I talk about my family a lot here. Mostly my mom and dad, but also Aunt Babe and my paternal grandparents, Janie and Paw Shaffner. And, of course, Breeda (family by proxy). Although it’s been almost five years since I’ve seen any of the Shaffner posse, and about ten years since I’ve been able to go back to spend Christmas with them, we keep in touch to a degree via social media and updates from my dad. And though we all differ greatly spiritually, politically and socially (and socio-politically) we all love each other and I miss them terribly. Especially around the holidays.
I know. I sound like a broken record since I say that every year. Around the holidays.
Let’s see here, I can tell you that my Uncle Doug and his wife, Aunt Janice, have both had some health issues, but they seem to be on the up and up now. Cousin Carey is very happily married, been doing some travelling and tattooing himself. His sister, my cousin Lisa, sometimes has some pink in her hair and is very exercisey and in shape (damn her). Aunt Babe moved in with her daughter Noel in Alexandria. Scott and Dolly and their kids live pretty close to Richmond and Scott just visited with my dad today. My dad tells me they are simply amazing parents. Uncle Pat and Aunt Trish always seem strong. Pat, as always, is the big brother, oldest of the sibs and essentially patriarch of the Shaffner clan. His daughters, Kim and Missy are both happily married with kids and great jobs and much success.
But what, or rather on whom, I want to focus today is Uncle Joe. Uncle Joe and Aunt Connie. Aunt Connie is my dad’s sister, and if you followed the paragraph above you can pretty much put together this particular cluster of Shaffners. You see, Uncle Joe passed away rather unexpectedly a couple of days ago. And with this news, I am left a little bewildered and, of course, quite sad.
When Dad and I made our annual Christmas trek to Roanoke, we always, always stayed with Connie and Joe. Dad would stay in the front bedroom upstairs and I would sleep on the couch downstairs by the Christmas tree. Suffice it to say, this was torturous geography when I was a child; the temptation of all of the beautifully wrapped presents just begging to be opened. It was also torturous from ages 18-28 when I drank a little too much holiday fun times and the family assembled in the living room EARLY Christmas morning - way earlier than I was ready to start the holiday coffee and present opening. But it was the ritual. And ritual is very important to me (I’m not sure why).
There seemed to always be a cat or two around. Usually at least one of them was finicky or scared or mean or fragile or an escape artist or never came out from the basement. There was always a fire in the fireplace. Uncle Joe always had a can of Budweiser in his hand. Until the Christmas Eve dinner at Aunt Babe’s. Then it was wine. A big beef tenderloin (mouth-watering and delicious) was an annual tradition and the centerpiece of our Christmas Eve dinner, which Joe was responsible for after Aunt Babe tapered off her chef-sponsibilities. But even back when Aunt Babe bought it and cooked it everyone would laugh about how Joe would show up and immediately warn her not to cook it too long. He was also a gun toting, very far right wing, Republican. And he was my Uncle Joe. He was family.
It’s funny. When I was in high school I dyed my hair a lot and often pierced things. I especially loved going to Roanoke for Christmas for the expressions on my family’s faces. The shock value. In college, I considered myself a bit of an upstart, and I loooved to protest almost anything I could involving government. I was very easily the leftiest lefty of the Shaffners. And probably lots of other families as well. Again, I still think there was some satisfaction in the shock value of that, too. I almost looked for some extreme sentiment to spill out of Uncle Joe’s mouth so that I could heave a huge sigh and clomp out of the room. And though I still lean pretty far to the left, what I love about my family, and people, and hell, this country, is that we all get to have those opinions and we get to talk and laugh and argue about them. And who better to experience all of those things with, who has to stick by you through decades of change, hair dyes, piercings and political protests? Your family, that’s who.
I’ve been looking back at Connie’s online photo albums that she’s been archiving for years. There are tons of pictures of the entire family spanning as far back as my Great Grandparents. I was particularly drawn to the ones from the seventies, with Connie, Joe and my mom and dad and their hippie friends, everyone with long hair - so iconic, camping at The Fiddler’s Convention in 1972, in New England in 1973, and Okrakoke in 1974. They all look so rad. My mom laughed as she told me about one of these trips to Okrakoke where everything seemed to be going wrong. Dad stabbed through his hand with a knife while trying to shuck an oyster, Mom was pregnant and wasn't in the mood to have sand in her pants and big green flies feasting on her. Joe insisted on camping as planned. Ordinarily Joe would have emerged victorious, but not this time. Mom and dad checked into a hotel with Joe kicking and protesting all the way. But so very Joe. Such a contrarian. So badass.
Idiosyncratic, nuanced, difficult, compassionate, generous, kind, opinionated, honest, interested, interesting, intelligent, a great cook, camper, fisherman, smoker of meats (and cigars), true to himself and good to his family. Salt of the Earth. That’s what comes to mind when I think hard about Joe.
Normally I would wrap up this post with a recipe, or sometimes a restaurant review. This time I decided to drive out to an old hamburger stand, deep in the Valley; Bill's Hamburgers. It's been there, unchanged, with it's eight (8) stools, since 1965 (which is really old by LA standards), and run by 85 year-old Bill who is as salty as his burger. Bill, and his jokes-to-offend-and-enchant every race, creed, sex, and color, has been there since day one flipping his burgers - and on the very same griddle that is but a few years his junior. Joe would like this guy and this spot, for sure. So I grabbed Maggie and six pack of Budweiser (in the can) to sit on the side of the road, eat a burger and make a toast.
This one's for you Uncle Joe.
One year ago: M.B. Post
Two years ago: Homemade Pasta
Three years ago: Griiled Cheese Night at Campanile