My father was an only child who gained three brothers-in law after marriage. If we could peek into any of Grandma’s gatherings, we’d see an idyllic tableau of men’s camaraderie. But my memories provide more information: Although Dad and my mother’s brothers were friendly, I can’t recall a time when they enjoyed each other’s company away from our Sunday dinners. In short-they didn’t hang together.
Both my youngest uncle Benson and my father were in-laws; married to Grandma Rose’s two eldest daughters. Perhaps, that’s why they had a fuller relationship, though far from a bromance. The men were fourteen years apart in age with divergent cultural backgrounds. My father thought Benson was immature; spending too much time extolling his talented wife, beautiful daughter and exceptional son. At home, Dad referred to him as the kid, but together, they were witty and fun-loving men who provided my most loving memories.
In the late 1960’s, New York’s slowing economy had both men considering a move to Florida to get in on the building boom. It was a bold move for family men with little expendable means. Aunt Evie dropped them off at La Guardia airport and sped off to fetch her school-age children. While my father checked in, Uncle Benson took in Delta’s terminal, stopping at the row of Tele-Trip Insurance vending machines. After inserting $2.50 in quarters and taking his policy, he re-joined my father.
The men boarded, ordered drinks and shared their dreams of financial success. While Dad ordered their second round, my uncle unfolded his new insurance policy and began to read. “This is genius, Dave. You should have bought one,” he crowed. “If this plane crashes, Evie and my kids get $25,000.”
My father was not a snarky eye-roller, but I’m sure he shook his head when he chided the kid, “You better hope Evie’s a good swimmer, because when this plane goes down in the Atlantic, she has to rescue that policy!”
My father told the story often, but not with Benson nearby, “Can you believe it? He took the crash insurance on the plane!” If Dad was still with us, I’m sure he would have texted, SMH!
Our families often vacationed together in a two-car convoy that traveled Route 17, stopping only at The Red Apple Rest for breakfast on our way up and the Lucky Eight for lunch on our return. Dad never allowed the kid to pick up the tab. (Dad always treated those around him; from Carvel cones to fancy Manhattan dinners.) It was just his way of saying I love you—much to Mom’s disdain.
Still, Uncle Benson argued whenever the check arrived. On our very last upstate vacation together, we pulled into the Lucky Eight Chinese Restaurant’s crowded lot where Uncle Benson insisted he be allowed to pay for our meal. Inside, we dipped our fat fried noodles into hot mustard, slurped our wonton soup, munched on shrimp egg rolls, chicken chow mein with fried rice and pistachio-cherry ice cream with fortune cookies. All the while, the brothers-in-law argued over the check.
Back in the parking lot, neither seemed content with the outcome, but like all our family trips, the kisses and hugs went on and on like we were being separated at Korea’s 49th parallel. Eventually, we got into our packed cars, where the grown-ups sang along with Doris Day on the radio while their children fell asleep in the back seats.
The embarrassment that the kid paid was like an itch my dad couldn’t calm. When we got home, Dad called his brother-in-law to rebuke him.
“Who’s older-you or I?”
“Who still has little ones in elementary school.”
“So, why couldn’t you let me pay? You make me feel like….”
“Dave, I didn’t pay. I thought you paid.”
“I didn’t pay. You said you were paying.”
My dad took a half day off work that week to drive two hours to the Lucky Eight Chinese Restaurant. A balding man, at least 20 years my father’s senior, came out of the kitchen and offered him a seat. He spoke very little English. Dad spoke no Cantonese, but handed the man money and offered his apology. The owner listened and shook his head over the young men’s foolishness, making Dad feel like a chastised child. The owner fetched a bottle from the bar. After pouring 2 neat scotches, he raised his glass in my father’s direction. Nothing more was said.
After that day, my father let the kid pay whenever he offered.
POST_SCRIPT: This writing began on a walk with my friend HJ Lee when I told her the flight insurance story. She suggested I share it in my blog. Days later, when I had just finished my first draft, my son called to say, Uncle Benson died.
Benson Wolfe Stone was a son, brother, brother-in-law, husband, father of two and grandfather of four whose happy memories stopped on 9/11 when his only son, Lonny Jay Stone was murdered and martyred at the World Trade Center.