I could never understand my family’s obsession with outdoor showers. I have an outdoor shower at my house, literally just a faucet affixed to an outside wall. It’s not even enclosed. Picture my mom, with genetically inherited fervor, smiling and washing in the sunlight, in full view of the neighbors. Lovely. The one at the house my grandparents left us has more privacy, which is to say not much. It sits right under the window of a bedroom, an invitation to peeping toms for generations to come. All of my mother’s siblings fight over it, preferring to bathe where the water alternates between freezing and scalding while cold air hits your nude body and mosquitos pick at your exposed skin. Every summer, my mother, her younger sister, her brother, and her older sister all come to the house. They’re one big, happy, freshly showered family, except for the eldest brother, my uncle Phil, around whom hangs an aura of mystery. He is almost always absent, and when he shows up, he leaves before I have a chance to petition his bathing habits.
At the end of this summer, I made a pilgrimage to Phil’s remote mountain cottage. Partly out of curiosity, and partly because I was stranded in Boston with no place to stay and no flight home, I seized the opportunity to call before Phil’s strict 8:30 bedtime and invite myself. A day later I was on
a bus to New Hampshire, luggage nestled around me, my head resting on the folds of my backpack. When he picked me up in Dover, I felt like every literary character who has ever gone to spend a week with a distant family member, whereupon the action of the plot begins in earnest.
Growing up, I knew he was the oldest of five siblings, a brilliant professor of statistics. I also
knew how different he is from his younger brothers and sisters; he’s the only atheist, a proud introvert, with no children and no intention of having children, perhaps his greatest act of sacrilege. His primary home is on the west coast, the familial equivalent of moving to the moon. Unlike everyone else in the tightly-knit Italian-American family, he makes no effort to be in contact.
As he drove me from the bus stop, winding along sparsely populated highways, pregnant pauses between snippets of small talk gave me a chance to finally take a good look at him. Phil has
a round face with big, bulging eyeballs, black pupils punctuating the centers. Thick gray curls top his head, becoming a gentle beard that climbs down his neck. From beneath owlish glasses, bushy eyebrows run the whole horizontal length of his face, threading together quizzically and giving the whole face a devilish quality. His appearance invites the imagination of what he looked like in youth, the grey of his hair dark, with tan skin and dark eyes. Family tales weave an image of him as having once been the dashing, entrancingly intelligent, well-spoken eldest brother. My mother tells stories of Phil making her beef wellingtons on trips home from summers working in a restaurant kitchen and the time he taught her how to polka, the two of them skipping across the living room.
Now, at sixty-eight years old, he claims to be too old for everything. He dodges the family reunions that are so important to his siblings. He and his wife hate traveling, they are tired, they go to bed early every night, they prefer a quiet existence. Years ago he divorced a woman that his mother had become deeply attached to and married a divorcée 15 years his senior. Mostly he and my aunt spend their time in what she calls “companionable silence.”
At his house, I’m sitting on the screened-in porch, eating the whitest sandwich of all time: white bread, white chicken, white cheese, mayonnaise. The early afternoon sun illuminates everything around me; the chair where I’m sitting, playing with my fork, is shady and comfortably cool. Time moves much more slowly here. It is measured in natural occurrences: the angle of the sun, the breeze rustling the pink flowers lining the walkway to the back door. Phil gets up at dawn every day, makes himself breakfast, and goes to his shed to practice carpentry skills. He’s made a Swiss-style holzhaus entirely of firewood. Elegant boxes with sand- ed dovetail joints fill the house. Another shed. A hammock. He built the countertop in the kitchen. A guitar stand.
At midday, he drives me down the country road to the lake. As we go to put our stuff down on the picnic tables above the slope of the town beach, the arcs of his legs bend outward noticeably, their bow incongruous with the frame they’re supporting. When he takes off his shirt and dives into the clear water, he’s barrel-chested. His stroke is powerful and takes him to the center of the lake, where he does a somersault and resurfaces, sputtering contentedly. When I swim out to join him, he jovially intones something along the lines of, “what took you so long?”
That night over homemade pizza, we have a long conversation about the way people used to live in Italian villages, where one person did the baking for the whole town, one person made all the pasta, and so on. A nostalgia for something he did not experience gently clouds his face. The talking segues into religion. At this subject, he is seized by an explosive energy. He begins to hold forth about the vastness of the universe. In comparison to the eons of time before the advent of life, humans are a tiny, insignificant blip. To be so arrogant as to think that there is a deity concerned enough with humans as to care “what we do, where we stick our penises, and whether we give it obeisance” delights him in its ridiculousness.
Over the next few days, the family stories I was not told begin to unspool. When Phil was sixteen, he ran away from home with his high-school girlfriend and made it as far as Allentown, Pennsylvania before the police caught him and dragged him back to my grandparents. He was ruthlessly bullied in school, usually by big Irish boys, for being Italian and for being smart. He hung out almost exclusively with black kids, snuck out at night, and chain-smoked cigarettes, hiding the habit from his parents. In a matter of fact voice he explains to me how he dropped out of college, burned his draft card and joined the movement against the Vietnam War.
In all of his stories, time operates on a different scale. Events that occurred in 1968 are as clearly described as discussions of vaping and what you ate for lunch. Here, amid his mathematical encyclopedias and sofas covered in woolen blankets, he has created a little human wormhole.
The last day I spend at Phil’s house, I wake up around ten, shuffle groggily into the kitchen and plop myself down in a high-backed wooden chair to plot the easiest way for food to enter my stomach. I’m hoping my industrious uncle doesn’t catch me lazing around, but as soon as I sit, Uncle Phil emerges from the door to the garage, jeans coated lightly with sawdust. He walks over to me, hands me a towel, and instructs me jovially: “Use the outdoor shower. It’s really quite lovely.”
As I scrub myself under the cloudless blue sky, I realize that in some subconscious way, I came to Phil’s house as an emissary from the rest of the family, flung to this outpost on the edge of civilization with the task of understanding his lonely plight and lassoing him back to New York with one well-calculated doe-eyed facial expression. But the late summer perfection of this moment evades capture. His life is a little bit like a Tibetan sand painting, the product of hours and hours of labor, destined only to be blown unceremoniously away. He is one of us, rooted in the same stories, places, songs. And yet he chooses to spend his days in private, in “companionable silence” with the universe. I’m not about to get in the way.