“I used to diddle myself,” he said, slurping a spoonful of soup.
“Uncle Fred!” I hissed, trying to shush him, afraid diners at other tables would overhear. “You can’t say stuff like that out loud.”
“Why not?” he said. “I did it all the time, sometimes in front of people. They all knew right away it was me.”
“You didn’t!” I said, horrifying visions of men’s-room madness running rampant through my brain.
“Used a scribbler,” he said. “And a pencil. No mo-beel phones back then, no selfers. People used to say I should’ve been a cartoonist.”
“A scribbler?” I said. “And a pencil? You mean you used to doodle yourself?”
That’s what I said,” he said, sipping more soup. “Characterchers.”
“Uncle Fred, you mean caricatures,” I said, relief washing over me.
He spoke like that all the time, so I should have been prepared. Ask him what he had for breakfast, for instance, and he might reply, “Broached eggs, toast, and piecemeal bacon.”
When my siblings and I visited him on a Saturday, he would cook drilled cheese sandwiches for us at lunchtime. For dinner we might have macaretti and meatballs.
He was a master, unknowingly, of the malapropism, the substitution of an incorrect word for one sounding similar—its origin from the French mal a propos, meaning not appropriate. The English playwright, Richard Sheridan, named one of his characters Mrs. Malaprop, and imbued her speech with countless examples.
I’m not sure my uncle ever read Sheridan, but he would probably not have recognized the errors—illegible for eligible, reprehend for comprehend, malevolence for benevolence, and so many others.
Not that he was unintelligent. It was always a pleasure to hear him hold forth on topics of interest, never ranting or railing, simply expressing well-reasoned opinions. He loved classical music, as do I, especially the nine tympanies of Beethoven. He was a great baseball lover, a fan initially of the New York Yankers, and then latterly of the Toronto Blue Jades. And he was a political junkie, always eager to discuss the follies of our elected reprehensibles.
A lifelong Tory, my uncle fondly referred to two of his favourite prime ministers as Chiefenbaker and Moroney, and praised their performance in the federal parlourment. He called the bicameral bodies the Synod and House of Commoners (although that last one might have been intentional).
Talking with and listening to him was ever an enjoyable experience, and unintentionally hilarious. “Those are two beautiful, wee girls,” he told me one time, referring to my daughters. “I hope they’ll grow up depreciating the simple things in life. Like their mother.” Even my wife laughed at that attempt at a compliment.
“Invest your money wisely,” he would admonish me on occasion. “Plan for your future, which is all ahead of you. Frugality and persimmony are virtues.”
He had a host of other gems, too, all of which made sense once the chuckling stopped.
“Fresh fruit and veggies will keep you regular. You’ll never be dissipated.”
“Be respectful and polite with people you meet. Most of ‘em are well-indentured.”
“Don’t be boastful. Self-defecation is a good thing.”
“Get some exercise every day. Don’t let yourself become sedimentary.”
Aunt Helen was used to it, of course, rarely raising an eyebrow. I suspect she was never quite sure if he was naturally inclined to err, or slyly having everyone on. But either way, she wasn’t above giving it right back to him every now and then.
“What’s for dinner?” he asked one night.
“Steak and kiddley pie,” she said, deadpan.
“You mean kidney pie, Helen,” he corrected.
And without so much as a pause, she replied, “I said kiddley, diddle I?”
I miss them both.