Jessica Marie Baumgartner


“Come on girls.” My uncle Leroy ducked under the door frame of McDonald’s play land and squished his giant body onto a child seat shaped like a mushroom. He pushed his massive belly under the tiny table. He sat bunched up like he did it every day.

My sister, Bonnie, and I chased after him. We were over 750 miles from home in one of the smallest towns I had ever been to. Beach Creek Pennsylvania was barely a speck on the map. My father had trouble visiting, but not because of the distance; his strained relationship with his family increased tensions between him and my mother.

Bonnie and I didn’t know Dad’s relatives. Everyone spoke loud with a southern accent despite the northern location. His mother’s house smelled of aged bread slathered in pounds of butter. My mom didn’t say much when we got in town, but when my uncle Leroy swung open the front door, a fresh breeze accompanied him.

His smile sat too big for his face. His personality stretched further. He automatically picked me up and swung me around. “I think I know this kid.” He tickled my sides until I thought I would throw up. I loved every second of it.

Uncle Leroy held a talent for feeling people out. He sized me up in one second. Without speaking I knew he understood why I ran when I shouldn’t and knocked into things that were best left undisturbed. He kept pace with me and I adored him for it.

My sister’s meek nature left her standing mute. Uncle Leroy knelt before her and grinned under his rust-colored mustache. “And who’s this pretty lady? That can’t be, Bonnie. She’s still only yay high.” He pulled out his wallet to compare our pictures to our present selves.

We peered over his hands to see the images. I stuck out my tongue at the dress my mom made me wear for the shot. Posed pictures made me itch. They inspired an urge to scream.

After getting reacquainted, Uncle Leroy asked if he could take us out. My parents remained landlocked in a cold war fight, and we jumped up and down eager to escape. “Please, please, please!”

Mom’s large brown eyes tightened with concern, but Dad chuckled. “Get out of here,” he said.

Uncle Leroy nodded at my mother. “I’ll bring ’em home safe.”

I grabbed his hand and rushed him out the door. He didn’t care if we buckled up or not. He didn’t nag me about mud on my shoes or food crusted in my hair. He knew the road. That was all that mattered. The only thing we were expected to do was, sing.

“I hear you’ve got a bit of a voice.” He leaned back in the driver’s seat and tilted his head my way.

“I love to sing.” I giggled. My sis needed some coaxing. I nudged her and sang so loud she belted out some classic country to keep from being drowned out. The trip made me bounce in my seat. I was never good at sitting still, so something as simple as a fast food trip gave Pennsylvania a sense of adventure. When we got there, the children’s Play Land towered before me like nothing I had ever seen.

I hopped out of the car and raced inside. I struggled to pull the door open, but got to the Promised Land and rubbed my eyes. The hint of toasted buns and warm grease blanketed the air. My feet slid on the linoleum. Uncle Leroy followed close behind with my sister.

He stepped up to the counter and ordered three kid’s meals, one for each of us. Salty French fries and squishy burgers satisfied my hunger, but the food didn’t nourish me as much as running around the tubes and slides with a grown-up. I never knew adults could do that. It was magic. Uncle Leroy chased us and threw balls around the ball pit. He made as much of a fuss laughing and goofing off as we did.

An elderly woman stared at us with disapproval and he just waved. What everybody else thought didn’t matter. After that I longed to go everywhere with him. He and his wife had a giant van and the kids to fill it. I didn’t know my cousins too well, but they made room for me and my sister on the next outing on that trip.

My aunt pushed her favorite tape into the stereo and the most hideous banjos wailed along with terrible backwoods harmony. Uncle Leroy gripped the wheel and sang loud.

I refused. I whined, whimpered. When that did nothing, I clamped my hands over my ears and screamed. Uncle Leroy rewound the tape and played it again and again. He laughed at me and refused to acknowledge my behavior. The second we parked, I jumped out and stomped away. Uncle Leroy caught up to me and gripped my shoulder. “Look at me, Jessie.”

I clenched my jaw.

He turned me to look him in the eye. “You ain’t gotta like everything I like, jest as I ain’t gotta like everything you like. But you do have to be respectful of others.”

I huffed at him for aggravating me, but his soft eyes and kind expression contrasted the stern tone of his voice. Something told me someone had said the same thing to him when he was little. He knew me. Even if we didn’t get to see each other all the time, he knew. I recognized that and apologized.

He didn’t fit society’s standards and his behavior was eccentric, but he knew how to get through to me better than anyone I’d ever met. He didn’t hit me for acting up like my parents. He didn’t send me to the principal’s office like my teachers in school. He put things in perspective.

It never occurred to me why. His wisdom came from all unknown pools of knowledge a child fails to think of. I considered him, like all adults, some kind of all-knowing God. But he wasn’t. He was a man like all my other uncles. The older I got, the more I realized this. When his wife called to see if he had skipped town to visit us, I began to witness the whole truth.

“He’s missing?” My mom’s concern pooled in her eyes.

“Is he okay?” I grew worried at her reaction.

It wasn’t easy for my dad to explain. “Leroy is Leroy,” is all he said. “He’ll turn up. Always does.” My uncle had apparently disappeared before. Not often, but he had showed up again, just fine. He apparently went through spells where he needed “space.”

Instead of contemplating about the why’s, I grew to accept my dad’s “crazy brother.” Crazy wasn’t such a bad word to me. If he was crazy maybe I was too. Maybe crazy just meant different. It made him a legend in my eyes.

The more I heard about his mishaps the bigger the tall tales grew because I sometimes caught people telling stories about me and the trouble I got into, using the same wide-eyed expressions. Our abnormalities linked us even though I barely knew the man. We didn’t see each other again after that.

When I was thrust into more than most kids my age at sixteen years old, I needed my own “space” and made the mistake of confusing a down day with a desire to rid the world of my pestilent existence. I tried to kill myself. After I survived my suicide attempt, the doctors diagnosed me with what would later be called bi-polar.

I didn’t make the connection at first: my uncle’s oddities, my own father’s sometimes outrageous behavior. All I wanted was to make sure I never messed up like that again. I became engrossed in books on philosophy and spirituality. I found healing powers in the things I loved ─ hiking, swimming, singing, dancing, writing ─ anything that made me feel alive.

I have since worked very hard to maintain that lifestyle that best suits me. Then Uncle Leroy died of a heart attack last summer. I hadn’t seen him in ages. I barely remember his goofy smile. It’s still difficult to imagine the world without his laugh, but I learned a lot from him despite our separation.

I have no doubt that some “head doctor,” as he would put it, would draw him out and diagnose him with bipolar as well. The label wouldn’t have done much for him or any of us who knew him. He wasn’t some sob story, or a kind of martyr to lay down a lesson. He lived as best he could and made each day count. He stands out in my memory as an example of success. Instead of lashing out when things got rough, he took time off and left the world to handle itself. We all need that sometimes.

In this overly connected modern age it is harder than ever to get the “space” required to tackle our inner naysayer, but it is ever more important. Uncle Leroy lived the words: Take time for yourself. Some saw it as selfish. Others feared for him. When I became a mother I realized that I would never be able to properly raise my babies if I didn’t take care of myself as well. Keeping my head straight is a necessity. I think that’s how he saw it too.

In hindsight I don’t agree with how he did it, but then again he could have stayed and harmed himself or others. He did what he knew was best for him, just as everyone alive today has to learn their individual needs. Maintaining myself and the needs of my children has been a constant fluctuating goal. It’s not for the weak, but it is the most rewarding tale ever told.

Uncle Leroy was not Achilles or Robin Hood, though he did lead a few battles. He may not have been a fire fighter or a policeman, but to me he was always a hero.