of sparkling apple juice and scotch
I cannot pinpoint a first memory of my Aunt Bettie and Uncle Gene Campbell because they didn’t come into my life, they were always there. Bettie and Gene were my parents’ friends before I was born; in fact they were the only non-blood relations at my parents’ wedding. Mom and Dad chose to do something small, in the chapel of our church instead of the sanctuary, and only their parents and my dad’s brother’s family were invited. Bettie and Gene, it seems, would not be kept away and they crashed the ceremony. I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t mind.
As a little girl, the nights that the Campbells came over to our house were always special. We got dressed up, we had hors d’oeuvres and special drinks, we ate in the fancy dining room. I got to drink sparkling apple juice out of a tiny wine glass. Gene and my Dad would drink Scotch, and to this day the smell of it reminds me of those nights. The women smelled wonderful, too–these were nights for perfume and fancy makeup and staying up late.
My parents traveled with the Campbells, so many of these nights consisted of after dinner slide shows, complete with portable screen and an old school carousel projector. Though I didn’t sit through the slideshows, I used the time when the lights were out and no one was looking to flit from room to room, absorbed in fantastical adventures inspired by the castles of Scotland on the screen.
Going to dinner at the Campbell’s house was even more magical. I think it was the gold flecks painted into the ceiling in their den that made the place sparkle in my little girl’s eyes. I remember at least once classical music playing on the stereo inspired me to dance from room to room, using the architecture of the sunken den to execute a number of fancy leaps, while the grownups sat and talked. The back room contained a number of treasures close to my heart and every visit involved a rediscovery of them: a music box that played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” A wooden duck that could be pulled on a string. Book after book of Peanuts comics. Over successive visits I read them all.
When most of my Christmas and birthday presents were still toys, the Campbells started giving me books. The What Katy Did series filled my desire for more Little House books (eight is not enough!). They gave me Pride and Prejudice long before I knew who Jane Austen was. Bettie also has a knack for picking the perfect piece of jewelry for me. When I moved to New York they visited me there. When I started my own theater company, they donated to it. When I got married Bettie and Gene throw a brunch for the wedding party. When I got divorced they took me out for Mexican food. (What can I say, they know what I like.)
As I write these words, I realize these things sound so quotidian. But the smells, the light, and the words of those books take me back to those nights in body and spirit–in everything but actual time–in a way that assures me the memories are important. I think that because of Bettie and Gene, it is written on my brain that having friends with whom one shares an entire lifetime is a good thing, an important thing, a thing defined not so much by what you celebrate, but that you celebrate together. It’s a thing to get dressed up for. For lifetime friends, you get out the fancy glasses.
The wonderful family that survives my Uncle Gene is a testament to the fact that he lived a wonderful life. Today I call myself aunt to a number of children who are not my biological relatives. If I can ever be anything like as important to them as Bettie and Gene have been to me, I’d consider myself to have done alright.
Thanks so much Uncle Gene for all the books and all the magic and all the love.