My Uncle Bill was always just some old, dead guy. He died 2 years before I was born, which made him not necessarily real to me.
What held intrigue for us kids growing up was the fact that he disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. Is the Bermuda Triangle even a thing these days?
My mom was the oldest of 5 kids, making their way from Archbold, Ohio. Bill was the second oldest. My grandmother’s house on North Defiance Street in Archbold was built around 1900. We visited from southeast Michigan a couple of times a year – during Christmas for sure, but other times as well – and slept in the upstairs, front bedroom. The room was cold, the floor was painted wood and the ceiling followed the pitch of the roof. There was a photo of Rufus (my grandfather, grandmother’s deceased husband) but no photos of Bill, that lost second child. The empty space Bill left never bothered me … that photo of Grandfather did. It was creepy, having him stare at us from out the silver nitrate, judging and … dead. He passed in 1951 at the age of 49, also a relative I never met.
I found out later that the photo I thought was Rufus, the photo I was afraid of, was actually a photograph of my grandmother’s father – or was it brother? Still… a dead guy. Family talked about Rufus but they rarely spoke of Bill. That’s probably why Rufus was more real and more other-worldly to me.
Uncle Bill was into Sciencey stuff. In the basement there was what was referred to as Bill’s “lab”. Bill’s lab, which included his darkroom, was behind that giant and terrifying old furnace. The furnace had crazy cephalopod-like arms, stretching outward from its top-most parts, seeking the floors upward and beyond. A true early 20th century situation going on in that cellar. Anyway, when I was young, Bill’s darkroom-behind-the-monster was exactly as he had left it. Scary for a kid, yet irresistibly compelling. Kids scream to be scared.
Uncle Bill didn’t seem to have left behind much stuff. By the time I was interested in photography, my grandmother had donated his darkroom equipment to the local school. And that was that.
At one point when I was growing up I said something to my mom about her and her three siblings. Her feathers ruffled and she said she had FOUR siblings! To my questioning look, she mentioned Bill. Me: “Oh yeah, I forgot about him.” Sue: “NEVER forget my brother!” So I needed to never forget this person who was never mentioned and I knew nothing about. At that moment I was deeply embarrassed to have forgotten. My living uncle, John – the only surviving brother – once said Bill didn’t really get along with his siblings. Other than that, Bill wasn’t mentioned again for about 30 years or so. Uncle John wrote and asked me if I wanted Bill’s cameras. He’d send them to me. Not one to pass on an offer of a free camera, I said OF COURSE!
And so it begins…
This is installment #1. Believe you me, there’s way more to this story.