In my family, we tell stories. Whenever we get together, inevitably, we’ll wind up talking and laughing and re-living the stories from our past. Certain stories get repeated and re-told. Eventually, these cease being “stories”, and move into the realm of “legend”. No legend became more prodigious than that of Great Uncle James.
I come from a really large middle class family. For the most part, our lives look pretty similar. We clock in to work, get a pay check, and try to keep our heads above water. But not Great Uncle James. Uncle James is cut from a different cloth. A rich cloth. We’re talking loaded. The guy has more cash than any of us could even venture to guess. But the weird part? No one knows how he got it, or what he currently does.
And this is where the legend begins. My entire life, rumors have circulated regarding what Uncle James does and how he came across his vast fortune. The most commonly believed fact is that he has a huge mansion somewhere on the other side of the country. No one in my family had ever been there. Further confounding matters was the fact that no one had seen him in years. As such, communications from him were suspect at best.
See, every now and then someone would come to one of our family reunions and say they had gotten a letter or phone call from Uncle James. My Aunt Irma was the worst about this. She could go on about what a great guy he was for days. Whenever we asked her to show us proof, she would have always conveniently forgotten it at home. Eventually, most of us learned to roll our eyes and nod.
Whenever Uncle James’ name was invariably brought up, the mood would change. People would get fired up, telling their favorite stories and conspiracy theories about who Uncle James was and what he did. Despite the fact that we had heard their answers a thousand times, we’d ask our grandparents questions about him in the hope that maybe there would be a new fact unearthed; something we didn’t previously know that would once and for all confirm or deny Uncle Jame’s lavish existence.
Depending on who you asked, Uncle James was either the greatest man to ever live, or a complete and utter scoundrel. Conflicting stories abound. He was a celebrity, he was a philanthropist. Some said he found his money by chance, others said he was a shrewd business man in his day. He’s a liar, a crook, a thief. He’s a genius, a doctor, a saint. Everyone had theories, but nobody had proof. His ongoing absence was further fodder for debate. Shame, a bitter falling out, or simple lack of caring were the answers on every one’s tongue.
I never met the guy, but I did my best to keep an open mind. I knew that with this many versions and stories, they couldn’t all be true. I wanted to give him the benefit of a doubt, so I refrained from making any judgments. I certainly wasn’t going to “drink the kool-aid” like dear Aunt Irma, but I personally had nothing against the guy.
I did wonder though… If he was so rich, if he was so well off… Why wouldn’t he show up for just one reunion? Just pop in, answer some questions, and then go back to doing whatever he was doing. I figured he probably had no idea the circus he had created and assumed he figured most of us had never heard about him. I didn’t make a huge deal about it… But, late at night, my mind would wander. Ever since I was a kid, I’d hear stories about him and wonder what he was like. I used to imagine that one day he’d show up and be like Santa Clause, giving us everything we ever wanted because… He had money. Why not? But, he never came. And my questions remained unanswered. Until my twenty-first birthday.
On the day of my birthday, I got an odd piece of mail. Fishing through the usual credit card offers and junk mail, was a yellowed envelope. It was thick and a little heavy. The back was sealed with a single drop of red wax, a “J” embossed inside it. I flipped it over, and looked at the return address. “Uncle J.” It was addressed to me specifically, not my parents or even my household. My heart beginning to beat a little faster, I carefully broke the seal and opened the envelope.
Inside was a square of parchment. It read:
Greetings to you on your 21st birthday! Your Great Uncle James humbly requests your presence at his estate. Travel, lodging, and all expenses will be paid on your Uncle’s behalf. All arrangements have been made. Simply show up at the airport, and everything will be taken care of.
With Great Anticipation,
I read the letter half a dozen times as I stood outside my house. Further exploration of the envelope revealed a single plane ticket with a departure date three days away, and a confirmation of a hotel room booked in my name. I couldn’t believe it. In one fell swoop, I seemingly had confirmation that there was, in fact, an Uncle James.
I ran inside and told my parents. They were ecstatic. They couldn’t believe it. I showed them the invitation and they were thrilled. My mother was on the phone in a moment, “relaying the news” or bragging. Tomato, tomahto. The family’s reaction was varied. Some people were thrilled with the news, others said it was a trick and I shouldn’t go. In the three days before the plane took off, I received no fewer than eighty phone calls. Every one of them was a relative and relatives of a relativs asking me if I knew how lucky I was or telling me not to bother, that this was clearly a prank.
The decision to go wasn’t really a decision at all. I knew in my heart, from the moment I finished that letter the first time that I was going. Whether it was a trick or a prank was irrelevant. For the first time in my life, I was in a position to find some answers, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.