Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Daniel Mason about his writing process.
Last summer, in late July, I received a phone call from my father notifying me of the death of my uncle Teddy, and asking me to come to San Francisco to help him sort through his brother’s belongings before the movers came.
My uncle had no children. He had never married, and his girlfriend of many years had gone her own way for reasons—I would later learn—related to the story that will come. He was a quiet figure, my father’s only brother, and overshadowed by my mother’s sprawling clan of six siblings. Indeed, when I first heard of Teddy’s death, I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen him. By then, our weekend family trips to San Francisco were very much a thing of the past. Even to this day, I can’t recall the surname of that girlfriend, an apricot-hued woman who chain-smoked his Camels and who, in contrast to my Aunt Deborah, my Aunt Judith, my Uncle Michael, etc., we all knew just as Donna. Nor did I remember any discussion of why they hadn’t married, or why they had no kids. For me, it was just one of Teddy’s particularities, like the Technicolor fuchsia of the borscht he drank each morning, or the elastic suspenders he wore over his off-white dress shirts, or the background drone of professional wrestling on his bedroom television, which seemed to cycle on some eternal loop.
In the beginning, it was the television that helped break down my resistance to those long visits. At home, my mother had banished ours to the bedroom closet, but at some point, in one of the backroom negotiations I now know make up much of parenthood, my parents must have decided that TV at Teddy’s was permitted. So for a time, on a weekly basis, my sister and I would squeeze into the sofa chair of worn yellow corduroy that sat just inches from the screen. This was during the reign of Hulk Hogan, and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and my uncle’s favorite, Andre the Giant, who, he reminded me on several occasions, though French by birth, was Polish by extraction, and who I thought—for quite some time, and not without some degree of perplexity—was the same Andre as the one in Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, a film I often heard discussed among my parents’ friends. The television, a Sony Trinitron—part screen, part speaker—had 12 channels, accessed by a row of plastic buttons that gave off a satisfying ping when pressed. My father had given Teddy a VCR, yet I don’t remember him watching anything but wrestling. Why this was, I never stopped to wonder. Only later would I consider that something about the cartoon violence functioned as a parody of all violence, and, perhaps, as a catharsis for the real kind that he’d been through.
For a living, my uncle ran a small convenience store on Geary, about half a mile from his apartment, purveying a mixture of American junk food and canned Eastern European imports to a motley group of Poles, Armenians, and Russians, alongside a smattering of patients and patients’ families who wandered down from Mount Zion. I can still see it, and from the height of someone no taller than my uncle’s waist: the pair of American flags taped to the cash register, the powdered Kool-Aid and the Cadbury Creme Eggs beside the bonneted baby on the imported Alenka chocolates, the jars of hard candy in their squeaky cellophane, the storeroom with boxes—boxes!—of Topps wax packs. If we were lucky enough, my uncle would allow my sister and me to select a toy or sweet, an act that, at the time, seemed less a demonstration of avuncular affection than evidence of untold wealth. Such was the stockroom bounty that it never even occurred to me that my father, a general practitioner with a growing private practice, was more financially secure of the two. I grew up in an Eichler in the suburbs 50 miles south of the city, with a backyard spanned by two great redwoods that littered their feathered leaves across the insulation tarp on the small, unheated pool. It was hardly great wealth—this was the pre-dot-com days, when a doctor could still buy a house in Silicon Valley—but we certainly had much more than Teddy, for whom financial planning consisted of bribing his homesick Russian landlord with jars of pickled herring that he brined himself.
Of course, the differences between my uncle and my father—differences, one could say, between the two Andres—might just have been a product of their difference in age. Teddy was 19 when my father was born in a Queens emergency room, a gap accounted for by years of war and statelessness, and their mother’s steadfast refusal to bring another child into a world that could take everything away. By the time my father arrived, the family’s story—the flight, the work camps, the loss of a first son to Red Army conscription—was all part of a past not often spoken of. My father knew the map: Warsaw, Białystok, the gulags outside Arkhangelsk, then Tashkent, Kherson, Kyiv, and back to Poland when the war was over. There, finding nothing, no one, they’d continued on to Paris, where they lived until they followed their sole surviving cousin to New York. By then Teddy spoke five languages, and none of them well. His vulgar Russian of the gulag nursery, his market Uzbek, his Ukrainian, his singsong French with its pungent Belleville curses—they all served him primarily to play with other children. His Polish started to dissolve soon after they arrived in Queens, and my grandfather suddenly decreed that the family speak only “American,” which remained for years a patois of pantomime and guessed-at words. Hence: the accent (“huishy-huashy,” “Daffy Dug”), the trouble with articles (absent in Polish, also Russian and Uzbek), the seemingly random employ of his or her (such distinction missing in French). Even 30 years later, when I came to know him, he still spoke tentatively. He was afraid, my father once told me, that others would think his imperfect English might suggest ingratitude. It was safer not to speak.
