teasing, though gruff, was just a form of socializing that he had probably learned at an early age. My own father is fond of calling me “worthless” because he knows that I understand that he means the opposite. However, as a four-year-old I took Uncle Ben at his word…
“Damn you’re ugly.”
I looked up at the figure towering over me. At first glance he looked like Granddad, but his hair was a little darker and longer and his eyes were meaner. His eyes laughed at me and dared me to cry.
“Are you any good?” he demanded.
“Uh-huh,” I muttered. I bit my bottom lip and looked down at Uncle Ben’s huge work boots. I fingered the ruffle on my dress and wondered what he would say next.
Aunt Sybil shoved her soft body in between us. “Ben, go on, you’re scarin’ Marlizbeth.” I hated the way she always ran my names together, but I didn’t really care what she called me as long as she kept Uncle Ben from teasing me.
Uncle Ben and Aunt Sybil were the most unlikely couple. Aunt Sybil was plump and soft. Uncle Ben was tall and rail thin and hard. Aunt Sybil talked rapidly and laughed and waved her arms a lot. Uncle Ben spoke slowly, like syrup dripping off a spoon. She always seemed happy to see me. He always seemed annoyed.
Uncle Ben was fourteen years younger than my grandfather. There were ten children in their family, including a set of triplets, but by the time I was born there were only six left. My mother said I was terrified of Uncle Ben even as a toddler, so it may have been that the tone our relationship was actually set by me. I only know that as I grew older I dreaded our visits to his farm. I dreaded even more those words I knew I would hear.
“You get uglier ever’ time I see you,” he’d say.
“Ben, she’s scared of you,” Aunt Sybil would always fuss.
“No, she ain’t. Come ‘ere Mary, we’ll get a cookie.”
All the cookies in the world couldn’t change the way I felt about Uncle Ben. His own children seemed immune to his wisecracks, and my brothers ignored him. I felt like I was victim in one of those Twilight Zone plots. I’d steal away as soon as I could and look in the mirror. Was he the only one who could see that I ugly? Or were the others just trying to pretend because they were afraid to be honest?
I seldom saw Uncle Ben during my teens, but when I did his greeting hadn’t changed. I was surprised that my doubts hadn’t either. I knew in my head that he was teasing, but my heart still trembled when I saw him.
I saw Uncle Ben again in 1975. I was twenty-five, a mother, and a much wiser person. Uncle Ben had aged, and in doing so looked even more like Granddad. His eyes were softer and kinder, his hair grayer. He was gaunt instead of thin. His skin was even more wrinkled from his days on the tractor. He smiled as I entered the room. He seemed pleased to see me.
“Damn, you get uglier every time I see you,” he said.
I looked at him a moment and smiled.
“I know,” I said, “so do you.”