Uncle Ben and Aunt Estelle lived a few miles east in a dark apartment filled with ceramic cherubs, tasseled lamps, and sofas covered with velvet brocade, but I didn't mind because Estelle was an excellent cook and sometimes it was nice to eat dinner that hadn't started out in a vacuum pack. (My mother and the stove were not best of friends.) Estelle, the oldest, most wrinkled person I've ever known, loved to play piano and sing along in a voice that sounded like gravel. For my sixth birthday, much to my surprise, she shipped her piano over to our living room; my mother had told her that my kindergarten teacher thought I had musical talent, and Estelle decided that I should to learn how to play. And so I did.
Ben and Estelle also owned an upstate farm, so called because of two sheep who lived on many empty acres surrounding a house that looked rustic on the outside, but otherwise just like their musty, gilt-edged home in Queens. An authentic velvet rope barred entrance to the living room. Ben, it was whispered, once made his money as an importer of illegal booze, but by the time I was born seemed to be on the correct side of the law. My mother was his part-time secretary and spent weekends typing, on an ancient grey Underwood with multiple carbons, letters to Scottish importers about the labels on bottles of whiskey. Ben moved little and said less, a large, box-shaped man with skin the texture of concrete. But he was always there, and I loved him very much.
Only Moe managed to find his match in good humor; Ben, like Charlie and Ruby, chose a soulmate hard-edged as he was gentle. He died while I was in college, after which Estelle entered a nursing home and spent her remaining years sending rambling letters to my mother and I about our many mythic transgressions. I think Ben's death was the first that took me by surprise, like an offense against the proper rhythm of the universe.
(To be continued.)