It was a few hours after my great-grandfather’s funeral that I met my Great-Uncle Louie. My grandparents’ home on Washington Street swelled with relatives, men sweating in heavily starched button downs and muted ties, women bustling about in dark swishing skirts and pumps, balancing punch in one hand, while steadying crackers topped with even strips of Vermont cheddar in the other.
As the adults mingled in the dining room and living room, sobered and hushed by death, I heard a ruckus in the kitchen. Upon entering the narrow space, there stood Uncle Louie, surrounded by a handful of children: my cousins and other distant relations. He was laughing, a piercing pitch; while wildly pouring ginger ale like a professional bartender, allowing the fizz to overflow, a volcano creating a sticky mess on Grandma’s shiny countertops.
Wheeeee, he laughed as he poured. We can have fun, can’t we? Unlike all of those serious faces in there!
He thumbed toward the living room, and mimicked their somber expressions.
My cousins laughed, unaccustomed to such escapades, and certainly relieved to poke some fun into this sad heap of a day. I stood in the doorway, watching. He reminded me of a clown.
Want to see a magic trick? Louie asked.
He dropped the 2-liter of ginger ale on the damp counter with a thump, and I watched the soda swirl then spill over the edge. Whipping out a deck of cards from his back pocket, he warmed up his act with multiple sleight of hand tricks, causing a quarter to disappear from beneath his handkerchief before retrieving it from behind a cousin’s ear.
With a now captive audience, he then splayed the deck of cards, and asked us each to pick one. We did, memorizing our cards before placing them face down within the deck.
Now, I am going to find your exact cards. This magic trick is called 52 Pickup. Watch me carefully.
We leaned in as he shuffled the deck.
Staring seriously at the small faces before him, he flung the cards up, high into the air. They spread and fluttered earthward like confetti, landing on both the ginger ale-laced counters and linoleum as he hollered:
Whoppeee! The best magic trick of all! Now you kids get to pick them up! All fifty-two!
He roared with laughter, slapping his knee and howling.
Grandpa’s even voice, behind me.
This is neither the time nor the place, as we are paying our respects. And your magic trick? That was unkind. He ushered Louie out of the kitchen.
While 52 pickup and disappearing quarters are scarcely considered magic, it remains my first memory of the term. I never did care for Uncle Louie or such games. Both felt like a cheap trick.
Sophomore year in high school, there was a boy that I will call Matt, who sat next to me in English class. His father owned a produce farm, a place that according to my grandmother, was profiting hand over fist. I could certainly vouch for its success, as my brother and I worked there during high school. The place was consistently stuffed with happy customers, pushing their brimming carts, laden with bright pumpkins, Granny Smith apples, sweet potatoes, Romaine, and smoked Gouda.
Matt was a class clown, always joking, in trouble with the teacher, and so on. He was smart, popular, and reminded me of someone. It wasn’t until he started in on multiple card tricks, before class, that I realized that someone was Uncle Louie.
Matt begged a few of us, on occasion, to write his research papers, offering us cold cash as payment. I rolled my eyes and ignored him, but was impressed by the number of twenties folded in his pocket.
One Saturday, while I was working at his father’s produce farm, straightening a gigantic display of McIntosh apples, I heard his father’s raised voice in the back room.
I peeked around the corner, where he stood red-faced before Matt, pointing emphatically, jabbing his shoulder, yelling words such as lazy and irresponsible.
I cannot believe that you are even my son. Get out of my sight.
Matt turned abruptly, and noticed me. I lowered my gaze, and stepped back to work.
He sauntered over and picked an apple from the pile, tossing it in the air before shining it on his jeans. He took a bite.
My Dad’s a funny guy! he laughed, mouth full. I really know how to get him going.
He whistled as he walked away. Always playing the part.
After that, things felt different in English class. Matt flung himself into overdrive, becoming extra everything. Extra funny, extra relaxed, extra I don’t care what happens. I felt embarrassed for him, hiding behind all of those silly antics. I wished I had not seen his father’s anger on display.
Matt knew that I knew, and it felt complicated, even though we were not even friends, just classmates.
And then, one gray, wintery day, after class, he jogged over to me, a J. Crew sweater upon his back and a smirk on his face.
Check out my locker, Kristin. I want to show you something.
I followed him across the bustling hallway.
Look what I have, he grinned as he opened his locker.
The shelves were stuffed with boxes of brand new Walkman radios. Dozens of them.
Where did you get these? I asked.
Aww, I just lift them from wherever. Haven’t been caught once. He grinned. Want one?
No Matt, I don’t. They’re stolen. Why are you doing this? I thought of the unending cash in his pockets, his wealthy family, the luxurious home and expensive vehicles.
Because I can. And I’m good at it.
I turned away, knowing that his behavior was a railing against his father, who cursed and shamed and humiliated his son.
It was a deep, fathomless cry: Look at me. Notice me. See me. I have value.
Our actions are mirrors to our heart. There are reasons for our behaviors.
And our hearts, if not tethered to Christ, will roam and wander and seek and turn over any stone that will validate our personhood. An insatiable void: Feed me, Feed me, Feed me, Fill me up.
I do not know what became of Matt.
As for my Great-Uncle Louie, I discovered, years later, that once upon a time, several of his children had died of cystic fibrosis. Funerals were unbearable for him, triggers that sent him spiraling into all kinds of inappropriate behaviors. Thus the ginger ale sideshow.
We all have broken stories, don’t we?
I say, Let’s not waste them.
Our stories hold power as we turn over leaves along life’s trail, growing interested in the ways that God is working and showing off his goodness and his sovereignty. Even now he is weaving our burdens and heartaches and suffering together with his golden rope of goodness.
Yet it often hurts, doesn’t it? I know this well. This past week has been tough. Since I write to remember, this ragged story will eventually curve its way onto the page. But first, I must step back, pray, consider, and wait. All in due time.
That golden rope? It is meant to lead us to the feet of Christ: casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). So I do so again and again, in the center of pain, trusting that all things will work together for good, as I hold fast to God.
Our God never plays 52 Pickup, tossing events randomly into the air, leaving us hunched over, trying to pick up and sort the mess. No. He is with you, Christian, even now, a gentle hand upon your aching shoulder as you grasp your mustard seed of faith. The Good Shepherd never leaves even one of his sheep. In Christ we are never alone.
May the peace of Christ rule over each of our hearts today (Colossians 3:15).