Thursday, November 30, 2006

My Uncle Dick & Aunt Mary Eileen

Richard James Dobson died Thanksgiving night. He was my "Uncle Dick," my late mother's brother, or, more accurately, her half-brother.

But there was nothing "half" about him.

As a kid, he seemed a larger than life figure. He had a booming voice. He wore hats, including a Stetson on occassion, and sometimes an ascot, and sometimes very loud sportcoats. He drove a black Mercedes. You didn't see any of that too often around my button-downed suburban enclave in Baytown.

He quoted Shakespeare off the cuff. When you're very young and you hear your uncle laugh loudly and remark that someone was "hoisted on his own petard," it makes an impression. Hoisted? Petard? So you investigate, on your own, to find out where on earth these words came from.

Dick's wife, my Aunt Mary Eileen, died last March, so this year there will be no witty, eloquent Christmas letter to their family and friends.

Friends. My God did they have friends.

At holiday time, they had a houseful. More often than not, a few were from foreign countries, or at least from some place in the United States I had never seen. Good cheer flowed and there was always laughter, everywhere.

My parents, both gone now, always had lots of stories about Dick and Mary Eileen. My mother especially. They talked about the time they showed up for some holiday dinner at our house. Christmas or Thanksgiving or New Year's, I don't remember which. But they brought with them two total strangers. Someone they had just met at an airport or previous engagement. Unannounced! So they were always full of surprises, the kind you could talk and laugh about years later.

You can read my uncle's obituary in the Houston paper, but an obit can never tell the full story of a person's life. It always misses the colorful part. It's a nature of the beast, most times. Name, rank, serial number, important milestones, but little sidebar material.

An obit won't relate how Uncle Dick sat in our den one year and talked with relish about standing in the Khyber Pass, where Alexander and Hannibal once trod.

Or about what he said it was like to live in Holland or Sumatra or New York.

Or how he had just invested in a gold mine in South America or a silver mine in Montana.

Or how he came into possession of the tiger skin, complete with head and bared teeth, that lay on the floor in his study.

Oh, yeah, his study. It was more like a museum. Masks from Africa, along with spears and knives, hung from the wall, the result of a lifelong interest in far off lands and peoples.

And lots of books, books he was eager to lend, so you could enjoy them as he did.

Neither does a newspaper obituary tell of the interesting people my uncle and aunt collected from their travels, or the genuine affection that existed between them.

Or how much pleasure they derived going to the Houston Symphony on Sunday afternoons.

He was a businessman, to be sure, but much more than a businessman. He'd much rather talk about books, politics or the latest crisis in foreign affairs as he would stocks and bonds or the price of oil. He was more like a college professor, which his father George Dobson (my maternal grandfather) happened to be -- a college professor and a football coach, back in Platteville, Wis., where he and my mom grew up.

In the same way, my Aunt Mary Eileen was a relative to be reckoned with. At a fairly advanced age, she went back to school at the University of Houston to earn her masters degree in psychology, which she put to use with Catholic Charities and the Jung Center in Houston, as her son Richard, a singer/songwriter now living in Switzerland,relates in this newsletter that's on the Web.

As it happened, Dick and Mary Eileen's daughter Margaret told me of their passing. I had not talked to either of my cousins for a long time.

Uncle Dick, Margaret explained, had been "thunderstruck" that his beloved wife died before he did. She was, after all, a bit younger than his 94 years. "It was something neither of them ever expected, and of course he never got over it," cousin Margaret wrote in an email.

Near the end of their lives, each had rooms across the hall from each other at a Dallas facility.

"They were both frail," Margaret said, "but able to spend time together. I have a photo of the two of them in a narrow bed in his room, both sound asleep. She'd crawled in with him for a nap..."

On my last visit to his home in Houston, Uncle Dick took me back into his bedroom and opened a closet door to show me a row of books. Go ahead and pick whichever ones you'd like to have, he said.

It was one of those awkward moments, where both of you know what the other one is thinking but don't necessarily wish to talk about it.

So I picked a collection of Robert Benchley writings.

I'll have to get around to reading that soon, and when I do, I think about what my uncle might have been thinking when he read it.


Mouth of the Yellow River said...

Ni Hao! Kannichi Wa!

Just raised a glass of good Mou Tai straight from Beijing washed down with a liter of Feldschlossen from Rheinfelden to ole Dobson. May he rest in peace.


JD Allen said...

Sorry to hear of your loss. Sounds like a great guy, the last half of what was a good couple.

leigh said...

Wow, Banjo. They sound like some cool people. My condelences on their passing.

cacafuego said...

Sounds like a helluva a guy. Don't seem to come across folks like that too much anymore. My condolences on his passing.
Anti-submarine duty in the South Pacific . . . you think he ever read "The Caine Mutiny"?...