My mom’s eldest brother, my Uncle Billy, died on Wednesday. That’s him in the red hat and sunglasses. That’s me in my pink Sanibel Island t-shirt and red jellies. I love this photo. I love how me, my brother, and my cousin Zack stairstep up with Uncle Billy behind. Not one of us is his own child, and yet in the middle of summer, on a random weekday, he carted us out to the racetrack.
When I think of Billy, I think of the track. When I think of the track, I think of Billy and very often of this day. The photo wasn’t an accident; it was promised ahead of time. “We’re gonna get our picture made with a horse!” In my memory, the whole day is colored by the promise of this photo. You have to win to be in the Winner’s Circle photo, and I’ve always wondered how Billy knew that Lucy’s Late was going to win. Although, when I look at the photo finish these 25 years later, it seems like it might have been a no-brainer. (How many lengths would you say Lucy put between herself and good ol’ Two Liner?) At the time, though, to an eight-year-old who loved horses and the adventure of the racetrack, it was a little bit of magic.
My Uncle Billy didn’t so much talk as roll out words in a monotone mumble. If you didn’t know him, you’d never guess he had a yard full of hostas and ferns and all that’s good and green. He knew about plants in the way that my mom knows about plants and the way my grandmother knew—what to plant in full sun or partial, what to separate and when, why this plant or that one didn’t come back like it should have. I didn’t get that gene, but I wish I had.
Uncle Billy was complicated and flawed, as we all are, but he was funny and generous, indulgent and kind-hearted. And that’s a lot.
And here he is “giving away” my mom at my parents’ wedding. Check out the brown shoes with the black tux. Classic.