My mother’s brother was a man I didn’t really know very well. I remember he was quiet. I think he may have been shy. I remember he was sweet to me whenever he was around. There’s not much else, though. He was someone I never knew, but someone I always wished I could know better.
My one clear memory of him is of the Tommy Bear. My mom used to like to go down the shore* on summer weekends when I was little, and my favorite beach was always Point Pleasant. I always came away with splinters in my feet, but that was mostly okay, because the splinters meant boardwalk, and the boardwalk made the beach worth it. One weekend, Uncle Tommy came with us. This was a huge treat, because my mom wasn’t a big fan of rides and games. She went to the beach for the sand and sun, so the time I got to spend on rides and games was usually pretty limited. But the day Uncle Tommy came, he took me to the boardwalk for most of the day. It was like a dream.
As the child of a single mother, I always envied all the kids I’d see at carnivals and fairs with their fathers. Their dads would take them on rides and laugh as they played games to win big prizes. My mother did a little of that with me, but the best prize we usually walked away with was a suffocating goldfish in a bag. Don’t get me wrong; I treasure the memories of sitting next to my mother on a torn up stool, both of us shooting water into the mouth of a clown, trying to be the first to pop that balloon. But it always seemed like the kids whose dads were playing those games with them walked away smugly, carrying giant stuffed animals. So when Uncle Tommy took me to the boardwalk, it was an exciting day.
And he didn’t disappoint. He won me a teddy bear so huge I could barely carry it. This thing was way bigger than I was at the time. I promptly named it my Tommy Bear. Surely a man who had achieved such a feat deserved to be memorialized by having his name given to the bear. At that moment, I was sure my Uncle Tommy was the greatest man who ever lived.
The Tommy Bear stayed with me for many years, and I continued to sleep with it until its untimely demise when I was in 6th grade. It rolled off the bed and onto a space heater in the middle of the night, where it never actually caught fire but instead smoldered as the heat worked its way deep into the bear’s plastic bead stuffing. The entire apartment filled with a noxious black smoke that took days to clear. That was the end of the Tommy Bear.
For years after that day on the boardwalk, Uncle Tommy was an inconstant presence in our lives. Always welcome when he showed up, but showing up increasingly less often. Eventually, some time in my early twenties, he stopped showing up completely and we lost touch with him. We would talk about him now and then and wonder what happened to him. I tried searching for him or his twin children online. My mother tried too, and sometimes toyed with the idea of hiring a private investigator.
Recently, she was finally able to find his daughter, Amber, on Facebook. We learned that Uncle Tommy died 3 years ago, on his birthday. It’s so sad to know it, but I think what I feel the most is closure. We know. We finally know for sure. That doesn’t bring much comfort, but it does bring a little peace.
Rest in peace, Uncle Tommy.
*That’s a Jersey thang. We don’t “go to the beach.” We “go down the shore.”