My father was taller, stouter, his face tan from tennis and our vacations. Teddy, who probably would have been tall if not for the childhood hunger, gave a fainter, paler impression. Years later, I would often find that my memory of him conjured the unexpected image of driftwood, which, buffeted enough, grows gray and indistinct. Even in his 40s, he wore black old-man slacks, their polyester polished to a sheen around the seat and knees. He walked with a limp, and though it was a limp from childhood—hip dysplasia, unrepaired, my father told me—it added to my sense of his age. Even the apartment I arrived at that Sunday after Teddy passed away seemed to belong to someone of a prior generation. A short hallway gave onto a dining room scarcely larger than the circular table at its center. Then clockwise: kitchen; living room; a second, tiny hallway leading to closet, bedroom, bath. The wall-to-wall carpeting was still the dun of memory, as was the haphazard mix of “Turkish” rugs. The walls were empty but for a mounted set of commemorative plates from the U.S. bicentennial and some scattered oils—horn of plenty, mountain sunset—purchased over the years at flea markets and neighborhood sales.
On my father’s suggestion, we began in the living room. The old gray couch would go, of course, as would the dark credenza, pine stained to look like chestnut, filled mostly with issues of Time dating from the ’80s. There were some old Sears catalogs, some shoeboxes organized on unclear principles: paperweights with watch parts, and keys to far more houses, cars, and lockboxes than my uncle possessed. While they seemed to me completely anonymous, my father lingered. Yet when I wondered aloud whether there was a story to any of these artifacts, he shook his head. It was striking, he told me, how little reminded him of his brother, indeed, how little of the apartment reflected his brother’s inner life at all, unless of course one realized that one feature of that inner life was to keep itself hidden. Rather, he was thinking, he said, what he’d been thinking for days: namely, how much he regretted that he had not pressed Teddy to accept more of his charity. I probably didn’t know, he told me, but his brother had supported him during medical school, had moved with him to the Bay Area; it was only fair to pay him back. But Teddy always refused. While at first my father attributed such stubbornness to personal dignity, over time, as the two of them had separated in station, he’d come to understand it differently. Teddy never seemed to begrudge my father’s success. He was drunk and expansive at my parent’s wedding, laughing even at the inside jokes he didn’t understand. He gave a wedding gift, a set of crystal glasses from Neiman Marcus, completely inconsistent with his tastes and far too generous. Long before I was walking, he gave me a bicycle, just as he bought ballet shoes for my sister, as if to stake a claim on milestones to come.
Over time, my father said, he’d come to wonder whether such extravagance was Teddy’s recognition of the diverging paths their lives would take, something he saw long before my father did. And it happened: my father often in the clinic, or attending an art-house-film series with friends, or taking us on summer camping trips. Trips to which, he added, he frequently invited his brother and Donna, knowing full well that they would refuse. What the Malle film was to “The Giant,” Arches National Park was to Reno, where Donna gambled and my uncle, I assume, must have spent his time doing something other than eating, and yet returned only with photos of himself (dressed in that eternal off-white dress shirt, his arm slung over Donna’s shoulder) against the bounty of the buffets.
They were an odd couple. Now I suspect he was drawn to her for the sheer volume of her Americanness—for her big American hair and white patent-leather heels, for the brooches, bracelets, and earrings that jingled out her presence well before she entered a room. Even her bust, hammocked in polyester pink-and-chartreuse blouses, seemed somehow American in the brash way it called attention to its size. She was of stone-fruit farming stock; the family went as far back in California as anyone could go, she’d say, “without being Miwoks.” She had a history of epilepsy, and though it had been decades since she’d had a seizure, she never learned to drive, and so my uncle chauffeured her everywhere. For as long as I knew him, he drove a Pontiac Bonneville, a model from the early ’70s that reminded my sister and me of the cars driven by kidnappers in those ominous school educational videos that taught us not to talk to strangers. For Donna’s part, aside from the chauffeuring, it was hard to say what she saw in my uncle. He was handsome, or appeared to have once been handsome, and I can recall the occasional waitress, checkout girl, or, later, nurse who was quite charmed by his courtly European manners and his accent. But Donna showed no interest in where he’d come from. She hated the herring and the borscht, and not once did I hear her ask him about Europe. Indeed, she seemed to have almost no awareness of Teddy’s story at all. My father didn’t know whether this was because his brother didn’t want to tell her, or she didn’t want to know; his guess was both, which might go some way toward explaining their compatibility. Or maybe it was this, he said: To Teddy, Donna knew she was uncommon, and we all want to be uncommon, and the moment she realized the error of this understanding was the moment she left.
