I was probably ten years old or more before I knew that Uncle Louie was not really my uncle. When I first learned of it, the knowledge saddened me – did this change the way he would behave towards us, or the way I should behave towards him? Was I still allowed to call him “uncle”?
But mom, or dad, or whoever it was, explained that “no”, it didn’t change a thing. The great thing about growing up, after all, is that you get to expand your family. You get to decide who should be invited out of it, and more importantly, who should be invited in. Mine had become a family into which new and special people came, and no one ever left. And if family had anything to do with appearance, then to my young perception, Louie Chreiki fit right in: after all, he had fine, dark hair and a mustache. That practically made him my father. It didn’t hurt that every other uncle I had also sported dark hair and a mustache. It all made sense.
Uncle Louie, it seemed, had always been. Every day as far back as I can remember, Dad would speak his name into the phone in that exasperated tone that implied Louie had done something unaccountably foolish: “Ahh, Louie!” he would spout into the phone, or “…and, then, that Louie…!” he would exclaim later to Uncle John, and his mustache would quiver. Louie never complained. On our birthdays, he sent my brother and me cards with crisp bills inside, and when we met he would exclaim at our size. Andy and I understood that Louie had been among the first to hold us as babies.
It was Louie who taught me how to play pool. A singularly unprepossessing man with stooped shoulders and a kind, honest eye, he was the last person you would expect to wipe out a pool table – but when Louie came to visit the year we got the full sized table, I learned what it meant to be “a pool shark”.
Before Louie, we kids did more damage to the felt on our table than we did to the slate board on which we chalked the score. We challenged Louie to play because he seemed too nice and quiet to beat anyone. He had absolutely no bluster. As we watched him slowly and methodically make his way around the table, however, plunking away the solids as if they had strings attached to them, our perception of “Lou-Dog” changed. It became clear that some magic was at work, and that Louie possessed this magic.
But, with a simple smile, he offered to teach it to us. And he did. To this day, I can put away a bank shot, calculate backspin and topspin, and at the least, NOT disgrace myself with a cue stick…all because of Louie.
When Gramma died, and dad and I went to the house in Port Huron to help get things sorted, Louie was there. He was always there. My last memory of him was in Gramma’s backyard, ankle deep in snow. We were trying to prize the old plow from what appeared to be frozen earth for Uncle John. But the plow wouldn’t budge. Dad had a propane torch out, hoping to heat the railroad spikes holding the plow in place enough to loosen it from the flowerbed. Naturally, dad and I were bickering about the best way to free the plow, while Louie stood close at hand to help either, or both of us, with whatever course of action we determined upon. He excused Dad’s bluster to me, excused mine to Dad – in short, did everything he could to keep everyone happy and accomplish the task into the bargain.
I remember looking at him in wonder. To myself, I thought: Don’t you ever get upset? Can’t anyone’s stupid words or flustered actions unsettle that calm, easy outlook? Don’t you ever see bad in anybody? But, all I said was, “Louie, you are an amazing man. You see good in everyone, and nothing makes you mad. My dad is lucky to have you.” It was true.
We were all lucky to have Louie. He would have done everything in his power for a friend in need, and anyone who knew him was his friend. Liked him. How could they not? He was the sort of person whose very rudeness was innocent and totally free from malice. He never spoke a cruel word – I can say that with certainty, as little as I knew him, because cruelty couldn’t penetrate a heart like his. Or, if it did, it never made its way out again.
Louie Chreiki, Uncle Louie, thank you. Thank you for being. Thank you for sharing that being with my family and me. You taught me more than playing pool. You taught me more than I realized – about patience, about friendship, about how to listen.I will miss you, Louie, but – however hard it is to let you go from my family – you went as you chose, when you chose. I’ll take that as a comfort of sorts, and remember you fondly.