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.

Family Portraits: #2 – Auntie Mae

I don’t have a photo in my computer files of Auntie Mae, but this is me, my mom and her sister (the famous Aunt Eileen from Family Portrait #1) on the day of my youngest brother’s funeral in October, 2009. Still trying to follow the guidelines set out by The High Calling’s Community Writing Project – 500 words or less, rich in detail, describe a family member who influenced me during childhood.
Bird-like, slightly mischievous, eyes a-twinkle, heart afire, Mary (Mae) Thompson Alsup Nichols managed to leave a very large footprint, despite wearing a size four shoe. And she was proud of those feet, happy to tell you that she was among the select few who could purchase the shoes displayed in the store window. Because every shoe looks ever-so-much better in a size four, right?

Left motherless at age three, never to have children of her own, she ‘adopted’ her sister’s kids – my mother and her siblings. Mae had energy to spare, loved to laugh and was cute as a button, right up until she died at the age of 102. She married and buried two husbands, both of whom she adored, and lavished love on all the various children of all the various cousins in my extended family.

To this day, my 90-year-old mom and her 88 and 86-year-old siblings give thanks to God for Auntie Mae. Their parents worked full-time during the depression and were seldom home. But my grandmother’s kid sister and the two female cousins with whom she and Mae were raised – they were always available for comfort, fun and companionship. These three attended Angelus Temple and were fervent admirers of Aimee Semple MacPherson. When Mae married and moved across town, she attended The Church of the Open Door in downtown LA, but she never forgot the drama of the Temple.

And color? The brighter the better. She learned to crochet in her late 70’s and promptly began creating anything and everything imaginable. Afghans, sweaters, hats, novelties – I lost count of how many ‘dolls’ she created with crocheted skirts to cover the extra roll of TP on the back of the toilet. Unfortunately, she also went through a ‘neon’ phase. One year, she made coats and hats for my daughters in vibrating fluorescent colors so intense they never made it out of the closet, except for photos to send with thank you notes.

When I was five, I had my tonsils out in a local doctor’s office. Something went terribly wrong and I landed in the hospital for a week, fighting for life. When I was released, I went to Mae’s home, because it was closer to the hospital than our little 40’s house in the valley.  She cared for me as if I were her own little girl, bringing me ice cream at the demand of my bedside bell, encouraging me to talk gently through that ruined throat.

It was a two-week stretch of time that only we two shared. Even though I badly wanted to be in my own home, with my parents and brother and my own safe bed, I somehow knew Mae was special. The gift she offered with her kindness and care was an important one, one that breathed Jesus to me even before I could fully grasp who Jesus was. Mae truly loved the Lord. And she lived a gospel life while creating fun wherever she went.

Family Portraits #1: Aunt Eileen

Written at the kind invitation of Jennifer Dukes Lee for the High Calling’s group writing project. The assignment? Describe someone from your childhood who influenced you in some way, either positively or negatively. Use lots of detail and keep it to 300-500 words. If you’d like to join in, hop over to this post at Jennifer’s site:

 Photo taken two years ago this month, October 2009. Such a sweet face, such a dear aunt.

To me, she was beauty and grace personified. She was fun and flirty, blond and soft-spoken, with a lovely soprano singing voice. She had a great laugh and she wore cat’s eye glasses through which her eyes always twinkled.

My mom was the second of my grandmother’s four kids, and Eileen was the baby. Mom got about 99% of all the drive in that quartet and Eileen? Well, Eileen was a softer person than my mom in many ways.* My mom wanted our rooms, including the woodwork, scrubbed every Saturday. Eileen didn’t seem to notice or care all that much. She lived with orange crates for furniture for a lotta years, and I found that charming somehow.

Eileen married a big bear of a man, whom she adored. I can see my aunt looking lovingly at my Uncle Chuck to this day, the two of them dancing to love songs that they sang to each other at our family gatherings. I loved watching them.

I was a weird duck as a kid, but she loved me anyhow. I read all the time. Always a book – sprawled on the couch, in the bathroom, even while brushing my teeth. There was usually one propped on my white wooden chest of drawers while I languidly dressed for school each morning, and another one under the covers at night, read by flashlight. That love of books came from my mom, but a very different kind of reading love came from Aunt Eileen: Hollywood glamour magazines.

So delicious, so forbidden! When we went to their house, I knew exactly where she kept them and I’d take a stack, throw myself across their bed and start reading, from cover to cover. My mom would not abide such things in our home, so this was my chance! And I took advantage of that chance every single time.

Mom always wanted me to be ‘more social, interact with people!’ But I preferred reading about starlets and limousines. And Aunt Eileen breezily told my mother to leave me alone. An aunt who was an ally – who could ask for more? Especially when gossip columns were there for the reading.

You see, I was too tall, too bookish, too awkward when I was growing up. My mom worried a lot, transmitting those worries to me in such a way that I became terribly self-conscious. For my aunt, however… Well sure, I was a tall girl. And I did like to read an awful lot, but … I was interesting. I was a bit of a puzzle and she was intrigued. Perhaps because she didn’t have to raise me, she could look at me in a more disinterested way. She liked what she saw and I knew it. Can you imagine what a priceless gift that is for an insecure young girl?

I love you, Aunt Eileen, and I thank you for loving me even in my weird duck-ness!

*Lest you think my mom was a harsh person, may I refer you to this post, which talks about her in a more fully-orbed way.