Anyway, my father said, he now regretted the distance that had grown between them, particularly as time went on, and my sister and I grew older, and our weekends filled with sports and friends. They still spoke, but then my father got an affiliated position at the university and began to teach and travel more, and sometimes weeks would pass before he saw his brother. It was because of this, he said, that he wasn’t really certain how my uncle had developed his interest in the war—the Civil War, he clarified—save that it had begun with Donna. At the time, he didn’t think it was remarkable. He had seen his brother go through a similar period of interest in his adopted country earlier, at the time of the bicentennial, though that had a seeking, sad quality to it, as if the commemorative plates, the flag placed on his balcony, were ways of trying out an identity he didn’t possess. My father could remember how on that Fourth of July, he and my mother had gone with Teddy and Donna to watch the celebrations. Parades were not something my father went to regularly—they were, he felt, only for children or for fascists. But Teddy was different. He never spoke of the connection between his observance of certain holidays—the Fourth, Memorial Day, Veterans Day—and the fact that, due to his hip, he had been turned down when he had tried to enlist for Korea. My father wasn’t even born at the time of those rejections, but in later years, he sensed that the sole thing his brother ever envied him for was his two years of service as a doctor with the VA. Indeed, much of his brother’s patriotism stemmed, he thought, not from pride, nor even gratitude, but rather from a kind of longing. After all, he told me, even though his parents never returned to Poland, they still had a home to carry in their memory. Teddy, meanwhile, found himself in the impossible position of missing something he’d never possessed.
But yes, the bicentennial: For all my father’s suspicion of patriotism, it began auspiciously. The mood was festive. The slopes of Golden Gate Park were blanketed with drumming corps, students dressed as redcoats played war among the eucalypti, and beauties with long white gloves waved from convertibles bedecked with paper flowers. Donna was dressed in skintight striped red pants and a starry bodice. She’d purchased paper tricornes from a vendor, for my parents and for Teddy, who placed it at a jaunty angle over his thinning hair. He seemed utterly enraptured by the pageantry, my father said, by the parades, the high-school bands and floats. Only later in the day, when my father was returning from the concession stands, did he happen to see his brother at a moment when Teddy thought no one was watching, standing in the middle of the cheering crowd with a look of such raw disconsolation, such unmooring, that my father felt he was perhaps for the first time seeing his brother as he really was.
And so, when Donna announced 10 years later that she and Teddy planned to visit historic sites in Gettysburg and Philadelphia, my father thought back to his brother at the bicentennial, and couldn’t help but wonder whether they should travel somewhere else. But he couldn’t bring himself to explain why, and in any case Donna’s sister had been and said it was fantastic, really, and they had already bought the tickets. As it turned out, Teddy, on his return, said almost nothing about the visit. He did not seem anguished, nor particularly thrilled. Were it not for the little Liberty Bell replicas he’d bought for me and my sister, it was as if he hadn’t even gone. All of which explained the surprise my father felt when, later that autumn, he called the shop and Donna told him that my uncle had flown east again, this time for a guided bus tour of famous battlegrounds in seven states.
“Apparently it’s his new hobby,” she said.
My father stayed by the phone for some time after she hung up. He didn’t know what to think, he told me. It seemed out of character; there was something even humorous about the image of his brother, in his dress shirts and suspenders, following a group of heartland tourists with their ball caps and their cameras slung about their necks. But then, not three months after his return, Teddy was on another flight, this time to Georgia. Soon my father found the dining table stacked with volumes from the Inner Sunset library: books on famous battles, biographies of Grant and Sherman, guides to uniforms and musketry. Particularly guides to uniforms, he told me, which should have been his clue, because it was around this time that the reenactments began.
