Family Portraits #3: Uncle Charles

This is third in a series of about twenty family portraits I am attempting as a ‘kick-start’ to the compilation of some sort of memoir for my grandchildren. It began as a Community Writing Project over at We were asked to submit 500 words, with lots of detail, about someone in our close circle growing up, someone who influenced us either negatively or positively. This week, I’m also joining Bonnie over at The Faith Barista for her weekly invitation. Her theme this week is “a gift you’ve recently received from God.” Uncle Charles as gift is not a new thing – but this project most definitely is. In the process of searching my memory for influential people, I have been reminded over and over of God’s goodness to me over time. My family growing up was far from perfect – lots of eccentricities and flaws. But it was most definitely God’s gift to me – helping to form me into the person I am and modeling for me the living of a faithful life. I am grateful for the story that is mine – the good stuff and the tough stuff – and it is a pleasure and a privilege to reflect back on some of those people whom God used to let me know I was loved. So, this week – Uncle Charles. (This one is about 65 words too long, but I really, REALLY tried! Portrait #1 can be found here and #2, here.)


He was my grandmother’s ‘baby,’ born nine years after my dad, ten years after their sister. He came with a cleft palate and separated lip – and his mother said ‘no’ to major corrective surgery: the lip was sewn shut, the palate wasn’t touched. Gran thought it would be ‘too painful’ for her sweet little boy. Such a hard choice, and such a wrong one – Charles struggled his entire childhood with both talking and eating; pictures of him as a small boy show him glowering, always on the outside edge of things.

He was a college kid when I was born and I remember him as a ‘big brother’ who would often swoop me up and take me outside to play. My grandmother kept chickens at her home in Los Angeles and my uncle had a favorite he called Rusty. One Sunday, gathered around their table for an after-church dinner, Charles refused to eat. I was young and curious, so I asked him what was wrong. “This is Rusty’s leg,” he said, angrily picking up a drumstick, “and I will not participate in this meal!” I was stunned and shocked. So that’s where drumsticks came from.

When I was about eight, Charles disappeared from our lives for a few years to do some biblical studies in a different state. He went to Asbury in Kentucky and met and married Aunt Norma. I could not for the life of me figure out why he needed any other female in his life!

He found a job in Duluth, Minnesota where they lived when their two sons were born, last in the line of cousins of which I was first. About that time, Charles opted to have the corrective surgery his mother had refused him so many years before. It required money, pain, and hard work, learning to talk and eat all over again, and I was so proud of him. I also sensed his bone-deep discouragement as he struggled to find a teaching job during those years.

In later years, Charles poured all of that pent-up determination into pursuing a PhD, becoming a concert level organist and an excellent and highly competitive tennis player – sometimes at the expense of his family life. Both of his sons grew up estranged from the church and both died young and sadly.

I asked Charles to be the organist for our wedding. And the single thing most folks remember about that day is this: just before the pastor was set to introduce us as husband and wife (as part of a liturgy that I had put together at the know-it-all-age of 20), he jumped into the “Toccata” postlude a beat too soon. I turned toward the organ and stage-whispered, “Not yet, Uncle Charles!” And he stopped just in time for the grand announcement to be made. We made a good team.

Charles died over 20 years ago, the first in his sibling trio. The doctors said it was pneumonia, but I have always believed he died of a broken heart. His life was a mix of struggle and triumph but at the end, I think maybe the struggle just wore him down. I admired and loved him, but I did not understand all the angst that drove him so fiercely. I trust that he has found the peace he sought – and I miss him.

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  1. Oh, Diana, once again you’ve written a touching story. I enjoyed every word.

    I’m thrilled to read in your intro that you’re writing a memoir for your grandchildren! Hooray!

    Smiling with you,

  2. Diana, you bring these people to life in my mind with your words. I had an Uncle Charles, too, but he went by “Chuck.”

    Except when my sister and I were small girls we couldn’t say “Uncle Chuck.” So to the end of his days, he was our Uncle CHUNK. Even though he was a wiry man.

  3. This is awesome!