Goodbye, Ralph Hollis
Long, long ago there was a TV commercial for Maypo. It was a stick-figure cartoon of a little boy coming into the living room. The dialog was “Who’s that sleeping on the couch? Oh, it’s Uncle Ralph! Wake up, Uncle Ralph!” I loved that commercial because that was my earliest memory of my own Uncle Ralph – discovering him on the living room couch one Christmas in Baldwin, Long Island when I was four or five years old.
From stories I heard from both my parents, Ralph was a bit of a wild young man. He was my mother’s half-brother, though they always thought of each other as brother and sister. He was seven years younger than my mother, and she always ‘mothered’ him, while they grew up in Waltham, Massachusetts. Out of high school he joined the US Air Force. I suppose that was when he started drinking and smoking heavily. Mom and Dad were constantly bailing him out of one situation or another. When he finished his stint in the Air Force, Ralph came back to the US to marry the girl of his dreams, only to find she had jilted him. Finding himself lost again, he joined the US Army and became an MP. I remember my mother saying it was funny that such a shy man ended up patrolling the red light district of Paris. In his military travels, Uncle Ralph never forgot me; three presents I remember well are an abalone bracelet, a bracelet from Turkey, and a sampler of French perfumes. One of those perfumes is still my favorite – Je Reviens by the House of Worth. I used to write him regularly, though I don’t remember any of the correspondence; I only remember the onionskin stationery and an APO box.
While stationed in France, Ralph met Madeleine, and she was the light of his life till the day he died. They married in France, and when DeGaulle threw the US troops out of France, they moved across the border to Germany, near the Black Forest. From there he sent my mother and brother each cuckoo clocks. There my cousin John was born. And there they hosted a visit from my mother and baby sister, as well as a visit separately from my brother and his first wife.
When Ralph retired from the Army, they came to the states, and settled in at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he was the pilot for the deep-dive submarine Alvin. Ralph insisted that it was he who first spotted the remains of the Titanic. Annoyed that Dr. Ballard got all the credit, Ralph wrote and published an autobiography to tell his side of the story. Eventually he did get some credit, and I remember hearing his name and voice in a documentary on the Titanic. During his Woods Hole days, he visited us in Lindenhurst, Long Island once that I remember, with Madeleine and little Eddie, their second son. Another time, when I was going through a messy divorce, Ralph had come to visit me on Long Island and that was when I discovered that he had such a dry, straight-faced sense of humor that I didn’t even realize that he was joking. I remember him saying “Now I’m beginning to like you” – I think that was only partly in jest.
When my folks and sister moved to Connecticut, I followed suit, and we often had the pleasure of Ralph and Madeleine coming to visit. When his son John moved nearby, we would all congregate at John’s house or my parents’ house, with John being the regulatory bartender.
My sister’s first marriage was at my parents’ house. I had my two full-of-hell uncles checking in on me regularly. One would bring me drinks, and then the other would sit down next to me and say I appeared to be drinking too much. To be honest, I don’t remember which uncle played which role, but I’m sure they were in cahoots.
When Ralph retired from Woods Hole, he and Madeleine moved to Florida. The visits continued to Connecticut, but in between I didn’t keep in touch. It was during this time that I really got to know Madeleine and discovered that she had a marvelous sense of humor and treated me as another woman rather than a little niece. Ralph managed to still keep getting in trouble of sorts; he couldn’t stand being idle. He hired a friend of mine to build him a cabin in Vermont (I asked him not to use my friend, but he blithely went into the agreement, which cost him serious money). He bought a vintage car, which he paraded around until it stalled on a railroad track; Ralph got out safely, but that was the end of the car. And these were only the incidents I heard about.
When my father died in 1990, my mother asked Ralph to speak at the cemetery. He begrudgingly agreed, and I remember that his speech began with “Our father, who art in Heaven…” I prepared to continue the prayer, when Ralph changed course, observing that Dad was like a father to him, taking him in and bailing him out, all through my father’s life, and Ralph was very grateful for the haven when he made mistakes.
My father was always the ultimate host, regaling us with jokes at gatherings. When Dad was gone, Ralph decided he needed “to learn some clean jokes” so he could carry on the tradition. Delivered in his usual honest-it-happened-to-me manner, we were constantly taken in by him until the punch line. When he had a stroke about a decade after Dad’s death, he fought back and continued his role, just mumbling even more than he used to.
In 2010, after my mother had a stroke, Ralph decided to come up and see her, on his own, by train. He knew then that between his strokes and hers this would probably be the last time he’d see her. The visit started off with a bang. He never arrived at the house when he said he would. My mother and I drove to the train station – no sign of him. We drove the streets of New London, stopping police and vagrants, asking if anyone had seen him, to no avail. At about 10 PM I got a call from the New Haven police (how they found me, I don’t know); Ralph had mistakenly gotten off the train in New Haven and had a minor accident in his rented car. I found the hospital he was at, and the nurses thought he had dementia, as he continued to tell stories, some true, some not. I managed to convince them that he could be released (physically he was fine), and then spent an hour lost in New Haven trying to find the Interstate to home. After we all got a good night’s sleep, I found that my uncle was his usual self, albeit a little more fragile both mentally and physically. He made a lot of repairs around the house that Mom had neglected, talked incessantly, and smoked in the sun room while chatting with my cockatiel. He gave me the birth dates of himself, Madeleine and his sons, and called his beloved wife on their anniversary. He listened to me and my daughter discussing how to take care of my mother, and gave us his approval of our plans, which was important to my mother as well as to me. We managed to get him a non-stop train ride home after about a month.
A couple of years later, while my mother was visiting me in New York, and after Ralph had had another serious stroke, we called him. Even Mom, who was slowly slipping into dementia herself, said that he had apparently lost his connection to reality. A third stroke about eighteen months ago found me talking only with Madeleine.
And now here I sit, at four in the morning, already missing him and knowing that this ends the era of Uncle Ralph stories. I won’t ever again discover him on the living room couch.