He asked me whether I remembered these, and I answered that I did. Like much about my uncle, I hadn’t thought of them in years, but now that they’d been mentioned, I could still recall the day my sister discovered the vintage revolver in Teddy’s bedroom closet, and the subsequent explanation that my uncle offered my enraged mother. At the time, the gun had clearly overshadowed all other aspects of the story, though in retrospect, it seems amazing that I didn’t find it at least a little odd that my uncle—who still substituted the French mais for the English but, and still referred to cornflakes and Rice Krispies as kasha, and most fruits by their Uzbek names (because in Tashkent, at the age of 10, he ate his first peach, his first plum, his first orange)—had found such purpose in dressing up with a group of strangers, to act out the battles that had burned across fields and pastures so far from his life. But I was 10 when the reenactments started, and still at the age when most adults were equally intriguing and equally dull. Teddy’s possession of a grimy Union uniform, or the image of him charging across a field with other reenactors, was about as remarkable as my Uncle Steven’s double joints, or the huge plastic trophies my Aunt Deborah had collected in her softball league, enough to cover a whole wall.
I told my father this.
He nodded. And yet the funny thing, he said, was that at the time, as far as hobbies went, he hadn’t found it terribly strange. It was certainly more interesting than “Wrestling Mania” or whatever those ridiculous orgies called themselves. This was the time of Glory and the Ken Burns film. He found his patients reading bookmarked copies of Battle Cry of Freedom in the waiting room; he himself had been slowly making his way through Shelby Foote. A few years later, a reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg would draw some tens of thousands of spectators. The papers and TV loved to cover the events, the tone of the reporting sometimes whimsical, sometimes a bit condescending, but usually at least ending with an elegiac hopefulness that the battles could serve as some kind of ritual through which scars both new and old might be healed. Nor was he the only one to see how the reenactments might offer a baptism for those whose families had come from somewhere else. He could recall a television program that had featured extensive interviews with an expat who traveled each year from Stockholm to don the gray outfit of a Confederate soldier, and a Rhode Islander of Japanese extraction who was “serving” in a Union regiment. Both men, my father said, had testified that participation in the reenactments had for the first time in their life made them feel truly American, though whether this was so for Teddy, my father didn’t know. In any case, he said, he never exactly understood what it was that Teddy did at the reenactments, until a conversation with Donna, at the beginning of the end of Teddy’s life.
It was August. By then Teddy had spent more than a decade making almost yearly visits to the battlefields, beginning at Bull Run in 1993, and ending that July, at the Battle of the Crater, when, the day after the reenactment, as he was waiting in the airport lounge of Richmond International, a blood clot, which had likely formed as he lay on the battleground, broke free from the deep veins of his calf. And then, on the CT scan at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital: not only the pulmonary embolism, but the tumor in his lungs.
Against the doctor’s advice, Teddy flew home to San Francisco for the surgery, which was where Donna, who had remained a friend despite their separation two years prior, and her subsequent marriage, told my father about the singular nature of his brother’s devotion. They were in the waiting room, amid samovars of lukewarm coffee, and children cavorting over the laps of anxious parents, and a flickering monitor with the first three letters of the patients’ names and the status of their surgeries. It was, he said, the longest conversation he’d ever had with her. Interestingly, she had assumed that his brother had told him much more about his forays. When he corrected her, she told him Teddy was probably just waiting for him to ask.
She paused, and after some consideration said, “You know he just went to die, right?”
My father, who had glanced up at the monitor, thought for a moment that in his worry, he had missed something. “I’m sorry?”
“To die,” she said. “In battle.”
But still he didn’t completely understand. Didn’t most of them “die,” he asked?
“Eventually,” she said. “But Teddy never even fought.”
She clarified: Moments after the bugler opened a reenactment, my uncle would just walk toward the fighting and lie down on the ground.
Were his brother not on the operating table, my father told me, he might have laughed in disbelief.
“Really,” Donna said.
