by Libby James
My Favorite Uncle
George, my mother’s younger brother, was a tool-loving kid. He was so attached to his hammer that he named it his boodle-do and took it to bed with him every night.
The youngest of four children, his dad died when he was only four and he soon became the fix-it man in his family.
My mom loved to describe the image of George’s leg poking through a hole in the kitchen ceiling. He had been making some repairs in the bathroom above which culminated in a rather large hole in the bathroom floor. Big enough for George’s leg to dangle through. Eventually, he would become an engineer.
He was born in 1910 in Harold Wood, Essex, a suburb of London, and lived an extraordinary life.
As a young man, he joined the army and was sent to France during World War II. He survived the battle of Dunkirk and swam into the English Channel where he was picked up by one of the British pleasure boats on rescue missions in those choppy waters.
He arrived on British soil with a pair of trousers, a pair of socks, a towel, and nothing else. In the pocket of his trousers was a water-soaked 10-pound note which he gave me.
He spent the rest of the war with the British troops in Burma and India. He came home with a nasty case of malaria and a big khaki hat with a turned-up brim that my brother and I thought was the coolest hat we’d ever seen. We called it his Burma Hat.
It took him several months to recover enough from malaria so that he could return to his work as an engineer. In the meantime, he became interested in genealogy. He created a family tree going back to 1712, recording information in his precise printing on a big role of blueprint paper. It is a treasured record of our family and I have it still.
When he served in India, his commanding officer tired of writing letters home to his wife. He asked George to begin writing to her. He more than obeyed those orders, to the point where he and Peggy became more than just pen pals.
When the war was over and he was sent home, George went immediately to see her, and before very long she was “in a family way.” My cousin Georgina was nine months old before Peggy’s divorce was finalized and she and George were able to marry.
After Peggy died, George fell into a depression he could not shake. Finally, Georgina insisted that he embark on a cruise to the West Indies. It was to change his life.
Aboard ship he met Joanna Rodriguez, a widow and a travel agent based in Mexico City. She agreed to visit him in England. He ended up returning to Mexico with her where they intended to marry. The ceremony almost didn’t take place because George could not provide the necessary documentation—Peggy’s death certificate.
“Ah, time is short, we must marry,” Joanna insisted. The authorities relented and the ceremony took place before they returned to England.
Even though she found herself a long way from home and in a very different culture, Joanna came to love England and found joy in making George happy.
About to turn 61, George announced his retirement explaining, “Being married to Joanna is going to be a full-time job.”
I inherited my lousy sense of direction from him. When he got lost on the way to his life-long home from the London’s Heathrow Airport, he breathed a sigh when he spotted Big Ben. “Ah, now I know where I am,” he declared.
George wore an old necktie around his waist instead of a belt. When the temperature got to 80 degrees, he slept in a little summer house at the end of his garden.
He played golf until he was 86, taking great pleasure from the friends he played with. He died in 2001 at the age of 91 with Joanna, his wife of 30 years, by his side.
I feel fortunate to have had such an uncle.