Uncle Barney had Brillo-y hair he dyed a yellow that isn’t found in nature and a matching handlebar mustache he waxed and curled and kept touching with such fondness that people sometimes looked away. Aunt Myrtle said if he’d spent as much time touching her as he did that damn mustache, maybe they’d have had children. She said this out loud at family gatherings, which made everyone almost as uncomfortable as Uncle Barney’s mustache-fondling.
I was twelve the year Uncle Barney forgot his wax when he came to the farm for Christmas. It had never happened before, like if you forgot your false teeth or underwear. He didn’t notice until the next day when it was time to re-wax the five-inch protrusions to go to church on Christmas Eve. Then all hell broke loose — ranting and pacing and obsessive twirlings of the protrusions trying to will them into the mirror-image, C-shaped curves they would have assumed with wax. In the kitchen, Aunt Myrtle muttered, “Serves him right.” But no amount of twirling would make the sides match. The right side curved forward as if it was hitching a ride somewhere, while the left side wouldn’t hold much of a curl at all and looked as if it was trying to run away.
Uncle Barney didn’t want to go to church with us. We kids told him that God wouldn’t mind, and the Baby Jesus was too little to notice, but I don’t think he cared about heavenly judgments. He got dressed to go but then looked in the hall mirror, twirling and swearing and getting red and even adding spit, which only made the the ends droop more. Finally he gave up. “I can’t go,” he murmured to the mirror. “I just can’t go.”
And poor Aunt Myrtle, who had a new Christmas sweater she’d knitted herself with all three wise men and the gold parts in tinselly yarn that glittered a little too much, Mother said, for church-wearing, decided to stay home too. “I’ve lived with him for 50 years,” she said, “and I’ve never seen him this low,” which made us all raise our eyebrows a little, because we had been to their 45th anniversary party in October.
We didn’t see them after church. But it was nearly midnight when we got back because of a way-too-long sermon from Rev. Funkhouser who should have known better with all the extra carol singing and candle lighting and scripture reading that has to be done at Christmas, so we didn’t think anything of it.
Next morning, Mom and my other aunt, Lydia, and cousin, Rachel, whose kids are bratty and always get into my stuff, were in the kitchen making waffles and pouring orange juice and yelling to Rachel’s kids that they couldn’t open presents until after breakfast and wondering where Uncle Barney and Aunt Myrtle were because it was going on 8 o’clock, and usually they were early risers. Aunt Lydia called up the stairs twice that breakfast was ready, and once Aunt Myrtle called back that they’d be right down.
We finally sat down without them, and Dad said the special long grace that he keeps on tap for holidays, and then we heard a giggle, and there they were in the doorway. We probably wouldn’t have recognized Uncle Barney except for the Brillo-y yellow hair, because the mustache was gone. Completely gone! Nothing under his nose but a scraped-up-looking upper lip.
No one could think of anything to say, but finally Aunt Myrtle, who hadn’t smiled in her whole life, I think, looked up with this big-ass grin on her face, reached over and patted Uncle Barney, who was grinning back at her, and said, “What a lovely Christmas morning!”
Sarah Russell is in metaphor rehab after spending a career writing and (shudder) editing academic prose. She can be found trying to describe clouds in new and profound ways whilst chewing her pencils to stubs.