Teddy never made it to the surrender, never stayed for the fairs and dances and trivia nights that often followed. Never drank with the other soldiers, neither from the shared flasks of “authentic” whiskey, nor the anachronistic beers that occasionally appeared in anachronistic coolers as if from outer space. Not only that, but my father also had to understand the context, Donna told him. If anything unites the reenactors, it is the desire to remain alive as long as possible, to participate in the history that they have prepared for so meticulously. It was actually a common complaint among the organizers (not to mention an apparent object of ridicule among the spectators) that none of the grown men playing soldiers wanted to die, particularly not early on. Who would? And miss the action, lying among the cow patties, while all around you, your comrades charged into history with muskets gleaming? Even when a bullet’s strike was undeniable, Donna said, most men would feign an injury, calling for comrades to transport them to the medical tent and the attention of the volunteer nurses. But not his brother. Not Teddy, who spent untold amounts of his dwindling savings on ever more authentic uniforms, not to mention flights and car rentals, and “event rates” charged by roach motels. Not Teddy, who stood on shivering mornings at Vicksburg and Spotsylvania, at Shiloh and Chickamauga, as around him thousands of fellow soldiers, rifles stuffed with paper cartridges, shifted beneath their heavy packs. Not Teddy, who—when the clarion broke across the pastures at Seven Pines and Opequon, and the smoke bombs began to fly at Franklin and Fort Stedman—lay down on the mossy forest path, or beside the bursting blooms of buttonbush, or in the fields. Always on his back and looking up, said Donna, who one afternoon, watching at Antietam, had realized that as much as she loved this man, a part of him would always remain far beyond her reach. Just as she understood that she would leave him, not out of animosity and not with bitterness—life at 75 was too short for either—but because what he was seeking was something she couldn’t provide.
He would lie there for hours in that strange vigil, as around him the fighting raged, and slowly, reluctantly, one by one, the others began to fall, sprawling with cries or dramatic gurgles, tearing at hidden bladders of red coloring, tumbling theatrically from their mounts. Sometimes far away, or sometimes near him; sometimes even touching him, resting a hand or head upon his chest. And as the pastures filled, he remained unmoving, the warm sun on his face, or the cold of the winter soil of Fredericksburg seeping through his coat, his back, his aching hip. Until at last the bugle sounded and all at once, together, the dead rose from the consecrated, hallowed ground.
By then it was late afternoon in the apartment, and an unexpected sun had broken through the summer fog that rolled unimpeded up and down San Francisco’s long western flank. From the living room, we moved on to a little workroom my uncle had set up in a hallway closet, with mason jars of nuts and bolts, and sundry pieces of wood gathered in the blue Danish butter-cookie tins, where one day they could be found if needed. Then the kitchen, the refrigerator empty save for a tub of sour cream and a two-liter bottle of kvass. We would leave this. Just as we would leave the simvastatin and the digitalis in the bathroom, the dress shoes with their replacement shoelaces, the pantry stocked with jars of cat food he used to mix with sugar and leave out for the strays.
In the bedroom, a heating pad still warmed the sofa chair; terrifyingly, the paramedics must have left it on. The chair would go, as would the flanking oxygen stand and vaporizer, the Trinitron with its push-button channels: the Trinitron, on which, one March, Teddy played for me a copy of WrestleMania he’d purchased specially by mail order. Alone that night (my sister at a sleepover, my parents at a play), we’d watched the full three hours, fight after fight, the television’s blue light flickering over us, until the moment—to quote the jubilant words of the announcer—“the irresistible force met the immovable object,” and Hulk Hogan lifted Andre, trembling and helpless as Antaeus, and brought him thundering to the ground.
The photographs were in the closet, its mirrored door now bearing a long, diagonal crack. He had kept them in a series of old wooden cigar boxes, next to the Union outfits. I suspect my father had known that we would find them there, and that he had waited because he knew that after he found them, he wouldn’t go on. The room was dark; the only window gave onto the apartment parking lot, where a couple were yelling at each other in Russian, so we brought the photos back into the living room and laid the boxes on the table before the couch. We were all there—Donna in her flowered polyester blouses, and my sister with her braces, and my uncle sitting with me at an ice-cream parlor on a day that suddenly returned to me with such vividness that I could taste (and as I write, can still taste) the cold ribbons of caramel in the melting cream. There was a pair of early photos of my grandparents, taken in a Warsaw studio; and others, of my parents’ wedding, of Thanksgivings, and bar mitzvahs, and the high-school graduation that I hadn’t remembered he’d attended. And then, at last, the photos of the war— not the one he had survived, but the one that, repeatedly, he hadn’t. In contrast to the snapshots, these were different: large-format, commemorative photographs of the reenactments, in period sepia or black-and-white, the scenes instantly, utterly familiar from the albumen prints of Mathew Brady, with their field tents and broken ramparts, their scattered cannons and bodies strewn across the field. And on every photo: a tiny arrow etched in careful blue ballpoint that showed, among the countless fallen soldiers, which one he was.
This story has been excerpted from Daniel Mason’s forthcoming collection, A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth.